Contrary action is a bit of buzzword in early recovery. You may have heard it in twelve-step meetings, from your counselor, or a friend may has mentioned the term. To take contrary action means to do something you may not necessarily want to do. In fact, it’s often the case that contrary action involves going directly against our instinct and habits. At its most basic, we don’t drink or use no matter what. This goes against what our minds and bodies may be telling us to do in a moment, and can be quite difficult to do. Contrary action is an important part of recovery to understand, as it can help us stay sober and find a healthy clean life.
Why is Contrary Action Important?
Understanding contrary action gives us the opportunity to see where it can benefit us in our recovery. We can take contrary action in a ton of different ways, but there are a few that really stick out as important ways in which contrary action serves us.
In some moments, contrary action is our only way to stay clean. When we feel like using or drinking, we don’t. This is contrary action. Although we hopefully can call somebody, talk to a friend, go to a meeting, or learn to respond wisely to a craving, we sometimes must simply not pick up and use. This form of contrary action can of course literally save a life. You don’t have to white-knuckle it for years; sometimes taking the action of just not using this hour is enough to get us through the craving without using. This is contrary to our desires in that moment, and perhaps the most powerful way we can practice contrary action.
Retraining the Mind
As we take more and more action, we slowly retrain the mind. You may try meditation or other methods of training the mind at at a holistic treatment center, but you can also retrain the mind in your everday life by taking contrary action. When you feel like doing something but make the effort to behave differently, you build new habits. Research has shown that the human brain has the power to build new neuropathways over time, we have the ability to build new habits quite quickly, and repeated action builds these habits. When we take contrary action on a regular basis, it stops becoming “contrary.” We begin to think differently, have new instincts, and find it easier to make the right decision. As the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says, “What used to be the hunch or the occasional inspiration gradually becomes a working part of the mind.”
When we take contrary action, we find new ways to live. Whether it’s getting a commitment at a meeting or trying a new activity, taking some contrary action can help us investigate a new way to live. If we don’t try new ways to live, we’re going to be stuck in the same old patterns and habits. I’ve taken contrary action in my own life and found that I enjoy being of service, rock climbing, and speaking at meetings. These are all things that I was resistant to at first, only to find my initial instinct was not necessarily accurate.
How to Take Contrary Action
There are of course a ton of ways we can practice this in our lives. We have so many opportunities to do things we don’t want to do. You can investigate for yourself where contrary action is beneficial and where you have room to grow. Here are a few places we’ve found great opportunity in our own paths to recovery.
Steering Clear of Using
This is rather obvious perhaps, but bears repeating. Especially in early recovery, we may find ourselves experiencing moments of intense cravings for drugs or alcohol. Instead of picking up and using, utilize this opportunity to strengthen your recovery, retrain the mind, and try something new! Call a sponsor or mentor, talk to staff at your treatment center or sober living, or tell a friend. When we take action like this we are building new habits, making it easier to do so in the future. Not only do we stay sober in the moment, we build a foundation for a future clean life.
Being of Service
We don’t always tend toward being of service. We think we don’t have time, we believe that we don’t have anything to offer, or we are too shy to take action. You can start small with being of service. Hold the door open for somebody, smile at a stranger, or put your own chair away at the end of a meeting. When you take contrary action and are of service to someone around you, you have the opportunity to get out of yourself and connect with those around you. Being of service helps build compassion, has been shown to increase psychological well-being, and offers us the chance to be a part of the community we’re in.
The “Little” Opportunities
We have so many opportunities throughout our days to practice contrary action. These “little” things are not really little at all. When we take healthy actions, we are more likely to take further healthy actions. Try making your bed, doing your dishes right away, getting some exercise, and taking care of yourself. When you have a thought of doing something healthy like getting to bed early or going to a meeting, don’t just let the thought go. Take action on that thought. You may notice that you have a lot of thoughts about doing good things, but don’t follow through with all of them. Take contrary action and actually act upon those intentions!
Whatever way you go about it, we encourage you to investigate contrary action in your own life! It takes time and patience, as we can’t change our habits overnight. We do, however, have the power to start today in building new habits.
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