Do you need to focus more on personal growth in recovery from addiction, or self acceptance? Which is more important for achieving long term sobriety? And how do you strike the proper balance?
Some people argue that you can simply have both. That you can strive for personal growth while also accepting yourself just as you are.
But this isn’t necessarily easy to do. In fact, there is a very popular prayer devoted to this exact problem, and that is the Serenity Prayer. The idea is that you are always facing one of two choices in life: You either need to accept the situation as it is, right now, and gain serenity from that moment, or you need to take action and push to make a change. Of course the kicker is knowing when you need to do each of these two options, which is where the wisdom comes in.
And you can’t always do both. You cannot always accept yourself as you are, right now, without any reservation, and at the same time push yourself to make changes. In fact, it is pretty much impossible to do both. You are either doing one or the other: Accepting yourself or forcing a change.
And at times it all comes down to a question of timing.
Let’s talk about early recovery from addiction for a moment.
The balance between self acceptance and personal growth in early recovery
In early recovery you are in a unique situation. There is a struggle going on with denial.
First of all the alcoholic or the drug addict is trying to accept their disease. This is not an easy thing to do. I struggled for years with the fact that I had a serious problem. Of course this is what denial is all about. We all would like to think that we “are smarter than that.” But we’re not. And it is not about being smart anyway. An addict is an addict. It has nothing to do with brains. It is about being physically addicted to a substance and then having that take control of your mind, body, and spirit. Addiction consumes people from the inside out. And we all know that it does not discriminate, and can affect anyone.
So even before you get clean and sober there is a struggle going on when it comes to self acceptance. The addict is in denial about who they really are and what kind of help that they need. You see, it is not enough to admit that you have a problem. If it were that easy then I would have been sober much sooner. But as it was, I had a hard time admitting that I needed a recovery program in my life. I had a hard time admitting that I was out of control and that I needed inpatient rehab. I did NOT have a hard time admitting to my disease, but I DID have a hard time admitting that I needed a solution for that disease. That was what my denial was all about. I did not want to go to rehab, I did not want to go to AA meetings, I did not want to face the music and accept a new solution in my life.
And why not? Because I was scared. That is why every alcoholic and drug addict does what they do. It is always fear that motivates us in the end.
Sure, we won’t admit to that. No one likes to admit that they are afraid. But this is what drives addiction and alcoholism. This is what keeps people stuck in denial for years or even decades. Fear. It is fear that fuels the madness of addiction. We are running away from ourselves, from the very fact that we do not like what we have become. We are afraid to face the mirror, to face reality.
The beginning of all healing in recovery is embodied in the first step of AA. You admit that you are an alcoholic. But it is so much more than just a simple admission, so much more than just saying the words “I am an alcoholic and I need help.” It is more than that because you are finally accepting it on a deep level.
What does that mean, to accept it “on a deep level?”
It means that you are ready to take action. That you are willing to go beyond just saying that you are an alcoholic, that you have a problem. It means that you are ready to accept a new solution in your life.
To accept your alcoholism or drug addiction on a deep level is to accept a new solution in your life. For most people that will mean going to get professional help. Treatment. Rehab. Maybe AA meetings. Whatever the case may be.
You don’t get to picky at this point. Not if you are serious about getting help. If you are really serious about changing your life at the point of surrender then you will also realize that you are not in a position to be calling the shots. You don’t know what you need. Because your life is a train wreck and you have made one bad decision after another. You need help and you don’t know exactly what that help should look like.
I have tried to help hundreds or even thousands of alcoholics and drug addicts to get sober. Do you know what is one of the biggest red flags for someone who is not ready? Anyone who is overly confident about what they need to do. If you are too confident at your point of surrender then you are not really in “true surrender mode.” You are probably going to relapse. I have watched that happen over and over again. People who are cocky at the beginning of recovery always relapse. They don’t make it. They might have to go back out and get some more pain and misery before they come back in a state of true surrender.
