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Keeping peer influence healthy.
April 27, 2017

In Tune with Healthy Sobriety: The Best Ways to Learn from Others

Keeping peer influence healthy.The mockingbird is the state bird of Florida, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. One reason he’s so popular is he can singlehandedly bring the music of a dozen birds to a backyard: mockingbirds are fantastic imitators, and if they like another bird’s song, they’ll give it a regular turn among their personal repertories. Mockingbirds living near aviaries have taught themselves to sing like species they’d never meet in the wild this side of the Atlantic.

Yet mockingbirds’ fondness for imitation hardly makes them passive types. They go all out to call attention to themselves, constantly in view, adding aerobatics and wing-flashing to full-volume singing. They let other birds know who’s boss of the berry bush. They defend their nests and fledglings like guerrilla fighters.

If only we all could be like mockingbirds, knowing when to do as others do and when to listen only to ourselves! There might be lower rates of addiction, for starters….

Meanwhile, it’s now been a full generation since “Just Say No” became an American catchphrase, and general opinion is it hasn’t been a great help in reducing substance abuse. Perhaps the problem lies in that little word “just”: saying “no” is most effective when you already have a better idea. If you’re surrounded by peers intent on getting drunk for the sake of getting drunk, there’s not much else you can do, except leave the gathering altogether.

Hence the first rule of keeping peer influence healthy:

Choose the Right Peers

Some newly sober addicts are so exhilarated that their first impulse is to “save” old friends still trapped in substance abuse. Do not—repeat, not—run to anybody and attempt to drag them into the treatment program that did you so much good. At best, they’ll see you as having gone “zealot” and will react with either a quick retreat or open indignation. At worst, they’ll influence you back to the “good old ways.” If you want to help still-addicted friends, pray for them, keep up with their needs through mutual acquaintances, send an occasional “thinking of you” message unrelated to drugs—but accept that they’ll have to decide for themselves when they’re ready to seek help.

Ideally, direct exchanges with anyone who associated you with “getting high together” should be avoided for at least the first full year of sobriety. Spend your time with addiction support groups, discerning and caring friends, new peers with genuine passion for your healthier interests.

Which leads to another rule about learning from others without falling under unhealthy influences:

Know Your Own Best Passions

More than one person has said that the quickest route to failure is trying to please everybody all the time. It not only brings the futility of impossibility (after all, even small peer circles have you outnumbered), but it’s a sign that the fickle “quick fix” of outside approval is the highest thing you know to live for. As another famous saying goes: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

Brainstorm a personal list of everything you would do if you knew failure was impossible—then practice living as though it were. Find the first steps you’d take to reach audacious dreams, and join a group that shares your interest in those activities: you know they’ll urge you on without saying “be realistic.” They’ll also inspire you with new ideas worth imitating.

Finally:

Be the Right Kind of Follower

Popular self-help advice to the contrary, most of us will never be leaders—at least not in the speak-and-dozens-agree sense. And even that kind of leader follows advice from mentors and well-informed subordinates.

You needn’t fear being a follower, because that does not mean mindlessly accepting whatever the “leader” says. Clearheaded, sober followers:

  • know what matters to them and recognize who knows more than they do
  • can offer helpful advice to leaders in a low-key way
  • care about everyone’s well-being
  • value win-win situations
  • never pout over not getting their share of the credit
  • can recognize when the leader is wrong and whether the best course of action is to speak up, let the leader learn by experience, or stop following that leader
  • above all, believe in themselves as intelligent and worthy individuals

So, imitate the mockingbird—be both well-led and proudly independent!

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