They have a popular saying in recovery circles that I believe is flat out wrong: “Resentment is the number one offender.” Meaning that more people relapse due to resentments than for any other reason.
My experience in recovery has taught me that this may actually be a misleading idea, because it is not resentment which seems to get people into trouble, but complacency.
There are several reasons why complacency can be so dangerous in recovery. Let’s take a look at a few of them and look at the possible solutions.
The history of complacency
Back when AA first sprang up the founders had to figure things out for themselves for the very first time. It was very much learn-as-you-go.
At the time it appeared that most people who drank did so in order to medicate their emotions and their frustrations. This was largely a result of resentments. People were angry at others and they held it in and they got frustrated so they drank. Such was the way of the alcoholic.
So the founders of AA had to find ways for recovering alcoholics to have some sort of outlet, so that they could learn to deal with their resentments rather than to drink over them. Thus the 12 steps were born and in those steps the founders specifically addressed the idea of dealing with pent up anger at other people. They understood that such anger was poison and that no one who was hanging on to such anger would stay clean and sober in the long run.
The founders of AA knew that it was difficult enough for someone to get over all of their current resentments and get back to a “clean slate” in their life of recovery. They also knew that it would be a challenge to continue to live in recovery and keep such a clean slate without developing new resentments. So they built in a step to help deal with this “ongoing resentment problem” as well.
So the 12 steps do a pretty good job of addressing anger, resentment, and the possibility that you will encounter more resentments in the future. But then the steps end with the idea that you should continue to work with struggling alcoholics on a regular basis and to keep practicing the steps in your life. Not a bad finish, but in my opinion it was simply not enough. I think if the founders of AA could have predicted the future this well they would have seen that there was one more hidden danger that they failed to address with their initial 12 steps to recovery.
The last hidden danger that must be addressed in recovery is complacency.
The founders of AA could not have addressed this hidden danger because it only manifests itself in the long run, and recovery was quite new to them at the time. So this danger was uncovered over time and they could not have really known about it or predicted it when first laying out the 12 steps. It only became obvious years (or decades) later when they looked back in retrospect.
What is complacency and how can it affect your recovery?
Complacency is when you get lazy with personal growth and you stop pushing yourself to make positive changes in your life, believing that you are safe in your recovery and that you have made all of the progress that you need to make in order to remain clean and sober. You can see how that might set you up for a possible relapse.
This happens to people who have been in AA for years or even decades sometimes. They have recovery all figured out and they have been enjoying a stable life in recovery for a long, long time. In most cases they will even be working with other alcoholics on a regular basis and will still be going to meetings. But somehow it is just not enough. They fall into a trap of boredom, they stop making personal growth because they are no longer pushing themselves or challenging themselves with new goals in life. And so they wind up relapsing. Not because they could not handle a resentment but because they got too comfortable in their lives and stopped pushing themselves to make new growth.
Of course this can easily happen outside of AA as well, the program you are following makes little difference. The trap is still the same and the script is almost always going to be similar.
You start out in early recovery eager to make big changes. You take massive action and you start this new life in recovery. You take big action and you set lofty goals and you focus hard on personal growth and development. You do all the right things that lead to stability in recovery and you push yourself to make healthy changes in your life.
But at some point you may decide that you have pushed enough, that you have made all the positive changes that you need to make, and therefore you have finally “arrived” in your recovery. You subconsciously decide that there is no need to make further changes, no need to push yourself to make further growth, and now you can just sit back, prop your feet up, and enjoy your new life in recovery.
Of course, it does not work this way, and it pretty much never works that way. As soon as you prop your feet up and believe that you have defeated the alcoholic monster or the threat of addiction it is going to strike back with a vicious plan to get you to relapse. That is just sort of the way that things work out and the old truths and warnings about addiction certainly apply here: “Your disease is very patient, and it will wait for years or even decades until you have let your guard down, and it will patiently wait to move in for the kill and trip you up.”
If the founders of AA could have waited thirty years before writing out their twelve steps, they may have modified the last one to include the idea that a person much consciously address and protect against the threat of complacency. There are things that you can do and there are certain actions that you can take to address complacency (more on that below) but the 12 steps do not really address this continuous process specifically enough.
Unfortunately, because the 12 steps work for SOME people, they are treated as absolute gospel and would never be changed in order to attempt to improve the effectiveness of the program, because the idea is that since they work for some people they will in turn work for all people if those people only become willing enough. Hence the steps are unlikely to ever change (if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!), even when new information comes to light that the AA founders could not have known about, such as this example you are reading about here regarding complacency.
Resentments can be easily overcome with reactionary tactics, but overcoming complacency requires a proactive long term strategy
Overcoming resentment is actually fairly simple in recovery. It is a step by step process and you can simply follow the steps and get the outcome that you want.
First, you learn to identify your resentments by becoming more conscious about your anger. Before you can eliminate your resentments you have to identify them and know that they are there. The AA program helps to do this through a process of exploration.
Next, you work through each specific resentment in your life and identify the part that you played in each situation. This is important because it forces you to stop being the victim in every case and makes you own up to your own responsibility.
Eventually you even make amends with the people in your life in which you had hurt or harmed them negatively. Surprisingly it is such situations in which we tend to develop hard feelings against each other, where we were not just a mere victim, but were also an instigator of some sort.
You can also work through a process of forgiveness in order to get relief from certain resentments that might be buried in the past.
All of this is very reactionary. All of it can be laid out in a step by step process and you can pretty much learn to identify your anger and resentments and then deal with them.
But dealing with complacency in long term recovery is not like this. You can not really deal with it in a reactionary fashion like you can with resentments.
With your resentments you can notice your anger before it kills you. You can notice that you are hanging on to a resentment and then take the steps to deal with that resentment. You can notice your resentment and then work through a process to deal with the anger and let go of it so that you can get freedom from it.
Complacency is a bit more insidious than this. Usually by the time you notice complacency your life and recovery has already slid a long way out of whack. Depending on a reactionary method for dealing with complacency is not a smart idea. If you treat complacency like you treat resentments it might just cause you to relapse.
It is not wise to just allow yourself to slide into complacency, notice it, then try to fix it. This is the wrong approach for recovery. It might work for resentments but it will not work so well when looking at your overall life in recovery. The stakes are much higher and the consequences are more immediate when it comes to the idea of complacency. Traditional relapse prevention is not so effective at preventing complacency from taking hold.
Instead, what you need to do is to embrace the idea of a long term strategy for recovery. Reacting with tactics might work for things like anger and resentment, but it will not work against the long term insidious threat of complacency. For that you need a proactive approach. You have to consciously attack the idea that complacency will one day threaten your long term sobriety, and come up with a plan to address that.
It bears repeating because it is an important departure from traditional recovery:
You need to be proactive about defending against complacency.
This is not something that you can wait for it to become a problem and then react to it later. By then it is too late and you will have likely relapsed before you notice that it is a problem. Think about it for a moment: complacency is a form of laziness where you believe everything to be fine. How could you possibly be aware of this if it is really happening to you? The moment you become aware of it you are already defending against it. This is what makes it insidious. Those who believe that they are doing well in recovery are the most vulnerable to it. Those who feel like they might be slacking off and are pushing themselves harder to make new growth are actually completely safe in their recovery, because they are motivated to make positive changes and at the mere threat of complacency.
Complacency is a form of denial. When you are being complacent in your recovery, you are basically saying to yourself “I’m fine, I am safe in my recovery, there is nothing more that I need to do in order to achieve future sobriety.” This is obviously denial on some level, and the smart thing to do is to realize that this type of denial is possible and to defend against it with a proactive plan for continuous growth in recovery.
In order to do this you need a strategy for overcoming complacency in the long run. It has to be a strategy for recovery and a strategy for living your life.
A strategy for overcoming complacency
Obviously the way to beat complacency is to get proactive about continuous growth in recovery (since complacency is a lack of growth).
I have two major suggestions for doing this.
The first suggestion is to use the holistic approach to recovery and personal growth. With this approach you will never be left wanting for more positive changes, because the pool of possible change is nearly infinite.
