Self-narrative, addiction, and self-acceptance

Here come two posts, the first one is more of an idea, the second a suggestion for practicing what the idea is about. My question for today: How can we (who struggle with addiction) reconcile our radically different self-narratives, some of which seem so ugly, and arrive at self-acceptance and self-compassion?

We know that self-anger, self-disgust, shame, and the accompanying frustration and depression are among the greatest challenges to overcoming addiction. We feel fragmented, made of pieces that can’t possibly fit together. We crave, we choose to use, we take care of ourselves at the expense of others, and we lie (without hesitation) to protect our habit. Yet we can’t let go of the sense that we are also good, or at least have been good. We are caring, and generous, and smart, and very often responsible. How can we possibly fit these views of ourselves together?

According to thinkers and researchers in developmental psychology and adolescent development, we just lost the game of growing up. In fact philosophers and writers down through the ages have come to the same conclusion. The main task of growing up is to create a coherent narrative about who we are. A coherent self-narrative. Yet that seems to be very difficult for addicts.

A big part of our sense of self, our identity, the “me” we show others, is in fact a narrative, a story. This is who I am. This is where I came from. This is what happened to me. That caused me to do such and such. And then this happened. And now, this is where I am, this is who I am, and — most important — this is where I’m going.

I’ve written (especially in The Biology of Desire, last chapter) about how difficult it is for addicts to create and hold onto a coherent self-narrative. I’ve suggested that addicts can be helped, or can help themselves, by solidifying that narrative and (most important) extending it into the past and the future. Because of the pull of the present moment (“now appeal” — e.g., wanting only to get high today and forgetting about tomorrow) it’s crucial to stretch the time-line. We should try to extend the narrative into the past, to understand how we got to be this way, and into the future, so we can begin to imagine being someone different, someone freer and happier, and aim ourselves there deliberately. I’ve suggested that scaffolding (by therapists, friends, loved ones) can help create and maintain this extended narrative. It’s too hard to do it alone.

But it’s damn hard to do even with the best of help! Here’s why. What most of the experts miss is that we are made up of more than one narrative. We often have two or three or four going at the same time. Psychologists sometimes talk about parallel identities: e.g., I’m a parent, but I’m also an American, or I’m fiberoptics2also a plumber, or I’m also hot! Okay, but that stuff is easy. Multiple self-narratives are particularly challenging for addicts, because they fit together so poorly. There’s the self that often gets called the “addict self.” There’s this me who was abused, or thrown out, or traumatized in adolescence, and all I could find to feel better was this or that nic coming homedrug, so that’s what I go after. That’s one “addict self.” There are others that aren’t so benign. There’s the “I’m such a loser” version — very common, very hard to shake. Or its close cousin: “I’m just a teenage dirt-bag.” In other words, a piece of shit. When I (Marc, personally) was addicted, I saw myself as sneaky and determined and defiant, all of which fit into one narrative…which didn’t resolve for years.

But addicts also have self-narratives that are positive, even admirable. We may see ourselves as nurturing and compassionate, especially if we are parents (or lovers). Those are real narratives too: I had this baby and I learned to take care of her and I love her so much and I’ll continue to do anything for her. We may have self-narratives in which we are heroes or rebels, not beholden to others. Or simply victims.

The point is that these narrative threads really don’t cohere. They don’t jibe, they don’t reconcile. They are just too different to blend into a single story line. So we get torn apart by the tension between one self-narrative and another. From an email I recently received: How can I have gone back to meth, when I know that I’ll never get custody of my child now! Not ever! I hate myself so much. Or: How can I steal money from my own mother and still see myself as loving her and caring for her?! How can I be worthy of being drug-free when I’m so indulgent, so weak?! These stories cannot be merged. They are too discrepant.

ShakespeareSo here’s what I want to suggest. Bump up a level. Recognize that you do contain distinct, incompatible self-narratives. Create an uber-narrative that allows for each component narrative and doesn’t have to shut any of them down. Now you can let yourself get to know each of these self-narratives. Make each one conscious, talk it out, recount the plot-line, to yourself or others, write about it. But realize that they will not blend into one nice story. Bump up a level to a more insightful, wiser self who recognizes each of these radically different story authoratworklines as real…and lets them coexist.

