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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

The Alcoholic In All Of Us

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The predisposition to alcoholism is strongly influenced by your genes, yet the outcome -- whether you are an alcoholic or not -- is determined by environment and whether you choose to drink or abstain. In the same way, we all differ in the types of feelings and thoughts we have (some of us are more prone to anxiety, moodiness, worry than others) but like the alcoholic who can drink or not, we can all learn to notice feelings and thoughts when they arise, and subsequently choose how to act.

This is the skill that emerges from studying the mind through reflection, meditation, and observation. In our Western culture, it is pretty hard to abstain from alcohol completely and in a similar way, most of our lives, we act from thoughts and feelings without much awareness of our capacity to regulate them. As we learn to observe reactive patterns and notice the arising of emotion (e.g. anger, envy, or joy) or thought (e.g. worry, rumination), we can see the memory or story we link to them.

For example, last week I got angry with a colleague for ignoring the role that I played in a project we did together. I know my anger was linked to a story I had from childhood (one associated with feeling 'less than' deserving of recognition). Today, I can separate the fleeting dot of anger toward my colleague from the story of my past, and I can easily let go of it with just a little bit of attention. But, it took quite a while to get here.

I see a parallel of the alcoholic to alcohol and our individual relationships to thoughts and emotions. Metaphorically, our thoughts and feelings are like 'alcohol'. We can choose to partake of them in such a way that we lose the capacity to see clearly. Conversely, we can note that we are being exposed to 'alcohol', choose to smell it, observe it, even swish it around in the glass, but then choose not to drink it.

Like the genetics of alcoholism, we are biologically wired differently so that we must find our own internal check points to detect emotions and thoughts and to discern their potential (if they will yield helpful or harmful influences). I believe that in making conscious choices to select those thoughts, feelings, and actions that contribute to helping oneself, others and the planet and not selecting those that hurt are the key choices that will take humanity to the next level of human evolution.

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