In our ongoing series about the 12 principles or steps for recovery from addiction or greater mental health, step one is acceptance. A common struggle felt by most individuals who enter a recovery program or start a process of personal healing is learning how to reframe their life and give it harmony and balance. We have to learn how to dialogue with ourselves about past and present events to bring freedom and meaning. We have to wrestle with what is real and have to choose to accept what is.
TRANSCRIPT: The 12 Steps | Principles of Recovery: Acceptance
Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. Today’s episode kicks us off on our 12-part series on the 12 principles, so we’ll be focusing today on principle #1, which is acceptance.
Dr. Carnes wrote, “Acceptance is the most fundamental of the 12 principles. It is the foundation on which the other 11 principles are built. Acceptance is about acknowledging our limits, what we can and cannot do; what we can and cannot control; what we can and cannot know; where we have power and where we don’t; what things other people can do that we can never do again. For addicts this may include drink alcohol or playing the slots. Acceptance means saying yes to life in its entirety. It is saying no to the delusions that have made life unmanageable. It is a commitment to reality at all costs.”
Now a common struggle felt by most individuals who enter a recovery program or even who enter the rooms of therapy is learning how to reframe their life and give it harmony and balance. We have to learn how to dialogue with ourselves about past and present events in a way that brings freedom and meaning.
Now as I said in my last episode introducing the 12 principles, as we enter into a more mature recovery, we need maybe what were concrete and even somewhat rigid steps, we need those to become more flexible principles in order to deal with the anxiety and uncertainty of life.
Now as I said principle #1 is acceptance, and the purpose of acceptance is to present you with a deeper understanding and help you answer the question, what are my limits? This is going to require a broader, more expansive paradigm that changes as we are going to grow in our own recovery or healing process.
Now you may be at a place in your own recovery or healing journey where you’re realizing that the problems of acceptance that were there in the beginning are now much broader, more complex. Maybe they come from a different place or have a different perspective.
Dr. Carnes says, “Acceptance often involves grief because it requires us to give something up—a dream, a goal, a cherished idea, a story or explanation about how things are, or a way of thinking or living or being. We often achieve acceptance only after working our way through four stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. The good news is that when we reach the stage of depression, acceptance often follows close behind, and with acceptance comes serenity.
He continues, “Over time, we learn to accept that we are flawed and limited simply because we are human. We learn to accept that there are many things we cannot do and innumerable things we cannot know. We learn to be clear and honest about our limitations, discovering what they are and living within them. We learn how to ask for what we need. We learn how much is enough and how much is too much.”
Now there’s a thing known as the Stockdale Paradox. The name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking United States military officer in the Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. He was tortured over 20 times during his 8-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973. He lived out the war without any prisoners rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again.
After he was released and arrived back home to the United States, he was asked in an interview how he could possibly survive such an ordeal. His reply: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted, not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect I would not trade.”
He was asked who didn’t make it out. His reply: “Oh that’s easy. The optimists. They were the ones who said we’re going to be out by Christmas, and Christmas would come and Christmas would go. Then they’d say we’re going to be out by Easter, and Easter would come and Easter would go, and then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again, and they died of a broken heart.”
He continued, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end, which you can never afford to lose, with a discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
This goes along with author M. Scott Peck in his book “The Road Less Traveled” where he talked about a commitment to reality no matter the cost. There can be some pleasure, some comfort in denial, in not living in the truth and not living in reality, which oftentimes can be harsh, and I think the Stockdale Paradox is a great reminder that we have to do both. We have to live in the reality, and we have to grab onto hope and allow hope to maybe guide us or pull us into a vision, but we can’t do one or the other. Without a vision or hope, reality becomes unbearable, and with only vision and hope, it’s not grounded in anything and harder to accomplish.
Oftentimes before we can get into acceptance, we have to first acknowledge what is. What is the difficult situation? What is reality? What is the problem that I’m wrestling with, and what am I resisting? Acceptance is not something that cane be forced. Often the story of learning how to accept things most often begins with not being able to accept them and then finding a way to do so.
If you look to the dictionary to look at what acceptance means, it includes this phrase: “a willingness to tolerate a difficult situation”. I don’t know that any of us have difficulty with accepting great things. Maybe we’re kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop, and so we can’t fully allow the pleasure of the moment or the success or the accomplishment to actually make it into our core being, but usually it’s the difficult things that we have a harder time wrapping our brain around—the more difficult time moving into a form of acceptance.
Acceptance is a willful act, or in other words, it’s a choice. As in the case of Admiral Stockdale in the Stockdale Paradox, life is full of paradoxes, and in recovery and in our own healing journey, we’re going to encounter many of our own personal paradoxes that we need to see, feel, and hold as part of healing and moving forward. Acceptance requires us to hold both the good and the bad in order to find the whole in ourselves and to find the balance in our life. Acceptance allows us to move into being a wholly integrated person.
In his book, “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, Robert Louis Stevenson explored the duality of human nature and the struggle between the conscious and the unconscious, what is known and what is unknown. The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was often thought to be a metaphor for alcoholism and how drinking can bring about a different side of a person. More recent research has indicated that it was probably more about sexual behavior, which often is even more hidden and still is often more hidden than maybe the drugs and alcohol a person uses.
If you read Dr. Jekyll’s last letter through that lens of it being about sexual behavior, Dr. Jekyll had a very shameful part of himself that he could not integrate, which ultimately destroyed him. In the addiction field, it was Lois W. Bill W., who was the founder of AA, his wife Lois who first put her finger on that erosion of the self that results from trying to keep up appearances. If we’re trying to keep up appearances or put on a façade or put up a front, we’re not living in reality, and we’re hiding some things that we might need to accept.
Now therapists have long recognized the disintegration of self that happens as a result of family dysfunction and childhood trauma. Addiction, compulsive attachment, codependency, and more are ways that this disintegration shows up in the adult. I’ve worked with clients who have spent years of their lives trying to outrun, push down, or bypass their experiences rather than face the known or unknown, the seen or the unseen realities that were there waiting to be accepted and to be seen.
I’ve also worked with clients who have used substances or certain behaviors or relationships or spirituality to disconnect them from what really mattered. At one time maybe these truths and these experiences may very well have been too much for them to know or too much for them to feel or see, but usually at some point in adulthood, the time comes where we can no longer numb or distract or outwork or paint over or pretty up what has been waiting for us to connect with and to work through.
Have you ever had the experience where life is spinning towards a certain outcome, and in a moment often unbeknownst to you, it stopped spinning in that direction and began turning in another direction?
Brene Brown says it this way. She says, “I think mid-life is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders, pulls you close, and whispers in your ear, ‘I’m not screwing around. It’s time. All of this pretending and performing, these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt have got to go. Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy of love and belonging, but you’re still searching and you’re most lost than ever. Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through you. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.’”
Now when I signed up for the 12 principles, I got the email. I think it was an email. I might have also gotten some in the mail, and I got it and read it and had this voice when I read it. I was at work when I read it, and I had this voice inside of me that said, “You should do this. You should sign up.” And then of course all of the reasons why I can’t do that… the first one is in December. What mother and business owner just leaves town in December? That’s crazy. I came up with all these reasons why I couldn’t do it.
Fortunately, I had a CSAT friend who lived in Illinois, and she sent me a text, and I think it was within hours of me getting this email and opening it and reading it, and she sent me… she forwarded me the email and said, “Hey, did you see this?” and I replied, “I did see it.” And she’s like, “We need to do this.” And I was kind of like oh, okay. I mean it’s always nice when you’re doing something that’s uncertain and unknown to have somebody to do it with, but I also still had all these reasons why it wasn’t going to work for me.
So I went home from work that night, and I mentioned to my husband, hey, my friend, I got this email, my friend texted me and said this, and I just launched into, like I know it’s a 3-year commitment. I would be traveling quarterly away from the family, and at that time, we had a pretty busy family schedule with the ages of our kids and everything that was going on, and so I had the whole thing, and I just said I know I can’t do it. And he was patient, he listened to me, he didn’t interrupt me, and I finished, and he said, “I’m not hearing why you can’t do this.”
