The Act of Surrender in the Addiction Recovery Process: An in-Depth Guide
This process is not easy. Many of us struggle every day to find the meaning behind our experiences and look for some sign that our struggle with addiction has been worth it.
Many days, these signs never come. The reality is that, whether a person is struggling with addiction or not, days of clarity are very rare. Sometimes, our experiences feel random, and there is a lack of rhyme or reason for the painful occurrences in our lives. This is hard for us to cope with; understanding that our lives are composed of lucky or unlucky situations is challenging and discouraging for many of us. Coping with this may drive many deeper into their addictions and can be catastrophic to the recovery process.
Though we do not always have choices in how we get to exist in this life, we do have a choice about our attitude. Yes, that’s a cliche, but there is something to be said for the profundity of this small act of rebellion. By constantly choosing and rechoosing a positive attitude, we can transform our experiences from bouts of luck or misfortune into simple experiences. With the right attitude, we can even appreciate the hard parts of our lives and how they have turned us into who we are.
The Toxicity of Willpower
Many recovery programs opt to focus on the role of willpower in the process of getting sober. We are told that if we focus enough, want it enough, or are simply strong enough, we can overcome our addiction and walk free of urges or cravings. We put the responsibility on our shoulders alone. This can be incredibly scary, and in many cases damaging. Many people who experience addiction are already facing intense levels of guilt and shame, both from external sources such as family, friends, society, but mostly themselves. Addiction is not something that anyone chooses or wants. As such, it is incredibly flawed to assume that recovery can happen because the individual chooses or wants to recover.
Personal desire has very little to do with the outcome of sobriety in many cases. If that were the case, there would be many fewer people struggling with addiction in the world right now. With this understanding, it’s easy to see how willpower is a misplaced scapegoat in the recovery and non recovery community. We use it to explain why a person experiences a relapse or why they can’t seem to get sober when willpower is not the key to choosing and maintaining a sober life.
The Prefrontal Cortex
It is important to note a few scientific reasons why an individual’s willpower has very little to do with their success in recovery. It is important to note here that willpower is simply a way to describe prioritizing long-term goals or pleasure over the same concepts in the short term.
For example, if an individual is on a diet and turns down the offer of cake at a birthday party, they are said to have strong willpower. What is happening is that the individual is weighing their long-term goal of achieving a healthy lifestyle with the short-term pleasure of eating a slice of cake. As they prioritized their long-term and larger goals, they can be described as having “willpower.” Keep this in mind as we continue.
As you may know, drug and alcohol use affects the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain charged with impulse control, self-awareness, and long-term goals vs. short-term ones. As controlled substances continue to wear down this area of the brain, it becomes scientifically more difficult to control willpower, decision making. This means that individuals who have experienced addiction have likely altered their prefrontal cortex to an extreme degree and that it’s fairly impossible for them to impose willpower over their situation. For some reason, however, addiction programs and family members continue to focus on this concept, which sets individuals up for failed sobriety from the beginning.
Another strong scientific aspect at play in addiction recovery is our natural chemical makeup. Our brains are strong organs run by powerful and impactful hormones that shape our lives. One of the main naturally occurring chemicals in the brain is dopamine. Dopamine is charged with the pleasure and reward systems in our bodies; whenever you feel satisfaction, a wave of bliss, or contentment, it is likely because of a surge of dopamine. Drugs, alcohol, and controlled substances all focus on dopamine. Most drugs trigger dopamine release, often at higher-than-normal levels, which makes the user feel high and happy. After your brain gets supercharged with the happy hormone, its stores are depleted, and it takes longer to resupply. For habitual drug and alcohol users, the brain’s ability to produce dopamine at all is permanently altered.
Dopamine and Willpower
So, what does dopamine have to do with willpower? We are trained to believe that the chemicals in our brain are separate from our emotional life, when nothing could be further from the truth.
When you consider the power of dopamine, you may realize how little control we have over our decisions. If the playing field were even between sobriety and addiction, it might be easier to choose. However, addiction often presents the thrill of high releases of dopamine. Our brains and bodies crave this, and we are often unable to do anything about that.
Willpower is no match for powerful brain chemicals like dopamine, and suggesting that it is an even fight between the two makes recovery even more difficult than it already is. Understanding that we are not always in control frees us of a significant amount of shame and guilt surrounding our journeys and experiences with sobriety and addiction. However, we are not blameless; we just need to give ourselves grace when our willpower is not enough to overcome brain and body science. We must admit and take responsibility for our actions and behaviors however dopamine is a tremendous driver of behavior for the addict.
One alternative, perhaps, to the concept of willpower is that of positivity. This is a complicated topic in recovery for many reasons. For one, there is the ever-looming presence of toxic positivity; those who insist on “no bad days” and “good vibes only” can only invalidate the feelings and experiences of those of us who are struggling or having a truly bad day.
The key, it seems, is to reach a mindset of positivity without forcing the issue. Nobody wants to act positively when they are not feeling that way, but paradoxically, positivity can happen without any outside influence. By this, I mean that positivity isn’t forced on an individual by religion or even psychological and emotional work. There seems to be another factor at play, which is key to spinning the mind into a positive state and aiding greatly in the process of recovery. Staying in the moment, the practice of mindfulness or meditation are ways to also increase positivity.
The process of which I speak is the act of surrender. This is not the first time someone has mentioned the act of surrender in the therapeutic process, but it is a critical player in the recovery process. Surrender may be the one concept, unlike willpower, which can enact positive change in a person’s sobriety. The contradiction to this is that the surrender may not even be able to be a conscious decision; it seems that if the brain conceptualizes surrender, it is not genuinely performing the act of surrender. If we truly surrender, the brain does not need to conceptualize; it only needs to accept.
When it comes to sobriety, the surrender often begins by honestly admitting and accepting that we are suffering from addiction. At the beginning of addiction discovery, many people write off their actions as normal or explain them away. A little further in the journey, individuals may begin to seek help but go back to old ways after the process starts, saying that they’ve done enough or that the issue is fixed. It’s often when an individual has no more cards left to play, and they are forced to face the situation of their addiction that they humble themselves in a way to accept the practice of surrender.
Outside Forces and Surrender
Sometimes, the conditions of surrender are brought forth by outside forces, like an accident of some kind. For example, if a person denies that they have an addiction, they may be forced to face reality after being arrested for a DUI. This external factor can give irrefutable evidence that their behavior is not normal and not acceptable. In other situations, the outside forces come in the forms of friends, family or an employer. For example, an individual may not admit that they have a drug problem, but then a spouse threatens to leave them if they don’t sober up. This external force may act as a turning point, forcing the individual to surrender to the fact that they need to get sober and that they need help to get there.
Internal Factors Impeding Surrender
As we continue to discuss situations in which surrender may occur, it is important to be aware of and sensitive to the internal thought processes that may be standing in the way of surrendering to a need for help. Though each person struggling with addiction is different, some themes and generalizations can help pinpoint roadblocks on the path to sobriety. Though willpower is not a significant resource for getting sober, other internal factors present challenges, and it is healthy and responsible to be aware of them.
A significant factor at play in those suffering from addiction and those suffering from other forms of mental illness is a sense of grandiosity. A feeling of over-importance categorizes this mindset as does the thought that the patient is special in their situation. This is not an uncommon thought. Many people with addictions are aware of the consequences, the symptoms, the patterns, and the outcomes for others with similar addictions, but an inflated sense of ego and grandiosity prevents them from seeing themselves in that group. When facing someone else in their same situation, the person with substance use disorder may see their situation as different, because they are special. Some common expressions of grandiosity include:
- Feelings of superiority
- Domination of conversations
- Never being impressed by others
- Thinking they do not need anyone’s help
- The idea that they can do better than others without any experience or education to back up the claims
These are just a few examples of how grandiosity manifests in those with addiction, though there are many other ways depending on the individual.
Grandiosity and Recovery
When it comes to recovery specifically, a sense of grandiosity presents unique and dangerous roadblocks to healing. Becoming sober often highlights these areas of grandiosity and forces the individual to look at these character traits without the lens of a substance. However, a mindset of grandiosity impedes recovery directly as well.
These are some key examples of how this could look:
- The person in recovery may overestimate their progress or inflate how well they are doing or their own abilities. This puts them at risk for dangerous behavior, as they may feel that they are capable of actions or situations that may cause a relapse.
- The person in recovery believes that others are beneath them or not special, and therefore they have nothing to learn from others. This impedes the efficacy of programs such as surrender, AA, group therapy, and community support.
- They may miss a diagnosis that exists alongside their addiction. Grandiosity is a symptom of other mental health conditions as well, and the above factors could make them feel as though they have overcome their addiction and are truly special, ignoring the fact that there may be other mental health factors at play.
