The Guru Syndrome

In recovery, our early delight at feeling better and a burning desire to spread the word can lead to what I call the Guru Syndrome (GS). The GS can  stem from a sincere desire to help others, but it can also hide a profound fear of getting the help we need for ourselves.

There’s no question that recovery programs can be transformative. Anyone who has been around one for long, whether 12-step or otherwise, can attest to that. We see remarkable changes in ourselves and others. If we take our programs seriously and do a reasonable amount of work, we start to absorb the attitudes and begin to make the changes that lead to healthy, long-term recovery. We begin to have hope for the future, and see how the changes we are experiencing could benefit others. (That sounds familiar; wonder where I’ve heard it before?)

At around that point, some of us become crusaders. We see things about our programs that we perceive as imperfect and want to correct them. (Early on, I was going to rewrite the AA Big Book in modern language.) Like all addicts, we know The Way Things Ought To Be and so we charge off full-steam. We start a Ninth Step before we’ve finished Step Three. We proselytize our families. (That, by the way, never works.) We try to carry the message to those outside the program — and annoy the hell out of them. We decide that the whole world needs what we’ve got, and determine that it is our job to deliver the goods. It’s easy to lose track of our goal to make lasting changes in ourselves and direct our desire for change outward instead.

There’s nothing wrong with helping others, but we need to approach it from positions of strength, hope experience and example. How can we sponsor someone if we don’t have (or don’t use) our own tools and sponsors? The purpose of a sponsor is to take a sponsee through the steps. Have we completed them ourselves? Did we read the book, memorize a few wise quotes, and decide to “carry the message” without having had the spiritual awakening that comes with the 12th Step? (The Steps are numbered in order for good reasons.) Did we sit in treatment and become a “junior therapist” when we actually had little insight into what was happening? Did we imagine that we ought to be sponsoring others when we’re only a few weeks or months from our last relapse? Did we become recovery gurus, legends in our own minds, without first developing the background and depth of understanding that insured we were operating from a solid base of our own?

I did all of those things, with nearly disastrous results for my recovery and perhaps that of some others. I’ve been there, done that, and for many years I wore the dirty, ratty tee-shirt underneath the shiny halo that I imagined I was showing to others. I’m not saying I never helped anyone, but in retrospect, I’m sure that my guidance would have been much more effective if I’d assiduously practiced what I was preaching and straightened out my own head before taking up the guru’s robes.

The Guru Syndrome can even be dangerous for folks who are relatively well-grounded in recovery. Old Timers have seen it lead to problems, dozens if not hundreds of times. Newcomers with a few months of developing sobriety get jobs as mental health techs or with similar titles and let working with others distract them from their own recovery. Dealing with sick alcoholics and other addicts is dangerous for people in early recovery! Many of them don’t want to be there, and would be perfectly happy to take someone else with them when they leave. It’s like hanging out in a bar, shooting pool and drinking Coke. People in treatment speak our old language and are part of a culture with which we’re all too familiar. It’s not hard to slide back into the old ways of talking, walking and — finally — thinking.

I’ve seen (in addition to my own poor decisions) people with a few months in a program who changed their majors or began intensive graduate programs in order to become therapists. Some people aspire to the mental health field in an unconscious attempt to more comfortably resolve their own issues. Talk about something that will distract you from your program! As a result, we often see people working in the field who are still acting out — perhaps not in their primary addictions, but in others just as insidious. I could name half a dozen names right now, because I see them struggling in meetings.

The Guru Syndrome is dangerous. It plays into our codependency issues, our hope that helping others is all we need to do to get better, our tendency to charge ahead and try to right all our wrongs, and a desire to find answers outside ourselves and avoid the pain that goes with self-transformation.

There used to be a popular song called “Looking For Love” with a line about “looking for love in all the wrong places.” We could change love to recovery and that would pretty much describe the Guru Syndrome.

Of course this couldn’t possibly apply to you.