Early recovery is the time for self acceptance. You have to accept the part of you that is an alcoholic, the part that needs professional help. The part of you that doesn’t have a clue what to do. You need to accept your disease on a really deep level, and then ask for help and start rebuilding from there.
Acceptance is the key in very early recovery. It is the secret to breaking through denial. You have to accept that you have a disease and that you need help to beat it.
Transitioning to long term sobriety and what that means for personal growth
I mentioned the idea of timing.
Early recovery is, to me, very much about self acceptance. You have to accept yourself in order to get through denial and surrender.
If you work the steps of AA, or if you just start to work on yourself in general, you will need to use self acceptance again in order to unlock some parts of personal growth.
There is a step in AA where you list out all of your character defects. All of the negative stuff that is swirling around in your mind. All of the stuff that can trip you up and jeopardize your sobriety.
This requires self acceptance. In order to take an honest look at yourself and write all of that stuff down you have to practice some degree of self acceptance. If you are in denial about your own defects then you cannot very well identify them and later eliminate them.
Long term sobriety, in my experience, has more to do with personal growth than it has to do with accepting yourself.
No, my experience is that you accept yourself in early recovery. That is when you get really honest with yourself and work through your denial. Then you get honest with yourself some more and you list out of all of your character defects. You figure out what is wrong with you and what is holding you back in life. You figure out the things that lead you to drink or use drugs.
For example, I realized in very early recovery at one point that I was constantly feeling sorry for myself. Everyone seemed to be talking about resentments at the AA meetings I was going to, but I did not seem to have many resentments, if any. Instead, I realized that I had a different problem. I was feeling sorry for myself. And I realized that this was a character defect! That hit me like a ton of bricks. Because up until that point I never would have believed that self pity was a negative emotion, or that it might hurt me in some way.
But it was hurting me. Because there I was, at 4 weeks sober, feeling sorry for myself and basically justifying the idea of getting drunk. And I thought: “Wait a minute…this isn’t going to work. I don’t want to drink any more! What good is this self pity doing me?”
And it was then that I realized that this was a script, this little self pity routine, that would run in my head on a regular basis. I used it to justify my drinking. But now it was no longer serving me.
So I had to identify this defect first. That required an honest look at myself.
But then came the personal growth part. That was the part where I decided to take action and do something about the defect.
So I asked for help. I asked my sponsor and my therapist and my peers what to do about self pity. I brought it up as a topic at an AA meeting. I got lots of ideas and lots of feedback about how to conquer self pity.
Then I took action. One of the things that was suggested to me was that the opposite of self pity was gratitude. That made a lot of sense to me. You can’t feel sorry for yourself and also be grateful at the same time. It isn’t possible because the two emotions are polar opposites. Therefore, a big part of my solution was quite clear: I had to focus on gratitude.
I also made a decision at that time that I was not going to tolerate any more self pity in my life. So when my brain would start to “run the script” and play the self pity tape, my new job was to:
1) Notice as quickly as possible. So I had to increase my awareness, to realize when self pity was happening.
2) Shut it down immediately. I would have to redirect my thoughts and use gratitude techniques if necessary for this.
So I took action and implemented both of these ideas. They became automatic for me. I naturally started to catch myself when I slipped into self pity mode and I would shut it down immediately. I would force myself to stop what I was doing, grab pen and paper, and start jotting out a gratitude list right there on the spot.
And it worked. I stuck to my new plan and I took action. My life got better and this was real personal growth.
I suppose it would have been possible for me to instead just accept my tendency towards self pity. But I don’t see how that could have been healthy. It was something negative and I was able to change it and my life improved as a result.
The danger of practicing self acceptance to much instead of pushing yourself to grow more
There is a danger, I think, in the idea of self acceptance.
There is a line from one of the stories of the Big Book of AA that says “And acceptance is the answer to all of my problems today.” I hear people quote this line quite often.
I don’t like it.
And I think it is dangerous. You can justify a whole lot of nonsense with the idea of self acceptance.
