In the final scene of the epic film, The Wizard of Oz, the heroine Dorothy learns a surprising truth from Glinda the Good Witch — that the elusive power to get back home had actually been right there within Dorothy’s reach all along her journey through the Land of Oz. Ultimately, Dorothy never really needed the assistance of the Wizard, nor of anyone else, to return to her beloved Kansas. When the Scarecrow angrily asked why this critical information had not been revealed to Dorothy sooner, the wise witch laughed and stated:
“Because she wouldn’t have believed me; she had to learn it for herself.”
As I look back on my own life journey, now in the light of Steps 6 and 7, I am certain that many of the problems that I have faced persisted because, like Dorothy, I too was ignorant of the solution which was within my reach all along. Far astray from home, I looked outside of myself for quick fixes and for roads leading away from the despair. I was told, but I did not believe, that my method of attempting to align people and circumstances to my liking would prove fruitless. I was duped by the illusion of control created by me in my own Oz-like fantasy world in which I was the absolute center of attention. The fact that I did not end up flattened by a falling house as did the Wicked Witch of the East, nor ravaged by her sister’s winged monkeys, is an indication of true grace.
Fortunately, my honest surrender came before my certain demise. It was only then that it became possible for me to learn — and more importantly, for me to believe — that the elusive power which I had sought for so long was always right there inside of me. This I could not be told, but had to learn from my own experiences along the Yellow Brick Road.
Experience has shown that mere abstinence from drugs and alcohol does not yield the level of freedom which I seek and that is the hallmark of true sobriety. Granted, simply not drinking and not using would likely eliminate the most serious consequences which I faced while in active addiction — such as homelessness and incarceration. And yet, in my experience the white knuckle approach provides only a temporary reprieve from a disease that, when left untreated, worsens progressively and which yields a similarly worsening series of consequences.
This is not to say that abstinence is not a requirement for recovery. Indeed, recovery cannot be had without first achieving a measure of distance between oneself and the last drunk or high. Abstinence is the required starting point, but it alone will not sustain recovery. Of course, this assumes that the objectives of recovery include attaining a healthy measure of personal happiness, joy, and freedom. In the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, members sometimes use the expression “Dry Drunk” to describe someone who is presumably abstaining from alcohol, but who has the same negative disposition that was typical of many of us during our days of drinking and using drugs. When worked thoroughly and honestly, the first five steps reveal that mere abstinence will not suffice for meaningful recovery. The difference between a “Dry Drunk” and a “Recovering Alcoholic or Drug Addict” becomes clear. More fundamental changes in how I think and in how I act are necessary to avoid my becoming, at best, the next miserable “Dry Drunk“.
The changes I must make in my life go far beyond merely abstaining from the use of drugs and alcohol if the promises of recovery are to be fulfilled.
A New Rulebook
The central lesson that I learned from working Steps 4 and 5 is that the set of personal rules which I had heretofore applied to myself, to others, and to life in general were irrational, ineffective, and often outright unjust. No matter how many different game plans, how many different players, or how many different venues, the former set of rules made winning impossible. The proof was in the consistently disastrous results; so a different set of rules became necessary. Thankfully, upon this realization, the burning desire to change was lit from within me.
The Sixth Step represents the point at which I came to believe that fundamental changes in my thinking, feeling, and behaving were necessary to ensure continued personal growth and survival. It is also the point at which I could honestly state that the change had to come from within myself rather than persisting in my futile efforts to change the people and circumstances which surrounded me. Such belief, coupled with the desire to change my life, continue to motivate me into action.
It turns out — as Dorothy likewise discovered — that the power to change was within my grasp all along. Prior to this discovery, in my rather limited view, change was something to be effected externally upon others and upon circumstances for the purpose of fitting them to my preconceived notions of what would and what would not bring about personal happiness. It was an unworkable mantra that went something like, “If only they would do what I wanted them to do; or if only life were the way I wanted it to be, things would be just fine!” It never occurred to me that simply by choice, I could adopt a different set of rules to apply to the same people and the same life circumstances and in so doing achieve a much healthier and happier perspective. The losing tide of the game changed drastically when I accepted that, even though most people and many circumstances are outside of my control, my view of those same people and those same circumstances is always a matter of personal choice. Life is not a series of required, predetermined reactions, but a series of choices. Finally, the Serenity Prayer made perfect sense to me.
The belief that fundamental change is necessary coupled with the desire to effect such change form the foundation of the Sixth Step and provide the motivation to do the work of the Seventh Step.
No Magic Wands in Recovery
Though Glinda the Good Witch carried a magic wand which she used to assist Dorothy in her journey of personal growth and discovery, I have learned that there are no such quick fixes in recovery. Notwithstanding the syntax and diction of the Seventh Step, irrational beliefs (or defects of character, or shortcomings, if you will) are not magically removed by wishing, willing, nor asking in prayer, but may only be replaced with rational, healthy beliefs by the sustained effort and determination of the individual. The requirement of taking action to bring about change applies to everyone in recovery — even to the devoutly religious who are particularly susceptible to the pitfalls of magical thinking. Contrary to some interpretations and beliefs, the Seventh Step is not a passive request to a supreme deity after which one sits by idly hoping to be rendered “white as snow”.
There are no magical solutions nor quick fixes in recovery. Only through diligent effort, sustained action, and perseverance can the fruits of recovery be harvested.
