Saturday October 22nd 2016

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Creating your purpose in addiction recovery

Finding meaning in your life

Many folks new to recovery often ask me about meaning; more specifically, finding meaning in their lives.

Victor Frankel said it best in his award winning book Man’s Search for Meaning. I won’t go into some long explanation about why you should read this book. All I’ll tell you is that you should. Along with your favorite 12-step text and a Bible you need to read Man’s Search for Meaning.

We want to know that we matter

I think at the heart of compulsive substance use, over eating, misuse of sex, money, power, or any other self-destroying behavior is our innate need to fit in and know that we matter. We all have that drive to know that our lives’ mean something. We want to know that we are not indispensable, that we are not just walking around like a zombie from The Walking Dead looking for our next meal (or our next drink, hit or smoke for that matter.)

People try too hard to squeeze into some generic mold that doesn’t fit them. When in doubt, listen to Subdivisions by the band Rush. The lyrics of this song explain what I’m talking about perfectly.

Buying the right clothes, knowing the right people, working the right kind of job, living in the right place, yada, yada, yada. People try hard to be authentic but don’t even know what authentic means.

Hopping on the popular culture train will only lead to frustration. Being all things to all people will only lead to more of that internal self-condemnation and the feeling of the answer being further away than ever.

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You don’t need to know where you’re going…

Here’s a newsflash: Your life can mean whatever you want it to mean.

You purpose does not have to be some 5-year plan etched in a stone tablet. You don’t need to know exactly where you are going before you get going, you just need to get going. This is the biggest barrier most people face:

Getting lost in the idea that they have to have it all figured out before they begin.

Your purpose can be different every day

You do not have to have it all figured out before you begin. You just need to begin. If you don’t know who you are or who you want to be, get moving in a direction and you will figure it out as you go. If you’ve been told that your purpose has to be some major event or calling, you’ve been misinformed. Your purpose can be different every day, or it could be the same. That’s up to you.

Some people don’t get this, and I was one of those people for the longest time. I thought I had to have everything figured out before I began, which was a costly mistake. I like to plan and set goals for myself, but I’ve also learned through a series of trials and errors that there is no substitute for action.

You will see that word a lot in this article.


It has no substitute. Remember that.

Get off your behind and move!

Do not do what is easy or popular, but do the things you don’t think you can do. Push yourself. See what you’re capable of. As long as you are moving forward – even an inch at a time – the path will appear before you.

Sometimes the path appears a mile at a time, sometimes it really is an inch at a time. It will appear, but only if you are moving. The path will not appear while you’re sitting in your recliner waiting for the time to be right. The time will never be right. The time to move is right now.

4 things to keep in mind as you create a purpose

1.  You don’t have to “find” yourself. I was never sure what this meant. You do, however, have the ability and the responsibility to create yourself into who you want to be.

2.  You are right here right now and your life is a blank canvas. The world is yours if you want it.

I don’t wait because I don’t know how long I’m going to be here. My time is precious so I’ve learned to spend it wisely. That old saying that time waits for no one is the truest truths I’ve come to know. Wait too long and the game is over. No penalty flags are thrown, no more time on the clock.


It’s possible to spend so much time planning that we never actually begin. We overthink our thinking, we carefully trace and track each step but never really begin because we cannot see what lies ahead. Trust me, you will be fine. Just move.

I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in the Spirit of God or the Higher Power. Developing a relationship to your Higher Power is a top priority in recovery. You can (and should), too.

Living with purpose really is that easy, but a lot of people would have you believe finding your purpose in life is some magical experience. That it takes weeks and months and years to find and develop the true you or some other pop-psychology B.S. I don’t have time for all that. Maybe you do. Not me. I’m too busy doing.

3.  Pick a purpose for today and roll with it.

My purpose? I still don’t know.

Really. I haven’t a clue.

My best guess is this: my purpose today is living the best life I can.

To be 1% better than I was yesterday in some area of life. Today it’s writing. Working on this article is my purpose.

Yesterday my purpose was being a good husband. I worked for eight hours on something that will bring my wife and me closer to a long-term goal of ours. I did something for her because trying my best to be a good husband was my purpose yesterday.

You do not have to know the destination, but you do have to get moving.

4.  Don’t get greedy, don’t rush, and don’t do things for the wrong reasons. Remember to stay humble and acknowledge who is really in charge.

Waking up, saying a quick prayer and asking for God’s guidance is how I start my days. I’m not always sure if I’m doing God’s Will. Sometimes I just have to guess. If a thing feels right, I roll with it.

