Set Them Free is a book designed for all types of groups: First Nations communities, schools, businesses, etc. It seeks to provide a way for people to leave their turmoil behind and start living a life that is productive and satisfying. It seeks to bring communities together in such a way that resentment and anger are replaced with satisfying relationships that are able to work together in order to be effective and successful.
Once people are set free, they will begin to see some amazing results in the form of productivity, personal joy and financial success.
How can we allow people to reach their full potential? Set Them Free will talk about the core issues that hold people back and keep them stuck in their discontent. It will give you the tools you needs to start functioning as a person (or community, family, business, etc.) that is alive and full of health.
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Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist, brain surgeon and psychiatrist, whose specialty was helping people with depression and suicide. During World War Two, Frankl was sent to the Nazi concentration camps because he was Jewish. He survived three different camps (including Auschwitz) for three years before being liberated. And after the war, he wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he described his horrific experiences and how he managed to live while others had died.
Frankl was a careful observer of other prisoners. He had seen so many die, including his own parents, that he became able to predict when this would happen. The clue, he discovered, was when people’s suffering resulted in their life having no positive meaning any more. When people had no purpose and gave up on life – he could tell this by their conversations – that was when they were on their way to dying.
Viktor also noticed what helped people to live. It was those prisoners who, despite their suffering and torture, still found positive meaning in life – for example, by helping others or having family to look forward to. So to help himself, Frankl gave talks to other prisoners on how to survive in the camps. He also made up a meaning for himself that the reason he was in these camps, witnessing all this horror, was that one day he could write about it, so it would never happen again.
After the war, Viktor Frankl even created a new form of therapy called “Logo Therapy,” based on the concept that man defines his own meaning and purpose in life. And his work and writing – about the importance of finding a positive meaning in everything, and thereby have a reason for living – has helped millions of people.
“…We create meanings from our unconscious interpretations of early events, and then we forge our present experiences from the meanings we’ve created. Unwittingly, we write the story of our future from narratives based on the past.” From page 349 of Dr Gabor Mate’s book, In the Real of Hungry Ghosts – close encounters with addiction
“Your worst enemy cannot hurt you as much as your own thoughts, when you haven’t mastered them”, said the Buddha. “But once mastered, no one can help you as much – not even your father and your mother”
It is the meaning we give to events that determines our reaction to them… and the power they have over us, or we have over them.
"Events do not have meanings. Events are events, and meanings are thoughts. Nothing has any meaning save the meaning you give it. And the meaning you give to things does not derive from any event, circumstance, condition, or situation exterior to yourself. The Giving of Meaning is entirely an internal process. Entirely" Neale Donald Walsch.
Not only to do we give meaning to events, we give meaning to words. Yes we definitely have dictionaries and experts to draw upon as a resource but ultimately we are the ones that give meaning to words too. Why is this important?
I have devoted two entire chapters in the book, Habits, Addictions and the Law of Attraction just on exploring the meaning of the word “Addiction”. I could have just went to dictionary.com and gave a definition; but then again, maybe I should have went to the Oxford Dictionary. Which one would have been "right"?
Even the top experts in the field fundamentally disagree on the meaning of this single word on so many levels.
That’s why ultimately, after exploring what all the experts say I conclude by suggesting that once again there is no “right” definition – and that YOU get to create the meaning of addiction!
Heck, no matter what definition you end up using, people will disagree with you anyways so you might as well just go with whichever one feels right to you. That may sound strange, since we normally look to “the experts” for what’s “right.” However, you are the one who must eventually make choices and take action on your behaviors. From my perspective, the real goal is not to come up with the “perfect definition” for addiction – but to find one that supports YOU in dealing with it.
When you get that you add the meaning to life, there that is no meaning inherent in anything, that the significance you experience is a function of human interpretation, when you get this you are free, and therefore free to create. The key, of course, is willing to be responsible for the mess you have created so far! – Landmark Education (on Facebook)
I’ve observed that most of us have a core belief that something is fundamentally wrong with us at the deepest level. This belief can express itself in many different forms. We may believe that we're not good enough, don't know enough or don't do enough. We might think that we don't deserve to have what we need. Or it could be the belief that we are unlovable or unacceptable, or that other people won't love and accept us for who we really are.
When we get to the root of our “bad” habits, compulsions and addictive behaviors, these are the kinds of beliefs that lie underneath them. This is why many of our attempts to break our habits are so ineffective. We try to change the behavior instead of dealing with what's going on inside. The same is true when we want to help others change their habits; we often try to "motivate" them in ways that actually make them feel worse, thereby reinforcing their thoughts and feelings of guilt or “not being enough.”
Paradoxically, even while believing we are 'not enough,' we can also be high achievers. We may hold the highest standards for ourselves, or always try to be the best at whatever we do. And it's this conflict within us that contributes to our gnawing feelings of discomfort, discontent or pain inside.
Arnold Washton, Ph.D., and Donna Boundy, M.S.W describes this problem perfectly in their book Willpower’s Not Enough: Recovering from Addictions of Every Kind;
Part of having an addictive “dis-ease” means that we hold certain contradictory beliefs that set the stage for inner conflict and struggle – such as believing simultaneously that we are not enough and that we should be perfect.”
[Thus] …A faulty belief system lies at the root of addiction. This belief system… embraces the idea that it is possible to be perfect, that the world should be limitless, that our image is more important than who we really are, that we are not enough, and that externals (people, drugs, and other things outside of ourselves) hold the “magic” solutions to life’s problems.
Our behaviors are just the symptom. The real problem is what's going on inside of us.
I experienced another wholesale miracle when I ran my second marathon ever. (I've run over 70 to date!)
As strange as it may sound, however, I didn't do it alone. It took a whole community of people around me to accomplish it. Let me explain...
For those who don't know, a marathon is 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometres long. It's a gruelling experience even for the best of runners, who do it in 2 to 2.5 hours. And since I'm not much of a runner, it truly is a long, LONG way to go. My first marathon last year took almost six hours!
What hit me as I prepared for this one is that running a marathon is a lot like recovering from addictions, or other serious bad habits. It takes training, perseverance and a commitment deep in our gut. But more than anything, it takes a community to cause such a miracle. Because for me, doing this -AND- recovering from serious addictions are both truly miraculous.
To help you understand that and maybe even encourage you in your own recovery, or with whatever you're facing, I'd like to share what this run was like. To give you a puff-by-puff, blow-by-blow description of how it felt to run those last eight kilometres (or five miles) of my second marathon.
(Note: In Canada, runners measure distances in "K"s or kilometres. One K is a little over one-half of a mile.)
I'm at 34 K now -- and I'm in so much pain. Medics have been stopping when they see me. Police officers ask, "Are you okay?" It's like I shouldn't be doing this. If I was on my own, I would have quit at 18 K. And yet now it's 34 K and I'm still going...
My goal for today was to run this marathon in five hours. I wanted to beat my time from last year of 5 hours and 59 minutes. However after 18 K, my left knee was in serious pain and after 25 K, I was barely walking. scott gallagher
When you're in that kind of pain, the mind starts playing tricks on you. Like "Scott, maybe you should stop." Or when it's really bad, "Hey, stupid... STOP THIS ALREADY!" Or perhaps it's a different voice inside that says, "You failure. You didn't make your goal. You're probably not even going to finish. Why bother?" Listening to these voices reminded me a lot of when I was trying to stop my addictions. My mind was continually beating up on me, telling me I couldn't do it, that I was a failure, or worse. And when that happens and there's no one around to help it's game over.
A few K ago, an experienced runner passed by me. He saw the way I was limping, barely able to walk. But rather than tell me to stop, he looked at me and said, "It's only pain." Then he kept on going... And I knew he was right.
A few minutes ago, I passed a woman who is also limping badly. This time I was the one who said, "It's only pain." She looked up, smiled at me and kept on going. She knew what it meant too. And that's the real message for today: "IT'S ONLY PAIN."
So what does that mean to me? It says, "Sure it's painful. But you're bigger than the pain. You can do this thing. And we're not giving up on you..." The runner who passed me was in tip-top shape. Yet from his words, he's obviously been where I am now at some point in his past. He knows something I don't. And he wanted to make sure I got the message and didn't quit. "It's only pain. But this is worth it. So finish, Scott... Even if you have to walk the last 10 K, who cares?"
In recovery, it's the same thing. You often have to do things that are very, very painful. Say you've been living dishonestly all your life and now you've got to tell the truth. That may get you in trouble and it's painful. Or maybe you've hurt people all your life. Well now you need to clean it up. You've got to go to the people you've abused, hurt or stolen from and make amends. They might not like you afterwards. It's painful. But that's how you recover. And "it's only pain"...
That's the first thing I teach kids in the Addiction Workshops I give. I draw a circle and say, "This is your life, your world. Now tell me what's inside your world." And they start sharing: "Depression. Anger. Fear. Loneliness." Then I say, "Outside this circle is where you want to be. Outside your problems, where your dreams once were, that's what you really want. But to get there, it's going to be painful." And it is ? because it takes us outside of our comfort zone, beyond what's easy and comfortable.
After that, I teach them practical steps they can take to start creating healthy habits. Things like drinking water, exercise, telling the truth, making amends, and helping others. Those may sound like small things ? and they are. But to someone hooked on a bad habit, they're huge. "Do you think I like drinking all this friggin' water?" I ask them. "No! I'd rather have a Coke or a chocolate shake." "Do you think I liked getting on a treadmill today? NO. I'd rather be lying on the couch watching a DVD." Or, "Do you really think I want to pay back the money I stole 30 years ago, or help drug addicts for free the rest of my life? NO! There hundreds of other things I'd rather be doing with my time and money."
And that's the point: the steps of recovery are uncomfortable and can be painful, especially at the beginning. But once you get outside your comfort zone, when you start exercising those inner muscles, miracles will start to happen.
A few minutes ago, two young kids who were giving water to runners suddenly stopped what they were doing and started following me. Seeing the name on the race card on my chest, they began calling, "You can do it, Scott. You can do it. C'mon Scott, keep going Scott!"
Just now, another runner stopped and asked how I'm doing. "I'm in pain." "Yeah, me too," he said. But instead of running off, he stayed for a couple of minutes to talk and be there with me. As he left, he said, "Take care, Scott. We'll see you at the finish line."
God, it makes you want to cry the way people are... The goodness of people sure comes out in a group.
Dr. William D. Silkworth, one of the earliest authorities on addiction, said the reason why we addicts do what we do is because of the sense of ease and comfort it gives us at first.
Addicts are in pain inside. And compared to the emotional pain we're feeling, it's easier and more comfortable to smoke a joint, drink alcohol, cruise pornography on the Net, inject ourselves, or even cut ourselves with a razor blade. We hurt that much.
So where does the pain come from? I don't know exactly. What I do know is that every addict I've ever talked to believes something is wrong with them. At some point in their life, they developed the belief they were bad, no good, or not worthy of love. Sometimes this came from their parents and siblings, or maybe they heard it from their friends ? or both. But they were told things like "You're stupid. What's wrong with you? You're a Loser! Why don't you shut up?..." Those ideas then got reinforced by others, like kids at school or teachers (and for those older, their spouses or co-workers). And they came to believe it. That's the power of the people around us, our "community."
It takes a lot of reinforcement to turn those ideas around. To believe we really are loved and valued. That there isn't something wrong with us. That we are worthy of love. But since our parents and friends aren't likely to change, WE have to create communities of people around us who will see that, say it, and support the best in us.
"Would you like some water?" another boy asks me. All these kids out here helping us, it's incredible. There's hundreds of them, giving us water, Gatorade, gel*... And whether I'm running or walking, people keep yelling at me: "You're doing great, Scott." "Right on buddy. Keep going!" [*Note: Gel is a liquid food that replenishes salt and sugar in the body.]
