A recovery coach is a bridge which unites worlds separated by a gulf.

Put another way, what does it take to thrive? Life is first surviving then thriving. Most of us reading these words have figured out surviving. Very few of us have figured out thriving.

Ernie Anderson

American psychologist Abraham Maslow described the universal needs of society as a hierarchy or pyramid.

The bottom-most layers of the pyramid, the foundation, are the “surviving” and each layer builds on the one beneath it until you reach the top, the “thriving.”

This pinacle he called self-actualization, sometimes called “transcendence.” It’s the endgame to which we all aspire.

Transcend literally means “to climb across,” which is how you get somewhere when you don’t have an adequate bridge.

At the top of the pyramid you thrive because you’ve learned how to be your own bridge — not perfect, but adequate. Down at the bottom, we need the help of others to be bridges. We cooperate to survive. And we don’t move up the pyramid until the lower levels are finished. Or as Maslow might have put it, our most basic needs must be met before we become motivated to achieve higher level needs.

Motivating is Recovery Coaching 101. All coaches motivate. But what Maslow argues is that motivating is pointless if a person doesn’t have or doesn’t know how to meet their basic needs. The recovery coach training manual calls that process “developing recovery capital.” I call it being a bridge.

Food. Water. Warmth. Rest. Security. Safety. Camaraderie. Belonging. Without these things, we do not have the underpinnings to live life on our own terms. We do not self-actualize, or transcend. Recovery coaches are trained to curate these vital resources. We offer ourselves as guides, answering questions, “Where can I get help to learn how to care for my health, my kids, my car, my finances?” Being a recovery coach is learning how to find and answer those questions, making connections, bridging the gulf to the resource.

Sometimes the gulf is inside the mind. Recovery coaches learn to ask questions that challenge assumptions. The coaching manual calls it “developing discrepancy.”

Wrong assumptions about ourselves develop into prisons of thought. Our thoughts, after all, are the seed of our actions. Wrong action; wrong thought. Drugs aren’t the problem, they’re the symptom. The assumptions are the problem. One of the biggest judgments leveled against those not yet in recovery is that they’re throwing their lives away, a point critics and detractors often proscribe. If you go through life being told by word and deed that you are worthless, why should anyone be surprised when your actions mirror that same sentiment?

Those struggling with substance abuse don’t see the connection between their actions and their thinking. They need help thinking through their prisons. Some of them, many of them, have never been given the freedom to think differently about their identity. The labels have stuck. As recovery coaches, our job — our joy really — is to offer alternatives.

There’s another gulf, one between your heart and the heart of the stranger next to you, suffering in silence.

We can spend the majority of our lives avoiding that connection, not wanting to climb over, to transcend, to take all the good that has been put into our lives and put it to a use beyond satisfying our own needs and desires.

Someone once asked, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?” I think he and Maslow were finishing each other’s sentences, one thought completing the other.

The life that has food, water, warmth, rest, security, safety, relationships, friendships, status and wealth can be said to be a good life, but it remains incomplete. It still must transcend. It must become a bridge unto itself. You can have all these things but still lose yourself. Your soul. Your essence.

And by the way, this concept of self-actualization that Maslow talked about isn’t transcendent in the sense that it’s grandiose or mysterious. I didn’t wait for a sign from heaven to know this was the right thing to do. This wasn’t a “calling” or a “voice from God.” I didn’t get a vision or see a sign in the heavens to do this.

Imagine if volunteer firefighters only responded to calls that way.

No, they just simply go to where the fire is. The call is practical. It comes over a cellphone. Getting involved is a practical choice. It’s about going to where the fire is. It’s a choice that’s desperately needed right here, right now. The fire is all around us. Stop waiting for someone to be a bridge for the peak of your pyramid. Be that bridge to yourself, a bridge in your community; volunteer today.

Don’t just survive, thrive.

Ernie Anderson of Mechanic Falls is a recovery coach.


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