Try it. Pull yourself up to the level of the overseer. Be a real author, a real choreographer, who can shift from one plot-line to another and accept that they are not ready to be stitched together. Not yet.

I think there are at least two benefits to be had. Number 1: When you stop trying to reconcile your “addict self” with, say, your “caring self,” you release yourself from an enormous amount of tension and frustration. You are both of these. Accept them both. Number 2: By accepting each of these self-narratives as real and maybe even inevitable, and by making them conscious, you provide a space for true self-acceptance. Self-compassion. Even self-love.


Next post: how this “retelling” might relate to that squishy idea we hear so much about — mindfulness.

32 thoughts on “Self-narrative, addiction, and self-acceptance

  1. Amanda March 13, 2019 at 5:43 am #

    There is a third benefit: if an addict tries to deny the addict self and only emphasizes the caring self (who he is also!), he hurts his loved ones. Because the loved ones crave for the addict taking responsibilty for his damaging behaviour instead of blaming them for it. That makes it real tough to keep loving an addict.

    • Marc March 13, 2019 at 5:58 am #

      Note that most addicts don’t deny the “addict self” to themselves, anyway, especially when actively using. It’s too obvious. The thing about these different narratives is that we seem to access them one at a time, and which one is predominant can change over hours, days, and months.

      Also, we often lie. Who wants to advertise THAT version of themselves.

    • F A K Nasser March 20, 2019 at 12:08 pm #

      I have noticed the robust benefits of the medium ( the micro environment and the macro environment in which the addict immersed)! family , neighbor , work, friends etc. motivation in gentle way can have positive remarkable effects on the addict.
      P.S. I am supportive of the habit, behavioral approach model and I am vehemently anti brain disease model. Thus I attended via YouTube all professor marc lectures , debate with Nora Volkow and read Matc’s seminal work in his book and articles , interviews etc including the biology of desire -why addiction is not a disease . I am retired chemist, with strong background on drug synthesis, drug abuse basic medical science master , nutritionist , food scientist and researcher in toxicology. did unpublished work , exprements on marijuana etc

  2. Jane Yeo March 13, 2019 at 6:14 am #

    This makes so much sense to me now. The amount of times that people have said to me “look how far you have come, wow you have done an amazing job at turning your life around”
    I haven’t truly felt that I deserved that praise. I understood the comment, a woman that was injecting heroin and smoking crack, funding her habit with prostitution and living on the streets to now be a ‘functioning’ member of society, raising children, paying tax, contributing to the never ending bake sales etc etc. I couldn’t accept the praise because I am still an addict, I am addicted to prescription pain killers so how can I see myself as a loving mother and a compassionate carer when I am still addicted, how do those two stories fit together? I get it now, they don’t but they don’t have to. I am all of the above, I am a loving mother and I am an addict. Marc you have an amazing way of showing us how to practice self love, really looking forward to the next post.

    • matt March 13, 2019 at 8:36 am #

      Thanks for this, Jane. Such a great insight and so well-put. It also points up to me the disutility of the term “addict” or “addiction.” If you are a happy, functioning member of society— you’ve re-directed your “pharma-centric” life style to one of maintaining your personal and societal responsibilities– are you still an addict? Of course, you are the only one who can make that assessment. Personally, it doesn’t make sense to me. If I were a carpenter, then became an architect or a real estate developer, am I still a carpenter? No. I was a carpenter. I could still do carpentry and become a carpenter again. I could teach someone how to do it. But my current professional status as an architect takes precedence. It’s who I am as a person now.

      Being an ‘addict’ is something I did, not who I am.

      • Marc March 13, 2019 at 10:35 am #

        Hi Matt. Of course I get your point, and we’ve talked about this many times. But my point here is different. You might no longer be an addict and yet still continue your self-narrative as an addict, in addition to your other narratives.

