Overwhelming Stress: Part One

Whenever we look at the root of our negative behaviors, we will most often find some form of stress lurking there. Powerful negative feelings fester inside of us and tend to come out sideways. But not all stress is the same. Some stress is inevitable and unchangeable, such as having a disability or a chronic disease, while other stress seems like it could be removed, whether by a change of environment or character. These changeable sources of stress are the subject for this series.

Two Kinds of Agitation)

Failing finances, becoming overweight, and having a messy house, these are all things that agitate us just by living with them, and then they agitate us again because we feel like we could resolve them if we just worked harder or smarter. Knowing that we could deal with these, but that we’re not, makes us feel guilty, ashamed, and weak. Our failure leads directly into our shame, and our shame leads directly into our negative behaviors.

I have certainly had my fair share of this sort of shameful stress. In fact, the three examples I just gave are all ones that are currently active in my own life. I have watched as the bank account became lower and lower, and the number on the scale became higher and higher, and the messes spread further and further. Each has brought its individual anxiety, and then each has been compounded with the embarrassment and shame of having ever letting things get into such a situation. Worst of all, I then indulge in unhealthy excesses to medicate this pain, and that excess further aggravates these very same problem areas.

The Fear of Destruction)

The key issue of these stresses is that they put in us the fear of our own destruction. Maybe there is still a little money in my bank account, but if it is trending negative, the eventual conclusion can only be financial ruin. And maybe I’m still able to get up and do what I want, but if my weight keeps trending upward the eventual conclusion can only be disease and a premature death. And maybe there are still some clean refuges in the house, but if the messes keep spreading the eventual conclusion can only be an entirely uninhabitable household. To see the train chugging towards a wreck and then discover that the brakes don’t work is enough to make anyone feel hopeless. They’re not ruined yet, but the crash is inevitable.

Under the shadow of inevitable ruin is a terrible place for one to take up residence. Is it any wonder we keep taking a vacation from here, even if only briefly, to the fantasy land of our indulgences? Of course, the fact that these indulgences only make the problem worse leads us to seek another vacation just as soon as we glimpse our home of harsh realities. We know that we’re not dealing with the problem, but it’s already gotten so heavy that it seems we couldn’t ever have the strength to lift all of it.

But let us take a step back to consider the facts that we have just uncovered. It is the recognition that our path leads to destruction that creates a constant sense of dread is un. It is the way a man’s life is trending that distresses him most, far more than the state he is actually in. So often we get caught up in trying to change our entire state, when really we ought to be focusing on simply changing our trend.

A man that is seventy pounds overweight longs to shed all of it, but his most pronounced anguish actually comes just from seeing that his weight is a mere 0.1 pounds higher today than it was yesterday. Being seventy pounds overweight is bad, but even more terrible is knowing that seventy pounds will look like a happy place compared to where he is going!

Shifting the Trend)

And in this realization we find our salvation! For which is the more manageable task, to get out of those seventy extra pounds, or to change the daily trend of 0.1 pounds plus to 0.1 pounds negative? Obviously shifting the trend down by 0.2 pounds per day is far more within reach than to suddenly melt away dozens and dozens of pounds!

And once again, I am saying all of this from my own experience. I am myself seventy pounds overweight, and 1,200 dollars in debt, and with six large messes spread throughout the house. And up until about a month ago I was inching further and further in the wrong direction in all of those areas and was miserable because of it. During this last month, though, I have started making small changes, so that I am now inching in the right direction in all of those areas. And at the end of that month, I am still overweight, and still in debt, and still have a messy house…but I am enormously happy! Why? Because the future is not inevitable destruction anymore, it is assured salvation! I have changed my trend and I am going the right way, and this is the peace I always wanted.

Charles Dickens probably summed it up best in his novel, David Copperfield (slightly paraphrased to a more familiar monetary format):

Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 19.96, result happiness. Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 20.06, result misery.

The Secret to Permanent Sobriety: Part One

The Broken Commitment)

A friend of mine just lost his sobriety. He started in the same addiction recovery program that I did. I began my journey there more than five years ago when I finally got serious about getting better. Together he and I went through two years of intensive work, with weekly meetings and daily homework, getting to the roots of our problems and learning how to find true healing. The members of our group found different levels of sobriety during that period, but all of us had dramatic improvement from where we were before. I believe that many of us felt we had found a change that was permanent, and that gave us a lot of hope.

Now this friend of mine has slipped to a point of addiction that, to my knowledge, he hasn’t been at for years. It is only natural for a person in his position to despair and think thoughts such as “well if that intensive program couldn’t even save me, then I guess nothing can!”

I’ve mentioned before that while I made great progress in my addictions during that intensive recovery program, I have since found myself losing ground in the sector of healthy eating. I have also shared my sense of frustration in not being able to consistently do all of the healthy, self-care things that I commit to. I’ll come up with a plan of action and I’ll stick to it for a few weeks, but then I’ll fall off, only to recommit myself a month later to another plan, only to fall off that one another month later.

In fact, every addict that I know has encountered these ups and downs and periods of deep disappointment. It had seemed that we had finally overcome our addiction for good, but then a second wave rose to take its place. So, was it all a vain effort to begin with? Is the reward for all of our work and effort only that we have delayed the inevitable?