And that of course is where the serenity prayer comes in.
“The courage to change the things you can….”
So in my own example, my self pity defect was something that I could change. I realized this and I took action and I changed it.
But I could have used the idea of self acceptance as an excuse. I could have said “well, I have always been a bit down on myself, and I have tried to work on it but I don’t think that part of me will ever change, so I will just accept it and try to be happy anyway.”
How many people do that every day and use the idea of “self acceptance” as their excuse?
I can look back at many of my peers in recovery and see where this has happened many, many times.
I hate to sound like those motivational posters that you see all over the walls at middle school, but we really have quite a bit of power over ourselves. If we are serious about making a change in ourselves then we have a lot of power to make amazing things happen. If you really want something and you ask for help and you focus hard then you can achieve pretty much anything. We have very few excuses left. If you want to be complacent and lazy then it seems like the concept of “self acceptance” is perfect for that. But if something in your life is bothering you and you wished that you could do something about it, then chances are good that it is simply a matter of initiative.
I quit smoking once. I ran a few marathons even though I have asthma pretty bad. I built a successful business. And of course I quit drinking and using drugs.
All of these required a push from within. A call to action. I had to do something. I had to have that spark inside.
In all cases I had to be upset with the status quo. So I was not happy with my current reality. I was not happy with myself as a smoker. I was not happy with myself when I was constantly abusing drugs and alcohol. I was not happy with my day job and the weekly grind. I was not happy being out of shape.
So in each case I had to get uncomfortable. I had to dislike the position I was in. This is not self acceptance. This is, in fact, the opposite of self acceptance. I was not accepting a part of myself, a part of my life situation. I refused to accept part of my life and I made a commitment to change it.
And so in each case I made a serious effort. In the examples I listed above, each case required quite a serious effort. In each case the reward matched that effort. This is how personal growth works. You put in a tiny effort, you get a tiny reward. You put in a major effort, you get a major reward.
And when you practice self acceptance, what kind of effort are you really putting in? What kind of spark is there inside of you to create change? Not much of one, in my experience. When you accept yourself fully, nothing more is required. When you accept your life situation fully, no changes are necessary. Nothing has to happen.
Recovery is all about change.
Hopefully my bias is showing through by now. I believe you should push yourself towards personal growth, and leave the self acceptance to other people…..
How complacency can sneak into your recovery and trip you up if you are not careful
I used to believe that complacency meant one thing: Quitting AA meetings and then relapsing on alcohol or drugs.
This is a very simple explanation. But complacency is a much deeper issue than this.
I realize today that I can become complacent in so many ways. I recently was challenged with a medical issue that forced me to do some fear setting. Because suddenly I did not have a choice: I was being forced to face my fears in light of a medical issue. And I realized through that process that I had been complacent. I had been playing it far too safe in my life. I had been staying safe in the harbor instead of exploring the open seas, where the real rewards were at.
You can be complacent in other ways as well. You can be complacent in your current relationship, for example. You might be comfortable and unhappy, all at the same time. And yet the idea of walking away from it all is just too scary, too big to comprehend.
You can be complacent in your job or your career. You might be bored and uninspired and not doing work that really matters to anyone. And you may have a gift inside of you (who doesn’t?) that could really make a difference in someone’s world, if you could find a way to just quit and go do the work that really matters in life. But that steady paycheck may keep you complacent.
Complacency doesn’t have to be just about drinking. We can get complacent in a whole bunch of different ways. And accepting yourself means not making changes and staying stuck in that complacency.
Finding the wisdom to know the difference
My solution is a bit simple and brute-force, but it seems to work.
Just assume that you are complacent. All the time.
Assume that you have gone soft, and that you need to practice personal growth.
Assume that you need to get busy working on yourself, and improving the person that you are to become in sobriety.
Do the work. Assume that your sobriety depends on it.
Then ask yourself:
If you make this assumption, how can it hurt you?
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