Updated: Nov 9, 2020
I can sit with discomfort
If I had to pick the most fundamental problem for most people in sobriety, I would have to say it is the inability to sit with discomfort. Some people might assume I mean cravings when I speak of discomfort. While cravings are certainly valid, there are many other reasons discomfort sets in throughout our sober journeys. I might even go so far as to say cravings are the least of our problems. It has been scientifically proven cravings only last between twelve and twenty minutes. If you are willing, pretty much any redirection of behavior will eat up that time and you will be back in the clear with minimal effort; if, you are willing. The more difficult feelings of discomfort come from the feelings associated with life, living, and the nature of being. For most of us, it was these feelings that pushed us toward alcohol or other addictions in the first place.
The first time I wrote about sitting with discomfort, I wrote a three blog series about the steps I use to sit with discomfort. This time, I want to talk more about where the discomfort originates, so we can better prepare ourselves from a preventative maintenance standpoint. I believe it is important to prepare for the potential threats to our sobriety by having a plan to deal with them before they arise. For many of us, our initial reaction to problems, or even celebrations, is to drink. It is our go-to reaction for pretty much everything. One of the very first actions we have to change is our natural tendency to react first. Then, we have to incorporate the skill of thinking through the scenario that arose. The next and arguably most important step is developing a plan to deal with the situation. And finally, after all of the above, we can finally act from a place of intention.
As addicts, one of the most harmful qualities we picked up along the way is the quickness in which we react without thinking or developing a plan. I remember times when something would go wrong, let's say an argument, and the first thing I would do is head toward a bottle. Sometimes, the argument would continue while I was in the act of pouring a drink. In my mind, I decided there was nothing I could do further without first drinking. I can remember times at work when something happened that made me feel I was not appreciated or respected, so I made up an excuse to leave early and get a drink. It could be a fight with my ex, a poor decision I made, the loss of a friend or family member, a breakup, financial matters, and even simply the loss of a game from my favorite sports team that caused me to head straight for a bottle. It doesn't really matter what causes us to react so quickly, all that matters is that we do.
I used to teach scuba diving. I always told my students the first thing they needed to do underwater if there was a problem was to stop what they were doing. Generally, a problem occurs from something we are doing. In scuba diving, we may get lost, get tangled in something, or even have a problem with our equipment; all of these things are usually a result of something we did. If I continue performing the same action that got me into trouble, the problem will only get worse. The first thing a scuba diver needs to do is to stop what they are doing. It is only then they can move on to the next step of problem-solving. For addicts, the same is true when we encounter a problem that used to cause us to drink. If we keep arguing, keep feeling dejected, keep behaving in the same way, the problem escalates and we end up doing what we don't want to do, drink or use.
It may sound over-simplified but stopping before we do anything else is the only thing that actually allows us time to do one of the most important actions in problem-solving. Once we stop arguing, acting a certain way, feeling certain things, or any other activity that is not conducive to moving forward, we can then begin the next step in the process. We have to stop everything before we can truly do anything productive.
The next step we want to take when problem-solving and acting in a preemptive way toward sitting with discomfort is to think about what has occurred. Stopping whatever we were doing allows us a short period where we can focus on and think about what happened to make us feel uncomfortable. If you are not accustomed to doing this, it can feel difficult at first, but once you see how quickly it can change your mindset and thought processes, it becomes much easier every time you do it. Recently, I engaged in an argument with my ex about our parenting plan and visiting schedule. My son is one of the most important parts of my life, so I tend to get emotional when time with my son is challenged. I began to feel myself spin out of control, but I was able to stop and think about what was happening. In doing so, I realized my emotional reaction was due to my inability to communicate with my ex. Once I accepted that realization, I was able to remove my emotions from the situation and formulate a new plan. The more I do this, the easier and more quickly I am able to do it in the future.
