It’s only inevitable that a mental health problem will present barriers to personal growth. Knowing what these are can help you face and overcome them. Discover the five most common barriers to personal growth for people in recovery— and, how rehab helps to address them.
“Personal growth” is a process of mental, emotional and/or spiritual development and maturation, at the end of which is a healthier person. Addiction and mental health issues can complicate this journey, by introducing unique hurdles that stand in the way of individual growth. In rehab, patients have an opportunity to address and overcome these barriers to self-improvement, which are often intimately tied to long-term success in recovery.
But what are these common barriers to personal growth that rehab helps patients overcome? We put that question before Dr. Beau Nelson, Director of Clinical Services at FHE Health. Dr. Nelson oversees our clinical and neurosciences departments and specializes in an area of therapy known as “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.” (At heart, CBT is about removing mental and emotional barriers to individual growth, by changing the thoughts and behaviors that may be contributing to an addiction or exacerbating a mental illness.)
Here are five barriers to personal growth that Dr. Nelson encounters among patients in rehab, as well as some of the tools that help patients scale these hurdles:
1. You’re afraid of change
You don’t have to have an addiction or mental illness to understand a fear of change and how paralyzing it can be. Because fear itself is paralyzing, it can impede the forward movement that personal growth implies.
For people with addiction especially, though, the prospect of change—no matter how positive the change—can induce fear. One reason is that undergoing treatment for a mental health condition is “often about a major life shift, one that includes emotions, new behaviors, and a new way of dealing with life,” Dr. Nelson said. In contrast, “personal growth, is the process whereby we reach goals and develop ourselves as a person in one sphere of life or another, such as professionally, in relationships, or in other things we wish to do well at.”
In short, rehab and recovery—”a process whereby we learn how to live in our bodies and the world in a new and healthier way”—entail a significantly bigger life change than personal growth. That helps to explain why fear is the most common hurdle that Dr. Nelson encounters in patients. He elaborated about why:
Early in life we learn a certain way to cope; it works early on, and since it worked, we just keep doing it— even when it stops working … When people first start to use [drugs or alcohol], it is fun, makes things more intense and enjoyable, and it gives us a good feeling.
Over time this wears off and it becomes a big boulder around our necks. But we keep doing it, hoping for that initial enjoyment to return … and it doesn’t.
When you do something long enough you become invested in it and it becomes your friend. Thus, when you do try to stop, there can be a great deal of fear and uncertainty about living and coping without the habit, which makes people very uncomfortable— just because it is different.
2. You’re unwilling to admit you have a problem and/or lack any motivation to change
Some patients who end up in rehab are in denial about their illness or don’t have any motivation to change. Yet for rehab to be effective, “a person must have the desire to change and seek something better to start the recovery journey,” according to Dr. Nelson.
For patients who end up in rehab against their will, with no motivation for self-improvement or recovery, rehab may be limited in what it can achieve. Dr. Nelson is the first to admit that “a treatment environment does not make anyone do anything,” but rather “provides an opportunity for the alcoholic or addict to see something beyond their shenanigans and rushing to one high after the other.”
Sometimes, then, all that someone in denial needs is hope enough to help them take the next step of admitting they have a problem. In Dr. Nelson’s words, “Recovery is a moment-by-moment choice to do something better and more fulfilling, and the path is already prepared. We simply need to do the next right thing to get something more out of life.”
3. You’ve got an inaccurate view of how things are
“Cognitive distortions” and “catastrophizing”—two terms that are often used in CBT—can be common traps for people with addiction and mental health conditions. Cognitive distortions are simply inaccurate thoughts that we’re convinced are true, but are self-defeating. Catastrophizing is a common cognitive distortion that involves making a hard situation worse than it is, thus causing us to emotionally over-react.
In this regard, Dr. Nelson gave the example of a patient who had attempted to kill himself and ended up in a psychiatric ward after losing his job as a high-powered attorney.
“He had two grown sons that he loved very much and who came to the hospital many times, and I was able to meet them,” Dr. Nelson recalled. “When he started to catastrophize about the loss of his job, I simply asked him, ‘Would you tell your sons to shoot themselves if they lost their job?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Of course not.’ I said, ‘Then why does that make sense for you?’ A light went off in his mind: he could see that his thinking was making him want to die, not the loss of his job.”
The lesson: that correcting inaccurate views and thoughts can have an important impact on your feelings, reactions and how you respond to adversity. Here Dr. Nelson quoted an old mentor, Dr. Albert Ellis, “the grandfather of CBT.” He “used to say that people create more of their own suffering than we realize,” and would often quote the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus, who said that ‘man is not disturbed by things, but by the view which they take of them.’”
4. You minimize or discount your strengths.
People who suffer from addiction and/or mental illness can often fall into this trap, given the public stigma that so often surrounds their illness. There is also the fact that a mental health issue really can be an obstacle that “can limit how much we can do or what goals we can achieve.”
That said, rehab aims to empower patients’ recovery by embracing and encouraging patients’ strengths. The goal is to “maximize the strengths of an individual to help them deal with life,” Dr. Nelson said. He cited medication, non-drug medical treatments, peer support, coping skills, spirituality and strategies for living as rehab tools that further this goal.
A brain compromised by substance abuse or mental illness presents inherent limitations, Dr. Nelson acknowledged. But he went on to emphasize that in rehab, “we want to maximize the ability, happiness, and personal fulfillment that our bodies and our minds will allow”— a process and outcome that will look different for every person.
Another “tool” in rehab that helps FHE Health patients overcome low self-esteem and the tendency to overlook their own strengths: the fact that our therapists “work with people from the standpoint that there is endless possibility for growth and betterment.”
5. You don’t engage in self-reflection
Related to this perspective among FHE Health therapists that individual growth can be endless, is the need for “self-reflection.” Self-reflection, or an honest assessment of one’s behavior, is one of the core principles of recovery. It’s best encapsulated by Step 4 of the 12 Steps, which advocates for “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Yet many people—not just those with mental health issues—have trouble with self-reflection, depriving themselves of this critical tool for personal growth. For those who generally avoid self-reflection, or who have trouble slowing down enough to take stock of where they are in life and why, rehab offers numerous opportunities to engage in self-reflection.
“Each aspect of the programs provides opportunities to stop, listen, and reflect,” Dr. Nelson said. That’s intentional: “By allowing people to share their hurts, their failures, their successes, and their victories, we help to empower individual clients to see themselves, others, and the world in a new light.”
Read more by Dr. Nelson: