From Self-awareness to Self-actualization

The SELF Foundation turns 17 this year and as I look back on “the old days” I see that we’ve come a long way since we began this crusade of providing substance dependents a new lease on life. I remember how much of an achievement it already was then just being able to convince cynical and untrusting individuals to give the rehab program a chance at helping them regain sobriety. Those days, there was no talk of major life accomplishments. We simply counted the days, weeks, and months that we kept sober.In 1992 when SELF first started, knowledge about the therapeutic community (TC) mode of treatment was quite limited. Most of the practices were simply inherited and practitioners had insufficient understanding of its foundations and principles. Professionals, in general, were skeptical about recovering addicts left alone to run treatment programs.

Today, much has changed as knowledge of the TC approach has become more available. Over the last two decades numerous training opportunities on the TC were made accessible in the Asian region. In addition a broad exchange of information among participating agencies worldwide provided a wide variety of best practices from which to choose. All these developments have helped enhance the quality of life in recovery.

I am proud to say that SELF has been at the forefront of this evolution. Through my continuous participation in local and international conventions and training workshops — as well as in my articles here in The SELF Journal — I have had the privilege of sharing many of our best practices including some of the innovative interventions that we pioneered to improve the quality of life in recovery.

This time I would like to share yet another approach that we have been working on for the past few years at SELF. It’s a practice I call “Championing Sobriety” and its purpose is to maximize the growth potential of people in a recovery program.

Beyond Sobriety

At SELF we persevere to develop our program so that it will offer our residents the best possible chance of recovery. But we want more than just sobriety for those entrusted to our care. There has to be more than just the counting of days, weeks, and months of successful abstinence. Somehow there has to be a celebration of life in its fullness.

Looking back, that is what my own process demonstrates. As I achieved a few good years of sobriety, I began to feel that I could build more on my growth. I was driven to reach for new heights, particularly in areas that for me was unchartered territory. Eventually this drive became a passion that sustained me and helped me achieve a number of successes. It is a passion that I hope will last for the rest of my life.

I began my recovery at the age of 37 with nothing in my pockets. I was the epitome of a drug dependent who had wasted all his wealth on drugs and had to face a newfound life without a cent to his name. On top of that, I had sustained a major vascular injury during my drugging years that will handicap me for the rest of my life. Despite these, I overcame formidable obstacles and achieved some rather remarkable goals in my recovery.

In 1992 I founded SELF and managed to sustain its operations in the early years, notwithstanding a fair share of trials that included a fire that gutted our first facility in 1996. SELF survived the following years by moving from place to place. Then in 1999 with next to no experience I ventured into becoming a construction contractor and proceeded to build SELF’s very own treatment facility, what is now a six-building compound we call Taal View House. And since we also had next to no capital I also became chief fund-raiser and learned how to generate funds for the project. In 2000 SELF’s dream of a permanent home became a reality.

Years later, as I looked back on that accomplishment, the lesson became clear to me. Whatever led me to push hard for and attain those goals had to be identified and included in SELF’s TC program. Each resident should get a similar “dose of treatment” so that they too could strive for and reach boundless heights.

In studying my path of recovery the first thing that stood out was my unrelenting determination to redefine what recovery should be. I was simply not content with the status quo that said: “You’re a recovering addict. Be thankful and accept your situation. Behave yourself and lead a sober lifestyle.” That prevailing wisdom of the day was simply too grim a prospect for me and I refused to accept it. ­I needed to stay sober and was committed to doing so. But I refused to accept that a life in recovery would simply be one long, grim, gray existence. If I am going to live in sobriety I may as well make it the best of all possible worlds. I am going to do the best that I can do to be the best that I can be even as I live a life of recovery.

Pride in Quality

With this insight, the thrust of our treatment program was modified. The mere attainment of sobriety was no longer enough. We sought to take recovery to that next level — of living life to the fullest with passion, with integrity, with grace. If we do succeed the immediate benefit is that it makes the question of relapse moot and academic.

So, in preparing residents for their trial-filled journey outside the facility, we placed emphasis on instilling in them a sense of “Pride in Quality” — a TC philosophy that for me has not been explored nor given much importance by many.

At SELF we train residents to discharge an array of duties and responsibilities. But, no matter what they do — whether they sweep floors and clean toilets or complete department reports and do program documentation — they all have to meet one standard: excellence.

And what is excellence? It is not perfection for if it were such we would all be doomed to failure right from the start. Rather, excellence is to do to the best of one’s ability. That is all that can be asked of anyone and at SELF we ask for each one’s all.

