I just finished reading Gretchen Rubin’s latest book, Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits of Our Everyday Lives in which she puts forth the argument that the world is divided into two types of people, moderators and abstainers. Much of our happiness and daily comfort is attributed to how successful we are at maintaining habits, and these quite often involve avoiding excess. Moderators typically have the capacity to limit themselves when it is beneficial to their wellbeing, while abstainers are more inclined to completely avoid or give up something. Take a simple example: You’re trying to shed a few pounds that you put on over the long cold winter, but your partner just made a fresh batch of your favorite chocolate chip cookies—your Achilles heel when it comes to comfort food. If you’re a moderator, you’ll ration yourself to only two, and if you’re an abstainer, you’ll avoid them altogether because you know once you start, you’ll never stop.
As a recovering alcoholic, I have no difficulty aligning myself with the ‘abstainers’, but I happen to be married to a ‘moderator’, so I get a daily reminder of what life looks like on the other side of the fence. There are definitely times when my “all or nothing” approach to life seems excessive and unfathomable to my wife, but to be perfectly honest, being an abstainer is far easier for me because I only have to make a decision one time. This means I don’t have to waste the mental energy involved in constantly reevaluating the “when” or the “how many”. And that’s why I totally identify with the quote that Gretchen provides from the great Samuel Johnson: “Abstinence is as easy to me, as temperance would be difficult.”
This past weekend I celebrated my 18th year of being clean and sober, and every year I come up to that anniversary is typically a time of reflection. I am also quite fortunate in that I’m able to travel across the country giving talks to various groups on “How To Build Resiliency Into Your Life.” Gretchen Rubin’s book has really got me thinking about how my life as an ‘abstainer’ has contributed to my resiliency, and I can clearly see some dominant themes at play during these past 18 years.
The enemy lies within
It really doesn’t take much to set me off course, and if anything is going to throw a wrench into the works, it’s more than likely my own twisted thinking. Given enough time and freewill, I am able to convince myself of almost anything, and it’s usually in the guise of “logic”. Another great quote in Rubin's book is one from Benjamin Franklin: "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do." The gravest threat for me to go completely off the rails is not that I have the occasional stumble, but rather, it’s the potential for me to self-sabotage immediately following that stumble by convincing myself that I’ve already screwed it up, so what’s the point now. Even when everything is going great, I have to be vigilant not to fall into the “I deserve a reward” trap.
Forget the now for now
My most effective strategy to get through any adversity, be it the desire to pick up a drink or a drug, a period of depression or anxiety, or any acute stress for that matter, is to remind myself that I only have to make it through the day. If I can accept that, the next step is to put up a temporary roadblock or a distraction to move past the immediate discomfort. I typically rely on my “10-minute rule”. For instance, say I’m on a crowded subway when I’m confronted by a debilitating panic attack. I can feel my fingertips tingling, my heart racing, and my skin becoming clammy. That's when I take myself out of the moment and I put all my concentration into how I’ll feel ten minutes from now. More often than not, by the time the ten minutes elapses, I’ve moved on from what had been causing me anxiety in the moment of crisis. As a long distance runner, I frequently draw on this strategy in the latter stages of a marathon, when everything in my brain is telling me to stop. I pull myself out of the moment, and I envision what it will feel like to cross the finish line, and the pride I’ll feel when I look back on yet another successful battle through physical adversity.
Say it aloud if you want it to be real
I’m a big believer in accountability as a means to keeping on track. I’ve found that if I am setting a goal or trying to adopt a new behavior, the more people I tell about this, the greater my possibility for success. I’m speaking from the heart when I say that I owe a great deal of my sobriety to all the people around me who know about my battles with drugs and alcohol. I think the same can be said if you’re on a diet—there is some intangible force that keeps us ‘honest with ourselves’ when we are open, or transparent with others.
The pursuit of the happiness drug
When it comes to happiness, I think we’re all addicts, and it’s in the pursuit of this elusive drug, that we reveal whether we fall into the ‘moderator’ or ‘abstainer’ camp. I’m not even sure if it’s possible to define ‘happiness’, as there are as many definitions as there are people in this world. Maybe the easiest way of defining it is to look at the opposite of ‘happiness’. There are those who say the opposite of happiness is ‘acceptance’ or ‘accommodation’, and the American entrepreneur Chip Conley would suggest that it may in fact be ‘curiosity’.