So let's talk about community ? the community of marathon running.
Fifteen years ago, I wrote down a goal that I wanted to run a marathon. However, no matter how hard I tried, I could never do more than five or six miles on my own.
Two years ago, I took a course that taught us about the power of community. They taught me that you've got to give and receive from others. That's how you create miracles, not on your own. And shortly after that, I bumped into an old friend who mentioned a place called The Running Room. It's a chain of stores that brings people together to train for running marathons. So I joined.
Training with these runners for several months, I discovered a power I didn't know I had and began doing things that seemed impossible. Many times when we trained it would be like "I can't do this. This is beyond what I can do." But I'd show up anyway and found I could keep up with the group. Each thing we did seemed like baby steps. But after four months of "just showing up," I'd run a marathon.
I'm at 36 K now. I'm glad to still be here... but I'm also disappointed. I've been walking the last 10 K when I should be running. I've trained for four months so I could run this marathon in five hours. And now I've failed...
That's another good reason to quit, right? I've tried and I've failed. Now the voice inside says "Go home you bum..." This is something most of us are really good at ? beating ourselves up and quitting when it looks like we're not going to achieve our goals.
That's why being in a community is so important. YOU don't quit as easily because you want to stay with the people around you. And THEY don't want you to leave or stop either, so they cheer you on. You're much more likely to reach that finish line if you're with people who believe in you.
It's the same with recovery. Twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous have helped thousands of people handle their addictions because they had others there for support. Conversely, if you stay with people who are doing alcohol or drugs, chances are your life will be very similar to theirs.
The only reason I was able to run a marathon is that I joined a community of people who (1) had done it themselves, and (2) believed I could too. Throughout the training, they listened to me, talked to me and told me I could do it. They believed when I didn't, and encouraged me when I wanted to quit. That's the power of community.
Hey, suddenly I'm running again. Puff, puff, puff... I'm not thinking about the pain as much. There's a band playing for us. And people on the side of the road are cheering to keep us going. Puff, puff, puff... Wow...
Now a medic sees me and he's trying to pull me over. I must look pretty bad on the outside. But I know what to say to him. "Hey, thanks. It's okay. It's only pain..." If I'd said something else, he would have tried to examine me and take me out of the run. But it's my choice to be here.
I can't believe I'm still running. I'm in pain, but I'm doing it... Puff, puff, puff...
Early in my recovery, I attended 12-step meetings almost every day. These were really helpful at first, then the group seemed to get stalled. People were going to the meetings but not practising the steps, and they were relapsing. Petrified this would happen to me ? because I was told I had less than a 1% chance of recovery (due to my numerous addictions, including crack cocaine) ? I began looking for people who were finding ways to continually stay sober.
One day I met a man with a fire in his eyes. He'd been clean for a long time, and he was passionate about helping others to work through the recovery steps. He introduced me to a new community of recovered addicts who were doing the same. I started feeling stronger, like I too was going to be able to make it.
Then something strange happened. People in my old group started to shun me. They told others I was radical, over-zealous and crazy, and tried to keep people away from me. And it hurt. I felt rejected and angry. People were stopping me from doing the one thing that could keep me sober. It felt like they were killing me. Even my own father said to me one day, "Why are you hanging around these losers? Why don't you get a life?" He actually wanted me to drink with him.
You're going to experience things like that too. As you take steps to change, not everyone around you is going to like it. Some friends and family may feel uncomfortable with what you're doing. They'll tell you that you're crazy or you shouldn't change, because they like you the way you've been. And it will feel like you are not okay, not loveable, all over again.
Don't believe it. Keep your eye on the finish line, of how you want to feel and how you want your life to be. Believe in yourself, and find others who do too.
Puff, puff, puff... wow, now I'm even passing people... and I've got a shot at still doing it ? at being faster than last year! There's only 5 K left... "Go Scott..." "Thank you!" Puff, puff, puff... Hey, I'm really doing it...
Eventually after 18 months, one guy finally let me help him. He was gay and I guess he kind of liked me. I didn't care; I just knew I had to help someone. And as soon as I had, I became a different person. All of a sudden, I had something different in my eyes. I was on fire like those other guys. And it came from helping just one other person.
I went from struggling, suffering and being depressed to "My life has a purpose now. It's got meaning!" I was excited and began to experience joy again. All it took was sitting down with this guy and listening to his problems. Helping him with his steps. I didn't judge him; I simply loved him, because he was just like me. That was when I learned this thing called "love" wasn't something I was supposed to "get." It was something I was supposed to give. I had it backwards.
I'm at 38 K now. This young guy runs up beside me and says, "How's it been?" "It's been hard, man. My left leg is hurting. What brings you out here?" "I just thought I'd do something to help." And I'm blown away. "What you're doing really makes a difference, man." "Well I've seen so many other people do it. You can do it too. I believe in you, Scott. Keep going. Take care..." And with that he went back to help someone else.
Wow, it almost makes you want to cry. Complete strangers... they just want you to succeed. They want you to have your life. That's what people really want. Beneath all the stuff we see, people really are good... ...Hey, I'm running faster now because of him... Oh my gosh, my knee feels like it's almost cured... But they cured it, not me... Maybe it's both of us together...
What's impossible for an individual is possible within the right group. A group that believes in you, that wants you to succeed. That's what I learned from this marathon.
It's also what I'm creating through the Addiction Workshops I do in schools. It's one thing to give a awesome talk to an assembly; I'm honoured when people say that. Then kids show up in my workshop and I get to make a difference by listening to them, and giving them steps for creating positive new habits. But the reality is, I'm not as powerful as the communities they live in.
The only way I can make a sustainable difference with those kids is to help them - and their teachers & counsellors - to create their own communities. Communities that acknowledge and empower them. Where people are committed to helping each other do the work and achieve their goals. Communities that don't make them wrong when they fail. And that continue when I'm not there. That's what it's all about.
Hey, it's 12:24 ...Oh my god, it's going to be close... If I finish before 12:55, I'll have broken my time from last year!