Reframing Failure)

Let us consider an analogy. Suppose that you are diagnosed some terminal disease. Suppose that you are told that you will die within mere weeks, that the thing is about to consume you. And then, right in the moment of despair, imagine that you are told about a new medical program that has just come out related to your disease. The doctor’s caution you that this program is difficult and arduous. Not only that, it is not an actual cure for your condition. It will restore you to a point of seemingly perfect health for a time, but eventually the effects will wear off. The doctors cannot say whether you will gain two more years of life, or five, but at least you will have more time than you would otherwise.

Perhaps this is bittersweet news, but wouldn’t you jump at the chance to have several more years of life? Several more years of health and freedom? Wouldn’t you jump at the chance to have just a little more time to do the things that really mattered?

And then, imagine that a few years later, just as the doctors predicted, you started to see the first signs of the disease’s return. But then, another breakthrough, the doctors have discovered that the medical program you went through before can be done multiple times, each time restoring the afflicted back to health. It will still never fully cure you, you will feel the resurgence of the disease at distant points in the future, but you can continually push it back through the treatment until you have lived out your entire life and pass away peacefully of natural causes.

Is the program a failure because it does not totally eradicate the disease? Or is it a success because it gives you a little more time to be alive, and does so repeatedly as long as you engage with it?

Seeking the Life-Changing Message)

There were many times in the height of my addiction that I kept seeking for some principle or message that would finally break through all of my failings, unlock my resolve, and permanently heal me. I would listen to a sermon or read a motivational quote, and a part of it would resonate in my heart. I would latch onto that part and say “This is it! This is going to be my mantra! This is going to give me the frame of mind that finally allows me to live with integrity and truth forever!”

And that little nugget of wisdom or new perspective really would help me to overcome temptation for a day or two, maybe even for an entire week, but sooner or later the reinvigorated heart would quiet down, and a temptation would overrun me. I would act out, and now I was right back where I started. Apparently, that hadn’t been the golden idea that would set me free, and I would start to hunt for the real thing.

Eventually, when I fully accepted the fact that I was an addict, I went to that intensive recovery program I mentioned before. And while it gave me years of living life to the fullest, like the doctor’s treatment I mentioned, it was not a permanent fix. Earlier this year I accepted that I had to start going back to a new program, a twelve-step program, and continually rekindle the fading flames.

Every addict wants to find the silver bullet that will kill his inner monster for good. Every addict wants to get better and just not have to do this work anymore. Every addict wants to assume that this latest program is the one that will finally fix whatever is wrong with him.

But none of these programs and mantras will ever do that for the addict. That doesn’t mean that they are a failure, though. It just means that we need to adjust our expectations from one-time cure to ongoing medication. We have to understand what programs and mantras are actually able to do for us and use them accordingly. What they do for us is to motivate us to live a full life and stay sober for a time. They are like life-giving water in the desert. Drink all you can, fill up your bottle, and now you are good to journey for several miles more. But, of course, before long you will need to look for another oasis somewhere along the way. From oasis to oasis, from refreshing to refreshing, you can journey for hundreds of miles.

Holding Back the Tide: Part Two

Shifting Impulses)

Yesterday I spoke about how trying to overcome one addiction might simply cause it to shift to another area. Recognizing this tendency is important if we want to live an actually healthy life, not just a life that is unhealthy in a different way.

As I suggested yesterday, slipping into our vices one way or another will always be easier than being healthy. Just as gravity is a constant downward force in the physical world, there is also a constant downward force in the spiritual world, making it easier and simpler for us to fall than to rise. And like gravity, this evil force can pull at us from all directions.

Fortunately, from the times when I have been the most sincere in my recovery, I have discovered some things that can help a great deal. Today I’ll be taking a look at them.

Emptying the Cup)

If I were to ask you to empty all of the air out of a cup, how would you do it? Obviously tipping the cup upside down wouldn’t suffice. You could suck the air out with a straw, but of course other air would flow right back in to take its place. You could make a seal on the top of the cup and then suck out all of the air, creating a vacuum, but this would likely cause the cup to collapse inward and destroy itself.

However, there is one, simple and non-destructive way that the task can be done. Instead of only trying to get the air out, you can simultaneously put something different in. If you pour water into the cup, for example, then the air will naturally be replaced, thus fulfilling the task.

So, too, with getting out a vice. That vice took up a certain amount of your time and energy, and if you just try to scoop it out of your day you have now created an emptiness that will be filled with something else. If you don’t give any thought to what will make use of that time and energy, then it’s probably going to be some other vice because, as I stated above, vice is easier than virtue. If you try to take the vice out and then seal off that freed-up time, not allowing anything to make use of it, you will eventually collapse under the pressures of boredom and frustration.

So, for every evil thing you want to take out of your life, you’re going to need to replace it with an equal measure of good. You need to deliberately start doing something new, something that carries the same expense of time and energy that you were using for the vice.

For me, that led to starting this blog and writing stories. These were very large undertakings, but that was appropriate, because they were replacing a large addiction. It definitely took some work to get my writing going, but once it became a regular practice then going back to the addiction wasn’t even an option, because now it would have to displace the writing that had taken its place and I just couldn’t accept that.