        In fact your example fits what I’m saying. You might well be a real-estate developer…yet on those days when you feel like you can’t handle it, you might tell yourself you’re still a carpenter. Whether the term is appropriate or not. Indeed, often it’s not “appropriate” to see oneself as an addict after quitting. Yet we’ve heard enough about “dry drunks” to know that the story doesn’t end there for many people.

        My point is about the way we talk to ourselves, the stories we carry around in our heads. And these may have little or nothing to do with objectivity, rationality, or anything else.

      • Jane Yeo March 13, 2019 at 1:10 pm #

        Your analogy regarding the carpenter is amazing. Why have I been seeing myself solely as an addict? When I gave up being a care assistant to work in an office I still helped a couple of patients occasionally but if anyone were to ask what is is I did I would say customer service supervisor. Just because I am taking/addicted to prescription meds doesn’t make me solely an addict, first and foremost I am a mother raising and loving my children. The addiction is there but it isn’t the main part of my story anymore. I have to say, I absolutely love this blog, this one is my favourite so far and I am really looking forward to reading the second part. I hope everyone reading this gets the same amount of positive feelings as I have

  3. Colin Brewer March 13, 2019 at 6:44 am #

    Surely another – and crucial – factor is how early in life people start using drugs (including alcohol). If they do that before their various selves and narratives have a chance to consolidate, the more drugs are likely to become a dominant part of them. People who wait until their late teens or early twenties before becoming regular users are much more likely to be able to answer the ‘who am I?’ question in a positive way because they will probably have a profession and are more likely to have positive experiences of relationships, even if they came from troubled families. If I’m right – and I’m pretty sure that I am – that may have implications for prevention because although the record of ‘drug education’ is discouraging, it seems better to concentrate our efforts on under-16s (or whenever adulthood begins in various jurisdictions) who do not yet have full, independent civil rights, rather than taking some rights away from adults who already have them. I think I’ve noted before that there seems to be very little in the way of adolescent drug problems in Cuba and that is partly due to the fact that they take education very seriously there. Truancy (which is strongly associated with drug use) is quickly noticed and quickly jumped on. It must be easy to grow cannabis there but you don’t often smell it when walking past gatherings of young people in the evening. of course, it also helps that it’s mainly tourists who can afford to buy stronger, imported drugs.

  4. matt March 13, 2019 at 7:14 am #

    Hey, Marc

    How’s it going? This is important, and we can lose site of it in often frantic, modern life. I think reconciling or conciliating the different narratives is everyone’s job in life. It’s where we find identity and purpose with our tribe…or nowadays– tribes. If we’re gonna use metaphors, what about thinking of the separate narratives as threads weaving together into a complex, yet compatible fabric that makes sense to us? It’s comfortable, (although maybe a little itchy in places). It looks good and projects an internally favorable countenance out to our fellows and the world. Substance misuse combined with the right affliction (social, biological, situational, emotional…) can cause that fabric to unravel. The threads become loose and disjoined, and we lose our coherent collocation of narratives… we lose ourselves. Substance use can provide relief, comfort, focus, perspective, maybe even help maintain our fabric. Substance misuse does not.

    Development of a solid mindfulness practice is helpful to see the forest AND the trees– the big picture, the fabric– as well as keeping an eye on the individual trees– the threads.
    Our question when we get up to face life everyday is: What shall I wear to the performance? (Is that enough narrative for ya? 🙂 )

    • Marc March 13, 2019 at 10:42 am #

      That’s lots for today. Again, as per what I wrote above, the knitting together or integration is all very well in theory. In fact it probably is a critically important step for becoming a balanced and content person (although the Buddha might not agree). But just as you say, there are times in life, especially in active addiction or drug misuse as you call it, when the threads don’t work together. Then to try to force them together causes undue suffering — and little advantage. Wouldn’t an accomplished tailor pay a good deal of attention to the parts — the sleeves, collar, back — before the final step of sewing them into a single garment?