Before I reach the finish line, I also need to tell you something ? and it's this. Without a shadow of a doubt, I know you are going to fail along the way. That's why I don't expect you to completely stop drinking or doing all drugs (or other habits) today. That will take time. And even if you commit to taking great positive steps, you're still going to fail to do them sometimes. But that doesn't mean YOU are a failure. You've just failed at something. But YOU are not a failure.
"Goooo, Scott... Yeayyyyyyyy..." "Thanks everybody! Thank you for being here!" "Way to go! Woooooooo..." ...Hey, I'm at 40 K... Puff, puff, puff...
That's the real ingredient, a group of people cheering you on. And that's what I want for you ? is to be in a community, where people are helping, believing in, and cheering each other on. You want others to succeed. And they want you to succeed. Because you succeeding means we all succeed...
Puff, puff... cough, cough... It's 12:28, and 2 K to go... Geez, I'm going to break my record... Even with almost a 10 K walk, I'm beating my record... I can't believe it... Puff, puff, puff...
It doesn't matter how long it takes. It doesn't matter how hard it may be. Just don't quit. It's only pain...
When you don't feel like doing that one push-up a day ? and your mind tells you all the reasons why you shouldn't ? just do it. It's only pain. When you don't want to drink the water, or tell the truth, or make amends, or call up your buddy and make sure they did theirs too, take that one more small step and keep going. I know you can do it...
Because you know what? Ultimately, it's more than just being part of a community. It's about helping another person achieve their results. My experience is that when you do that, your problems will take care of themselves.
Only 1K to go... I'm still running!... puff, huhuh, puff... unbelievable... puff, huhuh, puff... I've gone from "it's only pain" to "there is no pain"... puff, huhuh huhuh... There's just commitment... see the end... focus on the results...
I can see the finish line now. ...Huhuh huhuh... faster, faster... ohhh, it hurts...The band is starting to play for me now... Wooooo hooooo....! "Wait till the midnight hour, just wait till the midnight hour..." Cindy, my girlfriend, is going to be at the finish line. She's going to be so proud...
My god, this feels so hard... "Keep going Scott, stay with it!" ...huhuh huhuh huhuh... the last 400 metres feels like 10 miles... I just want it to be over now...
Huhuh huhuh... cough, cough... 300 metres to go... huhuh huhuh... "Keep going Scott, you're almost there buddy"... huhuh huhuh... 200 metres to go... huhuh huhuh... 100...
(on the loudspeaker) "We've got Scott Gallagher from Toronto coming to the line!"... puff puff, huhuh huhuh... I did it! ...Ohhh myyyy, 5:43... I DID IT!"
As I make my way to the runners' table and receive my medal, people beside me are crying because they made it too...
So how am I feeling as I stand here, bent over, at the finish line? I feel proud. Grateful. Deeply satisfied... I call this a miracle, a real miracle.
The miracle is the power of humanity. That what one person can't do on their own can be accomplished in a community. That I didn't quit. That people were there with support and encouragement all along the way. And that I allowed it in and was willing to believe it was true.
My whole life used to be about thinking I was alone and had to do everything on my own. I tried and failed at so much. Now that I give to others and allow people to contribute to me, I've got a life that I love and I'm living powerfully. Now I choose which communities to be part of. And that's the difference. I know the community is more powerful than I am.
That runner was right. It was only pain. I kept on going... And I'm so grateful to have done it.
“Love is the ability and willingness to allow those that you care for to be what they choose for themselves, without any insistence that they satisfy you.” - Wayne Dyer
Sometimes people call or come to see me about someone in their life who has a serious habit or addiction. It might be their child or spouse, another family member, a friend or co-worker. Hearing them talk, I can tell how much they want to help this person change. Yet what they’re doing just doesn’t seem to be working.
As I listen more closely, or watch them interact with the person they’re concerned about, it becomes obvious what’s happening. Underneath their desire to help, they’re actually trying to fix or control the person they care about. As a result, the other person isn’t feeling loved or accepted as they are. They’re feeling pressured to change. Their resistance is growing. Both parties are feeling frustrated. And nothing much is being accomplished.
If any of this rings true for you, I’d like to share some insights into how you can be more effective in helping someone who’s important to you.
It’s Not YOUR Choice
Let me use an example of parents and kids to show what happens. When an adult comes to me with their child, often the parent believes that they are the one ‘in charge.’ Their language and attitude sound something like this: “I know what’s best. This is what my child should be doing. And I’m upset or frustrated that they’re not doing it.”
Here’s what I need to gently keep telling them until they get it. “You actually have no control over your child. You think you do. You may even use your authority or power to get them to do what you want. But whatever they do is their choice. They might lie about it to get you off their back. They might conform to please you (though underneath they resent it). But the truth is, you have no power over them. They are going to do whatever they are going to do.”
When we try to control someone else – especially a person who's hurting inside and exhibiting addictive behaviors – we are actually contributing to their feeling worse about themselves. Our judgment or criticism adds to their negative thoughts and feelings, and makes them want to escape those even more. And the way they do that is through their destructive habit.
So here’s the paradox. Out of love or concern for your child (or someone else in your life), you want to stop them from doing their behavior because it’s having negative consequences. Yet your worrying, criticism and control are adding to their pain and bad feelings. So your fear about what will happen to them is actually provoking them to do their habit more! Strange, isn’t it?
Now please don’t misinterpret this. I am NOT saying that it is wrong to care about or be concerned for someone else. What I am saying is that there are better ways to help.
I just now got the most touching facebook message from a friend of my late nephew Matt's saying "You are here to show that pain is irrelevant and that pain is a road you don't have to keep walking down - that love is the cure - this is what I have learned from you." Her message inspired me to share the following section from my book with you:
When I was training to run that first marathon, we were told that it was best to take about six months to rest and prepare between races. So after recovering from the first one, I ran four more marathons over the next 24 months or so. Some runs were faster, some were slower. But most important was the fact that I had succeeded. Each time, I had finished in spite of the intense pain and physical stress. And I felt great about what I had accomplished.
Pushing the Edge Again
Still feeling like I could do “anything,” I decided that my next goal would be to run an ultra-marathon. An “Ultra” is anything longer than the regular 42.2 K distance or the six hours normally given for doing a marathon. And I set my sights on a 50 K or 31 mile run near Niagara Falls that was about two months away.
To train for this one, I decided that I would run three regular marathons first – partly to build up my endurance, and partly to break through my beliefs about what’s possible for the human body. Nobody I knew personally had ever done even two marathons in a month. So I was definitely pushing the edge by attempting so many in such a short time.
I approached the first marathon pretty casually, and completed it in fairly good shape. One week later, I ran another marathon – or at least tried to. Part way through, I was 'zoned out' listening to my iPOD, didn't notice that I had taken a wrong turn, and ended up running the half-marathon course instead. However, I also experienced a slight leg injury during this run, so my mistake might have been a lucky one. And then two weeks later I ran another full marathon. This time I got injured at 10K and ran the last 32K in considerable pain, limping the whole way.
Pain… and Deep Peace
During this last run, I decided to call my writer so I could capture my thoughts about it while I was still running. Out of it we created an article called, "It’s Only Pain,” in which I described what it's like to run through physical pain – and how my commitment to finishing and the power of being with other runners got me through it.
After doing that article, I began asking myself, "What is it about these marathons that I'm so attracted to? Why does running them mean so much to me?" Given that my mission is all about overcoming unwanted habits and addictions, it obviously had something to do with that. So I started to try and figure out the connection.
I reflected back on my first marathon when I was totally injured, bedridden for nearly a week after and in excruciating pain whenever I tried to walk. It would make sense to ask, "If your first experience with a marathon was that painful, why would you ever want to do it again?"
And there was the paradox. Because on the other side of that pain was the deepest sense of peace and emotional freedom I had perhaps ever known.
Having felt that "love of humanity" and the deep gratitude I had for how people helped me, the two had left me deeply moved. During that run, I'd also had an experience of what I can only call "transcending" my body. At one point near the end, I felt like it wasn't "me" running my legs any more. It was as if my spirit was moving a body that shouldn't really have been doing this. Yes, there was pain; but I wasn't especially present to it. It was as though I was outside of the body, and outside of any feelings, fears or negative thoughts. And it left me with a sublime sense of freedom and peace.
What I began to sense was that, somehow, the experience of being willing to be uncomfortable was a key to breaking free of unwanted habits and living a fulfilled life. For me, running marathons had simply become the most intense exercise I could use to train myself to break out of my "addiction to comfort" and my desire to avoid pain at all costs.
Each and every one of us needs to feel good, free, powerful and happy. That desire is built into us as human beings. But if we can’t get that from inside ourselves – from living into our possibilities and growing into our true potential – then we need to find it somewhere else. So we look outside of ourselves for something to make us feel better. This isn’t wrong; it’s just human nature.
So what makes us feel good? It depends on the person. Perhaps we get that good feeling when we take a drink, eat some sweets or junk food, or go shopping. Or we get a rush inside from video games, movies, concerts or porn. It might come when we work overtime and somebody praises us for it. Or when someone attractive flirts with us, so we get involved with them. Any one of these might ‘fill the gap’ we feel inside, so we do it more often.
Then again, maybe our discomfort, disappointment or pain inside is more serious, so we turn to something stronger to take it away. A happy hour most afternoons. A prescription painkiller that gets used in ever-increasing amounts. An ‘illicit’ drug of choice to make us feel uplifted or high. Or maybe we spend more and more money on clothes, shoes, electronics, gambling or trips, anything to take our mind off how we really feel inside. “It’s just for now. I can control it,” we say to ourselves. And maybe it is.
But for many of us, our ‘muscles of choice’ have been severely weakened over the years. We’ve given away our power so often that now “feeling better” is the top priority, and what’s “best for us” comes in second. As a result, stopping the behaviour that gives us those temporary good feelings doesn’t seem so easy any more. So little by little, we do it more, and more.
For a time, our behaviour is serving us. It’s giving us those good feelings we want and need. But at some point we start to feel differently about it. Maybe we’re doing it so much that we don’t like the consequences, or we’re feeling bad because we seem to be losing control. So a part of us no longer wants it. Yet we do it again anyway, because we still want those good feelings it gives us. After that, we feel worse and tell ourselves to stop. But craving those good feelings, we do it again. And the cycle continues.
Somewhere along the way, we begin shaming or beating ourselves up for our behaviour. “Why do I keep doing this to myself? There must be something wrong with me!” And we think that if we could just shame, punish, force or control ourselves enough, we will stop. But as I’ve said, that thinking actually has the opposite effect. It makes us feel worse. Now we really need a way out of our discomfort, so we do our habit even more. And our struggle continues.
Giving It Energy
At this point we’re giving a lot of mental and emotional energy to our habit – both positive, because we want it, and negative, because we don’t. But either way we’re giving it more power. The more we think about doing it or not doing it, the more we want to do it.
We’re also reinforcing our inner belief that something is wrong with us. We feel guilty about doing our behaviour, but powerless to change. Our ‘bad habits’ now seem to have control over us. And little by little, this ‘locks in’ the problem’ even deeper.
Even if we are somehow able to change our habit at this stage and replace it with something ‘better or less damaging,’ the cycle will continue. Why? Because it’s not the behaviour that’s causing the problem. It’s our feelings of shame, fear and guilt, and our belief that we are powerless, that are driving the process. So we will continue to need some kind of habit, substance or behaviour to block those feelings and make ourselves feel better, however temporarily.
And that’s when our ‘unwanted habit’ becomes an addiction. We have actually turned it into that by our obsessive and negative thinking.
Is there some habit or behaviour that keeps coming to mind as you’re reading this? Don’t make yourself guilty for it. Just ask yourself if it might be something you want to change...
I've spoken to thousands of students across the U.S. and Canada about addictions. After doing general assemblies, I then gave workshops for those who were suffering from compulsive and addictive behaviours. Each child participant was asked this question: "What habits(s) do you most want to stop or reduce in your life right now?" The answers were startling.
From a sampling of 17 of the schools I visited, 265 students (Grades 7 to 12) voluntarily attended my Healthy Habits workshop and 28-day programs. On forms filled out anonymously, they listed 92 different destructive habits with which they were struggling, for a total of 1031 times! This means that each child had an average of four habits from which they wanted FREEDOM.
Who Are These Kids and Where Do They Come From?
1031 bad habits and addictions for 265 kids seems incredible. But it's true. Yet there was nothing unusual about the type of schools or communities these kids came from. Ten schools were Public/Secular, 5 were Catholic, 1 was Alternative/At-Risk and 1 was First Nations. The communities they lived in ranged from low-to-high on the economic scale.
These weren't your typical "at-risk" students, referred by school officials, guidance counselors or parents. They first attended my General School Assembly talks I gave on addictions, then chose to come forward to receive help. They recognized these habits and compulsions as being detrimental to their lives and health, and came because they'd been unable to deal with them on their own. And for school staff, it was an eye opener. Many had been unaware of how many students were suffering in silence, and were stunned to hear of the multitude of addictive behaviors.
The students who came forward did so despite being warned of the strenuous commitment required in the workshop, and the 28-day Healthy Habits program that followed. They understood that their success would be contingent on partnering with an "Accountability Buddy," as well as weekly sharing in a community of kids with similar problems.
How do we reach these Kids?
In many schools, these kids are the ones we've given up on -- the underachievers, the troublemakers, the bullies, loners, smokers, drinkers and "druggies." We treat them like they are bad and wrong, a problem we'd rather be rid of -- which gives them even more evidence that the negative self image they've already created for themselves (in response to significant events that happened in their past) IS TRUE.
For me, it started in grade two. We were asked to go to the front of the room and talk about our parents. As I heard other kids talk about their Moms and Dads, I compared myself to them. I reflected that my Dad didn't live with us, and he never came to visit. My Mom was a receptionist who never finished high school, and we lived in a government-subsidized apartment building.
From this simple experience, I made up the false belief that I was inferior to other people, a loser, broken and inadequate. It wasn't "the truth" -- but it became "my truth" because I made it so. And as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "We shape our lives and we shape ourselves. Ultimately, the choices we make are our own responsibility."
In an attempt to compensate for the unconscious choice I had made to be inferior, I became addicted to being superior to other people. I studied obsessively like a workaholic to get better grades than other kids. I played sports only to win because, if I won, others would lose and that would make me feel superior. I chose friends who were younger or weaker than me so I could bully them around. But this way of living life was unsatisfying and took too much work, so I eventually got high, engaged in a multitude of other destructive habits, and even thought of suicide as a quick and easy way to escape.
As a speaker now, I am fully aware that trying to scare students out of experimenting with dangerous or illegal activities is not the most effective approach. In fact, one of my partners, Dr. Gabor Maté, says this in his latest book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction:
"When it comes to drug education, most governments appear to view prevention largely as a matter of informing people, especially young people, that drugs are bad for them. A worthy objective, certainly, but like all behavioural programs, this form of prevention is highly unlikely to make a significant impact. The reason is that the children who are at greatest risk are the least open to hearing the message..."
Children who have been abused...or are for any other reason alienated from adults, do not look to grownups for advice, modeling or information. And yet...these are the children most prone to substance use. We have witnessed the same problem with attempts to prevent or eliminate bullying: the dynamics of bullying or victim-hood are rooted deep in a wounded child's psyche. This is why moral preaching and plethora of anti-bullying programs have little or no impact... Programs aimed at changing or preventing behaviours always fail if they do not address the psychological dynamics that drive the behaviours in question."
That's why I use my personal story of addiction in a different way -- as a way of connecting my own challenges, pain and choices with theirs, so as to inspire those in severe pain to attend my healthy habits workshop and 28-day program.
What I've discovered is that kids relate to this. Yes, many are alienated or angry. Those with serious behaviours and addictions are afraid, and they're desperate for a way out. But when someone is honest and direct with them, and has practical answers to the problems they're facing, they are ready to listen.
Dr. Maté also says this: "If schools...are to engage in drug education with a view to prevention, they need first to create an emotionally supportive relationship between teachers and students in which the latter feel understood, accepted and respected. Only in such an atmosphere...will young people develop enough trust to turn to adults with their problems and concerns...Only healthy, nurturing relationships with adults will prevent kids from becoming lost in their peer world -- a loss of orientation that leads rapidly to drug use."For those many young people who may, in reality, never have such nurturing relationships with adults, one of my intentions is to give them a new and empowering way of looking at the world and their lives.
How Much "Choice" Do We Really Have?
The world taught me to see myself as a victim at an early age. That belief gripped me during my years of being addicted -- and is one I still hang onto at times today. Yet my own sustained recovery (since Nov. 4th, 1999) has depended on changing this belief about who I am, and my interpretation or "story" of what happened "to me" earlier in my life.
What I've recognized and teach kids in my workshops is that being a victim is a choice. Yes, we may have been "victimized" and experienced bad things in our lives. But how we look at those events now is up to us.
Many of us have heard about the movie and book, The Secret. It is based on the concept that we create and are "the cause" of everything in our life. Some argue that this idea is too extreme, but whether it is the "whole truth" is not the point. What IS important is whether our current view of life is empowering. "While pointing the blame at others (playing the victim) may feel better than assuming responsibility for unwanted conditions, there is a very big negative repercussion to believing that something outside of you is the reason for your own lack of success: When you give the credit or the blame to another for your success or lack of it -- you are powerless to make any change." Esther and Jerry Hicks, Authors of The Law of Attraction.
As an addict who saw himself as a total victim (and I had the experiences to prove it), the idea of being "cause in the matter of my life" didn't really seem to apply to me. However this began to change as I investigated the works of people like Stephen Covey (author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), Richard Bandler (founder of Neuro Linguistic Programming), Tony Robbins, Wayne Dwyer, Bob Proctor, Neale Donald Walsch (the Conversations with God series) and many others, and took courses from companies like Landmark Education. Their insights helped me see the full extent to which I was playing the victim, and how I was letting my dis-empowering interpretations of what had happened to me in the past destroy my future.
Applying this in our Schools
As a teenager, my choices led me to become and stay addicted. By transforming what was behind my addictions (which, for me, did include working a 12 step program) and becoming responsible for the decisions I had made, I am now able to live free of not just one addiction -- but numerous addictions, rather than as a victim of my past.
What I want students to know is that they have this same choice. My workshops help kids shift their attention and energy away from the seemingly hopeless nature of their "bad habits," and redirect it towards developing healthy habits. We focus on their power to choose, to support others, and be supported by a community and buddy system, while reducing their bad habits until they get to abstinence (if that is what they choose).
I believe this message encourages and enables young people to make far more change than any threats or negative statistics could ever do. And the results are proving very positive. For more on this, see the case studies and testimonies.
What Kids are Dealing with: The Full List
As promised earlier, here is the full list of habits, addictions and behaviours (and the number of times each was reported) as listed by 265 of the students who took part in my workshop and 28-day Healthy Habits program. Of these students, 182 were females, 76 were male and 7 did not specify.
1. Junk Food - 109
2. Internet/Computer - 103
3. Marijuana and/or Hash - 92
4. Alcohol - 89
5. Tobacco - 85
6. Sugar or Candy - 79
7. Over eating - 69
8. Under eating or Anorexia - 69
9. Self harm - 48
10. S-e-x - 41
11. Bullying or abusing others - 38
12. Video games - 38
13. Lying - 29
14. Stealing - 17
15. Ecstasy (psychedelic drug) - 16
16. Nail biting - 14
17. Cocaine - 12
18. Laziness or lack of motivation - 12
19. Gambling - 11
20. Over spending/shopping - 9
21. Magic mushrooms - 8
22. Bulimia or purging - 6
23. Depression - 6
24. LSD - 6
25. Anger - 5
26. Involvement in abusive relationships - 5
27. Over sleeping - 5
28. Telephone usage - 5
29. Movies and television - 5
30. Bad attitude - 4
31. Being a victim or blaming others - 4
32. Caffeine - 4
33. Energy drinks - 4
34. Oxy Cottin - 4
35. "Special K" - 4
36. Cursing - 3
37. Fighting with parents - 3
38. Over exercising - 3
39. Co-dependence or people pleasing - 3
40. P.o-r-n.ography - 3
41. Text messaging - 3
42. Pain killers - 3
43. 2-CB (psychedelic drug) - 2
44. Isolation or being alone - 2
45. Rudeness - 2
46. Complaining - 2
47. Diet pills - 2
48. DMT (psychedelic drug) - 2
49. Gossiping - 2
50. Masturbation - 2
51. Morphine - 2
52. Opiates - 2
53. Over working - 2
54. Percodan - 2
55. Pyromania - 2
56. Salvia (psychoactive drug) - 2
57. Stress - 2
58. Worrying - 2
59. Being abused - 1
60. Arguing - 1
61. Gang membership - 1
62. Tardiness - 1
63. Lip biting - 1
64. Self blame - 1
65. Burning self - 1
66. Chocolate - 1
67. Choking - 1
68. Cracking knuckles - 1
79. Choosing bad friends - 1
70. Drinking blood - 1
71. DIPT (psychedelic drug) - 1
72. Fidgeting - 1
73. Fighting - 1
74. Forcing/manipulating others - 1
75. Hair pulling - 1
76. Harming animals - 1
77. Holding grudges - 1
78. I like to watch people get hurt - 1
79. Insomnia - 1
80. Making others feel sympathetic - 1
81. Manipulating others - 1
82. Methadone - 1
83. Negative thinking - 1
84. Opposition to authority - 1
85. Overactive - 1
86. Pain - 1
87. Panic Attacks - 1
88. Partying - 1
89. Suicidal thoughts - 1
90. Unspecified illicit drugs - 1
91. Valium - 1
92. Violent behavior - 1
Only 13 of these behaviors were listed on the original form. The other 79 were written in by students themselves as being problems with which they wanted help. Yet even these numbers do not tell the whole story. For example:
1. In #11 -- Bullying, 38 kids came to the workshop for help with bullying behaviours they were unable to stop. However elsewhere in the survey, 93 kids admitted to bullying others, while 58 students said that being bullied was a problem for them.
2. The number of students who experience addictive and compulsive habits is clearly much higher than those who attended the workshops. Many kids who were known in their school to be "at-risk" or have specific problems did not attend.
It took tremendous courage for kids with such behaviors to attend these workshops. But it is also a sign of how much they want help -- and of the potential for change in our schools. Why? Because their choices will affect others. The more we can help them overcome their addictions, the more other students will see their success and come forward for solutions to their own problems. And this in turn will grow?
I believe it is up to us, as adults, to teach kids to take responsibility for the choices that affect their lives, and to offer them practical steps that will give them positive results. And the best way to teach that is to do it for ourselves. As Gandhi said, "be the change you want to see in the world."
Insight #1: Most of Us HATE Being Controlled
When you try to control someone who has a bad habit or an addiction, it sets off alarm bells inside them. (I know this from personal experience.) You see, we already KNOW we have a problem. We’ve tried our best to control it, and have failed. Your trying to fix us only reminds us of that; and being told what to do makes us even more sensitive and resistant. All this just locks in our behavior even more. And it becomes a vicious circle...
I’ve come to believe that the choice to change has to be100% our own for it to be successful. That means nobody is trying to make us do something. There’s no pressure, force, guilt, manipulation or intimidation behind it. So when we “authentically choose” new behaviors, it comes honestly from inside of us.
What I’ve found, time after time after time, is that when people are pressured to change they often relapse or go back to their old habits. But when people freely choose for themselves, there’s a higher probability that they’re going to succeed at developing new habits.