Preserve What You Have)

But if you are going to start a new practice, then consistency is absolutely key. Have you ever found yourself rotating between life-changes that you want to make, shoring up one, just to see the others slip back out of control? I might go on a rotation between things like exercising, getting to bed on time, and saying meaningful prayers. I’ll make a real effort to start exercising, and I’ll make progress there, only to realize that my bedtimes have been slipping later and later into the night. So I’ll focus on when I get to bed, while trying to maintain my exercising, but then I realize I’ve totally forgotten about having a meaningful prayer in the morning. So I focus on that, only to lose my grip on exercise.

In some cases, this is a result of trying to do too much. Yes, a healthy, well-rounded life requires balance, but you only have so many hours in a day and so much of a reserve of willpower. By pouring it all into one area at the start of the day, you may not have enough resolve remaining for all the later tasks. And this cyclical pattern of restarting and abandoning practices only serves to ensure that none of them become a part of regular habit.

So as I’ve already said, one needs to fill their day with deliberate, good things, but they also need to not overfill it. One must put together their core practices with judgment and care, and perhaps their first plan doesn’t work perfectly, and needs to be revised over time.

A Work in Progress)

This is still an area that I am working on myself. I think I have learned and understand some important principles, but the knowledge alone is not enough to make me a perfect practitioner. I am, at least, aware of my shortcomings, and committed to fixing them. I’ll continue to check in from time-to-time, keeping you apprised of my progress. In future series I will also detail more of how I am creating a schedule of healthy tasks to replace the vices in my life, and some of the challenges I have faced while implementing it. For now, though, I’ll move on to another topic for tomorrow. I’ll see you there.

Holding Back the Tide: Part One

Slipping to the Bottom)

There is an engineering problem that is so difficult that it has become an idiom for any impossible task: pushing water uphill. All of us know that the tendency of water is to take the most immediate route downhill. It pauses when it comes to a level surface and pools up, but only until it is able to feel out another path downward.

Many times, living with an addiction can feel much like this problem of trying to keep water at the top of a hill. There are steeper edges on some side of the hill, where your temptations are strongest, and the tendency to fall is constant. Through sincerely working an addiction recovery program, one may start to shore up the steepest sides of the hill, putting up a bulwark to prevent themselves from slipping that way anymore, but what happens next? Well, if you deny water its usual route, it run along the length of the barricade until it finds whatever the next best route downward is. And this is the case with our addictive tendencies, too. Many the addict has momentarily rejoiced at having his addiction under control, only to slowly realize that he is losing control in another area of his life! One addiction is traded for another!

My Victory and Defeat)

This was the case with me when I began recovery work for my addiction to lust. I threw myself into a program with all my heart and will, determined to make any changes whatsoever until I had beaten this unacceptable behavior. And you know what? It really worked! I started accumulating some real sobriety, and it stuck! At last I felt I had solved the riddle that had stumped me for twenty years.

Then, a couple years into sobriety, I started to notice something annoying. When I had first started my campaign against lust I had started to live a more healthy lifestyle overall, resulting in me losing a good deal of weight. Now, though, the numbers on the scale were starting to go the wrong way again.

Okay, I thought, I got a little lazy with my exercise these past couple months. I just have to recommit to my routine of running and calorie counting. Things will get back into place in no time.

Except that they didn’t. Though I recommitted myself to being physically healthy (multiple times!) I just couldn’t make those changes stick. In fact, the more I tried to improve my behavior, the more I seemed to dive off the deep end instead. Now the overeating had my full attention, and I was horrified to recognize in it the same impulsive, stress-coping, habitual nature that had defined my addiction to lust.

But even realizing this fact was not enough to regain power over my appetite. Until recently, I was trying to approach my sedentary life and unhealthy diet as an addendum to the first addiction, an additional area to work on now that the main issue was under control. But this wasn’t an accurate portrayal at all. This wasn’t an addendum to the addiction, it was the full addiction itself. The same water, just pooled to a different part of the hill. I had pinned the dragon down in the cave, but it had snuck out under disguise and was razing the village once more!

You can’t keep the water in place by laying sandbags in one place. If you shore it up where it was running out, it will come spilling out of areas that were only somewhat a problem before. If you shore up those areas, then the water will start coming out of areas that weren’t a problem at all before. You have got to get the sandbags around the entire perimeter of the hill.

A Total Reformation)

Now I admit, I had allowed myself to get complacent in my recovery work. When I first started I was singularly focused on my addiction to lust, but soon learned that nothing short of an entire life restructure was going to suffice. This was why I had been able to make some headway on my physical health, as well as my social and financial health, too.

But after I finished my initial addiction recovery program I did not immediately get myself to a consistent twelve-step group. Just when I started to realize that I needed to, COVID shut down in-person meetings, and I took that as an excuse to still float adrift. By the time all the lockdowns had been lifted, I had stopped thinking about joining a group entirely. And through all of this I had maintained my singular focus on continuing sobriety from lust, but I had given up on the broader view of maintaining an entirely new lifestyle. My physical care was therefore in severe decline, as well as my social connections and my finances.

Half a year ago I started to right the ship. I joined a twelve-step group and have been attending diligently ever since, while also doing recovery homework. I have, as a result, seen the downward trends be halted, and some of them have started to turn back in the right direction. The journey seems to be slower this time than it was before, but maybe that’s just how it feels when you’re in the trenches.

Most importantly, I have become reconvinced that if I am not willing to change my entire life, then my life will not change in any significant way. I am trying to rebuild control and consistency, with the understanding that areas must be worked on. If I get my health and wellbeing back where I want them in just one area first, I won’t make the mistake of thinking that now I’m done and the other sectors of my life can be left to themselves.

Tomorrow I will discuss a little more of how I am trying to make changes in my life on a day-by-day basis. I’ll see you then.

How to Get the Praise You Deserve: Summary

I’ve spent more than a week discussing how we desire approval and validation in our lives. It’s a common and basic longing, but there was a lot to unpack on the subject. Let’s review some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

Our Need for Validation and Approval)

It might seem vain for us to need constant validation and approval, and we might have spent quite some time trying to squash those emotions because we viewed them as being beneath us. But this is the same as trying to deny any of our other basic needs. Just as we need food and rest for our bodies, we also have requirements for our emotional health, including these. If you didn’t need some sense of validation in your life, then your heart wouldn’t keep longing for it.

And just as how we can satiate our physical hunger with food that is bad for us, so too we can seek out unhealthy forms of validation. Acknowledging that our hearts need validation is not the same as saying that all validation is worthy. Demanding fame and attention are perhaps the most detrimental ways of dealing with this need, but there are other mistaken ways to deal with it as well. Perhaps the most common of these is tying our peace and happiness to the responses of those in our immediate vicinity. Allowing ourselves to be miserable unless one, specific person gives us a kind word puts us in their power in a way that we never should.

During this study we considered the two kinds of validation and approval that are actually a good thing to pursue, and fortunately each is entirely within our power to obtain.

Approval of Self)

The first method we discussed was to approve and validate your very own self. This means taking the time out of our day to look yourself in the mirror, verbalize all the good things that you have seen yourself do, and express appreciation to yourself for how you are helping your own life and the life of others.

Self-validation also means recognizing our behaviors that we do not approve of and overcoming them. Paul recognized this reality of people betraying their own conscience when he said, “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I” (Romans 7:15). So long as we are disappointed with our own behavior then we are never going to feel fully approved or validated, no matter what affirmation we might hear from others.

Of course, overcoming our evil nature not only brings a sense of self-approval, it also invites the one other kind of approval that is healthy to pursue.

Divine Approval)

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. - Galatians 1:10

In this verse Paul denounces the idea of seeking man’s approval, but he does promote seeking the approval of God. And what a relief, as this is actually the far more straightforward target to hit. Playing for the applause of the world means constantly altering one’s behavior to the ever-shifting demands of society. The way to satisfy God, however, has always remained the same. We must keep his commandments.

However, as we discussed earlier, obeying the commandments as they are written is not all that we must do. They provide an essential foundation and will bring a sense of validity in and of themselves, but upon that base we are supposed to actively build. We must put good into the world, taking our talents and using them to shine a light to others. It is in this combination of obedience and righteous productivity that I have felt the greatest sense of validation and approval in my life by far.

I also took some time to discuss that we can cultivate our ability to hear God’s approval of us. It may be that He has been trying to express His appreciation for some time, but He has been speaking in a language that you haven’t recognized. I suggested getting into the habit of seeing all that is beautiful in this world as a way of God telling you directly that He sees you, that He loves you, and that He appreciates what you are doing. If you come across something that seems to uniquely bring you joy, something that touches your heart more than the hearts of others, then consider it a gift from a Father who knows you perfectly and give gratitude for it. The more you give gratitude for these moments, the more you’ll start seeing these “love notes” placed all around you.

Conclusion)

Like many things, validation and approval represent a two-edged sword. On the one hand we can become obsessed with shallow counterfeits, chasing never-obtainable ideals. And even if we did achieve the constant attention of loved ones and the highest fame of the world, we would find ourselves still dissatisfied even so.

But on the other hand, there is such a thing as real validation and real approval. It is when we receive these gifts from our own selves and from God. It is here that genuine satisfaction occurs, that our anxieties are stilled, and we finally repose in peace. This is what it means to live life richly and with contentment, a richness and contentment that the world can never take from us, for the world never gave it to us to begin with.

Our desire for validation and approval were given to us for a reason. Not to be a source of perpetual frustration, but to lead us to eternal glory. Hopefully the principles we’ve discussed here can be helpful for you in your journey. They’ve certainly been helpful to me.

How to Get the Praise You Deserve: Part Three

Being Nice to Myself)

In my last post I spoke about a practice of giving myself words of validation and appreciation. I explained how this process has helped to satisfy my need to have my good deeds seen and acknowledged. By providing this kindness for myself, I able to let go of unhealthy obsessions, such as trying to coerce love and attention out of others.

The way that I give myself this validation and appreciation is very simple, with only a few steps to follow. Basically, these steps come down to showing myself the same consideration and attention that I would to another person. I certainly don’t want to be sending myself a message that I am being taken for granted!

The steps I follow in this process are:

  • Set aside time. I wouldn’t want to praise the good someone else had done in an offhand manner, so I don’t do that to myself either. I like to wait until the evening, after the kids have gone down and I am able to have a conversation with myself free from distraction. This practice doesn’t ever take me too long, but I make sure it can last for as long as it needs.
  • Look myself in the eye. This, of course, requires a mirror. I don’t want to hear these words of kindness from a faceless, inner place. I make the effort to look myself full in the eye and show my sincerity as I speak.
  • Speak out loud. It’s easy to be self-conscious about this practice, and at first it was tempting to just think the words in my head or mutter them under my breath. But I realized that I needed to literally hear these words. This is another reason why I wait for the evening, when I can go to an isolated place and not suddenly have someone walk in on me.
  • Be specific. The last thing I want to do is broadly tell myself “good job, today.” The whole point of this is to call out all of the individual things that I did that I feel proud of. One-by-one, I go through each point and acknowledge and express gratitude for it directly. And I use my knowledge of my own inner workings to call out things that no one else could. Like “I know you were a bit unsure about approaching that stranger to see if he needed help, but you were bold and went forward anyhow.” As you can see, I’m not only specific about the event (approaching the stranger), but also about the good quality shown (being bold).
  • Pause and listen. Once I’ve covered all the things that were at the forefront of the mind, I pause to listen to my own heart. Have I forgotten something? Did some of my words not feel right? I make sure that I stay in this moment until I feel totally seen and appreciated.
  • Reiterate my love. Last of all, I make sure that I know that I love and care for myself, that I see and appreciate myself, and that I will continue to be there for myself.

And this is the process that I follow. When I am on top of my self-care and recovery, I try to do it once every day. It does take a commitment of time and effort, but frankly that’s a big part of what gives it its value. All of us want to know that we’re worth it for someone to go out of their way to care for us, and why shouldn’t that someone be our own self? Honestly, even if we had another person who perfectly fulfilled that need for us, we still need to learn to treat ourselves this way as well.

I can attest that as I have done this work, I have seen a marked improvement in my emotional outlook and a definite increase in my life satisfaction. I highly recommend that you give this practice a try and see what it does for you.

All that being said, self-appreciation isn’t the end of the story. There is one particular source that I still feel we all need to feel the approval of: God. The rest of these posts will be exploring that side of things, I’ll see you tomorrow as we dive into it!

Bring Your Worst Fears to Reality and be Free: Part Three

I’ll Do it Myself)

At the start of this study, I talked about the lies we tell ourselves about why we cannot reveal the truth to others. Today let’s tear these falsehoods down and see how they keep us a prisoner.

First, let’s consider the idea that “I just need to really try my best and I’ll be able to beat this on my own.” I told myself this story for many years, until finally I had to accept that if I really could take care of my problem by myself, I would have done it by now.

I will always be able to point at my efforts and say that they weren’t good enough to make the desired change, but if I just try harder next time, then it will be enough. There will never be a time where I can’t make that argument, because the only way to prove it wrong is to make the perfect effort and still have it fail. But since I am not perfect, I will never make the perfect effort, so I will never have the empirical proof to discredit the theory.

But at some point, I just had to step back and see that I was running in a hamster wheel. Theories are only as good as the results that you get from them. And if this one has only resulted in me remaining in the same place with no change, then clearly it isn’t a good theory. I had to accept that this wasn’t a philosophy for improvement, it was a philosophy for remaining right in the same place. It was a pernicious sophistry that enabled me to continue my addiction and never get any actual results.

The Shining Knight)

The other reason I had for not telling the truth was the image I was trying to preserve. I felt that I couldn’t let down my wife and kids, my church and neighbors, my friends and coworkers. I knew that bringing forward the truth would send shockwaves through the lives of those that were closest to me, and it would break many of their hearts. I told myself that I didn’t have a right to put these good people through that pain. If I couldn’t save myself, at least I could endure my damnation quietly and let everyone else go unscathed.

Except that I couldn’t do even that! Not all addictions show their destructive effects so obviously, but all of them, without exception, damage lives and relationships. Some do it in sudden, decimating blows, others erode and disintegrate the soul over time, but all of them leave a life that is hollow and broken.

Through great effort I was able to hide the damage and convinced myself and others that we were all doing fine, and I maintained this image for a very, very long time. On the surface I appeared perfectly fine, with everything still held together, but I could not escape the sense of my soul caving in.

I knew that every relationship that appeared happy and fulfilled on the outside was, in fact, predicated upon a lie, and therefore hollow. My wife thought she loved me, my friends thought they respected me, but they didn’t know the real me so how could they really? They loved and respected a façade because I hadn’t even given them the chance to decide what they thought of the real me. So, there were no real relationships in my life. The ties I was afraid of severing weren’t really there to begin with. All the things I was afraid to lose I’d never even had in the first place.

My Story)

I kept my addiction a secret, and I rationalized doing so by telling myself that I would fix it by myself. I felt that I couldn’t break the “knight in shining armor” image that my family and friends had of me. My plan was to overcome my lust and pornography addiction on my own, and then, many years later, tell my family of my past with the reassurance that at this point in life I really was the person that they had always believed me to be. It was a plan as doomed to failure as it was dismissive of the feelings and autonomy of those around me.

When I was twenty-six, I realized that I had been addicted to lust in some form or another for twenty years, and I had been living a lie in my marriage for over five. At this point, I had to admit that I just wasn’t getting any better on my own. I had tried, I had really, really tried, but it simply was not working, and to continue saying that after twenty years of failure it was now about to start working was insanity.

