How Humility Becomes Important For Sobriety

How Humility Becomes Important For Sobriety

How to get through a family gathering where there is drinking

One of the most important concepts in alcoholism recovery is that of humility.

Without this critical ingredient it is impossible for most people to achieve any sort of new life in recovery.

So what is humility and how does it relate to our journey to stop drinking or taking drugs?

What exactly is humility as it pertains to sobriety and recovery?

When you are stuck in addiction or alcoholism you lack a certain knowledge.

If you knew how to do it, you could simply stop drinking on your own.

Put simply: You lack education. You need to learn something in order to recover.

You lack knowledge.

Humility is the acknowledgement that you lack this knowledge, that there is something to be learned.

This is important for recovery. If someone is too proud then you cannot teach them anything. They are not in a position to learn, nor do they want to learn. They have it all figured out.

How many of us experienced this false pride during our addiction at some point? I can remember feeling this even when I had fear, and I was defensive about my drinking. Don’t take away my alcohol, don’t try to tell me that I have a problem, because I finally found something that works for me that makes me happy. That was what I was thinking at the time, and my denial kept me trapped in a state of misery. I refused to become teachable because I had already made up my mind about sobriety. I was terrified of it but I would not even admit that to myself or others. Instead, I argued angrily that sobriety would cast me into an even deeper depression than what I was experiencing in my alcoholism. (Of course this proved to be false!).

Anyone can get thrown into detox (or jail) and walk out of the facility sober. But how long will they remain sober? The degree to which they have humility will help to dictate their results.

Basically, if they have no humility at all, you can be sure that the person will relapse rather quickly. This is going to be true even if they are adamant that they know how to recover.

I have watched this happen over and over again back when I was working full time at an alcohol treatment center. I would witness clients come in who might suddenly “snap” at any time, meaning that they would decide that they just had to leave, right now, before their treatment was over. Many times before their treatment had even really started. And no matter what the therapist said to them or what the staff people (including myself) tried to reason with them, they could almost never be swayed. And they would leave and they would relapse.

The amazing thing is that they would sit there and lie to themselves and to your face the entire time they were walking out the door. “No, I am not going to drink…no matter what I am not going to drink today, I am done with drinking forever.”

I watched this little scene play out dozens upon dozens of times with various clients at treatment. They would decide to leave rehab early and you could never talk them out of it. And they would try to convince you and anyone else who would listen that they were not–positively NOT–going to relapse after they left.

And they relapsed every single time.

Not most of the time, mind you. But every single instance like this when I was able to follow up later on (usually because they checked into rehab again at a later date), they always, always, always relapsed. Every single time.

When you leave treatment early and go against the simple plan and the simple program you were trying to follow, bad things happen.

What does this have to do with humility?


Being humble means that you check into rehab and you LISTEN.

I know that is probably a really hard concept to grasp for the average alcoholic or drug addict.

This is because the average alcoholic and drug addict is normally pretty darn smart. And they are capable. And if they really set their mind to it, they can accomplish most things.

But in reality they are dealing with a completely new animal when it comes to addiction and alcoholism. People underestimate it nearly every time, especially at first.

I know many struggling alcoholics and drug addicts who came back to rehab later on and said to me: “You were right, I never should have walked out last time I was here. I should have stayed and worked the program. I thought I could figure it out on my own, I was feeling good at the time….”

I have heard that idea expressed over and over again.

Humility is the cure for that problem. If the person had been more humble then they would not have sabotaged their own recovery effort. They might have stayed sober if they had been more humble. But instead their pride convinced them that they were smarter than the average alcoholic.

Statistically speaking, we all like to believe that we are smarter than average. And of course most of us are wrong in that (due to the power of averages!). So it makes sense to heed the warnings that you hear in early recovery, and to take such warnings to heart.

To believe that you are smarter than average and therefore you are exempt from the rules of recovery is nearly always a disaster.

Humility and the early recovery process

The early recovery process starts with surrender.

This moment is, in itself, crushing beyond belief. It is horribly crushing. I cannot think of a better word for the moment other than “crushing.”