So what can you do to help someone make this decision for themselves?
Insight #2: Redirect Your Thinking
When you criticize someone or try to correct their problem – or find yourself thinking about how bad it is – you are focusing attention on it. The more you do this, the more you are going to attract thoughts and experiences that show you “how bad it is.” And the problem will grow in your consciousness as well.
To help them, what you need to do is make the same kind of shift I talked about earlier – from focusing on what you don’t want to what you do want. And here again is how that works.
Whenever you notice yourself having negative thoughts about someone else’s behavior, gently redirect your attention from what you’re worried about to what you want to see. For example, begin to look for the positive aspects in the situation. See the good in what the other person is doing (like steps they’re already taking to deal with their habit). Or try seeing their behavior as the best way they know how, at this moment, to make themselves feel better. You will know that you’ve shifted your thinking when you feel better inside.
As you do this regularly, your vibration and behavior will start to change. You’ll become easier to be around. You’ll say things that are more understanding. The other person will feel more accepted, and may start sharing what’s going on for them. In both conscious and unconscious ways, your thoughts will begin attracting and creating what you want.
How Do We Make Ourselves Feel Better?
When we believe something is wrong with us or that we’re ‘not enough,’ it hurts inside. It provokes feelings of unhappiness, emptiness and lack. Thoughts and beliefs that we’re bad or guilty for some reason, even though we don’t know why. We then begin to doubt ourselves and our value. And believing that we’re not as good as others, we may start to feel separate, alone and unsafe.
Instead of making ourselves feel better by doing the work necessary to restore integrity in our lives - being true to our real selves – accepting our thoughts and feelings, making empowered choices and growing into the magnificent lives that I believe we are destined for – we instead turn to the easier softer way – accepting substitutes outside of ourselves.
Here are some glimpses of what that might look like:
- If we’re feeling empty, we may try to ‘fill ourselves up’ through food, drink, entertainment or activity.
- If we think we’re not good enough, we may try to be ‘enough’ by working harder or trying to be “the best” at whatever we’re doing.
- If we don’t believe we have value, we may try to prove our worth through over-performing or trying to attract the praise of others.
- If we see ourselves as weak or vulnerable, we may try to suppress our feelings and emotions, such as tears, anger, tenderness or love. (As a result, we might become tougher and more aggressive, or shut down and become tight and unemotional.)
- If we’re afraid of being “wrong,” we may do everything we can not to make mistakes, be right or be perfect.
- If we believe we’re not lovable, we may compromise ourselves to do things to get what we think is love, acceptance or esteem from others.
In the short term, all of these seem like perfectly natural solutions to fill the gaps we feel inside. But in the long term, they actually perpetuate our problems – because we haven’t dealt with how we think and feel inside.
Seeing Others as the Problem
When we believe we’re not enough or something’s wrong with us, we also begin to compensate by choosing new thoughts to make us feel safe and okay. So we say things to ourselves like: “I didn’t do anything wrong; they did it to me.” Or, “There’s nothing I can do. Other people are the source of my problem.” And that’s where our victim thinking begins. The purpose of these thoughts is to stop us from feeling guilty – by putting responsibility onto others and stopping us from looking inside, because that would be too painful. However, this thinking also stop us from seeing the real source of our bad feelings.
I once heard a church minister state that this blaming mentality started with Adam and Eve. Not that this is the truth or not but I loved the perspective. He said that when God asked him why he ate of the tree of knowledge, Adam blamed both God and Eve, saying something like “it was because of this woman you gave me”. Implying of course that it was god’s fault for giving Adam the woman.
To make ourselves feel better, we may then start seeing ourselves as superior to others. We become the ‘heroes,’ or the ‘innocent’ ones, the ones who are doing our best – while we tell ourselves that others aren’t. “If only other people cared more or tried harder, the world would be a better place,” we think to ourselves. Or we may go the other way. We may start to see ourselves as inferior and feel sorry for ourselves. Thoughts of being hard done by or ‘poor me’ start to grow within us. The purpose of these thoughts is to make us feel okay by having “reasons” for our problems, and to elicit sympathy or caring from others. But in the end, both approaches keep us small, and result in a constant feeling of discomfort which we are driven to escape.
We’ll also try to ‘protect’ ourselves by judging and criticizing others. This makes us feel better by seeing others as the source of our problems. However, eventually this turns into CHRONIC blaming and complaining about people – a key trait of all addicts that I’ve known (including myself). And step by step, we come to see ourselves as victims, not responsible for our life.
Each and every one of these behaviours is a logical response to not feeling good enough. But with each of these ‘choices,’ we are actually burying or forgetting our true self. We use them to make ourselves feel safe, instead of growing. To mask our real thoughts and feelings, instead of being honest. To hide, instead of being seen. And eventually, we start to forget how we really feel and what we really want inside.
Relating through Co-Dependence
Many of these behaviours are characteristics of a specific kind of addiction called “codependence.” I’ve heard experts state that co-dependence is an addiction beneath all addictions. In other words, when you take away the drugs, alcohol, or the sex, or whatever the predominant addiction appears to be, you are left with a co-dependent. Let me describe what that means in terms of our unwanted habits, compulsions or addictions.
When we live and act in ways that are not fully ‘true’ for us, we attract people with similar patterns and characteristics. We then relate to each other in ‘co-dependent’ and unhealthy ways, because our behaviour is coming from our mutual ‘not enoughness’ rather than our real or true selves.
As we do this, a negative spiral sets in. Inside, we don’t seem to have that ‘spark’ anymore. Our well being is increasingly dependent on other people and things. We feel like we have less and less control over our lives. So we begin making more and more “safe” choices, instead of growing and taking risks. We blame others for our circumstances or when bad things happen, because it seems like ‘they’ are doing it to us. And we frequently turn to behaviours, substances and habits to fill ourselves up or make ourselves feel better. This is why co-dependence could possibly be one of the possible causes of all addictions and compulsions.