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Demystifying Trauma and Addiction (Part II)
“Don’t worry, time heals all wounds.” Have you ever heard that expression from a well-meaning friend or relative?
Many people believe that just allowing more time to pass after a traumatic event will lessen the psychological pain. However, it’s not as simple as that. It’s time to debunk this prevailing myth. In recovery, time doesn’t heal all wounds.
Think about it: we’ve all met that person who is bitter about something traumatic that happened to him twenty years ago. He’s still so fixated on his past pain that he can’t enjoy good things in the present.
Conversely, most of us have also met someone who was dealt a horrifyingly traumatic hand early in life – a devastating diagnosis, an unfathomable loss. Yet somehow, they’ve found a way to stay kind, stay generous, stay in the game.
What’s the difference between these two people? First, there may be biological differences at play. Research tells us that approximately 50% of our happiness and general feelings of contentment arise based on our genetic set point. That still leaves a significant portion of our happiness potential up to us.
As Gretchen Rubin notes in her blog Happiness Myth #2: Nothing Changes a Person’s Happiness Level Much:
“People are born with a natural range of temperament, but circumstances, actions, and thoughts can push people up to the top of their range, or down to the bottom of their range.”
So the question is: how can we move to the top of the happiness range in the wake of traumatic events? In this post, we’ll talk about what really helps people to heal from traumatic events and addiction. We’ll also share another practical, evidence-based technique that you can use to support your recovery.
Demystifying Trauma and Addiction
The true definition of trauma is subjective; it’s based on a highly personalized, felt experience. If something felt traumatic to you, then it was. Two people can experience the very same event differently. One may register it as a trauma, while the other does not.
Early childhood events carry a particular power in our psyches. Based on our experience, there is a strong link between trauma and addiction. But why do some people heal while others do not?
The difference between people who heal from trauma and people who don’t isn’t about genetics or wealth or circumstance or the passage of time. Rather, it’s about the type of inner work that each person is willing to do.
If people can name, face, and feel their pain in the context of a supportive relationship, then they’re able to heal. Instead of stagnating in suffering, they’re free to learn and grow from their experience. The healing process – not the passage of time alone – is powerful.
The Truth About Trauma and Addiction
The truth about trauma and addiction is that people abuse drugs and alcohol as a way to mitigate their unresolved mental and emotional suffering. People who learn how to heal this suffering stop abusing substances!
In the absence of psychological pain, the need to abuse substances diminishes dramatically. Internal pain is the driving force behind most addictions; when that is resolved, so is the substance abuse issue.
We now know that recovery is about learning to become your own best counselor and friend. It’s about supporting yourself rather than tearing yourself down.
How Neuro-Linguistic Programming Can Help You Heal from Trauma
But how do you work with traumatic events effectively? The process of healing from a trauma is simple, but not necessarily easy, and it requires relational support. You need a compassionate witness for your pain. And when you’re just starting out, it’s really important for that witness to be another person.
If you’ve endured a major trauma or ongoing abuse, a professional, caring counselor is a must. A trained therapist can guide you through different strategies and techniques, creating a safe space for you to do inner work.
Here is one of the best approaches to try if you’ve experienced trauma and addiction. (Note that the following exercise is focused on healing at the emotional level; in the final post in our series next month, we’ll share great strategies to work with trauma on the mental level and address important questions such as how to forgive judgements and rewrite limiting beliefs.)
This technique comes from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which is a wonderful counseling strategy for those who struggle with addiction. It offers a way for you to work with the part of you that seeks solace in substances.
The theory behind NLP is that all of us are multi-faceted, like gemstones; we have myriad different aspects of our personality. As such, we get into trouble when our internal aspects are at odds, when one aspect is disowned or banished by the rest of the personality.
The power of NLP is that it teaches us how to do internal conflict resolution! It gives us a way to integrate all the aspects of our personalities, which then frees us to modify our behavior for the better.
How to Work with Inner Aspects
First, pick a name for your troublesome aspect. You can call it your “Addict Aspect” or your “Alcoholic Aspect” … whatever works for you. Pick a part of yourself that you’ve wanted to disown at some point! Don’t worry, though; the point of this practice is that we’re not going to disown any part of you.
You might have heard that in order to recover from addiction, you need to “kill off” or “destroy” the part of you that wants to use. This is neither true nor healthy. On the contrary, psychological health and well-being come when you can integrate all aspects of your personality in a holistic, loving way.
Your task here is to put on your detective cap and discover the original positive purpose of your addict aspect. You’re not going to condemn it; you’re going to find out why it came into being in the first place.
Steps to Interacting with Your Addict Aspect
- Find a quiet, private place. Still your body, mind, heart, and spirit as much as possible. Link into the energy of love. (If this is hard for you, think about a being you love unconditionally – perhaps a child or a pet. Feel into that connection and let it ground you.) Set the intention to listen, to learn, and to heal at the deepest level possible.
- Use a Gestalt technique to welcome your addict aspect into the room: find an empty chair and invite this part of you to take a seat.
- Have a conversation with this aspect of yourself. You’re free to say anything. You may vent, rage, cry, or just talk calmly; whatever feels right to you. But once you’re done speaking as “you”, leave space for the aspect to say what it wants to say. (It’s helpful if you switch seats and speak to yourself “as” your addict aspect.)
- Dialogue with your addict aspect; ask it questions, and really listen to how it answers.
- Inquire as to the strengths of your addict aspect; ask, “What are some of your best qualities?” Again, listen closely to whatever comes up. Maybe your addict aspect is really determined, or discerning. You won’t know until you ask and take the time to listen. Offer praise and encouragement to your addict aspect for the ways in which it has taken care of you over the years. Give it credit for all the work it has done on your behalf!
- Ask your addict aspect about its original positive purpose, and how it has been trying to help you all along.
- Together, talk about reassignment. Can you and your addict aspect agree on a new job description? For example, instead of teaming up to score substances, could you partner together to find something else that you both want out of life? It could be adventure, companionship, meaningful work … anything that resonates with you. Make this a collaborative effort.
- Be gracious and kind in closing the dialogue. Thank your addict aspect for showing up and sharing with you.
Give this exercise a try, and I bet you’ll be stunned by what you learn. Time and time again, I’ve seen people discover that the parts of themselves they hated most were always on their side. When you start connecting with your addict aspect, you can work together to heal your life. What better way to begin the New Year?
If you missed the first part in this series, read it here: Demystifying Trauma and Addiction, Part I. Also stay tuned for the final post in our series next month, in which we’ll share great strategies to work with trauma on the mental level. We’ll address how to forgive judgements, rewrite limiting beliefs, and more!
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