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Recovery from Addiction: Confronting Complacency

by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.

image of complacent otter symbolizing complacency in recoveryFew would argue against complacency’s tendency to erode the foundations of change.  Most of us experience the lull that can follow a flurry of effort and progress.  We lose steam, let our guard down, relax, and suddenly find ourselves slipping back into the very patterns we are trying to break – whether related to addiction or not.  However, rather than an inevitable stalling of progress and change, the presence of complacency can be a doorway into the deeper vaults of ourselves where reservoirs of powerful motivation lie.

Definition of Complacency

Mistakenly, I thought of complacency as a synonym for laziness, lack of motivation, and diminishing effort. I was surprised to learn that it actually means a smug, uncritical satisfaction with oneself. I usually hear people say something like, “things were going well, then I got complacent.” Whether our effort is dwindling or we are a bit too content with ourselves, complacency can be seen as a messenger delivering a call to action.

Complacency is not something to be condemned. Like all seemingly detrimental aspects of our nature, complacency can be recognized as contributive to motivation much like manure contributes to the scent of the flower. If we can avoid recrimination against ourselves for feeling complacent we can hear the message it sends and answer its call to action.

A Sign of Progress?

On one hand, complacency is a sign of progress and accomplishment. In sports it is much harder to stay on top than to get to the top – far fewer teams repeat championships than win them. It is natural to lose the driving force of hunger after a successful hunt. One message from complacency might be that a vacation or a well-earned break is in order – a fast from effort to restore the appetite.

Complacency as a Challenge

On the other hand, complacency is a challenge to us. We are never exactly where we want to be, which keeps us striving.  If we never pause to feel satisfied with where we are and how far we’ve come, we spend our entire life discontent. If we remove the ‘smug’ and ‘uncritical’ adjectives from complacency we are left with simply satisfaction with oneself, which is something we all deserve to feel sometimes. Complacency challenges us to be both self-critical and self-satisfied, not an easy task!

Self-satisfaction in the absence of self-examination is hollow. If, however, we examine ourselves and accept the results of our examination – including not being totally content – then we pass the acid test of one’s whole outlook on life.  In recovery as in life, there is danger in being too critical of ourselves and a danger in feeling too content. Thus, complacency offers us an opportunity to acknowledge our progress, examine ourselves for ongoing adjustments, accept exactly where we are in the process of change, and maintain motivation to keep on keepin’ on.