The dictionary definition of the term withdrawal is “the act of taking out.” Withdrawal can refer to taking money from a bank, removing your name from consideration for committee or a job, or leaving a college class. The most frequent use of this term is the “group of symptoms that occur upon the abrupt discontinuation or decrease in intake of medications or recreational drugs,” also from the dictionary. Actually, we can experience “withdrawal symptoms” when we attempt to stop any addictive behavior: gambling, Facebook, video games, over-eating, or just thinking we are always right.
I have been musing about the possibility of suffering from withdrawal symptoms when we attempt to curb any of the defensive behaviors hiding in our shadow selves. Most of these dysfunctional behaviors have been building up for years as a protection from pain and insecurity. Sometimes we don’t even realize how we respond to life; we just know we have to be wary and in control.
Testing my hypothesis, I searched back in my life for times when I was trying to change inappropriate behaviors. For example, as I tried to curb anxious thoughts when I woke up at 3 a.m, my symptom of withdrawal was fear (which became more and more obvious) that I was going to miss something, forget something, or, worst of all, be unable to handle or control something. I learned to turn my fear into faith by remembering that I live in the Kingdom of God. No matter what happens, I am safe.
For much of my life, I believed that the more I accomplished the more value I had in the eyes of human beings and even in the eyes of God. When I was deepest into this false narrative, I rarely sat down to do something “unproductive” because I was afraid of being caught at being lazy. As I tried to change this behavior, I found myself choosing to read a book, or take a nap, or just sit only when no one else was home. It took many years of intentional behavior, with its accompanying withdrawal symptoms, to get that false assumption out of my mind and heart.
More recently, as I tried to stem the flow of critical thoughts (and sometimes comments) that erupted almost instantly when someone overlooked me or disagreed with me, I felt weak and “off my game.” When I stopped building up my arsenal to respond to “attacks,” I felt even more vulnerable to “attacks.” I had to choose, over and over again, to recognize the feeling and remember that my value and worth come from being a child of God, not from the recognition or approval of the people around me.
Spiritual withdrawal symptoms are just as uncomfortable as physical withdrawal symptoms. They tempt us to give up and go back to the behaviors or wrong thinking we are trying to eliminate. We lessen their effectiveness by having a plan to counteract them. Twelve Step programs give us a tool for this: HALT. When we find ourselves in the following physical or emotional states, we will be vulnerable to relapse into the behaviors or thoughts we are trying to shed.
- Hungry – not just for food but also for attention, or understanding, comfort or companionship
- Tired – not just physically but also feeling emotionally overloaded or overwhelmed
We need to be vigilant in noticing these symptoms. When we become aware of them, we need to halt and take care of them. And then we need to remember that the Holy Spirit is at our side, eager to help us free ourselves from behaviors that keep us from becoming like Jesus.