Nor could I continue to believe that I was preserving relationships by living the lie. Things had been difficult for my wife and I for a while, and I knew the reasons why, but she was confused in the dark. She didn’t know why I was detached and unable to be fully present, she didn’t know why I was struggling to focus at work and had lost my job, she didn’t know why I was so absorbed with my selfish interests and constantly depressed. She didn’t know what the reason behind any of this was, but it was taking its toll on me and her and the relationship even so.

And so, on one particularly strained day, it finally occurred to me that I was destroying the marriage whether I told my wife the truth or not. I wasn’t saving anything by hiding the harmful things I had done; I was just dragging out the destruction in a more torturous manner.

Finally, I didn’t want to do this to my wife anymore, or to myself, or to the marriage. Finally, I accepted that even if telling the truth meant destroying everything in my life it would still be better than what was happening now. At that moment, the greatest kindness I could do to my loved ones would be to stop stringing them along and give them a chance to make what they still could out of the rest of our lives. It was the greatest kindness I could do for myself as well.

So, I confessed. I wrote a letter while my wife was away, admitting to what had been going on behind her back. I left it just inside the entrance of our home, and then I got in my car and drove as far away as I could. I knew I had to get far enough during this rare moment of commitment, so that I wouldn’t be able to turn around and get back to the house and hide the letter before she had already seen it.

And then, just like that, I wasn’t lying anymore. Just like that I was living in the truth. Perhaps it was an ugly truth, but it was the truth. And not one day since have I regretted that decision. The future was made uncertain, my relationships were made tenuous, but I never once questioned whether it was worth it.

As it turned out, after some rocky periods everything stabilized. My wife and I rekindled our marriage, I regained my children’s trust, I kept my new job, and I came back into the good graces of my church. But even if I hadn’t, I can truly and honestly say it would have been a small price to pay for the regaining of my soul.

Bring Your Worst Fears to Reality and be Free: Part Two

The Conflicted Soul)

In my last post I examined the reason why the addict doesn’t dare admit his secret shame, which is that doing so might jeopardize all the things he feels he cannot lose. His family, his job, his church, maybe even his ability to live outside of prison, he cannot stand to give up any of these things, and so he will accept a pretend life instead.

The addict tells himself that he doesn’t need to choose between confession and living a cursed life, he assures himself that he will overcome this behavior on his own. No one will need to know about it, and he’ll still figure it out. But year after year passes and he still hasn’t made the change, and through all the years his conscience keeps bringing to his mind that he really must confess.

So, which is he to listen to? The calculating, rationalizing brain that assures him healthy living is nothing more than mind over matter? Or the aching, broken heart that insists that somehow, someway, confession is the only road to healing?

Well, if he is content to have his life continue just the same as it has always been, then he can continue to listen to the same rationalizations that he always has, but if he ever wants to have a different outcome than every time before, then he must be willing to take a step that he has never dared before. At some point he has to make the leap from his head to his heart. He must accept the possibility of losing all the things he holds most dear as the price for his salvation.

Two Encouragements)

To the soul that is on the cusp of throwing in with the heart and making confession, may I offer two reassurances. The first is that the things you fear most may not actually occur. Our nature is to think up absolute worst-case scenarios, to assume that every turn that can go wrong will go wrong. Negative outcomes that seem a certainty, in truth are usually only possibilities.

Of course, I cannot promise you that every worst fear in your head won’t come true. Even if the most severe repercussions have only a small likelihood of coming true, one should accept that it might still be possible. That being said, I can tell you that I still have never met the addict who had things go even remotely as bad as they had anticipated. Certainly, there have been choppy waters and losses, but never the total capsizing that most of us envision.

The other reassurance is that even if the losses are dire, even if every bad thing in your imagination did come true, there will be interwoven with it a peaceful contentment that you probably have not accounted for. You will have a peaceful contentment that soothes every loss and pain so that they are never as terrible as you had imagined.

That contentment comes from the fact that now, for the first time in who knows how many years, you are your real self again. I cannot overstate just how much of a relief you feel when you bring forward the truth and are finally back to being your own self. You feel a way that you had forgotten you could feel like. It is like getting out of a bath and putting on fresh clothes. You feel warm and comfortable and clean and safe. You feel reassured that whatever comes, it will be alright, because you have you again, and that more than makes up for whatever else you have no longer.

I promise you that you will find greater joy being yourself in a miserable place than to be a fraud in comfortable surroundings.

And this is not all. The very things you fear to lose by telling the truth you probably don’t even have anymore, anyway. I will examine that concept more in my next post, but for now I’ll simply say that you truly have little to nothing to actually lose, but you do have everything to gain. See what the analyzing, calculating mind makes of that arithmetic!

Layers of Man- Shame

And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. - Genesis 3:10

The story of Adam and Eve is strange and fantastic, and at first glance it may seem difficult to relate to. Or at least, it seems difficult until Adam and Eve discover shame. When we hear of them scrambling to hide from God the story suddenly becomes all too familiar. Each of us knows that moment of uncomfortable exposure when we wish we could sink into the floor and disappear from the disapproving glare of another.

