How to Learn from Relapses

how to learn from relapses

You don’t need to go all Russell Crowe from A Beautiful Mind to learn from relapses. Reflecting on your triggers and the events leading to the relapses with safe people is a good place to start.

In addiction recovery, relapses are inevitable. They’re going to happen. Many who are new to recovery struggle with this. We can hope that our recovery happens in a straight line, especially because relapses are often painful.


Whenever we learn to do something new, we don’t do it perfectly to begin with. We make mistakes. Our mistakes, though, can teach us how to improve at what we’re learning to do. This is true with any new skill, from learning to ride a bike to—yep, you guessed it—living an addiction-free life.


Relapses are par for the course. In fact, if you’re not relapsing, you’re not learning. Here are just a few of my thoughts about how to learn from relapses.


Shift Out of Shame

Relapses can trigger shame attacks. Shame attacks occur when we experience an overwhelming feeling that we are bad, flawed, or unlovable. Our inner critic hurls all sorts of shaming, self-critical assaults our way. As most of us who experience shame have grown up with these feelings, the pain often feels unbearable.


However, learning to manage our shame when relapses occur is the first step learning from them. You can’t learn anything if you’re drowning in your own shame.


If you’re able, connect with a safe person to talk about your feelings of shame. Perhaps this safe person is a sponsor or a therapist, or a trusted partner in recovery. To paraphrase Brené Brown, shame cannot survive vulnerability. If you talk about your shame with an understanding other, this alone can lift us out of shame.


If you’re in recovery from sex or porn addiction, try engaging in an outer circle activity or going to a meeting. The idea here is to participate in an activity that can help you feel better about yourself. In taking care of yourself, you’re telling yourself that you’re worthy of care and love.


Observe Thyself

Learning to objectively observe yourself is a critical skill in recovery. Observing yourself simply means being able to monitor your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, as well as your response to your experiences, with curiosity and without judgment.


If you want to know how to learn from relapses, you must be able to gather “data” about yourself in this way.


The key question to ask yourself in observer mode is this: “What was going on with me that I returned to my addictive behavior?”


Honestly answering this question will prompt you to consider triggering events that happened in your life that led to the relapse, as well as how you responded to these events.


Recognize Your Triggers

If you’re in recovery, you should have a good grasp on the feelings, circumstances, and situations that triggered your addictive, problematic behavior. These are called triggers. Triggers, well, trigger or activate our addictive behavior.


While there are common triggers that many in recovery share (e.g., porn addicts can be triggered by unstructured time alone with Internet access), everyone’s triggers are different. There are literally hundreds and thousands of triggers. The key is knowing your unique triggers and being able to spot them in retrospect.


Want to know a secret? There’s likely to be a series of triggers that led to your relapse. Relapses are usually the result of many smaller decisions, not just the decision to drink or watch porn again. Identify these triggers. Write them down, even. Map out the triggering events and your responses to those events. You’ll probably notice some patterns.


Look for Patterns

As you look through the triggering events and your responses, what do you notice?


You’re going to discover that you unconsciously returned to old behavior patterns that then resulted in your relapse. Here’s what I mean.


Maybe you slipped back into caretaking mode with your partner, and the resentment built up so that you couldn’t bear it and had to escape with porn. Maybe you experienced some setbacks at work or school and beat yourself up about them without realizing it, so that you had to drink away your shame.


Whatever your behavior patterns are, you’re looking for how to acted when you were in your addictive behavior. It may take some time (and a few relapses) to learn to identify these patterns. A safe person, ideally a therapist trained in recognizing these patterns, can greatly aid you in this process.


What Can You Do Differently?

Identifying patterns in your behavior that led to your relapse may bring up more shame, because you’ll recognize what will feel like mistakes. But don’t take this bullshit from your inner critic.


Instead, focus on what you learned you can do differently moving forward to strengthen your recovery. Have grace for yourself, knowing that you are learning what you need to be learning. You’re taking one day at a time.


Focus on positive, solution-oriented action that addresses the patterns that you discovered. Engaging these behaviors will help you feel a helluva lot better.


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Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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