I’ve often heard it said in AA meetings that “the opposite of addiction is connection.” Thinking about my own experience of addiction I wholeheartedly agree. I felt very disconnected and unloved as a teenager and started using alcohol and other drugs to try and connect with others and feel better about myself. In the long run I was just compounding my inner shame and low self-esteem. My behaviour while drinking was often anti-social and would cause others to reject me, instead of the acceptance that I desperately craved. My feelings of isolation and disconnection grew along with an increasingly poor self-concept. By the time I sought out recovery I was riddled with anxiety and depression. Suicidal thinking was a constant companion and my life felt meaningless.
For me, the principles inherent within 12-Step philosophy are about turning away or ‘practising the opposite’ of this self-centred sickness. The principles of honesty, humility, self-acceptance, love and service are the antidotes to my inner shame and its accompanying fear – they connect me to myself and others. My ego’s toxic shame and fear learned to defend itself in various unhelpful ways that disconnect me – addiction, anger, aggression, dishonesty, denial, false pride, inauthenticity and social withdrawal where my primary defense mechanisms.
My recovery process is about letting go of these unhealthy defenses and connecting with my underlying vulnerability. I need to honestly connect with and face my inner shame and fear. Truthful sharing, mutual identification, reaching out for support, and self-acceptance is the way to go I‘ve discovered.
The ‘core-conditions’ of empathy, non-judgemental acceptance and authenticity are vital to the sharing and recovery process. If I am going to heal from inner toxic shame and fear I need to find an environment that offers love, support and acceptance. When suffering from shame based feelings and a poor self-concept, which prevent self-love and compassion, I need love, support, and empathy from others in my efforts to love, connect with, and accept myself, according to the Person-Centred theory.
In order for 12-Step meetings to help and not hinder the recovery process they need to be environments of love, compassion and acceptance, where vulnerability, authenticity and individuality are welcomed as much as possible and not rejected. The liberal and spiritual principles within the AA traditions provide the basis for this type of setting in which all are welcomed and supported equally and no demands are made…
“Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend on money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.”
Third Tradition, Long Form, 1946
Recovery meetings should be inclusive of all regardless of any particular beliefs or opinions held, backgrounds people come from, race or gender differences. Spiritual principles should be practiced towards everyone – ‘love and service is our code.’
“Our Twelve Steps, when simmered down to the last, resolve themselves into the words “love” and “service.”
Dr Bob, July 30, 1950.
The environment necessary for recovery and growth…
“The soil and seeds of recovery are a loving and nurturing environment and relationships. This healthy foundation of life creates the roots of security, self-esteem and confidence, gratitude, empathy, unselfishness, self-acceptance and compassion, and the ability to love oneself and others.”
Barriers to Recovery – Group Dogma and judgmentalism
Unfortunately, the reality of imperfect people is that they often fail to be non-judgmental and accepting of others – myself included! This is particularly true of insecure individuals who tend to project their own feelings of shame and rejection upon others. I do think that, in general, 12-Step meetings are accepting and supportive environments and enable individual healing and growth.
However, as with all group activity, group conditioning or dogma exists, which can create so called “conditions of worth.” In other words, if we go against the group ‘think’ or ‘message’ we can be made to feel “less than” by others’ judgments and criticism. I’ve personally experienced this type of discrimination and rejection in meetings from certain members with particularly rigid beliefs. Literal and rigid interpretation of AA literature, and ignorance of the liberal principles imbedded within AA history and philosophy, often results in extremism and its need for certainty. This fearful need for certainty cannot tolerate alternative points of view and tends to fight them aggressively. This is because disagreement is seen as a threat to self-esteem and its security.
Literalism and the need for certainty can lead to fundamentalism within certain 12-Step groups which are unhealthy and cult like in my opinion. In this type of group there is little to no room for authenticity and diversity and going against the group dogma results in isolation – the very opposite of connection and recovery from addiction.
Ongoing rejection is toxic and damaging, as well as very painful, and it’s better to leave such an environment and seek one that’s accepting and allows diversity in accordance with genuine 12-Step inclusive principles. Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), suffered with deep insecurity, and consequently, a strong need for approval and acceptance. He realised the importance that the AA fellowship be inclusive and not rejecting of the authentic individual and suggests so in this following quote…
“In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a universal suffering. Therefore the full liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy should be a first consideration. Hence let us not pressure anyone with individual or even collective views. Let us instead accord to each other the respect that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way towards the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares.”
Bill Wilson, General Service Conference, 1965
A certain degree of group conditioning is inevitable within any group activity in order to prevent chaos and to provide a certain amount of security and identification. I think that a large degree of the group conditioning that’s present within AA is healthy and encourages sobriety (physically and emotionally), service to others, and the practice of virtue – which is positive in my book – and much needed in my case.
However, some of the group dogma within 12-Step meetings is very questionable and I’ll leave it to the reader to decide what that is for them. I say “questionable” because this depends upon your point of view, although advances in the scientific understanding of addiction make certain statements heard in meetings unlikely at best.
Newcomers are particularly vulnerable to black and white interpretation of 12-Step philosophy and group conditioning, and I think it’s essential that the liberal principles are emphasised with this in mind. In saying this, certain black and white thinking and belief in early recovery serves as a defensive mechanism and is often necessary in order to keep sober and safe. Viewpoints and beliefs often (but not always) evolve over time and with experience and should be allowed and encouraged as each individual makes their own way in recovery.
As a fellowship promoting recovery from addiction and encouraging genuine connection with self, others, and the world, it’s of vital importance that AA offers inclusivity, acceptance of difference, love and support to all its members in order to enable the authentic recovery and growth of each group member. As individual members of AA, we can play our part by being aware of our own insecurities, prejudices and tendency to criticise and reject others who are different from ourselves, or hold alternative points of view. With this awareness in mind, we can choose to ‘practice the opposite’ of our fear based defensiveness and offer acceptance, love and support to others instead.
I’d like to end this essay with some wise words from the respected AA historian Ernie Kurtz, in relation to the importance of inclusivity and as reminder that our primary purpose is to support each other rather than focus upon difference…
“Whenever, wherever, one alcoholic meets another alcoholic and sees in that person first and foremost not that he or she is male or female, or black or white, or Christian, Buddhist, Jew, or Atheist, or gay or straight, or whatever, but sees… that he or she is alcoholic and that therefore both of them need each other – there will be not only an Alcoholics Anonymous, but there will be the Alcoholics Anonymous that you and I love so much and respect so deeply.”