Becoming Right-Sized

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Dealing with shame and fear in AA
Becoming Right-Sized

In his book, For God’s Sake, Alan Budge wrote, “Recovery isn’t about stopping drinking (or stopping whatever). It’s about investigating the ways of the ego, and trying to change on the basis of that knowledge. It’s about surrender. For me, the whole spiritual deal is based on the idea that I’m not in charge, there is something bigger: God, the universe, whatever. The important thing is not to think or act as though I’m the final authority, that my best interests are the highest good.”

I believe Alan Budge is right. The Twelve Steps encourage the practice of humility and a surrender of the ego.

“Being humble is having a realistic view of oneself as a limited, imperfect human being and being honest in the portrayal of oneself to others. Humility acknowledges the need for others and reaches out towards them; whereas false pride/ego denies this need and results in an inner emptiness, it cuts one off from others due to its sense of being better than in comparison and therefore lacks identification and compassion for others. 

AA’s Step One requires the difficult admission by our ego of powerlessness and acceptance that our life has become unmanageable. However, the ego’s surrender of its illusion of control is a foundation of recovery. We humbly admit our limitations; and by doing so, open ourselves up to help from others or help from our Higher Power. In AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Step Seven, its authors wrote:

“So, it is that we first see humility as a necessity. But this is the barest beginning. To get completely away from our aversion to the idea of being humble, to gain a vision of humility as the avenue to true freedom of the human spirit, to be willing to work for humility as something to be desired for itself, takes most of us a long, long time. A whole lifetime geared to self-centredness cannot be set in reverse all at once. Rebellion (ego) dogs our every step at first.” 

Toxic Shame. Most people live with some sense of shame. It’s intrinsic to the development of a healthy self-concept, keeps our behavior in check. According to psychotherapist Hayley Merron, shame becomes a problem when it develops to a toxic destructive level through criticism, rejection, or not being loved for who we truly are.

Alcoholics and addicts typically have a large amount of toxic shame or low self-esteem, along with their accompanying symptoms: feelings of hurt, insecurity, isolation, depression and an inability to love or be loved. In my book, The 12 Step Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous, I note that [Shame] cuts one off from a healthy connection with others as one feels ‘less than’ in comparison. Shame also prevents identification with others and creates feelings of rejection, anger and bitterness.”

Toxic shame is a destroyer of lives. The deep insecurity or self-centered fear that it produces causes the ego to attempt to control everything and everyone in its path, and often results in avoidance or addiction, as it protects itself from further harm, pain and a sense of failure. These compensatory effects block the growth of true humility, and result in an inability to form and maintain healthy, close and loving relationships, as this requires the capacity to show genuine vulnerability.

The ego manifests a person’s self-concept and relationship with the world. It judges what’s right and best, and attempts to compensate for shame (largely unconsciously) by asserting dominance and control. This behavior is revealed in false pride, arrogance, aggression, dogmatism, conceit, criticism and contempt for others.

Recovery and Healing. How does the Twelve Step recovery process help heal shame and promote humility? The Program and Fellowship accomplish this goal by encouraging honesty with self and others, which, in turn, promotes self-acceptance. The inventory Steps explore strengths and weaknesses (limitations and defenses) by encouraging sharing with others on a one-on-one basis and within the group.

The practices of sponsorship and sharing in meetings allow for identification with others. This increases self-awareness and self-acceptance, lessening feelings of isolation, shame and guilt. This process encourages greater honesty, authenticity and humility.

It’s important to choose the right sponsor and meetings to attend to be adequately supported and accepted. It is essential to find people who offer true compassion and acceptance when we are vulnerable. Sponsors or Fellowship meetings that are judgemental and unsupportive are damaging to the process of healing.

The Program and Fellowship also provide meaning and purpose in recovery, primarily through the principle of service to others, but also in newly found spiritual beliefs. We need others as much as they need us. The feeling of belonging and being valued by the group encourages our self-worth and reduces feelings of shame.

Progress not Perfection. Bill Wilson suggests that developing true humility takes a very long time. In his Grapevine article, “Humility for Today” (June 1961), he wrote, “There can be no absolute humility for us humans.” This is a realistic statement as complete humility would require a totally secure ego with no need for any defenses. I have not yet met such a person.

My own experience in recovery showed me that developing a right-sized ego meant I had to increase my self-awareness, self-compassion and self-acceptance, in addition to finding a willingness to understand and be compassionate toward and accepting of others.

Depending upon one’s level of shame and ego distortion, more help may be required; therapeutic and supportive relationships help us gain genuine self-acceptance and humility. Loving support from others is essential to healing shame and to the ego’s need for control and safety. Healing relationships are not always easy for alcoholics or addicts to find or maintain. Damaged egos often cause us to destroy what’s good for us; however, with help from a great therapist, loving friend, partner or family member, we can learn to love and accept ourselves.

I’m often amazed at how stubborn my ego is, my shame and fear must run very deep! Through increasing levels of surrender and when I am ready or broken enough, I let go of my need for control of my life. I then take a risk, practice faith, and, to paraphrase the title of John Bradshaw’s well-known book, “heal from the shame that binds me.”

Help and support is within reach for you or a loved one battling addiction. Explore InRecovery’s national addiction treatment center directory now.
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