The need to feel that you are in control of other people, and their actions, can be one of the most debilitating and draining processes in your life.
Often people have no conscious since that they are trying to control what is going on around them, but the underlying need is often the most central one in their lives.
Let Go and let God
This is one of the many phrases that abound in AA and 12th recovery, and in one sense at least gives the message about trying to let go of the need to control life.
Unfortunately, many people often also read into it an implication that God is in control.
This, really, is just a form of transference, of saying I will give up my belief that I am in control of what is going on around me, if something or someone else will take charge of it.
This idea may seem familiar to some people, mainly because it is an idea that normally is rooted in childhood,
Children have a basic need for security and safety, a basic need to feel that someone is in charge of their life.
The Illusion of Control
People can often realise that they do not have control around a lot of what is going on in the life, but this does not necessarily stop them trying to exert such control.
In fact, in many cases, it leads to try even harder to force their life to work.
Perhaps the first step in terms of letting go of the need to control, is a recognition that most people the sense of being in control of what is going on around them is an illusion.
That can be a hard lesson to learn, not because of the truth of it, but because of the implications of it.
The Al-Anon Preamble has a phrase in it to the effect that ‘our thinking became distorted by trying to force solutions’.
This really goes to the heart of the issue, and contains both the problem and solution within its simple sentence.
People often have quite a strong felt sense that they are trying to push their life uphill, that they are somehow trying to force their life to work.
This is normally a feeling that has been with them for a large part of their life.
At its core, wherever it comes from, is an issue about an inverted sense of control, a paradox that is in many people’s lives.
It is often most clearly seen in the lives of families and friends of alcoholics, who are either trying to get them to stop drinking, or still feel the need to try and control the life once sober.
Adult Children of Alcoholics
Whilst there are many numerous and varied effects of growing up in an alcoholic home, one of the most common ones is the sense a child will have a feeling overly responsible, if not totally responsible, for the well-being or even the very life itself of one or both of their parents or caregivers.
Taking on this type of responsibility at any age is a heavy duty demand, for children of any age it is almost an impossible burden for many to bear.
The practical reality is that anyone in this type of situation normally focuses then tar spirit and energy on the belief that they are holding the other person together.
This is really at the heart of feeling you’re in control of someone else, not necessarily as a control freak, but as a sense of feeling you have the power to determine someone else’s mental state, or even their very life itself.
For many children in alcoholic homes, there is very little if any safety, either internally or externally.
What the majority of children/adults do is to create a sense of feeling safe by feeling they are in control of what is going on around them.
This is an illusion of control, as mentioned above, but for children in this environment it is the only solution they have.
What tends to happen is that a child faced with no safety cannot emotionally afford to own that reality.
They will invent a sense of feeling safe, based on the belief that they have this power or control over the adult or adults in their lives, in the sense of being able to affect or change control them lose or emotional stability.
As the child/children grow older, this belief or need to feel in control of what is going on around them normally deepens, and for many people becomes the dominant emotional drive in their life.
It is also probably the most destructive source of emotional turmoil in their lives because it totally reverses the very nature of our psychological make-up as human beings.
People believe that they have control over things that they do not have control over, and do not believe they have any control or power over the thing that they can control, which is predominantly their own lives and emotional make up.
Step Three in Alcoholics Anonymous
When most people talk about Step Three, they enter a world of debate about God, turning over ones will and what it means.
What many people often don’t talk about, is that the majority of the passage on Step Three in the book Alcoholics Anonymous is actually about control.
It uses the analogy of an actor on the stage, trying to control the environment around him, and the calamitous effects that it has.
It goes on to ask people to realise that this is really the source of the problem, that emotionally and often practically, their lives are totally out of control because they are trying to control life around them.
What Step Three really does is to identify the problem, in terms of control, and without offering a simplistic solution, offers people a way out through working the rest of the 12 step program.
The Serenity Prayer – Problem and Solution
Whilst any prayer can have a number of different meanings, the serenity prayer does tend to bring together both the solution and the problem in terms of the nature of control.
It identifies a sense of knowing what you cannot change, i.e. things that you have no control over, and things that you can change, mainly yourself and your inner world.
In essence, people normally feel a need to try and control what is going on around them, because they feel out of control themselves internally.
This normally results from childhood trauma, but not always as there may be other causes as well.
The solution, albeit a long-term one, is to take back a sense of control internally, and as you do so the need to try and control what is going on around you will drop off.
This is because it is about safety, and the need to feel safe.
The internal sense of safety, that is primarily about your inner world and your inner sense of God, will diminish.
In the end it should pretty much eradicate this need to feel in control of other people as a way of keeping yourself together, and giving yourself some internal sense of stability.
This is the ultimate freedom that Alcoholics Anonymous and all 12 Step Programs can really offer.
There are in fact two questions really, what is manipulative behaviour and why is it so damaging.
Manipulation is often thought of as being something that most people do in varying degrees in order to get their own way, and quite often more of a game rather than something that actually harms people.
There are also people who would argue that manipulation of other people is a legitimate way to further their own careers, and that self-interest is a valid reason or excuse for pursuing it.
These arguments tend to be rationalisations, really, for an excuse to use other people to get what you want. That by any standard is a form of abuse, the very definition of abuse being the use of another human being to further your own ends in some way or other.
When someone manipulates you, what they are really doing is either making a decision on your behalf, or tricking you into believing that you are making the decision yourself, when in fact they have coerced you into the position they want you to be in.
The reason manipulative behaviour is so damaging is twofold. Firstly the person being manipulated feels tricked by the other person involved, and yet they often do not realise it. They are left in a sense of limbo that they have made a decision, but, actually, the decision-making process was not theirs.
The freedom to choose is probably the greatest freedom that any human being has. It represents a freedom within us to decide for ourselves what are actions or thoughts will be. It goes to the core of our humanity, and is a real sense of an expression of our inner world, our spirit.
When someone manipulates you it is a form of abuse. It not only takes away your freedom to make your own choices and decisions, but tricks you into believing that you have actually made them for yourself, when in fact you have not.
In alcoholism and 12 step recovery, manipulation and other forms of emotional abuse can be rife.
12 Step Recovery
People often like to look at examples of this in terms of active alcoholism or addiction, but the reality is that this type of abuse can occur just as much in people who are sober, as in people who are still drinking. This is a truth that people often feel uncomfortable with.
The idea of manipulating people is often linked to a rationalisation that it is for their own good. This is rarely true. This is not to say that the motives of the person doing the manipulation are inherently bad, they may not be. People’s motives for trying to coerce or manipulate other people often stem from a sense of feeling a need to be in control.
This need to be in control of someone else’s thought process is ultimately what manipulation is really about, and normally stems from an individual’s sense that they are out of control of their own life themselves.
There is a basic psychological premise that most people who try and control other people, in terms of thought control, do so because they feel out of control themselves internally.
This belief that they are in control of someone else, which is really an illusion, gives them a sense of internal stability and safety.
This internal sense of stability can only be sustained by a permanent and determined increase in trying to control other people. This is why it is so damaging.
Normally any attempt to highlight this to someone results in a really defensive attitude, and often has the opposite effect of that which is intended. However, in 12 step recovery, there is a strong emphasis on awareness, and taking one’s own inventory.
This can ultimately be a space where someone can recognise these traits around control, and through a process of long-term change can achieve a level of internal stability and peace that is based on their own identity, not that of controlling another individual and their mind.
‘I used to judge myself by my intentions while the world was judging me by my actions’
Quote from Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
There are a number of slogans and sayings that get chucked around in health circles, which some people find really helpful, and other people find both helpful and irritating, depending upon their mood.
One of the most common sayings, although not an actual slogan, is telling people directly or indirectly that they are as sick as their secrets.
The message behind the saying is that people need to open up, tell either an individual or a group what is going on in their life, or what it is from their past what is troubling them.
People will rarely question this message, in part because the process of 12 step recovery does involve an individual realistically assessing the past, sharing it with someone on a one-to-one basis and making amends harm done as a basis for moving forward and staying sober.
A degree of defensiveness can often mask a sense of underlying anger, which in reality is often protective rather than confrontational.
As Sick As Your Secrets ?
The problem with telling people that they are as sick as their secrets is that it often moves away from what is suggested in the book Alcoholics Anonymous to a different level.
This either puts significant pressure on people to share at meetings, and pressure on people that they should be telling everyone everything about their lives.
This is a hugely important issue, and unsurprisingly is really to do with boundaries.
When anyone starts the process of getting sober and staying sober they are quite likely to have experienced a significant degree of isolation, often both physical and emotional, often for a significant period of time.
