Sometimes I am amazed at the successful, accomplished men and women in my local 12-step groups. There are physicians, engineers, computer programmers, college professors, musicians, teachers, diesel mechanics, surgery nurses, business owners, and ministers. And those are just the people I can think of off the top of my head.
I don’t know why I am amazed. Maybe I expected a bunch of guys sitting around in trench coats when I first came into the program. I don’t know. While I wasn’t wearing a trench coat back then, the addiction had me feeling like I was down-and-out.
And yet, parts of my life were quite accomplished. I had (and still have) a successful computer programming business for over 20 years. I was basically self-taught and became one of the top experts in my field. I was earning enough for my wife to stay at home and raise and home-school 8 wonderful sons. I was logging thousands of miles on my bicycle every summer. I was teaching hundreds of people in a Bible study every week. I got my teeth straightened and made it through open heart surgery with flying colors in my fifties.
I am not boasting but making an important point: In spite of success in other areas, there I was, mired in an addiction and failing to get and stay sober. I had tried over and over again and failed. Those on the outside were saying, he won’t, while inside I was telling myself, I can’t. The only reasonable thing, I thought, was to quit trying.
But this attitude is not reasonable at all. When I struggled to learn a new programming language, did I quit every time I failed? Did I give up on cycling when I set out for long rides and came home feeling trashed?
It dawned on me that I could transfer the grit and determination that I applied in these other areas of my life to my recovery work.
Carol Dweck, in her excellent book Mindset, compares a “fixed mindset” with a “growth mindset.” A fixed mindset says that my potential for accomplishment and success is determined by my innate abilities and talents, basically what I was born with. A growth mindset says that I can be successful by learning and applying myself and persevering until the skill is mastered. A fixed mindset says, I am not good with money, while a growth mindset says, I can learn and master the skills required to be “good with money.”
What I didn’t understand about myself is that I had both mindsets inside the same head! And if I was going to get sober, I had to shift to a growth mindset about recovery and relationships. I had to expect difficulties and setbacks, but with learning and persistence, I could stay sober and become “good at relationships.”
My dad was an amazing guy. He was a white-collar professional, but had a lot of blue-collar skills. When I was a kid, he remodelled our kitchen from top to bottom. Except for the floor. In those days, linoleum tiles were giving way to “sheet goods,” which was basically rolled vinyl. Because of the size of our kitchen, the floor would require one seam and my dad wasn’t sure how to do it. (There was no YouTube back in those days!)
I remember his reaction when the floor was done. “Now that I see how they do it...I could have done that!” That was my dad’s attitude about a lot of things. In his sarcastic vernacular: “If that slob can do it, so can I.” He might have to learn and mess up a few times, but he knew he could figure it out.
I began to get that mental shift as I sat in 12-step meetings and listened to those with long-term sobriety. No offense to anyone, but I would sometimes think, Hey, if that slob can do it, why can’t I? That guy is not special or necessarily smarter than I am. If he can learn, I can learn; if he can recover, I can recover.
I have a theory of why there are so many talented and successful people in my group: The failure, misery, and shame of sexual addiction can drive people to compensate by overachieving in other areas of life. That has been the case for me. That is why people are so often shocked when our sin is inevitably exposed. How could he be involved in that?
But this can become a great catalyst for sobriety and recovery from addiction. We can transfer the success we have had in so many areas of life—and the growth mindset behind it—to this area as well. It can shift from I can’t to I can do it with the help of God and others. I can do it by applying what I am learning and persevering towards mastery.
Granted, this is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. And it may be for you too. But think of all you have accomplished in your life and transfer that grit and determination to recovery, growth, and healing. Stick with it and keep learning and applying yourself to the process.
If the rest of us slobs can do it, so can you.
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