Complacency and Addiction

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By David Fawcett PhD, LCSW

Early recovery can be a thrilling experience. Everything seems new and exciting. We encounter different people, we experience lots of change, and there is the optimism of a fresh start. For many of us, it feels like coming out of the dark into the light, often accompanied by a kind of euphoria which is sometimes known in 12 step programs as a “Pink Cloud.” Colors seem brighter, food tastes great, and we begin to experience more positive emotions. Life feels better simply as a result of daily reprieves from the cycle of addiction.

But like most things, novelty soon wears off. What was new and exciting becomes more routine. Much like that new car smell that gradually fades, we become more accustomed to life without the drama and intensity of an active addiction. With diligence, most of us develop a sense of satisfaction and contentment that is well-earned. But without constantly moving forward in recovery, that contentment can slowly slip into complacency. And with complacency, there is a heightened risk of relapse.

What does complacency look like? It can take many forms but here are a few:

  • You might stop going to meetings or you might stop doing service, both of which keep us highly integrated into our programs of recovery.
  • You might stop being teachable, losing the ability to admit when you’re wrong and learn from your mistakes.
  • You might slow your efforts to improve, such as studying the steps or working in therapy.

When complacency sets in, old self-deceptions begin to creep back in. Rationalizations to do something that may not be in our best interest suddenly begin to make a lot of sense. Rigid thinking may emerge, or you may find yourself trying too hard to explain why a risky situation is OK just this once. A substance abuser, while not necessarily looking for a mood-altering drug from his or her physician, might ‘forget’ to reveal that he or she is an addict in recovery.

Here are some tips for handling complacency in recovery:

  • Know when you are at risk. Practice daily mindfulness to maintain awareness of your moods, thoughts, and feelings. How connected are you feeling in your life? Do you have secrets? Do you feel the same as did when you were truly integrated into your program(s) of recovery?
  • Watch out for boredom. Many intensity addicts (such as sex, porn, and chemsex addicts) find danger in too much free time and boredom. When things are going too smoothly, they may feel compelled to shake things up a bit and generate some drama. Triggers and cues for addictive behavior may become more common.
  • Set realistic goals. Many addicts who start to fight complacency attempt to rework their lives overnight, bringing addictive thinking into their efforts to get back on track. It’s important to be realistic rather than trying to fix everything immediately. Overcommitting to unrealistic goals such as attending two or three meetings a day, seven days a week, creates a high risk of failure. Sex addicts may find this is a good time to reexamine boundary plans. Does a behavior need to be moved from one circle/boundary to another?
  • Stay connected. Connection is a powerful force for healing and recovery. Most addicts experience tremendous isolation and loneliness before quitting their addictive behaviors. New social networks in recovery are rewarding both interpersonally and intrapersonally, resulting in feelings of belonging, happiness, and connection. If you find that you’re feeling disconnected, reach out to your fellows in recovery by arriving at meetings early and staying for at least 15 minutes after the meeting ends to be social.
  • Foster a sense of purpose. As noted above, once the drama of our addicted lives begins to fade into a more stable and happy life of recovery, complacency can set in. But stability also creates tremendous opportunities to deepen our understanding of purpose. New ideas or activities may become meaningful, especially as service for others is integrated into our program of recovery. Perhaps for the first time in our lives we may feel as if we have found a home. Gratitude, purpose, and belonging not only counteract complacency, they help us maintain both our integrity and a rich and rewarding recovery.