I was like, okay, let me back up and go through everything that I just said. So he kind of said, “Well let’s sit down as a family and let’s talk about it. It impacts the family. Let’s have a discussion about it.” So it was a couple of days, maybe that weekend on Sunday we sat down as a family and I explained to my kids what was going on and what it would entail, that I’d be traveling and away on the weekends when we had all these soccer games and the weekends were just busy.
So I was kind of explaining the whole situation to them, and really I had kind of made up my mind that it wasn’t going to work, so I finished explaining it to them, and my one daughter looked at me and said, “Oh that sounds amazing, Mom. Why wouldn’t you do that?” My husband was sitting there across the living room from us and just kind of smiled, and I said, “Well I’d be gone a lot, and that’s going to be hard on the family.” They were all just like, “Mom, I think you should do it.”
So fortunately I had those voices in my life who were like yeah, do it. Why wouldn’t you do this? My husband said, “I’m not hearing any reason why you shouldn’t be able to do this.” So I signed up, paid my money and met my friends who were flying in from Illinois. I was flying in from Salt Lake to Arizona, and we started Friday evening about 5.
So we went in there and got divided into groups, different things like that, kind of got all established and set up and Dr. Carnes was lecturing and talking to us about the 12 principles and talking about acceptance, which we were going to be working on that weekend, and I remember I wrote down in my notebook. They had given us all these journals to be writing in throughout the three years, and one of the questions he asked is we obviously have limitations that are placed on us as human beings. We need to sleep. We need to eat. There’s only so much we can do, different things like that. Maybe our own life story has placed limits on us that we believe are limitations and maybe they’re not, and he asked the question, he said one of the things that I want you to be thinking about during this 3-year journey is how big can you be?
Having had the experience talking to my husband, talking to our daughters, having that initial voice when I read the email that said, “You should do this. You need to sign up for this.” And then that question, how big can you be? I also realized that for me and probably for many of you listening, we think there’s limits that are put on us or we believe we have limits that maybe we don’t, and when we ask that question, how big can you be?, we might be surprised at what the answer is.
When he asked that question, I immediately went to one of the conversations I would have with my mom sometimes, and I think usually these conversations happened when she was probably in a low place and not feeling necessarily positive about her life or maybe feeling somewhat trapped I would imagine, and there were times where maybe I was kind of excited or I was kind of thinking that I was all that, and she would say to me not in a like, “Hey, let’s remember to be humble” but kind of in a cutting way, she would say to me, this happened multiple times, but she would say to me like, “Who do you think you are?”
I would always move into this hustle of like I don’t think I’m better than anybody. I don’t think I’m anything special. It wasn’t good for me to think that I was better than. And again, not in a way like I think I’ve tried to raise my own kids to not necessarily think of themselves as better than, but not in a way that maybe interfered with them believing that they were enough.
I remember in school I was going to run for class office, and I had to get my parent’s signature, so I came home and told my mom I think I want to run for class office, for class vice president is what I was going to run for, and I need a parent’s signature, so my mom, she signed the paper, but she also told me, she said, “If I see that you start to think… if you win this election and you start to think that you’re better than the friends that you have or you’re better than the people that you hang out with because you think you’re more popular or that this election would mean something about you that it doesn’t, I will pull you out of office so quick.” I was like, “Oh I know you will.” My mom was in education. I was like, “I don’t know how you would do that, but I bet you know how to do that, and you will do that.”
One of my friends also ran for office, and I was elected, and my friend was not. We were really friends after that time period after I had won office and she didn’t, and I was so scared that my mom was going to think that like I wasn’t her friend anymore because I thought that I was better than her or something, and that really… I think maybe that had a part to play on why we weren’t friends anymore, but not because I felt like I was better than her.
So again, to be sitting here all these years later, decades later, and have Dr. Carnes ask that question, how big can you be?, I hear this other script start to kick in and say, you’re not better than anybody else. Don’t think you can be anybody special. You’re nobody. You are not better than any other person. And I had to kind of take a deep breath and set that aside, it’s a familiar script, and start to wonder what it could be like if I just let myself ask that question without feeling like I was better than or having my mom’s voice come up.
Oprah Winfrey said, “Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different. It’s accepting the past for what it was and using this moment and this time to help yourself move forward.”