Any emotional isolation is likely to have had a fairly devastating affect on the individual, often making them highly inward looking and secretive about their lives.
Telling individuals like this that they are as sick as a secrets can seem to make sense, as they will often think that they have to force their way out of that isolation in order to share and get better, otherwise they will drink again.
The process or an individual frame themselves in this type of isolation is as detailed in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. It is not a forced process and never should be.
A sense of moving out of this type of emotional isolation can only come from the individual feeling safe enough to let go of the various emotional coping mechanisms that they have set up within themselves.
These coping mechanisms are essentially what the isolation involves, and need to come down so that the individual can have a healthy sense of understanding what their own issues are.
What is key is that they come down from within, not as a result of being pressured from outside.
Whenever an individual is starting a process of getting or staying sober, either in a rehab or in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, it is a fair bet to say that the last thing in the world they need is any more external pressure.
Whilst every individual’s life is different, and their circumstances different, it’s a fair bet to say that they are already experiencing a high degree of internal pressure, as well as probably external pressure as well.
Telling people that they are as sick as their secrets invariably puts pressure on them. They either feel that they have to share at meetings, or that they need to share things that they are not ready to yet own themselves emotionally.
This type of pressure and the ensuing belief that people have to tell everyone everything about their lives often replicates the type of enmeshment found in alcoholic homes.
This is not surprising given number of AA members who grew up having been affected by someone else’s alcoholism.
It is important to realise the distinction between privacy and secrecy, and to realise that this is fundamentally a boundary issue, and one that can be hugely important in people’s recovery.
Bottom line is that putting pressure on people who are vulnerable is always a no no, especially when it potentially takes away from them one of the main things that they need in order to get well, a sense of safety at meetings where they can simply learn to be themselves.
Most people have heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, and know that it has something to do with people stopping drinking.
People also have very different and often conflicting views of what an alcoholic is, and also the difference between someone who is an alcoholic and a heavy or problem drinker.
Some people are also wary of Alcoholics Anonymous because they have heard that it is a religious or spiritual organisation, and do not want any involvement with something akin to this.
For anyone really wanting to understand how Alcoholics Anonymous works, there are two important things.
Firstly is to understand the context of Alcoholics Anonymous in today’s world, and do that it is really important to have some sense of the history of AA and how it has developed.
Describing Alcoholics Anonymous
Alcoholics Anonymous describes itself as a fellowship of men and women who share their experience strength and hope with each other, in order to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.
Whilst this is quite a broad generalisation, there is a good deal of truth in this very simple premise, that AA is about individuals sharing their experiences in the hope of helping others.
History of Alcoholics Anonymous
AA is fairly unique as such, apart from other 12-step organisations, and does not have a traditional form of structure. Understanding the history of AA is a big part of being able to see how the reality of AA functions.
There are a number of history books, some written by AA itself, others written by independent journalists and authors. All will give slightly differing viewpoints as to how AA developed, and what its strengths and weaknesses are.
The books written by AA itself are slightly sanitised, but do also carry much if not all of the historical information that is relevant and pertinent to how AA developed.
AA, both in print and in reality, can have a slight gloss to it that is part protective, and in part slightly focused on not wanting to appear divisive or confrontational.
Independent books on the history of Alcoholics Anonymous are quite often written either why people who are members of AA themselves, although not always, and people who are quite unashamedly opposed to AA and everything about it.
The fact there are differing viewpoints about AA is not surprising, and should not of itself be a problem or an issue.
It can become an issue because people tend to become either very hostile or a protective about AA, both approaches tend to blur the reality.
Reality of Alcoholics Anonymous
Anyone wanting to understand the reality of Alcoholics Anonymous should really go to one or more meetings and experience it for themselves.
Whatever meeting they go to, they are likely to experience a different reality to other meetings, and other people’s experiences of them.
This is simply because anyone’s reality is different to someone else’s.
However there is a general shape and form to AA meetings, which largely focus around the definition given at the beginning of this post.
Individuals who have had serious problems and have been able to get sober, meeting together and sharing their experience in the hope of helping others who have had similar problems.
This has always been at the heart of AA, and continues to be in most of the meetings that anyone is likely to attend.
This will vary to an extent, simply because there are literally hundreds of thousands of meetings all around the world, all of which will have a slightly different structure and format.
The other thing that is worth saying about AA is that at most meetings, if not all, there is a mix of both practical and spirit. The practical tends to be the physical reality of individuals meeting and talking and sharing with each other.
