I was considering the way some of us in the rooms seem to think of ourselves, based on the way we talk. We say, “I’m not a bad person trying to get better, I’m a sick person trying to get well.” Then we continue talking about our shortcomings and defects of character. We say things like “I’m an alcoholic, and my problem is Mike.” (I don’t measure up; I’m defective; I’m a problem.) These are not affirmations.
The language of 12-step groups is the language of seventy years ago–more like a hundred if you consider when the authors got their actual educations. We now know a great deal more about psychology than in the era of Freud and Jung. We also know a great deal more about addiction and alcoholism.
Nowadays, when I say, “My name’s Z, and I’m an alcoholic,” I am saying something a great deal different than what the same words meant in, say, 1950. Back they they meant, “I’m a person with an allergy to alcohol. That allergy and the effect it has on me has turned me from a reasonable human being into a person with poor morals, a defective character, and many shortcomings that must be gotten rid of before I can take my place (regain my place) beside ’normal’ people as an upstanding member of society.”
Today the same statement says something entirely different. I’m saying that I have a condition that has been recognized as a disease by scientists for nearly half a century. When I drink alcohol a genetic peculiarity in my body causes it to create, as a byproduct of the metabolism of the alcohol, one of the most addictive substances known to science, (a class of chemicals known as tetrahydroisoquinilones), instead of the simple acetic acid and carbon dioxide produced by most people. Over a period of time I became so thoroughly addicted to those substances that my body, if it was deprived of them, sent me signals that it needed more–signals so powerful that they had the subconscious impact of life or death. I am saying that only when circumstances arose that I consciously recognized to be life-threatening could I overcome the compulsion to drink long enough to let my body and mind return to anything like “normal.” I’m saying that I belong to a group that gives me support when I’m stressed, helps me develop the skills to handle stress in a healthy way, and gives me social approval and recognition that provide me with the confidence to believe that I will be OK if I continue to work at it.
Quite a difference, huh? Yet we cling to the old language in the books and, inevitably, to the self-image that the language conjures. Why? Because we take the almost superstitious position that to change anything might weaken a program that is keeping us alive, one day at a time.
“Aha,” you’re thinking, “he wants to rewrite the Big Book and Basic Text. He’s another one of those people who think they know better than the founders and the millions who have followed. I’ve got his number!”
Nope. Don’t want to change a word of any literature. I want to change your thinking, though–just a tiny bit. I want you to stop thinking of things as “good” or “bad,” “functional” or “dysfunctional,” “shortcomings” and “defects of character.”
Instead, I want you to think of these things as unskillful behavior. “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these unskillful ways of dealing with life.” “Humbly asked Him to remove our unskillful ways.” I no longer have “bad habits,” but rather unskillful ways.
Do you see what can happen when we begin to think in this way? I’m not bad at relationships, I’m unskilled. I can learn to do it better!
This way of looking at our behavior does two things. It reminds us that there are solutions that can be learned, and it destroys any excuses for not trying to change. By taking away the concept of good and bad, we are left with an atmosphere that encourages trial, tolerates error, and inspires us to try again. Making mistakes becomes OK. We try again. Saying that I dealt with a problem or situation unskillfully says, at the same time, that I accept that I am human and can make mistakes, and that I realize I can improve on my performance the next time–that Rome wasn’t built in a day. (Yes, this is Cognitive Therapy, self-administered, and it works!)
A side effect of this bit of mental juggling is that we begin to find ourselves applying it to others. The young man who interrupts us when we are speaking becomes socially unskillful, not a rude asshole–if we choose to think of him that way. The idiot who changes lanes without signaling becomes an unskillful driver. Perhaps his teacher was less skillful than ours. Aren’t we fortunate to have gotten such good training? And so forth. Since I am myself unskillful in many things (read “human”), I begin to assign to others the privilege of also being human and being allowed to make mistakes.
Isn’t it true of most of the things we do in life, when they fail to work out as we expect, that we tried to get things right–but were simply unskillful? And isn’t it true that we can keep on learning? What a wonderful way to look at our lives–no longer good or bad, right or wrong, but simply opportunities to become more skillful at living them.