From an outside perspective, it is not hard to understand how this condition can present a significant problem for recovery. However, as a person in recovery, it can be challenging to see these symptoms in ourselves. It is vital that we do, however, as it is key to our overall surrender process.
Eliminating Grandiosity in Recovery
For those experiencing symptoms of grandiosity, it is important to do the work to eliminate these feelings so that recovery can begin. This can be a challenging process for the individual suffering from addiction and for their families. However, it is essential to unlearn these thoughts and feelings of grandeur to continue on the road to a healthier, happier life.
Some ways to eliminate or challenge grandiosity include:
- Learning and practicing empathy instead of sympathy; putting oneself in another’s shoes can be a great resource when it comes to relating to and understanding our connection to others.
- Challenging thoughts of grandeur, uniqueness, and superiority. Various techniques can help the individual push back against these thoughts and replace them with ideas of connectedness, community, and equality.
- Mindfulness, meditation, or spiritual practice. Most schools of thought surrounding meditation and spirituality involve the death of the ego and a focus on the reality of here and now. This can be a great help in challenging grandiosity and realizing the reality of the world around us.
- Understanding inherent human value. Some people think that to be valuable or worthy of love, they must be special or extraordinary. Learning that all humans have intrinsic value can eliminate the importance of thoughts of grandeur.
- Focusing on the similarities between oneself and others rather than the differences can help bridge the gap and make the individual feel more connected. It is easy to see how we are the same as others, which can challenge mindsets of grandeur.
These are by no means the only ways to challenge grandiosity on the road to recovery. Overall, anything that helps improve self-esteem can aid in the process of dismantling grandiosity. This may seem counterintuitive, but overinflated egos usually result from low self-esteem and the need to overcompensate with a heightened sense of individuality and uniqueness.
The second major internal factor that impedes surrender is defiance. This trait is categorized by an individual who denies that a situation is happening. In the context of addiction, this generally presents as a person struggling with substance abuse who denies that there is a problem at all. In some cases, they act upon these feelings and refuse to seek help because they deny that it is necessary. In other cases, they go to treatment because they are asked to, told to, or ordered to, but they do not believe it is necessary. Either way, defiance keeps the individual from surrendering to the situation and moving forward into recovery.
Although defiance can hinder sobriety, much can be said for the moments in which defiance acts as a way to move through a tough situation. This attitude can inspire tenacity and strength in the face of adversity, but it is not a sustainable or healthy way to move through life nor recovery in the long term.
Defiance and Sobriety
It is challenging to navigate a situation with a defiant person who needs substance abuse help, in the same way that it is hard to argue with grown men about unicorns. If the other person doesn’t believe that the problem or situation exists, how are you supposed to have a productive conversation?
There are ways to navigate defiance that can ultimately prove helpful and can potentially reverse the other person’s defiance.
If you have a loved one who is suffering from an addiction but who does not believe that there is a problem at hand, here are some possible avenues of action:
- Take responsibility for your role. You may not be the person who is physically giving them drugs and alcohol, but are you providing a place for them to drink or use? Do you pay their bills or spot them for meals and spending money when they’ve spent all of theirs? Do you excuse their behavior or cover for neglected responsibilities? Being honest about how you play a role in the person’s addiction is the first step.
- Remove your enabling habits. Once you’ve figured out how you help to promote the situation, remove your support from the person’s life. Stop giving them money for groceries, covering for them, paying bills, etc. Often, this helps them to see that there is, in fact, a problem. If someone is always covering for them or making excuses, defiance is easy. When the consequences are clear, it’s harder to deny the problem.
- Protect yourself. Though you want to support loved ones struggling with addiction, it is important to remember that your well-being is important too. If you need to draw difficult boundaries, do so. The more you swallow the effects of the situation, the more hurt you will become, potential resentment may grow and the less your loved one will see the emotional and relational consequences of their habit.
Though these aren’t hard-and-fast steps, they are at least some thoughts and a start if you love someone who is in a denial or defiance stage about their addiction. It is hard for the person who is suffering to move forward if they deny that there is a problem, and though it may hurt, it is important to make them take in the consequences of what they are doing.
Grandiosity, Defiance, and External Forces
At this point, it is work circling back to the concept of outside factors and external forces that can shape surrender. On the one hand, forcing or coercing someone into recovery is ineffective overall; rehabilitation and recovery must begin from within. This can be tricky when grandiosity and defiance are at play.