For me, it’s an embodiment of all those things, and I would go further by saying that happiness is intrinsically connected to the idea of ‘hope’. And I think it’s my inclination, or faith in ‘hope’—definitely a future-centric outlook on life—which causes me to question that Buddhist principle of living in the moment. I guess the way that I’ve reconciled my belief in ‘hope’ with the twelve-step philosophy of living one-day-at-a-time, is to in some way qualify that future mentality by only projecting within the current day.
For me, resiliency has a lot to do with learning to love the “long game”—teaching myself to appreciate what is known as the slow release reward. In finding the strength to step away from the ever-present lure of immediate gratification, I build the resiliency I need to weather the more taxing periods of adversity.
I invite you to take a minute to examine the habits you’re trying to incorporate into your life—When confronted with temptation, self-doubt, or adversity, are you more inclined to be a ‘moderator’ or an ‘abstainer’? You might just be surprised what discover about yourself.
I was being interviewed last week for a radio program and the host asked me what my definition of “success” is. I have to admit that I was somewhat taken aback, as I struggled with whether to give the concise stock answer I thought she was looking for, or to really explore what I believe to be the many nuances of success.
I’ve never been one to equate success with money, power, or prestige. I’ve always considered success to be inseparable from the tenacity that comes with having an unbreakable spirit. Adversity is the great equalizer, so it makes no difference who you are—there will come a time when the threat of loss or an overwhelming fear will shutter you, and stop you dead in your tracks.
Having spent the majority of my life publicly working through issues with sexual violence, addiction, and at times, fragile mental health, I had begun believing what so many people around me were telling me, that maybe I am ‘resilient’, and that this was in some way, the cause that I could champion in my community. But as I began unpacking this notion a little further, I realized that I am in no way going to settle for simply being “resilient”. If you’re ‘resilient’, you are inclined to bounce back in the face of adversity. It’s hard to argue that this is not a good thing, but it really has nothing to do with ‘growth’ and ‘moving forward’.
I have to credit my wife with this change in my thinking because it was she who sent me a quote she had come across—one that she thought perfectly described me: “Resiliency is your ability to bounce back. Resolve, however, is your ability to dig deep and push forward in the face of adversity. It comes from a strong sense of inner purpose, drive, and tenacity that helps you rise above any obstacle or failure.”
It’s a subtle difference, but it is one that has the possibility of yielding immense personal growth. There is definitely something to be said for soldiering on and rebounding from setback after setback. No doubt, it speaks volumes to your tenacity. The problem lies in where I, and so many others get trapped—living in a vicious cycle of being knocked down and getting right back up again, so much so that it’s hard not to feel like life’s punching bag.
But how can we expect to ever break this cycle? I believe the answer is found in what we do in the midst of the adversity, or chaotic dissonance, and not in what happens once we have already rebounded. There is no denying that we are a pain averse society—one in which, we gravitate towards avoidance and numbing, rather than submitting and enduring. I suggest the greatest opportunity for personal growth, and thus the possibility for substantive change, comes just after the moment we are naturally inclined to turn away from the discomfort. In so doing, we deny ourselves the opportunity to listen to the lesson that echoes within the discomfort. As William James said, “Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.”
Author, Caroline Adams Miller, sees the roots of this problem in how we raise our children in such a way that they are insulated from challenge and failure. According to her, “this is not a gritty generation” because teachers and caregivers have become so consumed with building children’s self esteem, that most children lack the “grit” necessary to achieve long-term goals.
In a recent article in The Washington Post, Judy Holland states that the latest “research shows grit is usually unrelated or inversely related to talent. But if you fear your kids are light on grit, don’t worry. We can cultivate traits of gritty people—and model them for our kids. Grit is contagious.”
Is there a blueprint for “cultivating grit”, and are there steps you can take right now to build it within your life? These are questions that come up a lot whenever I give a talk on overcoming adversity, so I thought I would share a few of my strategies with you.
Treading water won’t get you to the shore.
One of the greatest challenges for me is to strike that perfect balance between living in the moment and envisioning the broader picture. Whenever it feels as though all I’m doing is just “getting by” or “keeping my head above water”, I like to step back and reassess my priorities. Oftentimes, it comes down to the simple question of, what am I willing to give up in order to pursue the goal I am chasing? You’d be surprised by what this question can reveal in terms of the cost to your health, your family, and your time.
I try to remind myself that for me, the joy often lies in the pursuit rather than in the acquisition, so it’s only logical that swimming through the adversity may in fact be the thing to cherish most. As the American poet Tyler Knott Gregson has said, “Promise me you will not spend so much time treading water and trying to keep your head above the waves that you forget, truly forget, how much you have always loved to swim.”
