You made a resolution. This time, you said to yourself, you were surely going to follow through. You were going to live up to your own expectations. “Enough is enough,” you might have said. You already learned your lesson and, finally, this New Year you were ready to walk your talk. But then … things did not go according to plan. The ground got shaky. You slipped. You tripped. You fell off your horse. It happened so quickly. You looked around. You looked at yourself. “What happened?” you wondered. “And now what?” you asked.
Sometimes you realize you are slipping in the moment, in the midst of a loud or a quiet storm. But mostly you become aware of it later on, after the fact. Whatever the case may be, in that insightful moment, in that instant of awareness, when you realize that you did not keep your promise to yourself, what narratives develop in your mind about that experience? What feelings emerge in you about your slip? How do you approach it? How do you interpret it? Do you say to yourself, “What a terrible mistake I have done?” Do you feel frustration and anger or guilt and shame?
Watching “Improvisational Theatre,” a form of theatre based mostly on unplanned, unscripted, and spontaneous performances, can teach us a lot about slipping and falling. When an actor performs poorly or makes a “mistake” altogether, falling flat on their face, instead of hearing an awkward, embarrassing, and shameful silence dawning on the theatre, one can witness the cast and the audience rising and jumping up with heartening and encouraging cheers. The actor is being supported to accept the moment, to let go and to begin again. Actors in training learn to “get used to ‘failure’,” to “celebrate ‘failure'” and to “expect to ‘fail’ quite a lot.” This allows the energy of the performance to continue its flow. Sometimes those moments of “failure” even help the creative energy rise to new heights on the stage.
“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
While this approach to “mistakes” and “failure” could benefit anyone, for people suffering from substance and behavioral addictions, this uplifting outlook is often seen as a vital key to recovery. If you are working with clients recovering from an addiction or with people still struggling with an active addiction, you know to what extent the Holiday Season can be a challenging and a trying time for them. Holiday-related stress can create conditions that help bring about a lapse, a momentary slip, a return to a behavior a person is trying to quit or control. The road to recovery is rarely linear; it is often met with lapses and relapses. A lapse, however, does not necessarily have to become a relapse, a full-blown return to a compulsive behavioral pattern with negative consequences. According to studies on addiction and recovery the most important factor determining whether a lapse will turn into a relapse is one’s emotional response to the experience of the lapse. In the aftermath of the slip, those experiencing self-doubt, shame, and guilt, and those who believe it to be a result of lack of their willpower, are more likely to relapse or give up on recovery altogether.
If a client’s lapse indeed turns into a relapse, negative emotions will only get amplified. “Clients often feel great shame when they relapse and are fearful to share with sponsors, family and other supporters,” says addiction specialist, Shannon McQuaid. “This secrecy and fear of judgment often leads to more shame and isolation, pulling people further back into the addiction instead of back on their path of recovery.” The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) encourages people in recovery to interpret a relapse not as a negative experience but as an indication that one needs to begin again by re-initiating treatment or by adjusting it. When those on the path of recovery embrace the places where they stumble and fall, beginning again becomes an opportunity and an invitation to move forward with strengthened motivation to better understand themselves and their world: their triggers, their coping strategies, and the lifestyle changes they need to be able to live a more balanced life.
And perhaps, as argued by Dr. Stanton Peele, a world renowned addiction expert, “failure” is itself the “antidote to addiction.” Peele says, “Somehow [people with addictions] failed to learn that failure is a necessary part of living, the only route to success, to coping, to dealing with the universe. And learning how to cope with failure can only occur when people… encounter reality directly.”
In the Improvisational Theatre of life, may we learn to encounter reality directly with its ups and downs, its moments of “success” and “failure.” And may we learn to appreciate and embrace, for our own sake and for the sake of those who we aim to help, the slips of life.