Recently, one of my sons emailed me a large file that included a number of photographs. When I tried to download the file, my little laptop computer hummed and blinked busily for five or ten minutes and then posted a message that said,
"Shame on you—the file is too big."
I called my son, who obligingly divided the file in two and sent the material again. But I couldn't download the smaller files either. I deleted the offending file, but it reappeared and I still couldn't open it. I deleted it again, emptied the "trash," and logged off. But when I logged on later, the message was back in my mailbox! I deleted it again, and it re- appeared again. I couldn't make that file go away.
Being technologically challenged (you wouldn't have guessed that, would you!), I had no idea what was wrong. Finally, it occurred to me to call for tech
support. The technician explained that my system was log-jammed - the oversized file was too big to budge.
Negaholism is sort of like that.
Traumatic experiences create painful feelings that, left unexpressed, build up and cause a backlog of emotions that get stuck in the pipeline and recycle themselves endlessly.
The most obvious and irritating symptom of addiction to misery is chronic complaining. In A Codependent's Guide to the Twelve Steps, Melody Beattie describes this habit from personal experience:
"I had little to offer friends except my perpetual complaints about the misery of my life. Most of my friendships centered around shared stories of victimization. I had no feelings that I was aware of. I had no needs that I was aware of. I prided myself in my ability to endure needless suffering, deprive myself, and go without."
Negaholics are grievance collectors. They never forget an insult. Years after the fact, they can describe an offense in detail—when and where it happened and what the offender was thinking, feeling, and wearing. Because they can read minds, they know exactly what the other person's motives are. Unfortunately, they think their assumptions are reality and respond accordingly.
Misery addicts not only collect grievances, they are offense-seeking missiles! Because they don't feel right unless they're being wronged, they set friends, relatives, employers, and co-workers up to persecute them so they can feel good,
virtuous, or normal. The only way misery addicts' friends and family can satisfy them is to offend them. In other words, the only way they can get it "right" is to be "wrong." That's why it's so difficult to be in a relationship with a negaholic. It's
There's a character in the Winnie the Pooh tales who is negativity personified—remember the donkey named Eeyore who looks at the bleak side of everything? If there's a picnic being planned, he knows it will rain. When the wind blows, he's sure his house will fall down. If there's a party scheduled, he probably won't be invited. He "doesn't deserve attention,” “isn't worth much," and on and on. Eeyore never runs out of things to be unhappy about; he's the archetype for addiction to misery.
Assuming the worst is what negaholics do best. They await disaster, anticipate unhappiness, expect abuse or abandonment, and assume that everybody is against them. They seek out troublesome situations and then worry themselves sick. If they can't find something personal to fret about, they obsess about someone else's problems. They'll settle for almost anything: the mayor's morality, a friend's impending divorce, the pastor's grammar, the school board's unfair policies, the qualifications of the police chief, or the status of society in general.
Clearly, negaholism is not an enjoyable addiction. Unlike other addictions, which promise pleasure at first, misery addiction is never pleasurable. It's familiar and therefore reassuring, but it's never fun. Consequently, misery addicts have difficulty seeing their behavior as addictive. When confronted by the habitual nature of their problem, they whine, "How can I be addicted to misery? I don't enjoy being unhappy!" This is a real double bind, which seems a little unfair. (Uh-oh, we'd better not go there!)
Pam, a 36-year-old pediatric nurse, is predisposed to pessimism. The minute she wakes up in the morning, Pam catalogs her aches and pains so she will be able to give a detailed description to the first person she meets. At breakfast, she responds to her son's cheerful "Whassup?" with a groan. She didn't sleep well, she's exhausted, and the pain in her ankle is worse. While dressing for work, Pam obsesses silently about the overwhelming number of items on today's agenda. An unresolved issue from the past assails her and attaches itself to the amorphous mass of problems already rolling around in her mind, and her face takes on a worried expression. When her husband asks what's bothering her, Pam launches into a litany of her woes.
Pam's behavior exemplifies several symptoms of addiction to misery:
Misery addicts avoid or deny anything positive or joyful and are attracted to the negative or painful, attaching negative meanings to neutral and even positive events. They also indulge in self-punishment, self-neglect, unfavorable self- comparison, feigning helplessness, tolerating the intolerable, care-giving and then complaining, and refusing to accept God's forgiveness.
For Pam and others like her, negaholism is a long-standing, deep- seated habit that is unlikely to change unless it is addressed as a full-fledged
addiction. This is the most effective approach to recovery. Since most addicts
cannot break old habits on the basis of willpower alone, I will make suggestions for behavioral change along with a few ideas on how to apply the twelve steps when human resources fail, as they most certainly will. It's 0K to try to stop doing compulsive behavior, but addicts who can "just say no" are the exception rather than the rule. Negaholism yields best to a combination of therapy and twelve-step programs.
My first suggestion for breaking the cycle of misery is that you abstain from repeating your worries and woes to other people in an effort to get a "sympathy fix." Instead, find a counselor who has a therapy group in which you can safely
express and discharge backlogged emotions in order to move forward. This is crucial.
M second suggestion is that— to avoid becoming overwhelmed—you establish relationships with healthy mentors (counselors and sponsors) with whom you can discuss ongoing issues. Misery addicts are famous for stirring innumerable worries into an indefinable mass and then rolling it around in their minds until it drives them berserk. With the help of your counselors and recovering peers, tease out a single strand from the obsessive mess and ask for specific guidance— and then follow directions. There is "wisdom in a multitude of counselors." Refer your worries to a source of wisdom and strength outside your own mind. Don't linger in the limbo of confusion and indecision.
Here are a few general ideas for avoiding the doldrums:
To apply the Twelve Steps to negaholism:
After doing these steps, the rest of your life is none of your business! That includes the outcome of your recovery.
If you are painstaking about this aspect of your development, you will be transformed. Old habits and compulsions will gradually disappear. The well-known "promises" of AA will be fulfilled: You will know a new freedom and happiness. You will know peace. Feelings of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. Clearly, these promises were meant for misery addicts!
• By Carol Cannon. Published in Signs of the Times, May 2001
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