Several years ago my counselor introduced me to the concept of bottom lines. At the time, I was participating in a private group at my house and one of the members also utilized and recommended using bottom lines. A bottom line is a line you draw around behaviors and daily patterns to create a buffer zone between healthy living and living in the “danger zone” where you might become triggered and ultimately slip or act out. As soon as I heard about bottom lines I remembered a story I’d been told as a teenager. It involved the interview of three men for the job of driving a stage coach across the mountains for a passenger company. The interviewer took the candidates to a mountain road and told each person, “A lot of the roads in the mountains are like this one and have dangerous cliffs at their edges.” He then instructed each candidate to demonstrate his skills with the team of horses and a carriage. The first candidate was able to get within 1 foot of the edge as he sped around the corner. The second candidate, not wanting to be outdone by the first, courageously steered the carriage even closer, coming within an inch of the cliff edge, spraying gravel into the deep canyon below as he made his way around the corner. The third candidate drove the team and carriage as close to the side of the mountain as possible, keeping almost 6 feet between him and the edge of the cliff. The other two candidates laughed at his cowardice and knew that the job belonged to one of them. When the three were brought back together, who do you think was chosen as the new driver? It was the driver who was furthest from the edge. The owner of the company said, “My cargo is people, and they are very precious. I’m looking for the driver who will put the safety of these people first and stay as far away from danger as possible. Accidents occur, and danger can come out of nowhere — but for the person who is prepared and furthest from the edge, the more likely the outcome will be positive for all.”
I have never forgotten this story and have used it multiple times in my life for various situations. I found it interesting that this simple story would have such a profound effect on me when I once again put it into practice.
How then do bottom lines work? They are very simple. You start by identifying the situations, actions, devices, places, etc that are most frequently related with your average slip when you act out. Some examples include (this is only a small sample, you will need to discover your own):
- Watching TV in a hotel room alone on a business trip
- Surfing the internet in boredom
- Clicking on ads at the bottom or side of an internet page (even if they seem okay at first)
- Watching Youtube for long periods of time or for no particular purpose
- Spending lengthy time on social media
- Being alone at night with your internet devices (tablets, phones, iPods, laptops, etc)
- Having a TV or computer in your room with no one else present
- Playing video games for long periods of time
- Not addressing or resolving strong emotions like anger, resentment, or fear
- Taking long showers
- Fantasizing about women when you go to bed or even throughout the day
- Channel surfing on TV
The list could go on and on. But once you’ve identified the main areas, actions, situations, etc where your slips occur AND WRITE THEM DOWN, then you’re prepared to make your bottom lines.
Using the above list to generate some example bottom lines you may come up with something like the following:
- Do not turn on the TV in a hotel room on a business trip by yourself
- Set a timer when on the internet for 5 or 10 minutes. Only use the internet for specific purposes then get off. Tell a spouse/friend when you get on the internet and when you get off the internet (one of my friends does this and really likes it).
- Never click on ads on an internet page. Use an ad blocker with a browser like Chrome.
- Do not watch YouTube unless it is for a specific video. Do not click on suggested videos.
- Set a timer for browsing social media. Only view it 1, 2, or 3 times each day. Cancel all social media and never use it again. Or stay off of social media for 30 days or 90 days.
- At a set time, place your portable internet devices in a public location and leave them there until the next day. If you need access for work or some other important reason let a spouse/friend know before you use it, then when you’re done.
- Remove the TV or computer from your bedroom.
- Limit the amount of time you play video games. Never play when sad or angry. Finish playing by 10:30pm each night (or other time).
- When you feel strong emotions, call a spouse/friend (this is actually part of step 10 in a 12 step program like SAAPP).
- Set a timer and take 3 minute showers. Take cold showers (they will be fast by necessity).
- Learn to clear your mind before you go to bed. Practice mediation (prayer, yoga, reading, a combination of each). If you have a thought you don’t want pop in your head, jump out of bed and quote a song or poem. Do 20-50 pushups. Then get back in bed. Do it again each time it happens again. After a few nights of that your brain will realize it’s not going to get what it wants and it’s tired of doing pushups all night.
- Never channel surf on TV (it’s like plugging in an IV drug and puts you into zombie mode where your logic brain shuts off — slips are easy after that). Be specific about what you watch. When it’s done, turn the TV off.
Once again, these are just examples. They’re not meant to be exhaustive. The key is to analyze your behaviors, and then create your buffer zone, your bottom line — AND THEN STICK TO IT! Be a maniac about keeping those bottom lines. Write them down. SERIOUSLY: WRITE. THEM. DOWN. Then place them in multiple locations. In your car. On your bathroom mirror. In a drawer at work. Look at them often, re-read them, and stay committed to them.
Then, the next time you have a slip, be sure to analyze the situation and ask yourself if you broke a bottom line or not. If yes, then do you need to move the bottom line? Or why did you suddenly break it (usually for me it was because I stopped reading the list and forgot about them). If no, then maybe you need to add another bottom line to the list.
A note on how many bottom lines you might have: If you have a large number of them they’ll be hard to remember. The average person can store 7 items in their short term memory. You’ll be busy with all kinds of data throughout the day. You’ll quickly store these in long term memory but to keep them fresh (by reading or quoting them throughout the day), you’ll bring them back to your short term memory and you’ll need room for other things. So start with 3-5 bottom lines and REALLY practice keeping them. Share them with a sponsor, parent, spouse, or friend. Report every day for a month on how you’re keeping them (a quick text is easy enough). You CAN build new patterns.
In case you’re interested, here are my bottom lines:
- No computers/phones/tablets after 10:00pm. Can clear work with my wife
- No channel surfing
- No video games when angry
- Scripture/conf study + other study 20-30 mins/day prefer morning
- No TV in hotel
- Do not go to youtube when bored
- No tablet/phone in theater when alone
- Set a timer for ten minutes whenever browsing FB
- No video games after 11pm. Stop around 10:30
- No suggested sites on a webpage
I will admit that when I first started using bottom lines I felt trapped. I didn’t like the fact that I was having to “follow these stupid rules all the time! I just want to do whatever I want!” Yeah, that was definitely the selfish addict in me fighting back. Trust that these work. Set a few and keep them, then see if you need to set more.
These alone will not help you become recovered, but they are still a fantastic set of tools for your ever expanding toolbox. Now that I’ve been through recovery and do not have to fight my addiction any longer, I admit that I’ve relaxed a few of these. But I also keep several of them still because either they’ve become a habit and I like keeping it that way, or I realize that it’s a good pattern of behavior and will help me do other, better things with my time.
I would be interested to hear from any of you that have practiced bottom lines or if you’re already using them, feel free to share them with our other readers. I hope you find this tool useful and that it helps you draw one step closer to the freedom you seek!
My name is Mike