Because essentially what you are doing is you are crushing out the last of your pride. That is what surrender is: You are saying to the world: “I give up, I don’t know how to live a happy life, please show me how to do it. Give me direction.”

This is a very humble moment. Every last bit of your pride is squished into oblivion.

And that is OK.

Because in that moment of surrender you will also feel some serious relief. You will feel something fall away from you, that almost competitive desire to self medicate and to seek “happiness” in your drug of choice. You will let that slide, because you will have finally admitted that it no longer works.

There is a saying in traditional recovery: “Your best ideas got you here to AA (or rehab)”.

People hear that and they say “What? My best ideas? What do you mean, my best ideas?”

And that’s just it….you are always using your best ideas. All the time. Whatever you think is the best idea at any given time, you go with it. This is how we live our lives, how we make decisions. You don’t make a mental list of ideas and then pick the worst of the bunch to try it out, do you? Of course not. You always choose your best idea at any given time.

And leading up to your moment of surrender, your best ideas have gotten you…..drunk. Miserable. Chaotic life. Broken homes. Broken relationships. Legal problems. Lost jobs.

You get the idea. Our best ideas have nearly destroyed us.

And this is where the humility concept should start to kick in.

You can’t get sober just based on your own ideas. It never works. We sabotage our efforts every single time.

Here is why humility is important, let me break it down for you:

You have enough mental and emotional energy to do one of two things. Choose one of them:

1) Come up with a great plan, or
2) Execute a great plan.

But you can’t do both. You don’t have the energy to do both.

If you want to test out what it is like to try to do both of those two things at the same time, then just try to get sober completely on your own without any outside help.

Let me know how that works out for you.

Because that is what you are trying to do when you take on sobriety by yourself: You are both designing and executing a master plan for your entire life.

It can’t be done! That is not realistic. It is like asking the president of the United States to also work 40 hours each week at McDonald’s. It is completely unreasonable.

No, you can’t do both of those things. You can’t both plan and execute your recovery. Not when you are first getting sober, not by a long shot.

Again, humility. Humility is the answer we are seeking here.

With a healthy dose of humility, this problem is neatly solved.

Because suddenly you can completely outsource one of these two jobs (planning your recovery versus executing your recovery plan).

Take a guess as to which of those two things can be effectively outsourced…..

I’ll give you the answer, flat out.

You can outsource the plan, but you cannot outsource the execution.

When it comes right down to it, in the journey to sobriety, only the individual can execute the plan. Only the individual can take positive action every day.

It is all up to you to do the work. To walk the walk. No one else can do that for you.

On the other hand, realize that the job of actually planning your recovery can easily be outsourced.

There are many people who are just dying to tell you what to do in your recovery.

People such as therapists, counselors, sponsors, peers in AA meetings, and so on.

All of these people (and probably a lot more) would be more than willing to make suggestions as to what you need to be doing every day in order to stay sober.

And here is my million dollar advice to you:


Do what they are suggesting.

This is the secret shortcut to world class humility.

Simply ask others for advice, ask them how you should live, and then put their ideas into action.

Now you might be nervous (as I most certainly was) that doing this will turn you into a robot. I was afraid that I would become a robot. Or perhaps I would resemble the hole in the middle of a donut if I were to follow the advice of others rather than my own ideas.

You can talk about how to achieve world class humility until you are blue in the face, but the reality is that you only need to ask for guidance from others and then start following it. This is how to get yourself into positive action. This is how to actually practice a real humility, rather than just wishing that you were more humble.

When I first gave this a fair chance to work in my life I was amazed at the results. I was absolutely shocked and astounded.

First of all I was amazed that it did not turn me into a robot. Here I was, ignoring my own ideas, and I was taking advice and putting other people’s suggestions into action. And through all of that I noticed that I still retained a sort of power in my life. I could still…..decide. Heck, I could go get drunk if I really wanted to! But of course I did not want to, because my life was slowly getting better and better, and it was all starting to get somewhat interesting.

Second of all I was amazed that my power was growing and my happiness was increasing. How was this even possible? I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, I was doing what other people told me to do. And yet I was becoming happier? What?

