Digital Dharma

The Middle Path, One Day At A Time

The Things We Say – A Primer In Thinking

I was considering the way some of us in the rooms seem to think of ourselves, based on the way we talk. We say, “I’m not a bad person trying to get better, I’m a sick person trying to get well.” Then we continue talking about our shortcomings and defects of character. We say things like “I’m an alcoholic, and my problem is Bill.” (I don’t measure up; I’m defective; I’m a problem.) That is not an affirmation.

The language of 12-step groups is the language of seventy years ago–more like a hundred if you consider when the authors got their actual educations. We now know a great deal more about psychology than in the era of Freud and Jung. We also know a great deal more about addiction and alcoholism.

Nowadays, if I say, “My name’s Bill, and I’m an alcoholic,” I am saying something a great deal different than what the same words meant in, say, 1950. Back they they meant, “I’m a person with an allergy to alcohol. That allergy and the effect it has on me has turned me from a reasonable human being into a person with poor morals, a defective character, and many shortcomings that must be gotten rid of before I can take my place (regain my place) beside ’normal’ people as an upstanding member of society.”

Today the same statement says something entirely different. It says that I have a disease that has been recognized as such by scientists for more than half a century. Exposure to alcohol, probably helped along by heredity, created changes in my brain chemistry that caused me to get sick when I don’t drink. Over a period of time I became so thoroughly addicted that my body, if it was deprived of alcohol, sent me signals that it needed more–signals so powerful that they had the subconscious impact of life or death.

I am saying that only when circumstances arose that I consciously recognized to be life-threatening could I overcome the compulsion to drink long enough to let my body and mind return to anything like “normal.” I’m saying that I belong to a group that gives me support when I’m stressed, helps me develop the skills to handle stress in a healthy way, and gives me social approval and recognition that provide me with the confidence to believe that I will be OK if I continue to work at it. The same is true of addiction to other drugs.

Quite a difference, huh? Yet we cling to the old language in the books and, inevitably, to the self-image that the language conjures. Why? Because we take the nearly superstitious position that to change anything might weaken a program that is keeping us alive, one day at a time.

“Aha,” you’re thinking, “he wants to rewrite the Big Book and Basic Text. He’s another one of those people who think they know better than the founders and the millions who have followed. I’ve got his number!”

Nope. Don’t want to change a word of any literature. I want to change your thinking, though–just a tiny bit. I want you to stop thinking of things as “good” or “bad,” “functional” or “dysfunctional,” “shortcomings” and “defects of character.”

Instead, I want you to think of these things as unskillful behavior. “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these unskillful ways of dealing with life.” “Humbly asked Him to remove our unskillful ways.” I no longer have “bad habits,” but rather unskillful ways.

Do you see what can happen when we begin to think in this way? “I’m not bad at this, I’m unskilled. I can learn to do it better!”

This way of looking at our behavior does two things. It reminds us that there are solutions that can be learned, and it destroys any excuses for not trying to change. By taking away the concept of good and bad, we are left with an atmosphere that encourages trial, tolerates error, and inspires us to try again. Making mistakes becomes OK. We try again. Saying that I dealt with a problem or situation unskillfully says, at the same time, that I accept that I am human and can make mistakes, and that I realize I can improve on my performance the next time–that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

A side effect of this bit of mental juggling is that we begin to find ourselves applying it to others. The young man who interrupts us when we are speaking becomes socially unskillful, not a rude asshole–if we choose to think of him that way. The idiot who changes lanes without signaling becomes an unskillful driver. Perhaps his teacher was less skillful than ours. Aren’t we fortunate to have gotten such good training? And so forth. Since I am myself unskillful in many things (read “human”), I begin to assign to others the privilege of also being human and being allowed to make mistakes.

Isn’t it true of most of the things we do in life, when they fail to work out as we expect, that we tried to get things right–but were simply unskillful? And isn’t it true that we can keep on learning? What a wonderful way to look at our lives–no longer good or bad, right or wrong, but simply opportunities to become more skillful at living them.

5 thoughts on “The Things We Say – A Primer In Thinking

  1. Pingback: Self-Image For Addicts

  2. Pingback: An Oldie But A Goodie… « Digital Dharma

  3. I personally find this article delightful. It presents to me a new skill that I may use to to tolerance and kindness of BOTH myself and others. I also realize that if I see myself as unskillful I can allow myself patience while I go through the process of getting it right. Mistakes become stages of my learning process.
    My upcoming three year birthday has got me reflecting on where I thought I would be by now. I’m not there, not even in the same universe… but I AM learning!
    Thanks Bill,
    I needed some tolerance today!

  4. I was taught that that introducing myself at meetings as “powerless over alcohol” to be a skillful way to avoid my own mind’s devices. If I drink alcohol, I have no demonstrable control over how much or how long I will drink. Whether it is disease, genetics, accelerated decreptitude– not important. What is important is that I don’t persuade myself that I have regained the power to have that next first drink with impunity.
    It also gives me an opportunity to hear me say outloud that I am as powerless over alcohol as I was when I had my last drink, twenty two yers ago.

    Seems to be working for you. Also seems that you missed the point. That’s OK.

  5. I find Cognitive Therapy works so much better for me, than the “disease” theory. Therefore, I really enjoyed this article.

    How am I ever going to achieve a peaceful, complete sobriety, by continuing to repeat “Im a alcoholic / addict…..”I have a disease for the rest of my life”….I’m powerless” ? Or have people tell me I’m in “denial” about a addiction problem…or even a social problem, because I’m not a part of their group / meetings or “taking the steps.” The arrogance, self-centered and self-righteousness begins when you tell people “The 12-steps are the only proven way out of addictions.”

    I’ve done so much better with my recovery, since relieving myself of these old, outdated and personally punishing terms from the 12-step crowd. I’ve managed to maintain complete sobriety for 4 years now, without the fear of relapse, endless meetings / drunkalogues, cloying sponsors and slogans.

    I dont think you can just talk your way into recovery. Or spend the rest of your life discussing recovery and addiction. A healthy lifestyle includes room for other things than endlessly forcing yourself into meetings, in fear of relapse if you dont.

    Well, we have to crawl before we can walk, and not everyone has access to more sophisticated forms of treatment. The fact is, just about any kind of support will work for people who really want to stop drinking. The catch is to really want to. When I became convinced it would kill me in a pretty short time, and decided I didn’t want to die, it was all downhill from there. As far as the skills for living a sober life…I got a lot of those from the folks in the rooms; others I got from my own training, and much help from my recovering wife. Whatever gets you through the night.

    Incidentally, I apologize for the snarky email; my blood sugar was low. No excuse…I know better.

    Thanks for the comments.

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