Understanding Relapse: Shoulds Wipe Us Out and Sabotage Recovery

An excerpt from 12 More Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery
by Allen Berger, PhD., Hazelden Publishing

Stop Shoulding on Yourself

One easy way to identify a toxic attitude or belief is that a should is always embedded in the concept. Shoulds wipe us out; they sabotage recovery because they’re disconnected from reality. They are foreign ideas that are not born from our own experience and wisdom; they’re someone’s else idea of who or what we are supposed to be. They’re often ideas that we have swallowed whole from the authorities in our lives and have dedicated our life to actualize. This is why members of AA are encouraged to let go of their old ideas, or the result will be nil. The psychological mechanism operating here is introjection, which refers to the unconscious adoption of other people’s ideas or beliefs. A should is an introjected concept—a concept that we’ve internalized to please our parents, to fit in with our peers, or to live up to cultural expectations.

Here’s an analogy: adopting an introjection is like swallowing a walnut whole, without breaking the shell. The walnut cannot be digested because it’s encased in this hard shell. If we broke the walnut open, then we might be able to digest the meat inside. Or we might discover that the meat is rotten and won’t be nutritious. We need to break all these “walnut shoulds” open to see if they possess something of value to ourselves.

Because we are driven to belong, to feel accepted and to be loved, we often go to any lengths to achieve emotional and existential security. We lose our true self and dedicate our lives to becoming someone we think we should be—someone else’s idea of the ideal person, rather than the true self that emerges from our core.

Any belief, attitude, or behavior that acts against the realization of our true self is toxic and therefore destructive to our recovery. On the other hand, a belief, attitude, or behavior that supports the realization of our true self and potential will nurture our recovery self and our well-being. So let’s now turn our attention to beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that are useful when we relapse.