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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On Overcoming Remorse and Self-Loathing

In the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the most prominent but least discussed aspects of the alcoholic addict's dilemma is the crushing shame and remorse that he or she feels for their actions when they are not tied directly to another person. Of course, Steps Five through Step Nine deal minutely with the whats, whys, whens and hows of making amends for harm done to others, but little is said about the "free-floating" remorse and self-loathing generated by years of alcoholic addiction.

Sometimes one hears that "the first amends I had to make were to myself," or worse, that "the 12 Steps are a selfish program." Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. The basic problem of the alcoholic addict is that he or she is utterly self-absorbed and self-centered to the extreme, and a radical process of "ego-deflation at depth" is needed if he or she is to recover.
"Selfishness," we read, "self-centeredness! That we think is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred different forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking and self-pity, we step on the toes of others and they retaliate. . . . So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must or it kills us!"
[Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 62.]
How then, are we to be rid of the remorse and self-loathing for the seemingly horrible things we have done that did not directly, or even indirectly, affect others? How do we account for those actions at which we shudder when we remember: "Yes, I did that?"

The solution to this dilemma is found in taking and then sharing our Step Four inventory. "Being convinced," we read, "that self, manifested in various ways, was what had defeated us, we considered its common manifestations."
 [Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 63.] 

In regards to our "moral inventory," we read: "The first thing apparent was that this world and its people were often quite wrong." But, we continue reading, "(t)o conclude that others were wrong was as far as most of us ever got."

"The usual outcome" of this, we read, "is that people continued to wrong us and we stayed sore. Sometimes it was remorse and then we were sore at ourselves. But the more we fought and tried to have our own way the worse matters got. As in war, the victor only seemed to win. Our moments of triumph were short-lived." (Emphasis added.)
[Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 64-65.]

Thus, rather than making amends to one's self, one takes a moral inventory of one's self, highlighting the remorse we feel for our actions that did not affect others as resentments we hold against ourselves. We are told that "an alcoholic in his cups is an unlovely creature," and we need highlight those most unlovely incidents not affecting others that we have nonetheless come to abhor.

The other place where we deal with remorse is in listing our fears, for each of us holds memories of what we have done unwitnessed that we live in dread of ever having exposed. Who, at first, has not thought, "if only they knew . . ."?

Rather than holding some vague and fallacious idea that somewhere in Step Nine we need to "make amends to ourselves," it is rather in Step Five where we admit "to ourselves, to God and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs" that we earn freedom from our remorse and self-loathing.

Most often, we will find that are personal peccadilloes are not so unique, and that they vary only in kind rather than in quality to those "wrongs" committed by others. That, at least, has been my experience.

Moreover, such personal and dreadful incidents, once shared, lose their power over us. If we think of them at all, we are no longer filled with remorse, but rather we are in a position to use them to demonstrate to another alcoholic addict that they, too, are not as "bad" or "unique" as they may believe themselves to be. Our most shameful memories, are thus turned into assets we can use to help others.

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