I had a session actually just today with a young client that I’m working with. I mean, not too young, but you know, I’m 50. He’s young. We were talking about… he’s just 18 years old and a senior in high school, and we were talking about just the situation that he finds himself in in his family and what he’s had to deal with in his young 18 years and maybe how it has impacted him and kind of stepping out of maybe a role that was handed to him but didn’t necessarily serve him well, that of like maybe being this older brother who also felt like he had to be kind of a father figure for his younger siblings.
We’ve talked a little bit. He knows that I kind of played an older sibling role, and in this particular session, he asked me, “How many siblings did you have?” I said, “I have 5. There were 6 total.” And he said, “Were you the oldest?” And I said, “Well I was the second-oldest, but in many ways… You know, I don’t even really know why, but in many ways some of the roles of like that oldest child, those kind of fell to me.”
So I shared just a little bit and then he was talking some more about his experiences, and then he asked me, “Do you ever wish that you were one of the younger siblings, that you were like the youngest sibling in the family or one of the younger siblings?” We talked about what was coming up for him and how that would look different for him. The truth is sure. Yeah, sure. I’ve wished for that. I’ve wished for a lot of things over the years. I wished for a dad like the one that my daughters have. I wished I could go back and do things differently, have different things or have different experiences or not have some of those experiences.
In the end, I’ve realized that all of my past has led to who and where I am today. It’s what makes me me. Now I don’t think I take for granted what my husband and I have been able to create with our own family, and part of that is because of my experiences. I think realizing that imperfection is part of the package has been a powerful lesson for me, and when I look back on the past and start to wish that I could have done something different or known more instead of less that I knew then, it’s those times from the past that actually give me courage in the present moment to speak up or to offer a hug or to express appreciation and love or to be generous when others make mistakes.
I think what Oprah says is true. I think a big part of acceptance is just giving up the hope that it could have been any different and instead moving into what is and using what was and what is to move yourself forward.
Years ago, I read a quote by George Bernard Shaw, and he said, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” I thought, well that’s interesting. When I first read it I thought I’m going to have to write that down because I need to think about that. I don’t know if that’s true. A life spent making mistakes.
Now I actually read this at the time that my father had passed away, and you know we were trying to plan a funeral, and I’ve talked about that before. It was just such a weird time, and so I kind of wrote it down. I had to think about it, and I remember coming home after his funeral. It was an August day, so it was a nice… It stayed light later, and it was kind of in the evening when it was maybe starting to cool off a little bit. I was sitting out on my front porch, and I started to think back to this quote, and I got it out and I started to think about that after kind of just going over my father’s life, kind of putting him to rest and going through the funeral and everything.
It was just an interesting time to start thinking about that. Can mistakes actually be honorable? I think that the conclusion that I came to is it depends. I think sometimes a life spent making mistakes translates into a life of doing nothing and creates a great deal of pain for people who are connected to that individual, but I think that’s… at the conclusion of my father’s life as I sat there reflecting back onto it, that’s one of the things that I was thinking. I think he made a lot of mistakes, and in the end it didn’t translate into a whole lot of anything. In other instances, though, mistakes become powerful gifts that hold powerful lessons and shape us and impact us in meaningful ways, and in some ways, my father’s mistakes shaped me in meaningful ways.
Researchers have found that by the time a person reaches the age of 60, enough “bad experiences” have occurred in a person’s life to provide what we call “wisdom”. Now simply put, wisdom is the ability to know what is and what it’s not worth being upset about. As I review my life inventory, I can find a lot of critical mistakes that I’ve made that have led to more meaningful and useful wisdom.
These include judging another person too harshly or continually trusting somebody who was not trustworthy. They include being determined to make something happen when the best course was actually not the one I was so determined to pursue. They include risks I was too scared to take and putting energy into pursuits or relationships that really didn’t matter. They included times I acted with recklessness and times when I wasn’t compassionate or empathetic, either with myself or somebody else. They include times I was hurting and thereby ended up hurting somebody else.
In recovery, we refer to this inventory of painful moments we walk back and review as the “dark night of the soul.” When we start to ask some really deep, powerful questions of ourselves. It’s a necessary step in stripping away denial and facing the shadow and the secret side of the self. It’s an opportunity to meet different parts of yourself and to uncover unbearable truths that the more pleasant parts conceal. It can require sorting through all of your feelings and experiences. It requires taking full responsibility for yourself.
