Living without a backbone sets you up for severe consequences in the domains of health, finances, career, friendships, romance, recovery and your dignity for starters.
What does this mean? How can this be? It means you don’t know how to advocate for yourself and even worse you have insidious rationalizations on why you shouldn’t stand up for yourself. It can “be” for many reasons, but for openers because of dysfunction or perceived dysfunction in your family of origin. Enter chemical dependency and your recovery and we have a huge mess.
For the purpose of our discussion, developing a backbone includes the following:
- Your ability to say no when you mean no, which usually also means you just said yes to yourself
- Your ability to make requests/ask for what you need
- Your ability to speak your truth
Although this may seem simple, if you are addicted to such statements as “I don’t want to rock the boat,” “I will avoid conflict at all costs or I hate conflict”, “I want people to like me”, “I don’t want to hurt people” and on and on, take a deeper look; you probably cannot do any of the three things necessary to have a backbone.
The Fine Art of Developing a Backbone
Teaching someone to develop a backbone, as an integral part of a healthy recovery, in my assessment, should be a number one priority along with saying no to whatever excessive behavior is part of your recovery.
Now this recommendation is going to call into question, “Has your treatment team done their own personal work to develop their own backbone?”
If you are paying lots of money to be in a treatment center, the personnel and owner are part of your team. Healthcare providers usually have the “caretaking” thing on board and it is important to dig deep to see if they have the backbone piece. If they can’t say no, make request, and speak their truth personally, I am not sure they will be able to teach you to advocate for yourself.
As a referent (a therapist who refers clients to treatment centers), I can tell you horror stories about clinicians who simply never did the work to develop their own backbone. It is one thing to not have a backbone and another to be blind to the fact that you don’t have a backbone as you try to help others.
When someone is blind to their dysfunction, they become like a “bull in a china shop” — and then you give them the keys, put them in charge of helping others and “Houston, we have a problem.”
When you are discharged, you will have a different team and be back with your friends and family. Does everyone have a backbone? You don’t want to be swimming upstream in your recovery. When you don’t develop your backbone, you don’t know who you are. You don’t have opinions, standards, thoughts, ideas, definition, and boundaries. You are at risk for morphing into what others want you to be. You are at risk for being a chameleon.
How can you have the backbone to say no to bad choices from the morphing chameleon state? I don’t think you can. If you wake every morning with a commitment to the self-discovery that defines you — not demoralizes and morphs you — it will be easier from that place to say no to the choices that sabotage your life. And yes, you need your team to be able to lead you on this journey and your family and friends to support your new identity.
Meeting the Challenge
Why is this piece of recovery — the ability to define yourself not please or accommodate others — so challenging?
Rationalization, a very powerful insidious, destructive force, will thwart you at every corner. Read the Sandusky court transcripts, watch Spotlight, The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War for starters, and pay particular attention to what people tell themselves when they don’t want to confront the truth. When you watch as an observer with a backbone, you will be horrified at how people can “pretend” what is happening isn’t happening. You will see how people make up a story to avoid the truth.
The opening scene in Spotlight in the police station will make you want to throw up. A mother of a victim actually has the courage to try to protect her child and is thwarted by an enabling police force. The betrayal and the abuse by members of a House of God are allowed to perpetuate because no one has a backbone. Congrats to the team who finally had the backbone to say no more and uncovered the abuse being enabled here.
Do not assume because someone is in a position of authority, he has done his backbone work! Do not assume your treatment center, your therapist, your friends, your doctors, your family all have done their backbone work. And by the way, do not assume they will like it when you do yours.
If you meet resistance when you start to do your backbone work, it is simply a sign you need to do some relationship housecleaning. Do not settle for a recovery that doesn’t include you developing a backbone with people who have developed their own backbone.
I believe, in life, many trains of opportunity come into our station and, unfortunately, most of us miss so many of them. This is a train of opportunity to find your voice, your dignity, your recovery, your self, your backbone — and if you don’t hop on, when it comes time to say no to the behavior that is sabotaging your life, you will be missing one very important tool. If your team hasn’t done this important piece of work, they will not be the best for you.
If you hear yourself saying, “I hate conflict or I don’t want to hurt his/her feelings,” take another look at this train.
This article was originally published on Recovery.org
© 2019 Dr. Anne Brown; Psychotherapist, Speaker, and Author of Backbone Power The Science of Saying No. Permission needed for any form of reproduction.
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