The spirit tends to be an underlying energy which pervades the nature and process of the meeting, and for many people is the most powerful element of what happens to them, both in terms of getting sober and staying sober.
This mix of practical and spirit is perhaps the unique element of AA that makes it so difficult to describe. The good news is that people do not have to understand it in order to experience it.
Pretty much anyone can attend an AA meeting, as all are open to anyone thinks they may have a drink problem, and a good number of what are known as open meetings, where anyone who is interested in AA can attend and listen to what is being said.
Potted history of AA
There are a few basic points of history that should probably be flagged up, although none are a substitute to really understanding the full time line of AA.
AA was started in America in the mid 1930s, largely as a result of a chain of individual experiences of people who had a drink problem, and who got sober using a number of spiritual principles.
The best-known of these individuals were the two co-founders of AA, who stayed anonymous during their own lifetimes, but became quite well known afterwards.
Their individual experiences formed the basis of how AA developed, both in terms of individual groups in certain cities, through to the enormous growth of meetings and groups throughout the world today.
These and other individual spiritual experiences were collated into a book, which was entitled Alcoholics Anonymous, which became the name and basis of the whole organisation itself.
Perhaps the most important thing to take from the history of AA is that it has always been a collection of experience.
It has no ideology or belief system or any agenda other than an openness to share its experience in the hope that it can help others.
This sharing of experience is done primarily through the AA literature, which is open for anyone to buy or download on-line, as well as through AA meetings and individuals sharing their experience on a one-to-one basis.
Anyone familiar with this phrase will recognise it from the early part of chapter five of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, which sets out the 12 step program which is at the cornerstone of AA’s recovery process.
As with many things in life, context is crucial.
This phrase is used in a very specific context in the book, which really needs to be looked at and read to be properly understood.
The intent behind this phrase, and the whole tone of the book Alcoholics Anonymous is really one of urgency, rather than fundamentalism.
The book was written by the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Many of them were what would be referred to today as street drunks, even though some owned their own homes or had somewhere to live.
It is certainly true that most of them had reached a stage of their lives where they were completely desperate about drinking, and knew they had something that worked.
Chapter five of the book Alcoholics Anonymous is often referred to by its title, How it Works.
This is because this specific chapter begins to spell out in great detail the experience of these early AA members as to what they collectively did in order to get sober and stay sober.
The principles of the 12 step program can seem fairly daunting to many people, and certainly were to the early members of AA.
Most of them found however that they came to apply them to their lives when they had little or no option in terms of doing anything else.
They felt they were completely beaten in many ways, often referred to in AA as reaching a rock bottom.
The phrase ‘willing to go to any lengths’ should always really be understood not only in the context of how it was written, but in the fact that it applies to the principles of the 12 step program.
The reason this matters and is important, is because the phrase is often used in the reality of daily AA, and AA meetings, almost as a litmus test for peoples approach or commitment to their own recovery.
This type of fundamentalism is actually about forcing people into a position that they may not yet be ready to be in, and distorts the very freedom that AA actually offers.
Process and Experience
The nature of AA is really about experience. The real DNA of Alcoholics Anonymous lies in the value of its experience, collectively written in the book Alcoholics Anonymous and other literature.
This literature gives people the opportunity to access and utilise the whole experience of AA as it is understood today, from when it first started.
The other aspect to this is that people have the individual freedom to use that experience in any way that they feel appropriate or not.
This is an absolute freedom that sadly it’s not always recognised or acknowledged within the reality of daily AA.
Fundamentalism may seem a slightly strong way of describing the pressure that is often put on people who are new to AA, as well as some have been sober for a while, to embrace the AA program in a particular way or manner.
However, the pressure can be very real and is often exerted on people who are in many ways quite vulnerable, by people who have been sober for a while and should know what they are doing.
The nature of fundamentalism is closely linked that of sponsorship within AA.
Sponsorship should be a type of buddy system to help people who are new, or are generally in need of help. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, it is much more hierarchical in nature than a one-on-one buddy system should be, and develops a level of status that distorts the relationship.
This issue of status can often lead to a degree of fundamentalism, sometimes based on good motives, other times motives more to do with power and control than anyone else’s well-being.
It is often in the context of sponsorship that this phrase, willing to go to any lengths is used. A potential sponsor will sometimes ask an individual who has asked them to sponsor them, if they are willing to go to any lengths.
