Dealing With Internal Losses
There are many losses we experience during our active using, and a number of losses that follow us into early recovery.
These may be death-related losses. We miss someone who has died, and/or are ashamed over our behavior surrounding their death (not showing up, showing up and stealing their pain medication, etc.). Or, there are the external losses of people, pets, things, and opportunities. We lose wives, husbands, dogs, children, promotions, jobs, scholarships, houses, licenses, and perhaps even our freedom.
There are the losses of early sobriety. We lose our best friend, Jose Cuervo, or the injectable, smokable, snortable forms of Jose Cuervo. And, we lose our identity – “Who am I if I’m not the bad boy, the party girl, or the outlaw?”
Finally, we experience internal losses, and because of how subtle, yet devastating, these losses can be, the rest of this article will focus on this specific set of losses.
What are Internal Losses?
Internal losses are the reduction or disappearance of those inner qualities and feelings that drive how we feel about ourselves, how we engage others, and how we behave in the world. These qualities can include our:
- Dignity, self-respect, self-esteem, and self-worth
- Sense of confidence and competence
- Willingness to trust and/or to feel trustworthy
- Joy, spontaneity, and playfulness
- Sense of connection to self, God, others, and the world in general
- Vision, values, hopes, and dreams
- Goals, motivation, ambition
- Sense of humor
- Kindness, to self and others
Effects of Internal Losses
Internal losses are typically subtle and incremental. They occur little by little. It’s as though they’re on a dimmer switch, moving slowly from brightness to darkness, so slowly that our eyes keep adjusting to the dimmer world without even realizing it’s happening.
Then, we wake up one morning – often just before or shortly after getting sober – and realize how dark our life has become, how the loss of these internal qualities has corroded the quality of our life, and how hopeless it all seems.
The bottom-line effect of these losses is that our lives have become joyless, isolated, stagnant, disconnected, meaningless, and purposeless. Living with these losses makes it difficult to summon the drive and energy to do the work required to keep our disease in remission.
In typical alcoholic fashion:
- We want these lost qualities back
- We want them back NOW
- We want them back without having to work for them
However, that is not how it works. You cannot change your entire life and restore what often took years to lose, in the blink of an eye.
You can only change your next action:
- You can’t instantly change a relationship with a loved one; you can only change the next interaction.
- You can’t instantly change how you’re viewed at work; you can only change how you do the next task.
- You can’t instantly change your body composition; you can only change your next meal.
- You can’t instantly change your fitness level; you can only start moving.
- You can’t instantly declutter your entire life; you can only choose to get rid of one thing right now.
- You can’t instantly eliminate your entire debt; you can only make one payment, or buy one less unnecessary item.
- You can’t change the past or control the future; you can only change what you’re doing right now.
- You can’t change everything all at once; you can only change one small thing at a time, and that’s all it takes.
Steps to Take
I remember being really unhappy in early sobriety, and it seemed to me – fancied or real – that everyone else was pretty happy. I kept asking people what I needed to do to get happy. The best answer I received, and of course the simplest and most straightforward, was to stop doing the things that were making me unhappy. It was such common sense, but had never occurred to me. It was also valuable, because it worked.
This same approach can be used with a number of the internal losses listed above. If you desire a sense of dignity, stop engaging in behavior that strips your dignity. If you desire self-esteem, do esteemable acts (a great place to start is with greeting or clean-up commitments at a meeting).
Further, it’s amazing how good we are in seeking only evidence that bolsters our beliefs. I remember working with a couple of clients, one who refused to take any responsibility for their situation, and the other who totally blamed themselves for another’s bad choice. Both defended their position and kept adding new information to strengthen that position.
I asked both to take six seconds to look around the room and see and remember everything that was either brown or tan. I then asked them to close their eyes, and said, “Yell out everything you saw that was blue.” Neither could remember anything that was blue, and yet when they opened their eyes, they saw the room had lots of blue in it.
I said, “Since we see what we look for and hear what we listen for, it is possible that you’re just looking for ways to confirm:
- that you’re a victim (to the first one) and
- that everything’s your fault (to the second one)
- and that you’re not even seeing anything that would run counter to that, because you’re not looking for it?”
They both got it, and saw how they were refusing to see anything that threatened the story they were telling to themselves and others.
So, if you’ve lost your joy or hope or trust or faith, is it possible that you’re simply choosing to avoid looking at things that would help restore those qualities. If so, how about making a conscious effort to direct your focus to that which would restore those qualities?
Finally, there is a very powerful tool to help bring back into our lives, those internal qualities we seem to have lost. It requires that we write a letter to the specific quality we are attempting to restore, e.g., our dignity or vision or courage.
The letter addresses four primary points:
- How I lost you – the specific behaviors that drove you away
- What it’s like living without you
- What I’d do to protect and cultivate you, if you were to return
- A formal request or invitation for that quality to rejoin you
I know it may sound a little woo-woo, but this is a powerful tool. When it is used with honesty and a genuine desire for and willingness to have the specific lost quality return, it produces dramatic insight and results.
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