Paddling Your Own Canoe – 12 Essential Insights To Emotional Insights by Dr. Allen Berger

If you have ever paddled a canoe, you know how unstable these boats can be. A canoe is relatively narrow and shallow, and that makes it easy to tip. Just a slight shift in your weight from one side to the other will cause it to rock in the water. If a canoe is turned broadside to a wave or a strong current, the force of the wave or the current will rock the boat hard, possibly even capsizing it. An experienced canoeist knows this about these boats and knows how to anticipate and accommodate the craft’s unsteady nature—either through engineering or skill. When you widen the canoe, or add some outriggers, it becomes much more stable. As we improve our skill in handling the canoe through practice (as well as trial and error), we can reduce how unsteady the boat feels.

Before coming to recovery, we were all paddling highly unstable canoes, and most of us didn’t know what we were doing. Even the best among us were, at most, mediocre canoeists. Our stability required the cooperation of the forces of nature. We could manage fairly well if we stayed dead center in the middle of our canoe. As long as we were paddling in calm waters, we could maintain our balance and enjoy the ride. Conditions had to be near perfect, though. If the current or wind picked up or we started to hit some whitewater, we were challenged to keep our balance. If conditions got too difficult, stability seemed impossible, and capsizing felt inevitable. 

Fear of capsizing turned us into control freaks! We tried to take control of the conditions surrounding us to ensure we’d always be paddling along in flat water and perfect weather. But, of course, we looked and sounded liked crazed old sailors, yelling at the wind. 

Our life in addiction and recovery is like a journey through waters both calm and rough. Our psychic lives, the canoes. Our coping skills like paddles and canoeing knowledge. On this journey, we have some tough waters to navigate and a long way to travel. Too often we try to change life to meet our conditions instead of changing ourselves to meet the conditions and requirements of life. Our complaints amount to nonsense. “This isn’t the way the river was supposed to run.” “These waves can’t do that!” “Life is unfair, and that’s why we’re tipping.” “Who built this stupid canoe?” 

Rarely did we consider that the problem was that we had never learned how to deal with the ever-changing conditions and requirements the river of life presents. Even in recovery, we struggled to manage our boat and learn better paddling techniques. 

The reality was that we had designed and built a highly unstable canoe. It was constructed using a blueprint drafted by our false self. The ribs and hulls of our canoe were made of narrow, rigid, and often unspoken demands. Our vessel was leaky and unsteady, and we blamed the water for that! Life had to conform to our expectations if we were going to enjoy what we unconsciously hoped would be a leisurely paddle along a quiet river. 

We are told in recovery that “some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go” (Big Book ‘How It Works page 58). The first thing we needed to let go of was this old, highly unstable canoe. We realized we had to replace it with a more stable model—we had to rouse ourselves from our sleepwalking state. As we became more aware and as we started our journey of emotional sobriety, we began to live our lives more consciously. This allowed us to see what we could not before: Our canoe needed to be wider; maybe we even added an outrigger for our journey. We admitted to the truth that our skills were poor; maybe we needed more help, even guidance from an experienced canoeist. After a time of trial and error and ongoing practice, we developed a more stable design, capable of navigating the conditions we were going to encounter on the river of life. We began to learn how to manage this vessel too. We even started to find joy in this boat on the water—no matter the weather. Our faith in ourselves and in our ability to cope were growing.

In our lives, emotional stability is achieved by becoming aware of our toxic beliefs and unenforceable rules, the ideas that make our emotional balance dependent on external conditions. We start to see how these ideas and rules emerge in our relationships with others (“If you love me, you will do what I want you to do”) as well as in the lies we tell ourselves (“The right person can rescue me from my troubles”).

Once we become aware of these unenforceable rules, we must surrender them. We need to move toward an attitude of “I am okay even if this or that happens,” and away from the idea that “I am okay only if this happens or that happens.” This is emotional freedom. This freedom brings more stability to our canoe; we find we might even dance in it if we wish! 

As we paddle forward in emotional sobriety, we become aware of our emotional dependency and surrender its hobbling expectations. These expectations made our life unstable. Tossing them overboard was an important step toward achieving emotional sobriety. But even this isn’t enough. We also need to learn how to cope with life on life’s terms. 