Though quite demanding for others, most residents have expressed wanting to be pushed towards excellence. For them, it was a good preparation for handling real-life crisis situations, difficult relationship problems, school assignments, work obligations or even the corruption of the world, without being defeated.

Amazingly, after some years of implementation, we noticed remarkable results in their professional attainments, particularly with the last few batches of young graduates who achieved academic excellence by earning themselves a spot on the Dean’s List in various prestigious colleges.

Four Stages of Growth

In our desire to determine the building blocks of success, we identified four stages of growth that a person must take to achieve self-actualization. Kurt Goldstein defines self-actualization as a driving life force that will ultimately lead to maximizing one’s abilities and determine the path of one’s life. Self-actualization is growth-motivated and cannot be achieved without first attaining the lower order of needs. Each step is a prerequisite to the next as follows: The first stage is Self-awareness; the second is Empowerment; the third is to Act Proactively; and the fourth to Reinvent Oneself.

1) Self AwarenessIn order to begin the process of growth, one needs to first become aware of his/her behavior. Self-awareness is an inherent capability of mankind. We are all endowed with this gift from birth. But since we are also endowed with the gift of free will, the act of self-awareness becomes a choice we all have to make.

At the onset of treatment, every resident is exposed to a wide variety of activities that promote awareness. Under the initial thrust of self-discovery, the SELF TC aids residents to discover their deviant behavior through experience, reflection, group feedback, and individual confrontation. Once the behavior is brought to the conscious level and one has accepted it, the resident can move to the next stage.

2) Empowerment – Having accepted one’s behavior, residents can now be invited to view life from a different perspective or paradigm. This ability to make paradigm shifts is another inherent gift from birth we call conscience and imagination. Everyone knows what is right and wrong and imagination empowers an individual to think responsibly or proactively.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand situations without having experienced them before. They can think themselves into other people’s minds and imagine themselves into other people’s places.

3) Acting Proactively – It is not enough to think and imagine responsible behavior. One needs to put this thought into action. Acting a new behavior may be difficult at first but that is why, in a TC, the community shares the responsibility of supporting an individual through changes. The TC philosophy “Act As If” reminds us that if you act as if you are responsible, chances are you will become responsible.

Being proactive means assessing the situation and developing a positive response to it. We can choose to use difficult situations to build our character and develop the ability to better handle similar situations in the future. Proactive people use their resourcefulness and initiative to find solutions rather than just react to problems and wait for other people to solve them.

4) Reinventing Oneself – People in recovery often think that they have finally achieved their goal having learned to be proactive. Discovering how to be proactive can be very liberating. But it is a step shy from reinventing one’s self. You’re sober but you still don’t like to dance or try new things. Reinventing one’s self takes acting proactively to the next level. It is the act of building an entirely new person instead of just modifying one’s behavior.

All my life I was a self-taught auto mechanic. I had no social skills, nor did I have the ability to maintain fruitful relationships. After treatment I decided to take my recovery to new heights and, together with a stronger spiritual connection, I explored “unchartered territories”. I went from being a seasoned auto mechanic of 20 years to becoming a lecturer, trainor, coach, motivator and manager of this foundation. Much later I reinvented myself to become a writer, editor, publisher and even a dance instructor (mind you I had never danced before in my life). Indeed, it is often the very thing that people shun that becomes the portal that can lead them to reinvent themselves.

People who have reinvented themselves are characterized by certain behaviors: 1) They embrace reality and facts rather than deny truth. 2) They are spontaneous. 3) They are interested in solving problems. 4) They are accepting of themselves and others.

When a person becomes enlightened on how to break free from the bondage of his/her old personality, the possibilities of achieving great successes are endless. Before residents leave as graduates, SELF wants them to reinvent themselves. SELF wants them not only to remain sober but to be champions of their sobriety, to become passionate about becoming whoever they want to be and to be the best of what they can be. With this the possibility of relapsing into old habits, behaviors and addictions disappears completely.

In Closing

To me championing one’s sobriety is the ultimate goal in the life of a recovering individual. Happily, the ability to do so is God’s gift to individuals who have experienced failure in their lives.

JK Rowling, author of the famous Harry Potter books, talked about this in her speech at the Harvard commencement exercises in 2008: “On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure.” With humor and poise she went on to speak of the challenges she had overcome on the way to her success, and she extolled the power of imagination to help make things right.

So, if you’re a person with a few years into your recovery and I have managed to inspire you with this article, try taking your recovery to the next level. You’ll be surprised at how much potential is actually within you. Take that risk with God in your heart and soar to heights you’ve never before dreamed of. One thing I can I promise you, it’s going to be a fantastic high!


President, SELF
May 2009