When I was going through my own addiction and recovery journey, having others suggest rehab or lifestyle changes did nothing to change my habits and often made me resentful or annoyed. Now that I am further into my recovery journey, I realize how devastating that was for my loved ones. Though they could not force me to begin my sobriety journey, there were ways in which they planted seeds moving me towards my surrender to the situation and my exit from stages of grandiosity and defiance.
As a friend told me “ my family and friends began to grow weary of covering for my bad decisions, lack of responsibility, and overall unhealthiness, I began to see the effects of my actions more clearly. Without others to clean my home and do my laundry, I noticed that I got behind on keeping my space clean and habitable. When no one in my support network would lend me money for food or basics, I realized how much my addiction had siphoned my funds and was not sustainable. When no one would help me pay bills, power got turned off, and I saw how I wasn’t able to provide necessities for myself.” Though you shouldn’t give a person experiencing addiction an ultimatum or a lecture, you can gently allow them to see the effects of their actions, which often helps end the cycle of defiance and grandiosity.
Remember earlier when we were discussing positivity and its necessity in the recovery process? Generally, this essential positivity appears when grandiosity and defiance have been properly broken down within the individual. After their visions of themselves as superhuman exceptions to the rule break down, or their denial of a problem falls flat, generally, surrender begins to creep into the subconscious.
You might be wondering why admitting that there is a problem would inspire any positive attitude, but it does make sense if you consider the situation. Whether the person knowingly or unknowingly participated in their addiction, there was anxiety, turmoil, and opposing forces working within and outside their bodies. Whether they admitted it or not, their addiction affected relationships, sucked funds, and contributed to deteriorating mental and physical health. To finally relax into the realization that there is a problem at hand is to admit that these situations were all real and stop gaslighting oneself into believing that things are okay.
This all likely seems contradictory, but it truly is like a giant release of a pressure valve. The person who has been struggling can probably see a new type of future for themselves and has a definable objective to work toward. Though weaning off of drugs or alcohol may be difficult, the relief that comes with knowing that things are going to change may offset challenges.
Surrender vs. Submission
The words surrender and submission are often used interchangeably, with overall minimal distinction made between them. However, it is important to highlight the difference between these two terms in this context and emphasize that one is helpful to sobriety while the other generally is not. Submission is outward acceptance, while surrender is total acceptance. In the context of recovery, submission would be attending rehabilitation or working toward sobriety with the thought that one day you’ll be able to use or drink again responsibly. This denies the full scope of the issue and often leads to relapse.
On the other hand, surrender is a total and complete acceptance that you are a person who experiences ongoing addiction. By not trying to fight the situation or putting caveats on your healing, you surrender to reality. This kind of total acceptance is what triggers the positivity I mentioned previously.
Surrender and Recovery
When recovering from addiction, surrender is key, and it is crucial to understand why. As we discussed with grandiosity and defiance, there are handfuls of ways that non-acceptance of the situation impedes healing. For example, a person struggling with grandiosity will not get the full effect of an AA meeting because they believe that they are not like the people presenting their stories, they might determine they don’t need to go to meetings.
The same person going through a defiant stage will not get the full effect of an AA meeting because they may hear other people’s stories but not absorb how it applies to them, as they believe that they do not have a problem or not as “bad” as that person. However, a person who has surrendered to their situation will go to the same AA meeting and be in the mental presence to absorb lessons from other people’s experiences. Resources like AA, group therapy, and other recovery programs are more effective, as the individual understands why they are there, how they are similar to others, and they are open and ready to participate in healing.
Surrender Outside of Recovery
For those healing from addiction, the surrender process can have a profound impact outside of addiction as well. Most everyone could benefit from a surrender mindset, and it is by no means a new or niche idea. Buddhism relies heavily on the surrender or acceptance ideal, in which a person observes and accepts rather than thinking and judging. This is the same type of practice present in surrender. This means that a person who is practicing surrender in the sense of sobriety could potentially apply it to other areas of life.
Rather than feeling frustrated about heavy traffic or other drivers, the individual may be able to practice surrender to the fact that the situation is what it is. It is important to note that surrender does not mean that the individual likes the situation or loves that it is happening. It simply means accepting it completely and setting down all internal and external struggles with the scenario. It is the absence of struggle that brings positivity.
Another way to look at this concept is to view surrender as the absence of resistance. Many times, resistance is easy to understand, whereas surrender is foreign to many people. Whereas resistance is helpful in social justice areas, it often creates turmoil and anxiety in everyday life because most situations are beyond our control.