  5. MEREDITH March 13, 2019 at 10:17 am #

    Thx to Colin who wrote above about it matters when someone first uses. My man’s brother injected him with some opioid when he was 14. He told me, “this is when I found heaven.” Now he’s 28, out of prison 4 weeks, and his drug is meth, or it was before he went in. He just fell yesterday and he’s hating himself so much. My comment really is: His public persona to his FB friends and his fellow inmates is, he’s a fly playa. He’s tatted up. He swaggers around and brags how everybody loves him. These are his drug-seeking homies who always turned to him when they wanted their drug. But I know him as unsure of himself, scared about being out, imagining but not daring to believe he could make it in a regular life with me, with a job and a real home. I am straight BTW, never used, don’t even drink. OK now, what can I do besides be here always, love him, tell him so, be for him, tell him I’m proud of him every time he does good. We won’t starve, but he thinks he should be doing everything including provide instead of me paying the rent, etc. Thx for these posts and your book.

  6. Jubin March 13, 2019 at 11:32 am #

    Thank you for putting this energy out there. It is needed – there is a flip side (positive) to the many characteristics of the addict self. Which as you point out, is only one of many narratives that constitute the bricolage of each human. I am grateful for your post. 🙏🏼

    • Marc March 18, 2019 at 4:20 am #

      You’re welcome!

  7. Larissa Goruk March 13, 2019 at 1:44 pm #

    Good to read other people’s experiences. My own problem is overeating. I discovered at age 15 how good food could make me feel, especially when feeling bad. I’m now 68 and overeating is causing me health problems. I want to be around and able to walk a block without shortness of breath for many years yet.

    The irreconcilable selves idea makes a lot of sense. When in eating mode, I care about no one but my needy self. It’s not all there is to me, but it must be an important part of my life, because it’s still here, coming back again and again.

    Retelling won’t get rid of this “selfish” person – normally I think, wow won’t it be great when I don’t need to do this behaviour any more! From reading your essay, Marc, I might not do the exact behaviour, but I’ll probably feel the same way because that needy person is part of who I am. But so is the caring one.

    • Marc March 18, 2019 at 4:19 am #

      Exactly so, Larissa. And a big plus of “Letting” the needy self be, accepting it, is that you start to forgive it. Yes, I’m empty, I want to fill myself up, and that’s all I care about! But little kids feel that way all the time. Why must we be so harsh with the legacy of those natural, biological imperatives. That part of us…it’s just not so BAD.

      And in fact, I think it makes self-control easier. So maybe you can still shed some pounds and walk around without shortness of breath.

      • Larissa Goruk March 18, 2019 at 4:04 pm #

        Yes that makes sense. When my mother was under tremendous pressure and couldn’t feed her kids properly it must have been so hard for her. Then when food was plentiful (too plentiful) she gave us food instead of other forms of love. It’s easy to give our kids treats (at least it was for me in the 90s before the health risks gained public awareness). So being the needy child felt like being BAD, though it’s just nature, biology.

  8. Terry March 13, 2019 at 5:26 pm #

    much of our own narrative comes from the narrative of our parents and then as we start our drug using journey it comes from society which creates in ourselves the shame because users are seen as sinners and morally bankrupt individuals – this is reflective of societies’ need to make scapegoats so the majority can feel good about their ‘dependencies’ – so until society also changes its narrative it will always be hard to avoid shame – I have spent most of my so called sober years feeling guilty when in fact I have probably shown more strength and compassion towards others than most people can – I found out I wasn’t the weak willed sick person they said I was

    • Marc March 14, 2019 at 6:30 am #

      I agree, Terry. That particular story line has become a deep rut through societal criticism and stigmatization. Which surely doesn’t help us integrate it with other strands of self-narrative in which we appreciate that we are, as you say, compassionate and strong.

    • Larissa Goruk March 18, 2019 at 4:08 pm #

      Yes, regular society does seem to need scapegoats. I went through that after attempting suicide at age 15. My family all thought Aha, she is the weak link. Years later, I found out that my father had had suicidal ideation throughout his whole life, until he died in 2000. He used to talk about it with me sometimes; however when the older sibs were around he looked down on that kind of thinking (and by implication on me). It was just hypocrisy. Two faces.