Invariably the individual will say yes, not knowing really what it means. This is then used as a general big stick approach to how the sponsor controls the individual they are sponsoring.
The issue of sponsorship and control is a huge one, and one that needs much thought and correction within AA generally.
It is important however, to make a distinction between the urgency of the message carried in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, and an individual’s use of that message to try and control someone else.
The term rigorous honesty is used a lot in Alcoholics Anonymous, and in the 12 step recovery world generally.
Its original intent was to make clear the need for people to really own and take responsibility for the reality of their lives, both internally and externally.
Like a lot of phrases and concepts in recovery, its usage tends to depend largely on the motives of the person saying it.
That is why it can often be used in a slightly overbearing way, making people feel they are either being bullied, or pressured into a degree of accountability that they are not yet ready for.
The 12 step world generally has a number of degrees of vulnerability, and a number of people who seek vulnerability in different ways.
Some can seem quite harsh, others quite gentle and a fair number somewhere in between the two.
Why this phrase rigorous honesty matters so much is really because of what lies behind it in terms of its original intent.
This raises the issue of the reality of an active alcoholics life, and their denial of the fact that alcohol is causing a problem in it.
This covers both the inner and outer world of the alcoholic, as well as their potentially more deep seated emotional and mental issues.
AA uses the phrase moral inventory when effectively referring to the need for self-analysis.
There is often a strong sense of urgency about the need for people who are recovering alcoholics to begin the process of becoming self-aware, and it is in this context that the term rigorous honesty is meant to apply.
Implying that an individual has to be honest with themselves can also imply that they had been lying to themselves beforehand. Not always the case, but in recovery is often taken as the norm rather than the exception.
This raises all sorts of questions about motives and denial, and why an alcoholic is so reluctant or unable to accept the reality of their own life.
These questions are quite complex, and will be different as are the answers for a wide variety of different people. There are however a number of important factors which do sit with these questions.
Whatever the form denial takes, it is worth remembering that denial is a form of protection.
It can sometimes be quite delusional, but for a significant number of alcoholics denial is about protecting their need to drink. This may seem ludicrous in the light of the havoc that alcohol is causing them, but is normally part of the alcoholic mindset.
It is probably fair to say that most alcoholics believe that alcohol is the solution to the problems rather than the problem itself, even if they are not consciously aware of this belief.
As such, the worse their life gets, both internally and externally, the more they turn to alcohol as being the thing that is holding them together.
Denial of the reality of the life is often their way of protecting alcohol, which they believe they need to do at any cost.
It is important to realise that denial is usually a defence mechanism, trying to protect something the person believes is of utmost importance to them.
The depth of the denial can often make this difficult for someone who is not an alcoholic or addict to understand.
The need to feel safe or secure is a core element of most human beings identity, and for an alcoholic it can achieve enormous proportions.
Their sense of safety is often disfigured by growing up in an alcoholic home, or other childhood dysfunction.
Many people in recovery link a lot of their emotional dysfunction, both whilst drinking and recovery, to the issue of safety and security.
The denial mentioned above is a core part of helping someone feel safe, however irrational it may seem to anyone else.
Safety is primarily an emotional issue, and is also the key element in allowing people to change their inner world. A real sense of safety allows people the freedom to change – threatening them and making them feel cornered does the exact opposite.
This is why the issue of how people approach their moral inventory, and the whole process of developing a level of self-awareness in recovery is so important.
Self-awareness, without judgement, is the cornerstone of real freedom in recovery.
Although it has become a bit of a cliche, the phrase”know the truth and the truth will set you free” is perhaps the most important element of a person’s recovery.
Developing a degree of self-awareness allows an individual to question themselves without judgement, allows them to question their motives and allows them to develop a real relationship with themselves, with others and with God.
This self-awareness, which is often associated with the phrase rigorous honesty, is about feeling safe enough to begin and continue the process of self searching. Of understanding the nature of one’s own alcoholism, as far as possible, and of putting the nature of denial into its proper context.
Whilst it may take a while to really develop, the willingness to really look at oneself and genuinely reflect on behaviours and motives is not something that people normally want to do. For alcoholics in recovery there is often a sense of urgency, as this need to self-awareness is usually a key element in staying sober.
It is in this context that the phrase rigorous honesty should really be understood, almost as a plea for urgency rather than a call to fundamentalism.