(Just like it didn’t apply to me. )

11 thoughts on “The Guru Syndrome

  1. Mark David Goodson

    I love the great spiritual axiom in recovery. None of us can master this. Once we’ve declared ourselves a master, we are at once the fool. Confuscious? Lao Tsu? Maybe just the damn truth.


  2. Bill Post author

    Dear Cog,

    Congratulations on your two months. You should be past the worst of your withdrawal. Check out the PAWS article on the site. It may help to know what to expect in the months ahead.

    Any program that is genuinely working for you is a good program, but if you’re sitting around thinking about that beer at the end of the year, it isn’t getting the job done. I’m not familiar with Annie Grace (just can’t keep track of ’em all).* Beers For A Year, if it’s helping is probably fine — but what do you do after the year is over? I believe the 12 Step programs, which offer a path to healthier living in all facets of one’s life, have yet to be topped in my experience. After all, the concept has been around and flourished for 85 years now, so it’s fairly well-proven. As long as you don’t use the “God Thing” as an excuse to not listen, as many have done, it works pretty well. I’m agnostic, and I’ve found the 12 Step programs perfectly adaptable to my way of thinking. I just try to ignore what I don’t agree with in that regard and keep on truckin’. It’s worked for me for quite a while now. I have a chip in my pocket with three X’s on it.

    That said, however, I’ve not experienced other approaches, only read about some of them.

    I’d suggest hitting a couple of weeks at an open AA meeting and checking out the fellowship for yourself. There’s no reason to limit yourself to one group. However, I would caution you to simply check it out on your own, keep it to yourself in OYNB, and avoid having to listen to all the people who will doubtless tell you how it didn’t work for them. That has nothing to do with you, as we’re all different: raised in different places by different people who, themselves, were ditto. Although when it comes to addiction there are myriad things that we have in common, we are still individuals with our own outlooks on life. A program tailored for us by working with a sponsor, perhaps a therapist, and talking to others with experience tends to work best for most folks.

    I’m not a podcast fan. I find that I do the best reading at my own speed, and I believe the ability to access the visual in addition to the content itself works best for me. Also, it’s been my experience in talking to others that they usually listen to podcasts while driving. Since I’m a retired Police Driving Instructor who knows better and thus doesn’t do things that distract me while I’m driving, I use that time to practice mindfulness instead of endangering myself and other people on the road. Off the road, I read and meditate about what I’ve read. Again, it’s what works for you. I would suggest that you listen at home, in a quiet place with no distractions. You’ll absorb a lot more, it will stay with you better, and you’re less likely to end up with windshield glass in your mouth.

    Limiting the intake and taking time to think about what you’ve heard will greatly benefit both your understanding and ability to recall things to incorporate in your daily life. No one ever recovered by reading or hearing about it. A program of recovery must be practiced, not just thought about. You don’t learn to play sports or chess from a book, nor can you change your entire way of life that way.

    I see no harm in telling people that you’ve found something useful. However, I’d leave it at that. What others end up doing is none of our business. The practice of our own programs is business enough for all of us.

    Please stay in touch. I’d like to know how you’re doing, and how OYNB is working for you. Again, congratulations on your 60 days and 120 nights :-) and

    Keep on keepin’ on!



  3. Cogitator

    Just don’t know. I don’t think I am an alcoholic, but definitely one of those people who drink too much to be healthy for my mental state, relationships and productivity. And been drinking for way too many years. So I would like to cut it out. Joined One Year No Beer with great results so far (only 60 days). Also listening to Annie Grace’s podcasts. What are your thoughts on these kinds of programs? Is there a risk in evangelising these programs?


  4. scottf4107

    Thank you, Bill. I came across this today and it’s a great reminder that I am of no help or service to anyone if I’m not practicing these principles in all my affairs. I needed to read this today. Thanks again.


  5. drgettingsober

    So relevant for those of us already in jobs where we help others – hard to focus on self and really transform from the inside out – thanks for putting it so eloquently!


  6. Pingback: The guru syndrome | Hurrah for coffee!

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