Maybe it’s time to go to your bench.
A valuable lesson that I’ve had to learn is the importance of jettisoning naysayers and surrounding myself with a diverse resiliency team. I’ve not had the closest relationship with my birth family, so I’ve needed rethink what ‘family’ means to me. I welcome people into my life who see the best in me and are aligned with what resonates in my soul. These people tend to play one of three roles: A “buffer” who shields me from being overwhelmed by self-doubt or debilitating adversity, a “booster” who rallies me and fills me with confidence and motivation, and a “bumper” who gently nudges me out of my comfort zone towards growth. Ultimately, the people I surround myself with can be my lifeboat or parachute, but if I don’t choose them wisely, I could be left with a lead balloon or a leaky raft.
Embrace the wretchedness.
As a veteran of over 100 marathons and ultra marathons, I have an intimate understanding of what if feels like to dig deep when everything in your brain is telling you to quit. Nothing disappoints me more than to see elite athletes deciding to step out of a race early because they are having a bad race. Quitting because you won’t make your time goal is in no way in keeping with the purity of sport. You'd be hard pressed to find a clearer indicator of grit being “inversely related to talent.”
Whenever I encounter a tough patch and feel overwhelmed in a long race, I remind myself that by quitting now, I make it that much easier to give up on myself the next time I face adversity. Patterns are easy to establish, and once they’re entrenched, it’s very difficult to break them. It was Robert Frost who said, “The best way out is always through.” None of us likes to "sit with" pain or suffering, but by learning to be present with it and listening to the lessons it whispers to us, we begin to see suffering not as an obstacle in our path, but as a stepping stone to growth and transformation.
I make no secret of the fact that I am a grateful recovering addict. I remember there was a time early in my sobriety when I would cringe if I heard another addict say he or she was “grateful”. Later next week, by the grace of God, I’ll be celebrating 18 years clean and sober, and more than likely because of that, I have found myself doing a lot of reflecting on how I’ve managed to turn my life around. The theme that appears to resonate most is my learning to accept that the opposite is usually true.
People often assume that the main problem of addiction comes down to an addict's lack of willpower or commitment. Although it may appear that way from the outside looking in, I would suggest the complete opposite is true. I say this because the addicts I've met in recovery are some of the most tenacious, resilient, and creative people on the planet.
As a high profile athlete and public speaker, I’ve written and spoken candidly about my struggles with addiction, mental health, and childhood trauma, and because of this, I have become a voice of resiliency—something that has been both a blessing and a curse. And herein lies the problem, when I look back at the cumulative adversity I’ve moved through, I too am somewhat amazed that I’m still standing, but where I believe my true resiliency lies is in something I share with millions of other addicts who have chosen to literally rebuild their lives. Each day an addict in recovery chooses NOT to pick up that first drink or drug, (s)he is drawing on a level of inner strength that few can imagine. And it is rooted in that precise place that I and countless other recovering addicts around the world begin our day. And if we are so blessed, it is from this place, that we open ourselves to the possibility of greatness.
Having said that, I am confident that the revelations my addiction battles have taught me about resiliency are invaluable lessons that anyone can draw upon, so I thought I would share a few of those with you now.
I think we can all agree that there is no escaping our past, but we certainly have a say in how much dominion we allow that past to have in our present. I’ve begun to think of my past like leafing through an old passport—It’s nice to know where you’ve been and the memories that go along with that, but there comes a time when that passport expires and you can no longer travel on it. The Jesuit writer Alban Goodier reminds us of the freedom of letting go of our past. “Those who face that which is actually before them, unburdened by the past, undistracted by the future, these are they who live, who make the best use of their lives; these are those who have found the secret of contentment.”
No matter who you are, there will come a time when fear shuts you down and holds back. Through my writing and advocacy work for survivors of sexual abuse, one thing has become abundantly clear--the greater your purpose, the less your fear. Anyone can be “courageous”, but without being fueled by purpose, it may be not only directionless but also reckless. The bravest people I know are not fearless, but rather, they have found something within themselves that allows them to step forward when everything inside them is screaming “no”.
My heroes are not those who win accolades or scale a mountain; instead, they are the people who have picked up the pieces after disappointment, and steeped in apprehension, they choose to walk back into the face of uncertainty. Whenever I speak about this, the discussion inevitably comes around to comfort zones and how easy it is for us to slip back into them. Ironically, I’ve always had greater success with making substantive rather than subtle changes. It reminds of something I recently heard in an interview with the author of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler. Her brilliant advice is to “go so far away that you stop being afraid of not coming back.”
