While talking to a young woman in recovery (with over 100 days), the topic of change arose. She said that she was unhappy with who she was. I probed further, asking what worried her about her life. She went on to tell me about all of the things she’d done in the past that caused her suffering and dysfunction and led to addictive habits.

We further explored those choices from her past, which led to the realization that she started to identify with the behaviors she engaged in—she used them to define herself instead of seeing them as mere behaviors. Her self-worth was completely destroyed, even though she’d managed to get clean and turn her life around. 

This young woman is not the exception—many can relate, especially those in addiction recovery. These individuals (and others) are often unable to separate between who we are and what we do. This does not benefit one in life. It’s when he or she separates the two that they are able to overcome addiction and thrive in life.  

Who We Are VS. What We Do

This young woman decided she needed to redesign her near future. She didn’t want to end up where she was headed. I asked her if she could see there was a difference between who she was and what she did. She responded with a look of confusion, but then she was able to recall her redeeming qualities. After, she still identified a need for changing her perception of self as well as her relationships. I took this opportunity to remind her that we all make poor choices from time to time, even good people. Recovery isn’t just refraining from indulging in the substance or behavior: it involves “searching and fearless moral inventory.” This is a step in the 12-step recovery model. 

We continued as I explained that it was possible for her to imagine a sustained recovery even though the 12-step model cautions individuals to take recovery one step and one day at a time. I asked her about her 10-year fantasy. In other words, where would she want to be in 10 years? She greater happiness. She also envisioned healthier relationships with her loved ones. She was willing to see herself in a positive light, despite the berating voices in her head that belonged to her past self.

Making Meaningful Changes to Separate the Two

When I look at my own life, I see that I have fallen into the same bad habit that she had. I look at my day to day decisions and behaviors, some fueled by my addictions of co-dependence and workaholism. I have regrets and sometimes wish I had done things differently. “Who I am” and “what I do” have been one through much of my life. I’ve thought of myself as only worth in terms of what I do for others.

I’m also guilty of trying to do too much. While fulfilling responsibilities or following through with commitments is important and admirable, when taken to an extreme, they can become onerous. I’ve since learned that it’s okay to re-negotiate so that you don’t neglect your needs or so that they become mutually beneficial. If I need to postpone, my loved ones will understand! And they have, and they do. I have come to understand that saying “no” every now and then is more than okay. 

I am true to myself when I decide and say “yes” or “no” and as a result, I’m dependable. All of these choices help me to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. My relationships are deeper, as well as more intimate now. No one has abandoned me. No one has hated me. No one has expressed feeling let down. All is well in the world.

Some of my best realizations come in the shower. This morning, while I stood in the water, I fell back into self-deprecation over a poor interaction with my husband many years ago. I didn’t used to be the self-assured, internally motivated person I am now. I distanced myself from marriage, simply running through the motions each day and allowed for undercurrents I’d never accept now, 20 years after his death. By the time I dried off from my shower, I’d reminded myself that I wasn’t that woman anymore and I had made amends with the people I hurt as a result of my past behaviors.  

Honesty and Openness

Just as all others, I’m a work in progress. I’m now the woman both my husband and I wish I’d been back then. But fortunately, I can separate between who I am now as well as who I am growing to be from the mistakes that I make in search of approval and love.

Many therapists refrain from sharing these personal experiences with their clients. But I find value in doing so when appropriate. My clients are relieved to know that I face some of the same challenges they encounter. And that’s when they are able to open up further with me.