Learning to live life on life’s terms is really a lot like taking paddling lessons. We learn how to handle the canoe when the current picks up or we hit a tough patch of whitewater. We learn what to do when the waves kick up or when we experience high winds that threaten to capsize us or blow us off course. We learn that the river is in charge, and we learn how to respond to its rules and stay afloat. The skills we learn to handle these tough times include using our awareness to help us regulate and respond in the best possible way to the situation at hand—whether that means genuine rough water or the rampages of our emotional seas. We may feel stuck and scared, but we quit hoping for the river to calm down. We realize no one is coming to help us, so we stick our paddle in the water again and get back into action to see what we can do to steady the canoe. Lo and behold, we make it through a rough patch of water! But soon enough, rocks crop up to knock us about. We may wish to take personal offense at the rocks and get mad at Mother Nature or God—Why are you doing this to me?—but our growing practice of emotional sobriety reminds us that even this is not about us. We deal with life as it is, on its terms. We stop objecting to the strong current in the river and get busy coping with it—even riding it and enjoying it as it flows us toward the future.

All the tools and skills we learn in our practice of emotional sobriety help us keep the canoe stable and on course. We learn to manage and care for ourselves during rough waters. As our competence grows, so does our self-esteem. As our skill in handling difficult situations grows, we develop a greater faith in our ability to cope with life. We’ve made our canoe more stable, and we’ve grown better at paddling it. 

To develop these new skills and become competent at using them, we need to practice their application, especially when we feel unstable. We stop blaming ourselves or others, and we get on with the business of growing up, of paddling our own canoe. When we are stuck or stalled or unable to recover our balance, we get help. We don’t get caught up in the idea that “we should have known better.” Instead we realize that we are and will always be learning how best to cope with the ever-changing waters of life.

As we learn to canoe better, we realize that everything becomes more complex when we add another person to the boat. Now, we not only need to manage our relation to the canoe and river, but we also need to cooperate with our partner as we journey down the river together. 

Much of what we learned in canoeing by ourselves applies to canoeing with two. We will encounter trouble, and we need to realize that the trouble we encounter in our relationship doesn’t mean something is wrong with our recovery program or with the relationship. Quite the opposite is true. Our trouble merely indicates that we have more growing up to do, more paddling skills to develop, more balance to find. Our relationships will evoke and reveal their own versions of rapids and whitewater, as well as warped hulls and busted struts—a whole new set of toxic expectations and rules that we need to become aware of and release. 

Now we need to learn how to keep our balance in relationship to our partner in the boat. We focus on what we need to learn so we can canoe together. We focus on how to best cooperate, synchronize our movements, and not criticize what our partner is or isn’t doing. We learn to communicate with our partners in a clear and straightforward manner, and we encourage them to do the same. We get better at listening. If we fall short of our goal to operate from the best in us, we own our mistake and get on with the business of understanding the lesson we just learned. We realize that we are both doing the best we can, and therefore there is no need to criticize or demand more. Accepting that we and our partners are doing the best we can is a key to holding on to ourselves while in a relationship.

Acceptance turns out to be extremely important in the process of achieving emotional sobriety. In relationships, we have to accept that we are not here to live up to each other’s expectations. If by chance we come together and can enjoy what we have together, grieve about what we don’t, and love each other regardless of having a relationship that is less than perfect, we are experiencing emotional sobriety. There’s always going to be more to learn. Emotional sobriety is all about how we build our canoe and how we learn to paddle it. Emotional sobriety is a practice, a set of skills we learn by doing and develop only by living them out. That’s true for all the insights in this book.

As we paddle down the river of life, we will encounter many unexpected events. Purpose can drive us forward, and forgiveness can help us heal the wounds we sustain. From time to time, we will lose control of our canoe. We may even capsize because we have not yet learned how to best respond to a new or unexpected challenge, but we don’t have to drown. Emotional sobriety also provides us a life vest. Humility can bring us back to the surface where we can catch our breath, swim to shore, right our canoe, climb back in, and learn from what just happened. This is emotional sobriety: continuous learning and integration that leads to more and more emotional maturity. 

Bill Wilson had a vision for us: 

Sobriety is only a bare beginning, it is only the first gift of the first awakening. If more gifts are to be received, our awakening has to go on. And if it does go on, we find that bit by bit we can discard the old life—the one that did not work—for a new life that can and does work under any conditions whatever. Regardless of worldly success or failure, regardless of pain or joy, regardless of sickness or health or even of death itself, a new life of endless possibilities can be lived if we are willing to continue our awakening. (Language of the Heart 1988, 234) 

Emotional sobriety continues our awakening and opens us to the discovery of new possibilities as we navigate life’s waters. For me, it holds the key to peace of mind, fulfillment, and authentic happiness. I firmly believe it will for you too. 

My hope for you is that you will embrace emotional sobriety in your recovery and begin to discover its incredible gifts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: