Questions

For the first time in a long time I’m not entering the New Year with a list of resolutions. My decision to avoid the typical New Year goal setting—to lose weight, to save money, to read and write more, to be better at X, Y, and Z—is inspired by the simple fact that resolutions have never really worked for me. I’m not sure I’ve ever successfully followed through with a New Year’s resolution. In reality, I feel like they’ve done more harm than good. More often than not they’ve lead to frustration and guilt, and I’m sick and tired of being frustrated and guilty. I’m ready to try something different.

I believe my personal failures with resolutions exist in the approach. Change and growth, in my experience, are much more complicated than making a decision and applying all of my will power to making it so. I’ve learned this through my experience with addiction, and it’s been reinforced by countless decisions and failure to change this or that in my life. The problem with the equation [decision + will power= change] is that my actions and ways of being are backed by a big mess of assumptions, belief systems, emotions, and unconscious responses to my daily experiences that add a significant amount of complexity to the equation of change. This does not mean that change is impossible. As people in recovery, we know this isn’t true. What it means is that change requires a more nuanced process, and perhaps a bit more work.  

When I look closely at the biggest change I’ve ever made, which was undoubtedly moving from addiction to recovery, it’s clear to me that this process was a lot more complex than a decision and will power. The reason it took me six years of relapse instead of one decision and a good push of will power is that in order to achieve sustained recovery, I had to spend time getting to the heart of my condition—my assumptions, my belief systems, the complexity of my trauma, my emotional instability, etc. Recovery became possible only once I’d dismantled and examined what was backing my actions and ways of being, and the suffering of addiction brought me to a place where I began to look deeper. Essentially, the pain of addiction forced me to take a closer look at what was beneath my behavior.

It’s still true for me that suffering is a great motivator for change because it encourages me to do the actual work of getting to the heart. Unfortunately, it’s not an effective process of change. It’s not the easier path to take. Along with the deeper understanding of change I’ve developed in recovery, I’m learning that I don’t need to run my life into the ground in order to make changes. I don’t need to suffer to the extent I once did in order to change.

Instead, I need to begin asking myself the right questions, and I need to be honest about the answers.

The right questions make it possible for me to get to the underbelly of whatever behavior is causing trouble in my life. To change a given behavior, I need some clarity around what drives it. Here’s a simple little example of what it might look like:

When I was in college, I had a tendency to get slightly combative in the classroom with my peers. Most often, it involved me cutting someone down if he said something I disagreed with, and being unable to admit I was wrong even when it became clear I was wrong, and continuing to argue. The trouble with this behavior was I often left class feeling like I’d acted like an asshole, which made it difficult to connect with my peers. It left me feeling isolated. In recognizing this, I did some work around this tendency with my sponsor, and it involved asking a series of questions along a variety of lines. Here’s a boiled down version of a conversation that involved a lot more tire spinning over a longer period of time.  

After getting honest about the behavior that is causing me trouble, my sponsor asked:

“Why do you cut them down?”

“Because they’re wrong and they think they’re right.”  

“So what?”

“If you’re wrong, someone should correct you.”

“Why?”

“Because being wrong isn’t good.” 

“Why?”

“Because it has negative consequences.”

“Like what?”

“Looking like an ignoramus…among other things.”

“Who cares?”

“Well, shouldn’t you care about what people think about you?”

“Well, it depends who you ask…”

Like I said, this is a truncated version of a longer process, but in this very basic line of questioning—six simple why’s—I begin to get to the heart of some of my personal beliefs and assumptions…that if you are wrong you need to be corrected, that being wrong is bad, that negative consequences should be avoided, that being wrong makes you look stupid, that looking stupid in the eyes of others is something to fear. In six questions, I have so much to work with, and by going through this kind of questioning from several angles, I get to one part of the heart of my behavior—I’m afraid of looking stupid in the eyes of others. And behind this rests the belief that I am actually stupid, and I’m terrified that others will see it.

The change with this behavior came not in making a decision to bite my tongue in class and applying my will power to do so, but in challenging my assumptions and beliefs, and working on developing some self-esteem. It happens indirectly. Instead of continually replacing warped floorboards, cracked plaster, and broken beams, the goal is to repair the foundation, which allows everything else to settle into place. This kind of questioning has occurred in each and every change I’ve made in my life, including the decision to enter recovery. At times, however, the process of questioning takes a lot longer, and doing away with some assumptions and beliefs requires a great deal of work.

So this year, instead of a list of random goals that I believe will make my life better, my only goal is to ask more and better questions. I’ve burnt a lot of energy trying to adjust behaviors, to fix the minor details, when in reality I barely understand the house in which I am living. So as you set out this year to lose that weight, or save that money, or run that marathon, or whatever other resolutions you’re aiming toward, I’d encourage you join me in pausing now and again to ask yourself, “Why?”

Happy New Year!