Without this step, we’re unable to harvest the important lessons that our history holds. This process is the very process that turns our mistakes into gifts. To leave this step undone is to spend a lifetime doing nothing. I think this process teaches us a way of focusing on what we can take away from every experience and prepares us for a profound, meaningful change. In therapy, we call these opportunities “wake-up calls”.
So many years ago, over a decade now, on a warm, August evening as I was sitting on my front porch by myself, listening to the sounds of my neighborhood, the lawn mowers, neighbor kids out playing, the sound of skateboards on sidewalks, it had been a typical, hot August day, and I was feeling drained and exhausted. It had also been the day of my father’s funeral, and as I sat and contemplated on the events of the day, the past week, the previous years of my life and decades of my father’s life, I was experiencing some profound sorrow.
My father had lived a life of mistakes that at the end translated pretty much I would say into a life doing nothing. It was painful to be in a relationship with my father. It hurt, and as I contemplated the wounds that this created in my life, I asked myself a painful and poignant question. Based on the wounds I experienced as a child and the behaviors that sprang from those wounds, I wonder what it’s like to be in a relationship with me. More important, I wondered what it was like for my children to be my children.
So that thought led to some conversations, honest conversations with each of my kids, which had some mixed reviews. I learned that I hold back. Each one of them was kind. They told me that they knew that I loved them, but they also felt that there was a part of me they couldn’t access.
Now this wasn’t something I intended to do with my children. Intellectually I know I’m an adult. I don’t have to live with those wounds anymore, but intellect wasn’t enough to move me out of those childhood wounds or beliefs or behaviors. I’m grateful that they had the courage to be open and lovingly honest. We all have room for improvement.
After my conversations with my girls, I went to my husband and had a similar conversation with him. The truth about myself emerged in a deep way and brought with it some profound resolve. Nothing brings focus like pain. It was then that the light began to dawn over this vast reservoir of love deep within me that was layered over by wounds of the past. I had a whole new appreciation for how precious pain is. I began to see that only by experiencing the pain could I begin to create a life of my own choosing. Mistakes of the past served as the content for wisdom going forward. That was a wake-up call that brought me to a deeper understanding of who I am and how I am, and it gave me options for being different.
So when I showed up on that Friday night at the first 12 principles retreat and that question was put out, how big can you be?, I was in a place where I was ready for that question, and I was ready to step into the space to explore what the answers might be.
The gifts that came from some of those difficult conversations are precious to me. I’m grateful I was able to begin the process of changing mistakes I was making and deepening the relationships I have, and that hasn’t been the only time I’ve had to check in with my kids. That hasn’t been the only time I’ve had to stop and assess and look around and ask myself what is real right now? What do I need to see?
Since that day, wake-up calls continue, and the process of creating a life of my choosing is never-ending. I don’t know that answering the wake-up call has gotten easier, but I learned in the three years of working the principles, I learned some powerful lessons about saying yes. Yes to signing up for the 12 principles. Yes to making it happen, to going 3 years every quarter.
There’s a quote sometimes that I pull out too, and I was talking with a client a couple of weeks ago about it. It’s by Lisa Unger, and she says, “The universe doesn’t like secrets. It conspires to reveal the truth, to lead us to it.” I was saying that to my client, and my client asked me, “Do you really believe that?” And I said, “Yeah. I do.” She said, “I don’t believe that at all.” I said, “You don’t believe that the universe conspires to bring the truth forward?” And she said, “No, I don’t. I don’t think the truth always comes out.”
I think there’s something about being in a place to accept what is. There are questions that I have about my family of origin, my extended family of origin. I don’t know if I would get that information. There might be limits there. I wasn’t alive. I didn’t live those experiences, and people who are still alive and I’ve asked them questions, they don’t seem to know. They don’t seem to have asked some of the questions I’ve asked, so there are some real limits to what we can get, and that’s something we have to accept as well, but overall I do believe that the universe doesn’t like secrets and that it conspires to reveal the truth, to lead us to it, and our job is to get into a place of accepting it.