By far the most important lesson I’ve learned is that no matter what has brought you to your knees, making the decision to bend with gentleness and to keep moving forward has repercussions that reverberate far beyond your own life, for the simple fact that you never know who you might be inspiring out there. The people with the greatest impact in my life are not those who have something I aspire to, but rather, they are the people who believe in me. As a husband and a father, the most valuable gift I can give my family is the gift they have so generously given me—the freedom and the space to grow. In the words of Thomas Merton, “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves and not to twist them to fit our own image.”
I sat across from my therapist as she said: “So, in your own words, can you tell me what it feels like?
“Well… have you ever run across a grassy field in your bare feet, the unencumbered freedom of the cool grass tickling the soles of your feet? That’s what it feels like for me too, except all the while I’m just waiting to step on a jagged rock or piece of glass. Or maybe it’s the warm sensation that rushes over you the moment you slip under the covers, your body spent after a long exhausting day, for me, a feeling that begins to dissipate the moment it arrives because I know the only thing that lies on the other side of closed eyelids is the dread of what my dreams might bring. Or perhaps, it’s an unbridled feeling of contentment sitting beside the person you love as the lights go down and the movie begins. But with the dimming of the lights, comes a stiffness that courses throughout my entire body, knowing that the next scene might trigger a well of anxiety fueled nausea. That’s what it feels like. That’s what life looks like through the lens of PTSD.”
The gift of trauma is that it reminds us that we are in fact “living”, but more importantly, it unearths a primal resiliency that we rarely draw upon as we go about our day. What I find most disheartening about this deep well of untapped resiliency is that in one respect, it whispers to me that I am invincible, but at the same time, like a magician’s sleight of hand, it can be pulled away in an instant. And it’s in those moments where the resiliency has abandoned me, where I feel the most “stuck”, frustrated, and overwhelmed. At times like this, I need to remind myself that at no time am I ever “stuck”—I simply haven’t finished parsing the lesson from the discomfort I am currently sitting with.
When I started posting on my blog Breathe Through This eighteen months ago, I adhered to only one guiding principle—that I write candidly and honestly about my struggles with addiction and mental health issues brought about by my coming to terms with the sexual abuse in my past. There have been times when the result has been a beautiful testament to the human spirit, and there have been many others when the implosion has been messy and jarring.
Somewhere along the way, this little blog has grown to over 425,000 readers/subscribers, and with this, a vibrant dialogue has commenced, as what I have written appears to resonate with many others who see themselves in my vulnerability. Within this dialogue, I have had the opportunity to engage with readers who support me and challenge me, and all the while, revitalize me. I’m no longer terrified of being so publically vulnerable because as the author C. Joybel says: “The only way that we can live is if we grow. The only way we can grow is if we change. The only way we can change is if we learn. The only way we can learn is if we are exposed. And the only way that we are exposed is if we throw ourselves into the open.” So, I guess that’s where you’ll find me—wide open and diving into the abyss.
I’m a firm believer that healing begins with a conversation, and when we are at our most vulnerable, when our façade is down, true connection, and thereby transformation, is possible. Every one of us goes through life telling two stories—the story that we outwardly prescribe to, and the story we inwardly subscribe to. It’s the collision of these two stories—the projected and the internalized—that causes us the most discomfort by ultimately disconnecting us from what makes us whole in our heart. Lately, I’ve really started to question what I “project” and what I “protect” by looking at ways in which these two are not aligned.
As if life weren't already frantic enough, my wife and I are getting ready for yet another house move, and this time, we are significantly downsizing. Mary-Anne read an article about the queen of decluttering, Japan’s Marie Kondo, and her recommendation to get rid of everything in your home that doesn’t “speak to your heart.” In the 28 years we’ve been married, I’ve never seen Mary-Anne feel so liberated as she sorts through her closets, putting items aside saying “I don’t need this—it doesn’t give me joy.”
All of this has got me thinking that I should adopt this “if it doesn’t bring me joy, let it go” approach to life. Even more so would be if I extended this beyond mere possessions in my life, so what better place to begin than with the “guarded story” I project into the world.
From now on, I aspire to be more authentic when it comes to aligning myself with what “brings me joy” and distancing myself from what “weighs me down.” As Elizabeth Gilbert reminds us in "Eat, Pray, Love", the hard part is figuring out when to let go. “You're like a dog at the dump, baby - you're just lickin' at an empty tin can, trying to get more nutrition out of it. And if you're not careful, that can's gonna get stuck on your snout forever and make your life miserable. So drop it.”