Category Archives: Shame

My Cup Runneth Over (It’s not what you think)

“The minute I stopped arguing, I could begin to see and feel.”
Twelve Steps And Twelve Traditions, AA World Services

A student went to visit a Zen master. As the student talked on about all the things he knew about Zen, the master served the tea. Naturally he served the guest first, as is the custom. He poured until the cup was full, and then continued pouring. The student watched the cup begin to overflow and  blurted, “It’s full! It’s overflowing!”

“This is you,” the master replied. “How can I teach you unless you first empty your cup?”

Many of us are afraid to admit that we don’t know. To us, it’s like a little piece of death, as if someone were taking away a bit of who we are. For those of us whose self-image is based on our intellect, rather than a steady belief that we have an innate value that can’t be taken from us, to admit that we are wrong is to admit that we are of no value.

It’s a terrible way to live, constantly having to argue, to show others how we really are on top of our game, that we’ve got it together, that we know it all. It’s like being in a constant battle for intellectual — and, often, moral — superiority, and it prevents us from learning things that can eventually lead to truly clear, unfettered thinking and the ability to appreciate ourselves and others for who we really are.

Another pertinent aphorism reads, “You can’t teach a man what he thinks he already knows.” How true, in all but a very few cases.

I used to teach remedial driving to police officers who had exceeded their department’s quota of auto crashes. Most police departments accept that officers will occasionally have a “bit of a shunt” as the British say. It’s the nature of a profession that involves a lot of unavoidable distracted driving, often augmented by adrenaline and a certain amount of fear (and maybe a teensy bit of testosterone, but let’s not go there).

Almost to a man — and I use “man” intentionally, because women are, generally speaking, far easier to teach — they’d sit in the classroom session on the first day and look totally bored, ask smartass questions, and generally act like a bunch of macho guys in a place that they find embarrassing. “Me? Need driving school! Hell, I write tickets for people who don’t know how to drive right!”

We’d tell them specifically what the driving exercises were going to be and the technical details of what it would take to complete them. In the afternoon session, we’d take them out on the track and put them in situations that required pretty sophisticated driving skills. Invariably, they’d quickly become teachable as they discovered that the instructors actually knew stuff that they didn’t, and that they were willing to impart it to those who would listen. By the end of the 3-day course, some of them were asking if they could come back and repeat it.

That’s sort of like hitting a bottom. We find we can’t do it, whatever it is, and we then become teachable. But we still have to overcome the automatic defenses that we’ve built up over our lives: the inability to admit that there’s something we don’t know. We have to empty our cup in order to accept more tea. And then keep our mouths shut until it’s our time to serve the tea.

Any of that sound at all familiar?

Putting Stuff Off


Some of us have trouble getting started on things because we think we don’t have time to “do it right.” Such perfectionism can often be cured by committing to an average effort for the next ten minutes.

Projecting

A First Date Question:
How aware are you of your traumas and suppressed emotions, and how are
you actively working to heal them before you try to project that shit on me?

How much pain could be avoided if only we were able to approach our potential relationships with that kind of clarity! Sadly, that’s rarely if ever the case. We have all sorts of notions about what a relationship should be, programmed by modeling when we were children, unconscious desires to re-live relationships with abusers and get them right by proxy, cultural ideas of how the good life should be lived, what a good relationship should look like, and on and on. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the last lines of The Great Gatsby, “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Projection is used differently in the recovery rooms than it is by therapists. In the fellowships we often use “projection” when we might better say “anticipation,” referring to looking ahead and trying to figure out what the future will bring, often with concern about an undesirable outcome. In the world of psychotherapy, however, projection is normally used to refer to situations similar to that in the introduction above: when we project on another the feelings, pressures, dislikes and resentments that we are actually feeling ourselves but prefer not to recognize.

If I am unable to express my anger I may project and accuse my partner of being angry, almost as a sort of proxy. I may allow myself to become annoyed about the behavior of an obnoxious drunk, failing to consider that I am drunk and being obnoxious myself. I may become unusually obsessed with another’s tardiness when I’m frequently late myself, or become upset with someone’s rudeness or failure to respect my boundaries when I’m equally guilty of those things, if not worse.

Essentially, projection of this kind refers to the same thing as the old aphorism we hear from time to time in the rooms: we tend to dislike most in others the traits that we most dislike [or fear] in ourselves. This is a perfectly natural way to protect our own already poor self-esteem. It’s a subtle form of denial, similar to “Look how she is . . . and they say I’m bad!”

Just as with over-the-counter nostrums, the fact that something is “natural” doesn’t mean it is healthy or harmless. We are not responsible for the way we were programmed or the sick defenses we developed on our own, but as recovering people we are responsible for discovering these traits in ourselves and doing something about them. That’s where the Steps–particularly Steps Four, Six and Ten–come into play. Therapy is also a help, as is a conscious desire to be as honest with ourselves as possible. Like a competent carpenter, we need to master our tools and use those that are appropriate to the situation, instead of complaining how the other guy bends every nail he tries to drive.

Friendship In Recovery

As active addicts many of us had friends who were that in name only. Our mutual interests in acting out, trying to prolong our adolescence, and using each other for one end or another were often the sole basis of those “friendships.” How many of our using buddies tried to encourage us to continue our addictive behavior? “Hey, everyone does it!” “Oh, you’re not that bad.” “You just need to ____. You don’t have to ____!” Any of those sound familiar?

And just as tellingly, how many of our willing partners in excess stuck with us when we showed that we were serious about changing? Not too many, I’m guessing. Continue reading