Let me say that again to let it really sink in for anyone who feels stuck right now in life:

I was doing what other people told me to do, and this was making me happier.

I normally like to think of myself as being very smart, capable, independent, and all of that jazz. So this revelation was truly astounding to me.

I had basically made a commitment in my first year of recovery to become humble. To play the part. To get out of my own darn way. To listen to others and actually take their advice.

And I did NOT think that it would work. I certainly did not think that it would lead to happiness.

So you have to understand that I was truly shocked when I realized that following advice from others had made me both happier and more powerful in my own life.

Why we need to remain humble in long term sobriety even when we think that we have solved our problem of addiction

Addiction and alcoholism are very troublesome in the sense that they never go away and they are very patient.

I know this because I watched several people who had significantly more sober time than I did who eventually messed up and relapsed.

And my question was always: “How could they let that happen? They had 15, 20, 25 years sober…..and they relapsed? How in the world?”

And the answer always comes back to the idea of complacency. But that in itself is somewhat useless because it can be very difficult and very tricky to identify complacency.

This is because complacency (or “the disease” if you prefer) can attack a recovering alcoholic in so many different ways, on so many different levels.

In nearly every case the person who relapsed can look back and say “yes, I was slacking off….I was not pushing myself to grow like I should have, I was not taking care of myself in all the ways that I should have been,” and so on.

But the avenues by which you can be attacked in recovery are truly amazing.

One guy I knew in recovery was strictly an alcoholic. He had never done any drugs or had any problems with anything other than alcohol.

He got a shoulder injury playing softball. Hurt like crazy.

The doctor put him on painkillers.

* poof *

He gets addicted. Starts taking them like crazy. Off to the races. Before you know it he is combining them with booze and is fully relapsed.

This guy had 17 years sober in AA.

A bit ignorant? Perhaps. But there are other ways the disease can sneak in, especially if we leave the door open via the slightest bit of complacency.

That story also helps to illustrate why you need to be taking care of yourself on every level. Your physical health can be a huge trigger for relapse in ways that most people would never be able to predict.

And that is the crux of the problem right there: “…never be able to predict.”

People who are much smarter than I am and who had more time sober have relapsed because they were not able to predict how they might become complacent.

Think about that. If you are sober today then maybe just a tiny bit of that is lucky on your part. As it is on my part.

The theory is that we can prevent relapse with a strategy of personal growth and a strong daily practice that is filled with positive action.

If you tick off enough of the check boxes then this should all but insure that you do not relapse today.

Have you taken care of yourself physically today? What about emotionally? Spiritually? Are you being kind to yourself and loving yourself? Are you reaching out and helping others in some small way? Are you confronting and eliminating your anxieties? And on and on and on…..

My theory is that if you do this stuff every single day then it should protect you from relapse.

But if I rewind my life to the first year or two of my sobriety, I realize that I was not always this thorough. I was not always taking care of myself in all of these various ways every single day.

I have been learning these things as I went along.

The disease of addiction, I believe, keeps finding new avenues through which it might attack. Even if this is false it still serves as a strong model for your solution.

Because your solution is to keep learning, to keep exploring that next layer of protection, that next step in your daily practice. The next positive action you might take.

And so you have to explore. You have to learn. Sometimes in traditional recovery they call it “peeling back more layers of the onion” in order to learn more and more about yourself.

And if you stop doing this for too long then you become vulnerable. If you stop doing this work then the disease finds new ways to sneak in, to attack you.

And if you are too proud or if you believe that you finally have it all figured out then there is no way that you can keep learning, no way to peel the onion back any more to discover the hidden layers, the new life lessons that you need to learn.

And this is why we need to stay humble. So that we can keep learning.

The addiction is not stagnant. It doesn’t just sit there. It evolves, too.

So if you sit still in recovery, eventually you will fall. Eventually the addiction will win out again.

Saying yes to humility means saying “yes, I know there is more to learn, and I am eager and willing to learn it.”

What about you, have you found humility to be important in your own recovery journey? Why or why not? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!