Like Adam and Eve, shame is a developed emotion within us. Infants and babies do not exhibit it to any degree but starting around the age of two or three they start to recognize when they have been caught in bad situation and will cry because of it. Though shame is not present at the beginning it is inevitable. Like sexual feelings, the fact that it isn’t present from birth does not mean that it is any less real or certain.

Shame is an essential, if unpleasant, part of learning how to conduct oneself within a society. Every child develops it alongside of their need for friends and social identity. When properly handled, it will guide is into becoming a healthy, well-adjusted individual. But that requires us to embrace its pain, and too often try to find ways to short-circuit it instead. This, of course, means hiding our shame and crafting the façade to cover it, and this means splitting ourselves into two realities.

For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. - Romans 7:19

Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. - Matthew 26:41

Literature and theater have long been fascinated with the dual nature of man. The Phantom of the Opera shows us a man both hideous and beautiful. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde features a man who is one part kind and one part violent. The Brothers Karamazov is full of characters who believe they are one way but then discover another side to themselves.

Yesterday we discussed the part of our personality that we wear like a mask, a façade that we use to cover the shameful way we feel inside. Many the addict has confessed to a dual life, trying to sustain two completely opposite existences. If the façade is intended to attract the people that we want to like us, then the inner shame tends to be all the qualities that we think would repulse those same people. Addicts express sentiments such as “people think I’m so great, but if they knew who I really was, they’d run for the hills.” Thus, shame represents all the qualities that we think make us unlovable.

And this makes our shame very difficult to expose. It is literally the things that we feel will make people abhor us and reject us, so how are we to willingly unveil those very parts to other people? It feels like an act of suicide!

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! - Isaiah 5:20

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; - 2 Timothy 4:3

Of course, there is not only shame, but shamelessness. There are those whose answer to unpleasant feelings of embarrassment and exposure is to reject those feelings and put gross excess and inappropriate behavior on a pedestal.

Perhaps some feelings of shame are nurtured in us by society, and perhaps some of those things we ought not to feel ashamed about, but just as excessive heat and sharpness should cause pain, excessive indulgence and immorality should cause shame. Those that live shamelessly may think they are living a truer existence because they have thrown away the phony outer layer of the façade, but in reality they have made their shame into their façade. Being accepting of the unacceptable is not authentic, it is just as much a fraud as the person trying to live a dual life.

There are also those who admit to their shameful deeds, and admit that they are shameful, but pitifully conclude that there is nothing they can do about it. They are just no good, and that’s how it is.

Thus, just as how those who self-identify with their façade stunt themselves by living a lie, so too do those who self-identify with their shame. Because while shame is a deeper layer of our psyche, it is still not the true us. Stopping our progression at this level will still prevent us from living with fulness and joy.

***

Yesterday I explained my own façade, the way I try to put on an intelligent and kind face to everyone I meet. But what is beneath that layer? What is my shame? What are the secret behaviors I have always felt rendered me completely unlovable?

Well, as one might expect, they tend to be the opposite of the façade that I try project. They are my lack of intelligence and my selfishness.

For lack of intelligence, I have always felt that I am lagging behind the curve. I have always been terrified to have my knowledge tested, and for the first several years of college I cheated in every test that I could. Eventually I was caught and brought before a school counselor. I thought I was going to try to lie my way out of it right up until the moment I opened my mouth. Admitting to my stupidity and immoral behavior would be social suicide after all. But something came over me in that moment, and I peeled back the façade and showed my shame instead. I admitted that the accusation was completely true, that I had cheated, and that I had been doing so for quite some while. And, most unexpectedly, I actually felt relieved to have finally been discovered.

Fortunately for me, the school showed mercy. I did not die socially, I was not expelled, and from that moment on I never cheated on a test again. But the temptation to do so was always there. I still dreaded having my knowledge measured, because I was never able to shake the feeling that my intelligence on its own would never be enough. But a change had finally occurred, where I was willing to accept failure and embarrassment rather than pretend to something false.

For selfishness, I have my addictions. Compulsive behaviors that are based around getting what instantaneous pleasure I want, with no regard for whoever is harmed as a result. My addictions are primarily in the form of lust, overeating, and excessive media use.

Of these three, lust is certainly the one that has brought me the most shame. I have felt absolutely disgusted with myself for how I would use women for my own gratification, viewing pornography and typing away in chat rooms, all the while pretending to be a loving husband and an attentive father. I told myself for years that I could not break the façade, that I could not ruin the image of a shining knight that my wife and son had for me. As with the cheating in school, I really believed that I could never tell the truth, and unlike with school, I knew how to cover my tracks well enough that I would likely never be caught. I lived the lie and I never let the mask slip.

Until, one day, I did. One day I had had enough, and I wrote my wife a letter and left it on our doorstep. In the next two days I met with my ecclesiastical leader and scheduled an appointment with an addiction recovery program. Since that moment, my secret shame has been out in the open, as I have shared all my worst moments with therapy and twelve step groups. Much to my surprise, revealing my shame has not made me fundamentally unlovable. In fact, it has drawn people closer.

However, accepting that we have this layer of shame and bringing it to the light is still not the end of the road. There is a reason why we do the things that we are ashamed of, and that reason emanates from another layer further down. Tomorrow we will approach the layer of our wounds, and we will do so gingerly and carefully. We will come to understand their pain and how we mishandle them with shame and façade.

Layers of Man- The Façade

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. - Genesis 3:7

You will never know most of the people you meet.