The growth that you make in traditional recovery is generally restricted to spiritual growth. That is the focus and therefore all of the progress that you typically make with those programs is going to be based on spiritual growth.
With an holistic approach to recovery you can still make spiritual growth. However, you do not restrict yourself to only growth in the spiritual realm. Instead, you open yourself up to the possibility that you could do things such as:
* Become physically fit.
* Eat a healthier diet.
* Become emotionally stable.
* Improve your relationships.
* Seek spiritual growth.
* Increase your education.
And so on. So your quest for personal growth in recovery does not have to be limited to just the spiritual realm. You are free to seek positive changes in all areas of your life, and in fact you should do exactly that.
Realize that all forms of personal growth are helpful in your recovery, especially in terms of preventing relapse in the long run.
The second suggestion is to recognize the cycles of growth in your life and to increase your awareness of this cycle.
What tends to happen is that you will go through growth spurts in your life and in your recovery.
So for example, you may decide that you want to quit smoking cigarettes now that you are clean and sober. So you make a huge effort to do everything that you can in order to quit smoking. It takes a monumental effort and you put in a lot of work and you finally succeed in quitting smoking. After you successfully quit it takes a while for you to return to a normal baseline feeling in your life, and things will start to progress smoothly again.
It is at this point that you want to pause and reflect and acknowledge that you achieved something great. You set a huge goal for yourself, you set out to do something extremely healthy, and you finally met and achieved your goal. Pat yourself on the back and bask in the glory of it all for a while. You deserve it.
Now here is where the heightened awareness about the growth cycle needs to come in, however.
If you simply bask in your victory and then settle back into your daily routine and never challenge yourself to make any more personal growth, you are setting yourself up for failure.
What needs to happen instead is that you need to have this heightened awareness about the growth cycle, and then start thinking about your next major goal or project when you realize that you are sort of coasting through a valley again.
We set goals and rise up to meet these personal challenges in recovery and then we are back to our baseline. When we notice ourselves back at this baseline of recovery we need to immediately start thinking about what our next move might be.
What I would suggest is that you combine this new awareness with the idea of holistic health.
Take a giant step back and look at your life. Notice where you might be lacking or need improvement. Notice where your health is not yet perfect. What can you improve? What positive changes can you make in your recovery?
Evaluate, then decide. Set a new goal for yourself, one that is challenging enough that it will require a serious effort. Then, push yourself for more growth in recovery.
The goal is not to be constantly pushing yourself every single day. But do increase your awareness of the growth cycle so that you are always planning your next major goal in life. Keep moving forward, consistently.
The push for more personal growth can become difficult after you achieve stability
The threat of complacency sets in once you have achieved stability in recovery, and believe that no further growth is required.
But remember that growth in recovery is not linear, and that you will go through periods of intense growth followed by a relative lull.
What you need to make sure that you do is to recognize when you are in a lull, and immediately start planning your next personal growth challenge for yourself.
So you might say “that was nice, I had a big goal in the past and I met it, but now I am just sort of coasting along through my recovery, not really challenged in any way right now. I need a new goal, something positive that I can strive for, something that will make me a lot healthier in my life and in my recovery.”
Complacency can be fed by the illusion that what got us clean and sober will keep us clean and sober
There is an illusion in recovery that is very pervasive and I notice it often among newcomers in recovery.
The illusion is this:
People believe that what got them clean and sober is what will keep them clean and sober.
It is easy to see why people believe this. If they got sober through residential treatment and AA meetings, then they might believe that they need some form of continuous treatment and meetings in order to stay sober in the long run.
Of course, we know that the only real constant is change, and that we have to keep making positive growth and evolving in our recovery if we are going to remain clean and sober.
What worked in your recovery at 30 days sober will probably not serve you well at five years sober. You have to keep changing and growing in your recovery in order to avoid complacency.
The best way to do this is to increase your awareness of the growth cycle (notice when you in a lull!) and keep pushing yourself to make positive changes in your life.
Long term recovery IS personal growth.