  9. Joanna "Nicci Tina" Free March 13, 2019 at 6:18 pm #

    An uber-narrative… Yes! Yay! No reductionistic labels on me;)

    I’m a 12 Stepper who does not believe in “character defects” – I call them character defaults. I’ve adapted ALL of the 12 Step language to suit me, because being part of a global community that’s about growing together in mutually supportive and nurturing fellowship feels so good, so right for me.

    And, yes, I have some addictive behavio(u)r, current and historical. That behavior and thinking is not a self unto itself. It is part of me, as an ever-evolving being, doing my best to evolve in each moment and situation of my life.

    I made some seemingly insane choices earlier in my life. (I may make some more;)

    I’m a bit mad still and now relatively sane. I’m also wise and foolish, and serious and ridiculous, and organized and disorganized and funny and maybe even tragic to some. I celebrate this life every day, and mourn the pieces I can’t yet celebrate, and keep doing what I can – what we can together – to transform them, and/or my perspective of them.

    This is one of my favorite bits of writing from you, Marc. Love it.

  10. Daniel March 13, 2019 at 8:36 pm #

    A valuable post for myself Marc. Thanks.
    I have long felt that my teenage years, my ‘adolescence’ were denied me – now
    I can see that hand in hand in hand along that journey I lost the game of
    Growing Up.
    Your book and your words are my new scaffolding.

    • Marc March 14, 2019 at 6:27 am #

      Hi Daniel. I’m honoured to contribute to your scaffolding. If you mean that you never developed a fully coherent self-narrative, join the club. As I say in the post, some voices or story-lines may remain discrepant, cut off. It may take years until they knit together. For now, get to know yourself in each of these “incarnations”…let each be present, relaxed, accepted…when it appears. You can be at the centre of all of them, even if they don’t knit together for now.

      • alison March 17, 2019 at 9:22 pm #

        My biggest problem for years was that I hid my past incarnations like I had the plague. I hid my silent shame about past incarnations, and I told myself it was helping me move on and develop my sense of self. But on the contrary, it was creating more anxiety and lack of self acceptance.

        Now, I don’t hide from my past incarnations, but I continue to build courage, that I can knit them together. I guess once I find the courage than I’ll be ready to figure how to knit them together.

        I read Gabor Mate’s Scattered Minds recently, and it was so affirming for me and gave me more courage. I was always overly self-critical of my impulsiveness, and my failures to regulate myself. My overly fast brain didn’t always wait to see if what I said or wrote made sense, or that it was socially acceptable. Mate said self-acceptance is so important to the person with ADD. He said self-acceptance isn’t about liking yourself, its about tolerating all your emotions, even the uncomfortable ones.

        So too, I have to remember to tolerate my past narratives or incarnations, even when my old surges of shame well up inside of me. And like you said, i’ll continue to get to know myself in my incarnations….

        ( Even when I have rewritten the shaming stories I tell myself, the old stories seem to try to creep back in… my mind is so sneaky…..)

        • Marc March 18, 2019 at 4:15 am #

          The mind IS sneaky, but you know, the shaming stories are real too. Why not let yourself experience them more fully? Sometimes I open myself wide to shame, and I find it blows right through me. LIke a strong wind, it seems about to knock me down, and then I find I’m just standing there and the wind has passed through and out the other side.

          I also sometimes engage in dialogue (usually but not always silently), for example a dialogue between the scolding self and the give-me-a-break self. Quite refreshing actually.

          • Alison March 19, 2019 at 9:29 pm #

            I will try that! Thanks

      • Daniel March 19, 2019 at 2:42 am #

        Hi Marc, I took notice of your advice : ‘That we are made up of more than one narrative. We often have two or three or four going at the same time. Psychologists sometimes talk about parallel identities’.

