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Self-Possession and the Art of Recovery

“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” – Montaigne (1533-1592)

No one should be surprised there is no universal agreement or even limited consensus about what counts as good recovery from addiction because we cannot even agree on what addiction is, what causes it, and what are the best ways to treat it.

There is debate whether abstinence is a necessary condition of recovery/remission or if moderation without the harmful consequences is sufficient. These are important debates since they have huge personal, social, moral, political, and legal repercussions. For example, if I am a drug court participant, my claim that I have tempered my use and minimized harmful consequences, but have not abstained, may not be well received by the presiding judge.

Identifying Good Recovery

It is possible to identify some features of good recovery or successful remission without having to pledge allegiance to any particular sides in these debates. I submit that knowing how to belong to oneself or having a certain self-possession is necessary for living well or flourishing for anyone, but especially for someone who has struggled with a Substance Use Disorder (SUD).

man doing well in recovery using phoneI start with a premise: addiction is a way to lose oneself. Depending on the severity of one’s SUD, one loses parts of herself that shape her self-understanding. Commitments, relationships, aspirations, principles, and work that have been important to a person start to fall by the wayside or are actively rejected. In losing them, a person loses her orientation to others and within herself. One of the many challenges is that people struggling with addiction often assume they do know themselves so very well and so much better than others could possibly know them. In some sense, all people have a unique or privileged access to what’s going on inside of them. People believe they can look inside of themselves and see beliefs, values, judgments, memories, and truths with perfect clarity as if they were looking through a View Master virtual reality toy (or the click reels for those of us who are older). What many addicts see in 3D is their damage, deficiency, unworthiness, failure or any other heavily laden moral judgments. They will claim they know all these things about themselves; they’ve got all the self-knowledge they need.

But can one be wrong about knowing something about oneself? And can this type of mistake fuel addiction? The answer to these related questions is “yes.” Even if we grant that we do have something akin to a View Master, we still make use of concepts, values, judgments, and experiences to interpret what we see. In other words, our concepts are like lenses or filters affecting our perception and our ability to apprehend and understand what we are seeing.

Know Thy Internal Self

At issue is where these concepts come from and how individuals internalize them. In a wholesale manner, each of us internalizes beliefs, values, and judgments about the way the world is and should be. As the philosopher Wittgenstein claimed, we take on a whole system and only later can we even begin to look parts of that system. This internalization is part of how we mature and how we come to see ourselves in the world. Our self-identity and our claims of self-knowledge are always situated within that system. But if we take these concepts, values, and judgments as givens and absolute certainties and as a consequence never question them, we may become rigid if not dogmatic in our understanding of the world, our place in it, and who each of us is as an individual.

Having too much trust in others (especially the wrong others) and not having enough trust in ourselves are different, but related, ways of not knowing how to belong to oneself.-Peg O’ConnorThis may prove to be very damaging, in part because we belong more to those beliefs, values, and concepts and perhaps to the others who hold them than to ourselves. So much in a person’s life – her family or friends, education, religion – may speak against a person questioning or dissenting from some deeply held beliefs and values. This raises an issue of trust: how much to trust yourself and how much to trust others. We may give far too much power to and place too much trust in others to define us. We may do this because we don’t trust ourselves enough. Having too much trust in others (especially the wrong others) and not having enough trust in ourselves are different, but related, ways of not knowing how to belong to oneself.

Those are some of the ways not to belong to oneself. What are some of the ways one knows how to belong to oneself or have possession (the language of “owning” has become more popular) of one’s self?  “Know how” is always practical as opposed to theoretical and abstract; there is always action associated with this kind of knowledge.

Having self-possession and knowing how to belong to oneself include, among other actions:

  • Holding beliefs and values intentionally and with good reasons and not unthinkingly and habitually;
  • Putting commitments into action, which moves a person from wishing something would happen to willing that something will happen;
  • Being consistent with values and principles without being dogmatic;
  • Acknowledging having a good but limited and fallible perspective one’s own self and that others’ perspectives may provide knowledge about one’s self;
  • Trusting self and others to the right degrees and for the right reasons;
  • Accepting responsibility in appropriate ways and assigning it appropriately as well;
  • Forgiving oneself and others when appropriate;
  • Accepting limitations and finding liberation within them; and
  • Cultivating happiness, which may turn out to be one of the hardest things to do.

Achieving Self-Possession

When one does all these things, one has self-possession. One may not have absolutes and certainty, but has a stability in life that enables one to undertake the most important task, according to Montaigne. He writes, “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.”

This is an excellent way to understand recovery. Recovery is an art of living appropriately.



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