Thinking about what has occurred is most easily done in a quiet and still space. Part of stopping what we were doing may involve removing ourselves from the uncomfortable situation. Sometimes, however, that is not possible. When this is the case, we may need to remove ourselves from the situation by doing so emotionally. This can be in the form of a brief meditation. If you have never meditated before, don't worry. One easy strategy I have learned is to simply take ten deep breaths while focusing on nothing but each breath. It may sound a little corny, but I promise you it works. Breathing is one of the easiest ways to recenter ourselves in times of discomfort. Once we feel centered, we can then think more clearly about the situation. Who was involved? What actions occurred? What was my role? What could I have done differently? These are all good questions to guide our thinking about an uncomfortable situation. Sometimes, nobody was involved but us, but we need to know that too.
Now that we know what happened, we can start thinking about how to fix the problem. Our plan does not have to be an elaborate one either. We may not have time to fully fix the problem, but we certainly have time to engage with it in a different way. Sometimes, we can simply divert the problem enough to allow ourselves even more time to properly deal with the situation at a later time. For example, in the conversation with my ex, I did not have time to fix the argument via the phone call. Instead, I took a break from the unproductive conversation and told her I would write an email instead. This allowed me time to think through what I wanted to say and articulate my needs and thoughts more concisely. As a result, she was able to respond in a similar manner and our issue was resolved quickly and with better results for both of us.
The best way to incorporate a plan in problem-solving is to do so ahead of time. Spend some time thinking about potential triggers you know you have had in the past. It could be someone you argue with, a particular place you visit, an activity you engage in, or any number of other scenarios that trigger you to think about drinking or engaging with an addiction. I recommend writing them down as a list. Then, write down three possible redirects you could use for each trigger when it presents itself. This preemptive thinking is armor for when those situations occur. Instead of being caught off guard, you already have three weapons at the ready to deal with the trigger.
With a pause in the activity or thinking that caused the problematic situation, a period to think over what happened, and a plan in place, we are able to act accordingly. In a perfect world, when the three initial actions of problem-solving occur, the ability to act is the easiest of the actions in solving a problem. Of course, we do not live in a perfect world and therefore can not always rely on this alone to get through difficult times. There are times, like with cravings, when we are completely caught off guard and have little time to deal with the uncomfortable situation in which we find ourselves. It is in these times we have no choice but to sit with the discomfort.
Sitting with discomfort
As a wrote about in my three-part series, I believe there are three steps we can take to help us better sit with discomfort in desperate times. I found this out accidentally, but it worked and I have continued to use it ever since. The first thing we have to do is to recognize the discomfort. If we do not know it is there, it can easily overtake our emotions before we even know what happened. Over time, we will recognize the discomfort as more specific things like fear, insecurity, loneliness, and even boredom. The further we narrow the emotion the better apt we are at dealing with it. The next step in sitting with discomfort is to acknowledge the discomfort. I don't know about you, but I was a master at running away from discomfort. I wanted nothing to do with it, so I pretended it did not occur at all. We cannot properly deal with anything we do not acknowledge as a problem. Acknowledging the problem actually takes some of its power away. Once we have seen it and acknowledged it we can then begin to visualize the problem. This was the accidental piece I spoke of earlier. The first time I engaged with this process I ended up visualizing my discomfort as something separate from myself. I looked at it as something sitting in front of me, and then I watched as it slowly disintegrated and finally disappeared. When my visualized discomfort disappeared, so too did my physical discomfort. It was that simple, and it did not take much time.
I know I may make it sound easier than it actually is sometimes, but like anything worth doing, practice really does make perfect. Try it the next time you feel even slight discomfort. Participate in each step individually before moving on to the next. I believe the visualization piece was the most important for me, but one of the other steps may be the catalyst for you. In fact, you may create your own step in the process that helps you. It doesn't matter the steps or the order of the steps as long as you find a way to sit through those uncomfortable times without giving in to the behavior you want to eradicate. I cannot begin to tell you the degree to which your confidence will grow each time you successfully negotiate sitting with discomfort.
In time, you won't even realize you are doing it anymore. You will just do it because it is part of who you are, and who you are is a badass.