        So i decided to write down a complete list of my 3 or 4 incompatable self narratives. To my surprise i have identified 231 ‘LABELS’ that I can put on my ‘self’ in the context of PAST, NOW, FUTURE. For sure many of these ‘labels’ are just ‘adjectives’ as opposed to ‘narratives’ and many overlap so can be grouped.

        That is a whole lot of narratives to scribe and to oversee under my Uber (Umbrella) Narrative but I am up for the challenge. Thanks for kicking it off to start the game and the process.

        • Marc March 19, 2019 at 4:18 am #

          Fascinating exercise. But can I suggest that you condense the 231 labels into several? As you say, they are probably just adjectives. (what you need to do is what psychologists or statisticians call factor analysis).

          When considering narratives, it might also be helpful to see them as story lines. Story lines progress. So that one story line may change, as it evolves from past to present, such that it absorbs different labels over time.

          You will drive yourself crazy with 231!

  11. Annette Stewart March 14, 2019 at 5:56 am #

    Addiction is writ large in my genes, but over time I’ve seen the human – and the love – behind each person who’s actively using, or perhaps in remission, or even back with us (That included me). We all seek oblivion/heaven – and I wish we could have a much wider perspective on it all, as you suggest, Marc.

    When I think of my younger brother, and two male cousins who died from using heroin, all too young, what I now see is that we did our best to care for them and keep them with us. Who knows why the substance is so compelling, but we all have addicted selves, the question is to what. Self-awareness and self-love help enormously. No judgment, just awareness and encouragement back to healthier ways of being….

    • Marc March 19, 2019 at 4:23 am #

      That is a lovely way to put it. Yes, we seek oblivion (loss of pain) or heaven. The world is humdrum, grating, senseless, defeating. Not only is it not morally wrong to seek a balm or saviour in drugs or other things, it is natural and understandable. As you say, no judgment takes us a long way.

  12. Katie March 14, 2019 at 7:29 pm #

    Crazy that this post is posted the same day Sam Harris releases a new pod episode with Daniel Kahnemnan, where they discuss System 1 and System 2 in our minds. Being happy in your life vs about your life… Am I the only one who finds this to be a charged topic in the realm of addiction?

    Any chance you could share any thoughts/musings around this in a future post?

    • Marc March 18, 2019 at 4:27 am #

      I can see it that way too. But I don’t think we’re telling the same story. In fact I’ve long felt that Kahneman’s analysis is too simple. What about intermediate levels?

      It could be that each self-narrative has a system 2 overview as well as a “this is how it feels” system 1 spontaneous component. Actually, more precisely, the narrative uses system 2 in the telling (to self or other) but system 1 in the enacting (with system 2 still supervising as much as possible). Something to think about. Thanks for bringing it up.

  13. Eric Nada March 15, 2019 at 10:45 am #

    Marc, I love this and look forward to part 2. When I finally got clean I was a disjointed mess, emotionally. Although not aware of it at the time, looking back it is almost embarrassing to know that I was walking around with so little coherent idea of who I was (at an egoic level). There was so little to hold onto that I’m surprised I didn’t simply blow away. I was little more than pieces of inchoate negative self-talk. Fast forward a few years and I was able to develop a strong sense of self. And as you said, it is made up of many different facets that create a coherent understanding of who I am and how I move through the world. And this coherency can take over for so many of the reasons I depended on drugs in the first place–a sense of reliability, self-confidence, comfortable boundaries between me and others, etc.–because it creates a feeling of safety. Regarding addiction, specifically, I can now easily tell the story of the wounded parts of myself that created the need for addictive pursuits in the first place. Now the story involves the functional ways that I navigate those wounds in healthy, fulfilling ways. I think that the “ego” has always been a bit villainized in the recovery discussion and I don’t think it should be. I’ve always preferred to look at the need for a “strong ego,” suggesting a strong sense of self. Of course when the “ego” is distorted, either too large or small, then there are problems, but the sense of self needs to be discovered. (A different discussion, but I think the “ego” also needs to be put in its place and not pursued as the route to fulfillment–but we need it to navigate safely and effectively through the world).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *