What’s Wrong with ME?
The purpose of the 6th and 7th steps in 12-step recovery is to uncover “character defects” and to pray to remove these defects. I have two issues with this. First, the word “defect” sounds as if there is something wrong with me, something I think or do that is my fault. Second, defect sounds as if it is all wrong, no part of the defect is worth saving. I’d like to offer a different perspective on both ideas.
In working the program of Adult Children of Alcoholics, I’ve learned the word “traits” for those habits of thought and action that were ingrained in me as a response to growing up in the chaos, dysfunction, and emotional abandonment that any child who grew up that way will develop as a survival strategy. When I read the “Laundry List Traits” of 14 characteristics of an Adult Child, I instantly identified. I know I am a people-pleaser, defiant of authority, self-righteous and controlling. I know I am a fixer, more concerned with offering helpful solutions to someone else’s problems rather than looking at my own. I know that I have held onto unhealthy relationships in order not to feel abandoned. But the ACA program tells me that I couldn’t have turned out any other way. I share these traits with every other person raised the way I was. There is great relief in knowing I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t make a mistake.
I Didn’t Do Anything Wrong.
It is also a relief to know that there are only 14 of these traits. That may sound comical, but I recently heard at an AA meeting that a man who thought he had no character defects Googled the words “character defects.” Google gave him 194 types of character defects! That is daunting.
Second, ACA says my goal should be to “integrate” my traits, rather than remove them. Again, relief. As I know I will never be entirely free of these traits, I can begin to see their value. My traits are survival instincts run amok. But there is value in them too. All of my traits show up in relationships. If I want to have healthy relationships, I need to transform my traits into healthy behavior.
Let’s take people-pleasing. If I am so anxious for you to like me that I abandon my true self, if I spend my time trying to appear to be the person I think you want me to be, my trait keeps me from being authentic. Then I feel like a fraud. Then if you like me, I know it’s not the real me you like! Problem. But my instinct to want you to like me is a good instinct. It is not a “defect.” When I can see that I truly want you to like the authentic me and begin to act authentically, that trait has been realigned or “integrated” into healthy behavior.
My Instinct to want to be liked is a good instinct.
Another of my traits is trying to fix other people’s problems.
Fixing problems is not a bad idea, but I need to refocus my instinct on my own problems. Once I realize that I can’t change anyone but myself, I see that offering “helpful advice” to others is not only a lost cause, but it makes people dislike me. It backfires. The quality of being discerning about how to fix behaviors is a good quality, not a defect. Once I apply it to myself, it becomes an asset. I’ve integrated my fixing skill, rather than trying to remove it.
I’ve often heard in AA meetings that newcomers are afraid of the 4th and 5th step. If these steps are viewed as mere confession of bad behavior, that fear is fully justified. But if the process is viewed as uncovering the causes and conditions that led us to think a drink would make us feel better, then “relief” comes not from confession, but from seeing clearly what opinions about how to live have caused fracture and discord in relationships and how to change our behaviors so as to live more happily with others.
I have a friend, “Ellen” not in program. Ellen is extremely critical. Whenever we are together, she complains about someone or something that is not meeting her expectations. Ellen sends dinners back at restaurants. She bemoans her friends’ lack of manners for not sending thank you notes. The neighbors are selfish and stomp on her lawn. You get it.
I put her on my 4th step and told my sponsor that I was trying to find the right way to tell her to stop being so critical. My sponsor said, “your problem is you refuse to accept reality.”Hmm. “Ellen is the way she is. There is nothing you can do to change it. You have three choices: 1. accept her just the way she is. 2. decide not to have a relationship with her, 3. set boundaries around your relationship that work for you.”
That’s reality. One ACA trait says I am more concerned with others’ problems rather than looking at my own. I don’t have an option to change Ellen. But I do have the option to change me. There is real freedom in knowing that.
Another ACA trait says I am frightened of any personal criticism. I have another friend who is not nearly as bothered by Ellen’s negativity as I am. Why is that? I realized I hear Ellen’s criticisms as directed at me! I “hear” what she says and react like the five-year-old I was who felt socially inferior to others. I’ve heard it said that “when I’m hysterical, it’s historical.” I can “right size” my reactions by realizing that Ellen has triggered a feeling from my past. This is another way of integrating my survival traits.
When I’m hysterical, it’s historical.
I put a former boss on my 4th step list in AA. I resented him because he wanted me to follow my job description by spending a certain number of hours at my desk. I had been used to spending only as much time as required to get my tasks done, which was typical of university professors. Who was he to chain me to my desk? The boss. That’s who. I felt entitled to do my job “my way.” I was defiant. We were locked in a power struggle. I ultimately quit rather than do the job his way. An ACA trait is being “defiant of authority.” I ended up making amends to him. But it turns out I’m not defiant of all authority. I now work for two other department heads quite successfully. I learned to respect them, ask for advice, keep them informed. In short, I learned how to be less entitled and more collaborative.
For me, the purpose of a 4th step is not to confess what’s wrong or defective with me and needs to be discarded. It is to see how my opinions and attitudes, developed in childhood from growing up in an alcoholic household, have harmed my relationships today. It’s to recognize when people today trigger feelings from my past that do not need to dominate my life today. It’s about learning to accept what or who I cannot change and set boundaries that keep me safe from unacceptable behavior. And it’s by learning to integrate those traits into healthy behavior.