A strange sentiment perhaps, seemingly paradoxical, but it is completely true. Put another way, for most of the people in your life, you will never interact with the actual them, only with their mask. You will only ever know the surface-level, carefully-doctored, phony personality that they are making a conscious effort to project.

Like Adam and Eve, we make aprons. We hide who we really are behind a layer of fashion. A fashion that we hope will make us attractive to the people that we want to like us.

And this phenomenon hasn’t gone unnoticed. We so often complain about how fake everybody seems and how we crave relationships that are more real. But at the same time, we tend to downplay how much we’re playing the exact same game ourselves. Even criticizing the phoniness in others can itself be a social fashion.

Every way of a man is right in his own eyes - Proverbs 21:2

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? - Matthew 7:4

The reason why so many of us don’t realize how much we are projecting our own façade is because we are the ones being fooled the most by it! We pretend to be a particular way for so long that we actually start to believe that is who we really are!

And then we must defend whatever principles and ideologies our delusion is based upon, as any challenge to them might tumble down our entire house of cards. This is what divides our culture into isolated echo chambers, where we surround ourselves with people that show the same façade we are trying to project, we become saturated with their dogma, and then we attack anyone whose façade is at odds with our own. We’ll pick apart all their flaws while ignoring our own, and the whole time we’ll believe that we are standing for what is right and virtuous. In reality, it is only self-preservation.

This cycle, unfortunately, can continue forever. All of our façades are fundamentally flawed in one way or another, and thus each is deserving of criticism, and thus there will always be an easy avenue to tear one another down. The only way to break out of this cycle is to finally admit that our façade is a façade and that it is beneath us.

Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. - 1 Corinthians 1:25

And he looked up, and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury. And he saw also a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites. - Luke 21:1-2

One of the greatest curses that could ever be wished upon someone is that their façade would be good enough and consistent enough for them to never have to challenge it. Continuing to identify with this superficial layer, believing that this who they really and truly are, will stunt any person’s growth. Most of us will never call it quits on our game of pretend until it completely and utterly fails us, so as long as we’re able to be somewhat happy, somewhat secure, and somewhat wealthy we will never have a reason to disrupt the status quo.

And what a terrible fate that would be, for it would forever keep us living in the lower echelons of existence. The wisest and strongest we could ever make ourselves is still superseded by the most simple and weak of God. The uneducated and frail woman who gave her two mites was living a more complete and joyful life than the learned and powerful rulers who made a great show of giving their riches. Authentic living, even of the humblest variety, trumps inauthentic living, even at its most extravagant.

Many the addict has learned to be grateful for their life-destroying vice, because hitting rock bottom was what finally brought them to drop their façade and start living with actual authenticity. To have not been destroyed might have meant to never truly live.

***

But what about for me personally? What has been my go-to façade, what are its strengths and weaknesses, and why wasn’t it enough to keep me content in life? The way I try to come across is extremely intelligent and incredibly nice. Let’s look at each of these qualities one at a time.

Intelligent)

I want people to know that I know things, and I will absolutely pretend to know more than I really do. I will also carefully avoid conversations that might reveal my ignorance in a particular area.

I work in a highly technical field, and when other people start throwing out jargon that I don’t know, I feel very uncomfortable about my ignorance. I try to glean enough context to give an intelligible response, all the while terrified of being found out as a fraud. My great hope is that I will be able to continue the illusion of knowing everything that I need to know and having many wise insights to offer.

Nice)

But I don’t want to be seen as too full of myself. I want to be recognized as smart, but not conceited. So, I also make myself into quite the people-pleaser. I defer on my own preferences and opinions, give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and never say a bad word about anyone.

I’m also very careful to do all of the things I’m supposed to be doing as a good person. I go to church, I pay my taxes, and I am never to be seen in a disreputable establishment! I want people to know that they can depend on me to be just the sort of guy that they think I am. The sort who quietly handles all his own struggles without being a bother to anyone.

Now obviously, not all of these qualities are bad things, and not all of them are totally fake. In some areas of life, I really am intelligent, and I really can be very kind. But I’ve taken these natural qualities and I’ve overinflated them. At some points I’ve embellished them with outright lies.

Some of these behaviors are outright unhealthy, such as always deferring my own preferences. Some of them are unhealthy simply because they are coming from an inauthentic place, such as when I listen closely to what someone else is saying and give a meaningful response, but only so they will know what a great guy I really am.

But if I genuinely do have some good qualities, why do I feel the need to exaggerate and pretend? We’ll get more into that as we continue this study, but the short answer is because my basic goodness was wounded at some point, and I concluded that it wasn’t good enough. I was smart, but not smart enough. I was thoughtful, but I wasn’t thoughtful enough. Someone told me I had failed to measure up and I had to do better.

Not only that, but hidden away, beneath my phony exterior, my vices were rapidly growing. The façade had to stretch to cover all the parts I didn’t want to be seen. The more secret shame I had, the more I had to shore it up with pretended goodness on the other side.

And this, of course, brings us to the next layer of the human soul: shame. When a person makes a decision to start living an authentic life, the first thing they usually bring to light is the naked shame that hides beneath the fancy costume. Tomorrow we will uncover this layer, but we will do so with kindness and understanding.