Weeding the Garden
The level of honesty and thoroughness applied in working the 4th and 5th Steps will bear directly on the effectiveness of Steps 6 and 7. The process is akin to weeding a garden. If we think of character defects and the resulting shortcomings (which I refer to collectively as irrational beliefs) as invasive, undesirable weeds in our garden, then the work of the steps to this point has made it possible to locate and identify the different varieties which have taken over. The task at hand is now to effectively clean the garden by pulling existing weeds out at the roots rather than breaking them off at the soil’s surface. This is necessary to prevent new growth from springing forth from the roots if left behind.
Similar to weeding a garden, effecting fundamental change requires going beyond symptoms which are obvious at the surface level. I could readily identify that in active addiction I was consumed with resentment, fear, anger, jealousy, envy, hate and many other traits in the “parade of horribles”. These negative character traits are representative of the leaves and stems of the weeds in the garden that are above the surface. But digging deeper and going beyond these symptoms, I found that the many varieties of my “character defects” sprung from a relatively small number of irrational core beliefs. Rather than attacking the problems at the surface level only to have them return in short order, I found that going after the root causes brings about enduring positive results much more quickly and much more effectively.
Identifying root causes rather than surface problems gives me the best chance to make enduring positive changes in my life.
12 Rational Beliefs
In The Philosophy of Unconditional Acceptance, I endorsed the methods of self-improvement found in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), the forerunner of cognitive-behavioral therapeutic approaches, which was originally developed by Albert Ellis in the 1950’s and expanded upon by him until his death in 2007. Central to Ellis’ theory is that there are 12 Irrational Beliefs which are the source of most unhealthy thoughts, behaviors and emotions. REBT provides several practical methods (i.e. disputing, rational emotive imagery, shame-attacking) for challenging and ultimately replacing irrational beliefs. For me personally, these methods have proven very beneficial in working Steps 6 and 7.
While recognizing the destruction caused by the 12 Irrational Beliefs in one’s own life is the primary purpose of the 4th Step, it is now helpful to consider rational counter-beliefs to replace them. I have learned that when I am feeling disturbed (anxious, depressed, resentful, fearful, etc.), there is always an underlying irrational belief at the root. Actively and forcefully disputing irrational beliefs with rational counter-beliefs brings about remarkable relief. Of course, the old patterns of thinking — many which are now automatic and even occur at the subconscious level — did not arise overnight, and therefore enduring change can only be achieved with patience and persistence. Nevertheless, in just a short time I have become convinced that it is an effort that is well worth undertaking. To aid in this endeavor, I have again set forth Ellis’ 12 Irrational Beliefs (IB), but now each is followed by the 12 Rational Beliefs (RB) which can be used to change one’s own internal dialogue:
- (IB) I need love and approval from those significant to me — and I must avoid disapproval from any source.
(RB) Love and approval are good things to have and I’ll seek them when I can. But they are not necessities — I can survive (even though uncomfortably) without them.
- (IB) To be worthwhile as a person I must achieve, succeed at whatever I do, and make no mistakes.
(RB) I’ll always seek to achieve as much as I can — but unfailing success and omnipotence are unrealistic objectives. Better that I just accept myself as a person independent of my performances.
- (IB) People should always do the right thing. When they behave obnoxiously, unfairly or selfishly, they must be blamed and punished.
(RB) It’s unfortunate the people sometimes do bad things. But upsetting myself won’t change reality.
- (IB) Things must be the way I want them to be, otherwise life will be intolerable.
(RB) There is no law that says things have to be the way I want. It’s disappointing, but I can stand it — especially if I avoid catastrophising.
- (IB) My unhappiness is caused by things outside my control — so there is little I can do to feel any better.
(RB) Many external factors are outside my control. However, I am always empowered to control how I view things.
- (IB) I must worry about things that could be dangerous, unpleasant or frightening — otherwise they might happen.
(RB) Worrying about things that might go wrong has no bearing on future outcomes. It will only ensure that I am disturbed in the present.
- (IB) Because they are too much to bear, I must avoid life’s difficulties, unpleasantness, and responsibilities.
(RB) Avoiding problems is only easier in the short-term. Putting things off can actually make things worse later, and often leads to unnecessary worrying.
- (IB) Everyone needs to depend on someone stronger than themselves.
(RB) Relying on someone else can lead to dependent behavior. It is always acceptable to ask for help, but I must learn to trust myself and my own judgement.
- (IB) Events in my past are the cause of my problems — and they continue to influence my feelings and behaviors now.
(RB) The past can only influence me now to the extent that I allow it to do so. Though I may have acquired certain irrational beliefs in the past, I can choose to analyze and change them today.
- (IB) I should become upset when other people have problems, and feel unhappy when they are sad.
(RB) I cannot change other people’s problems and bad feelings by getting myself upset.
- (IB) I shouldn’t have to feel discomfort and pain — I can’t stand them and must avoid them at all costs.
(RB) My life would be very restricted and protected if I always avoided discomfort and pain. Personal growth is often the benefit of facing life’s challenges. I can stand pain and discomfort even though I don’t like them.
- (IB) Every problem should have an ideal solution — and it’s intolerable when one can’t be found.
(RB) Problems usually have many possible solutions. It is better to stop waiting for the perfect one and get on with the best available. I can live with less than the ideal.
One of the most important ways that I work Steps 6 & 7 in my life is by actively identifying irrational beliefs and then replacing them with rational counter-beliefs.