As a psychologist and substance use counselor it would stand to reason that I should be concerned with the attitudes, dispositions, emotions, mindset, and memories that all flavor our actions. When I speak to people in our group programs, I am an advocate of making character changes not just behavior changes.
Not Just an Act
Most people cannot consistently act different than the way they really feel and believe – at least not for long. We typically act in a way that is quite consistent with our own nature or character. Oh, most people are capable enough actors to pretend to be a certain way for a short time frame. They might be able to abstain from swearing in front of the judge, or be honest with a loved one on an occasion or two. It is the difference between being gold or gold plated. Eventually the abrasions of life scratch the surface and reveal what they are made of.
Changing Inside and Out
True long-term change therefore, requires transformation of character and personality traits, not merely a change in behavior. Because actions are observable, we make judgments about people based on what can be seen. These inferences, however, may not accurately reflect a person’s true attitude or disposition. I asked a group of men in a residential treatment program, “Have any of you ever been in a treatment program similar to this, and you complied with all aspects of treatment outwardly, but inwardly you just couldn’t wait to get out of the facility and get drunk or high?” The answer was shocking but not surprising. About half of clients said “Yes; yes, I’ve thought that!” That represents outward compliance with inward doubt and ambivalence.
To make treatment gains that matter, consider changing your disposition, mindset, and attitude. There may be a temptation to tell someone what you think they want to hear, to feign cooperation, or fake your acceptance of a treatment recommendation. This lying, scheming, conning, and manipulation through life is so common and so natural it may be difficult at first to recognize this pattern or to make long-term lifestyle changes. These personality adjustments are necessary to attain sobriety and maintain a long-lasting, satisfying recovery.
Reset the Default
To change long-term personality styles, you must be willing to examine your underlying core beliefs. If you believe everyone will take advantage of you, you may find yourself becoming guarded, suspicious, and even manipulative. If you believe those in authority are corrupt, you may feel entitled to set and adhere to a more personally fitting code of conduct. To transform your character or change your personality takes hard work over time. Yet, improvements in character can come in small steps.
Here are some guidelines and suggestions to get started:
- Who I really am is more important than getting what I want.
- I can change my attitude, disposition, and character.
- I can practice doing the right thing, even when no one is around.
- I can make simple, systematic changes over time.
- I can make good choices even when they are difficult.
- I can make progress in changing my character.
- I can admit to my choices and take responsibility for my actions.
- Change of character comes in small steps.
- I am strong enough to live life honestly with or without approval and acceptance by others.
- Becoming kind, patient, and understanding is more valuable than being right or winning an argument.
Temptations to Compromise
While working on character transformation, watch for your exceptions and excuses. These temptations compromise your integrity and sabotage progress. Examples may include: “I’m always loving and understanding except if I’m tired, losing the argument, feeling threatened, or being disrespected.” Or, “I’m patient and considerate unless you’re being stupid!”
Living according to your new character changes will slowly start to feel normal. Your new character also creates new goals. I want to be kind, patient, accepting, and understanding. Refuse to let this new goal be easily compromised by difficult circumstances of ordinary life. I maintain kindness even when I’m not treated kindly. I am patient even when stuck in a line or waiting in traffic. I choose to be more focused on understanding others rather than being right or getting my way. The actions that I now display are in keeping with the real me rather than pretensions and deceptive behaviors designed to deceive and impress others. There is consistency between what is inside and what is presented outside. This change in character is significant. I’m not just acting better, I have become different.
Recovery is a journey. Enjoy the ride!