If my gut tells me this ain’t right then I stop. I don’t spend hours and hours in prayer or meditation waiting for a burning bush to appear or to hear the voice of God. It might someday, but I’m not counting on it.

Go where you are led to go

There have been plenty of times I’ve needed some wind therapy and didn’t have a destination in mind. I love Northern Michigan, and will often just point my bike north and go. I go where I’m led to go, and once I arrive, I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. If I was supposed to be somewhere else, I’d be in that place. Trust your gut. Go with it. Take God with you. He loves to ride.

There is all this chatter in self-development circles about ways to find yourself. Ways to unleash your innermost desires and talents. How to find your calling, your true passion, and ways to live authentically. If you’ve got the building blocks to start with, good for you. You’re ahead of the pack. Maybe you do have an inner Beethoven, Hemmingway or Picasso.

I didn’t have much to start with when I got sober. I didn’t know what I liked, who I was or where I was headed. On the recommendation of a trusted old friend, I just started moving. I got up, got dressed, and made things happen. I didn’t know what would happen or how it would happen. It just did. This continues to be the way my life works, and will work for you as well.

Back to the locker room in the sky

Creating your purpose each and every day is a spiritual experience. I know plenty of people that know the Bible or a Twelve-Step text inside and out but still lead miserable lives. They become so enthralled with studying on how to become a “good person” or how to live up to their potential that they never take action.

Once you log enough days of doing next right things, guess what? You get there. Once you’re there, you will know where to go next.

ACTION STEP: An exercise for finding a new purpose

When talking with clients I will often times suggest they pick a quality they do not have but wish that they did. I will have them review a list of qualities and ask them to pick only one.

For example, many clients pick integrity.

I will ask them to list everything they know about living with integrity. Then I will give them the dictionary definition and ask them to write their own definition, specific to where they are in their journey; usually a few sentences or a paragraph.

This becomes their purpose for the day: living with integrity the best they know how. Living with integrity in everything they do, say, and think.

I will have clients do this several times throughout the course of treatment. After having picked five or six “purpose statements” they are well on their way to living with and finding a purpose each and every day.

You do not have to limit yourself to this suggestion

Maybe your purpose today is to work your butt off. To be the best worker you possibly can be. To set an example for your coworkers and show them what you’re made of. More importantly, to prove to yourself what you’re made of. To clock out at the end of a long day and feel accomplished. That’s a great purpose.

Are you a parent? What if your purpose today was to put your child above everything else and think only about their needs? That’s also a great purpose.

If you frequent 12-step or other support meetings, you already have a purpose: staying sober (even in a crisis) and carrying the message. What if you took this one step further? How could you make living the program in all your affairs your purpose for today?

The only way to fail? Do nothing!

The only way to fail at creating your purpose is to do nothing. Go ahead and maintain that negative, self-defeating attitude and keep complaining that your life has no meaning. If you don’t think it does, it won’t.

As long as you pick something as a purpose you will end up in exactly the place you are supposed to be. You will be living your purpose. Remember, the path will only appear if you are moving. If you’re feeling lost, it’s time to get going.

Staying put is the worst thing you can do

Many years ago I went on a backcountry snowboarding trip. Our guide told us that if we were to get lost or our group became separated to stay put and not move. I asked our guide if he had ever been lost in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. He said he hadn’t, but that fact shouldn’t disqualify his advice.

I figured he knew what he was talking about, but then I thought, “The hell with that! If I get lost I am not going to sit and wait to be saved. I’m gonna start walking. I’m not about to freeze to death.”

If you are feeling lost, staying put is the worst thing you can do.

Go for it, even when you don’t have it figured out

I tell clients that coming to treatment can be the best or worst experience of their lives’, depending on how badly they want to change. Everyone is afforded the exact same opportunity. Some choose to stay put and make excuses on why changing will be too hard, others seize the opportunity and give 100% effort into getting out of the woods.

Indecisiveness is the thief of action, whether you’re addicted or not.

If you are constantly waiting for the exact right moment to begin, you will be waiting for a very long time. Maybe forever. Maybe you’ll die before you get the chance to do whatever it is you want to do.

Thinking that you have to have it all figured out to begin is a mistake.

Don’t make it.

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About Paul J. Wolanin MA, CADC

Paul J. Wolanin is a professional addictions therapist living and working in Northern Michigan. He is author of Chopping Wood and Carrying Water: One Day at a Time , a 30-day recovery devotional available on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble. He also runs a website where he offers tools and tips to keep your recovery on track. Sign up for his newsletter by visiting him at Paul Wolanin's Author Site.

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