Traffic, the weather, the presence of addiction- these are all simply examples of situations that may exist in our lives. Though we can make changes in the last of those things, the first step is to accept that it exists; you cannot change a concept or situation unless you first stop resisting its existence. When we resist our addiction diagnosis, we are setting roadblocks to surrender and ultimately healing. However, if we let go of resistance and understand that we do experience addiction, we free ourselves to assess the problem and get support and help for our condition.
Though resistance can be discussed with relative ease, in reality, it is a strong and fickle force. Just as healing is not linear, the dismantlement of resistance and construction of surrender is not linear either. Breakthroughs occur, and moments of clarity create impactful positivity and intense progress. However, there will always be moments when resistance comes back, and surrender is once again an elusive concept.
The key is to not become discouraged by moments of resistance and surrender. These ebbs and flows are natural in any healing process, and it is no indication of success nor effort when resistance comes back into play. It seems paradoxical, but surrendering to the resistance periods can help to diminish their impact and keep you on the road to sobriety and healing.
It really cannot be reiterated enough that surrender is different than giving up or giving in. Many people combine these concepts, believing that surrendering to addiction is to stop the fight against it. This is not true. Surrender describes a type of radical self-acceptance in which you choose to accept the situation as it is, without strain, worry, or criticism. It is still possible to want to move toward change, and surrender does not mean that you should start to use or drink again. It simply means that you accept your addiction as it is, and yourself as you are, now in the current moment. Surrender is about releasing control and allowing yourself to relax in what is, instead of creating anxiety about a nonexistent reality that you wish were true.
A diagnosis or admission of alcoholic tendencies does not have to define you. However, acceptance and surrender in recovery is not a one-time occurrence. You do not simply surrender to the situation and move on with your life. Surrender is a constant acknowledgment of what is going on around you; just as your surroundings may change, the way in which your sobriety may be tested may change.
For example, you may acknowledge your addiction in the comfort of your home but then need to acknowledge and accept it again when passing a bar or attending a dinner party. Since the situations in which you exist are likely to change, the terms of your surrender will need to change too. Yes, you surrender to addiction when it’s easy, but what about when it’s hard or tempting? Resubmitting to the reality of your condition helps you work through tricky moments and move through trigger situations with mindfulness, acknowledgment of your personal struggle, and recommitment to sobriety.
Putting surrender into practice can feel difficult, as the phenomenon is a fairly abstract one. I have said before, my first sponsor always said “ practice, practice practice” when ever I asked him a “ how” question. As we have discussed, surrender is a bit elusive and does not necessarily show up when we need it to. However, there are ways to practice or trigger surrender when you need it.
Here are some examples:
- Allow yourself to rest. Many times, we worry about the outcome of situations we can’t control. Remind yourself that this practice is not vital. It is okay to rest and trust that everything will work out the way it needs to. Your anxiety does not change anything and only serves to make you unhappy.
- Notice your need to control. If you begin to feel the need to control a situation, or feel anxiety surrounding control, give yourself a moment. Pause and consider the reality of the situation and why and how you are looking to control it. Stopping to consider reality can give you enough space to breathe and surrender.
- Notice your surroundings. Name a few things you can see, smell, touch, or hear. Appreciate beautiful aspects of your surroundings, or simply notice where you are. Presence often triggers surrender and appreciation.
- Practice radical self-love. Guess what? You are allowed to love yourself even if you are in a dark place or are experiencing anxiety, temptation, resistance, or any other feeling. Remember that through it all, you are worthy of patience and love from yourself. This love is a strong form of surrender that is often overlooked. You deserve love just the way you are.
- Practice an act of surrender prayer. This does not need to be a conversation with a deity as much as it should be a mantra or repetition to focus your mind and bring you to the present. It can be a piece of your own creation, a poem that you like, a song lyric that inspires you, or any other devotional that feels appropriate to your personal situation.
An act of surrender meaning is entirely up to the individual, and the way you choose to express your surrender is a journey that you can, and should, personalize to be meaningful to you.
Moving Forward Mindfully
As I close this discussion on surrender, it is my greatest hope and prayer that you move forward with your journey in a place of acceptance and love rather than resistance. Surrender, despite our cultural use, isn’t about passivity. It takes an act of courage to let go. Trying to change your reality is a gradual process, so give yourself grace, time, and surrender as you traverse this path. There is no guarantee that it will always be easy, but by surrendering self-will in recovery and giving in to what is, you can create what will be.
Thanks for reading. Stay strong,