IN Bill’s January Grapevine article, the value of anonymity as group protection and insurance was spelled out in letters big enough for a blind man to see. It drove home the importance of anonymity to AA’s survival and continued effectiveness. Of equal interest to me, however, were the suggestions scattered throughout that anonymity is no ordinary insurance policy, but one that pays surprising extra dividends–personal and spiritual.
What are the extra dividends?
There are many. But, as I see it, one stands out above all others. It is the removal of the temptation to give the dying ego the kind of nourishment which can so easily bring it back to life. Let us take a closer look at this.
There is considerable agreement among my professional colleagues, as well as among AAs, about the emotional problems at the bottom of alcoholism. The tap roots are variously described as insecurity or anxiety–some sense of inadequacy, inferiority, or unworthiness. . .some sense of threat to self-esteem. It is believed that these roots generally go back to childhood years.
It would take pages to do justice to this viewpoint, but let me try to condense it into a few sentences.
It is assumed, to begin with, that faith in oneself and faith in life are the products of a deep inner sense of security and worth. But no child escapes experiences (things people do to make him feel hurt, angry, inadequate, fearful or lonely) which result in some degree of emotional insecurity. Some become very insecure; others, less so.
Now, to the degree that insecurity is produced, to that degree will the child be motivated to overcome his painful feelings. To that degree will he learn to gain a substitute sense of security and worthiness by relating to other persons in certain ways. By trial and error, in the early family situation, he discovers the ways by which he can make himself feel less anxious, less threatened, less alone, less unworthy. He may learn that by behaving in ways which bring attention and praise–being a “star”–he can feel like somebody anyhow, and gain temporary relief from his deeper feeling that he really is not very much of a person. Or he may discover that he feels less threatened when he manipulates and controls the people around him–that the best defense is a good offense. If he is less assertive, he may gain reassurances from leaning on others, or false security by wrapping a cloak of reserve around himself.
Any behavior style which seems to do the job of making him feel less insecure or less unworthy is apt to be continued. If so, it is built into the personality. As an adult, the person will still be driven, unconsciously, to repeat the behavior patterns which seemed to give him reassurance in childhood years.
Such seem to be the dynamics which, in more assertive persons, produce the “Big I” drives. . .the “star” drives for praise, attention, personal prestige; or the “power” drives for control over others. . .for position, for money or any other evidence of being a “Big Shot.”
Not that alcoholics behave in these ways more than other, people. These ego-propping patterns are all around us. Our society practically teaches them to us. But no matter how widespread and common, the trouble with these ways of compensating for insecurity is that they don’t quite do the trick. Anxiety is not really reduced. What’s worse, new tensions are actually created.
What happens if a person cannot find a way of reducing his tension-producing anxieties (for example, through a change in attitudes). . .and if he has not learned enough healthful ways of temporarily relieving his tensions through such means as play, hobbies, sports, social activity, music, prayer, or the like? He will be impelled to seek relief from his tensions in uncreative ways. Thus, some persons find tension-relief in alcohol.
But non-alcoholics find uncreative ways also. Some eat too much, work too hard, or push too hard. Some try sexual promiscuity, gambling, or drugs. Some keep going by just keeping on going–excitement, activity, etc. Some take it out on their bodies in psychosomatic illnesses. Others just take it out on their fellows by being “ornery.” There are many ways. Using alcohol to relieve the tensions which the substitute patterns produce is only one way. But it is a common way, and perhaps the reason it is used by so many persons today is simply because it seems to work so well–for a while. It can be fatal, however, as alcoholics know.
The AA program works so well, I believe, because it puts its finger on the underlying personality patterns and calls for a willingness to change them. This is the turning over of will and life to God, “as we understood Him.” That is to say, the old patterns for obtaining a substitute sense of adequacy and worth are given up. Instead, the AA member learns a new way of life which provides the real thing.
In short, AA shows that by letting go of the old ego, a person is enabled to find his “true self.” (By losing self he finds self.) The AA program helps the person to let go of the unsatisfactory old ways and helps him to develop a new way of life which gives genuine security and a valid sense of worthiness. It is a way which requires no alcohol to make it work because it attunes the person to life as he was meant to be attuned; because it provides him with the feelings and relationships–the spiritual values–which truly satisfy.
But every AA knows, as my own experiences with change have taught me, that the old self doesn’t give up so easily. Let me personify and say that the old self is a tough and persistent old critter. Sweep him out the front door and soon he sneaks in through the back. Kick him out again, and he returns disguised in rationalizations–clever ones too. The cleverest ones are the disguises which make him look like the new self. For example, if it’s power and control that’s been important, he’ll disguise himself as “running things for the good of the group”–but there he is, running things. The AA traditions of rotating committees, no vested authority, and spirit of service are designed to deal a death blow to this old hankering for power and control.
Similarly, anonymity puts a crimp into the old “star” pattern. If one’s main ego-food has consisted of recognition and applause, then the old ego will not easily be denied more of this nourishment. And again, his cleverest gimmick is the old “good of the group” stuff. He kids the member into believing that there is nothing wrong with the limelight if it’s for the good of the group. In fact, headlines are just what the group needs. Think of all the new prospects who will come flooding in! Before we know it, personal publicity and Twelfth Step work arc practically synonymous. But no matter how attractively disguised, it’s still the old ego. It’s still the old hankering for reassurance through recognition and prestige. And it ought to be plain that any soft policy toward that old hankering can easily revive the old pattern to its former strength–with disastrous results.
Seen in this light, then, anonymity amounts to a spiritual policy of “no appeasement” with regard to the “star” aspects of the old ego.
All this, of course, ties in with Step Three, in fact, the acceptance of anonymity is part and parcel of Step Three. As long as there is an unwillingness to give up the desire for gaining some glory through AA, the “letting go” process is obviously incomplete. Willingness to give up all thought of using AA membership to get recognition and attention, therefore, constitutes a good test of how thoroughly Step Three has been taken.
And thoroughness in taking Step Three iscrucial! As I see it, the whole AA program is based on the premise that the old ego pattern must go if an alcohol-free, new personality pattern is to grow and thrive.
Sure, before AA, prestige tasted mighty good. So did some of the other values like power, money, and other symbols of “success.” But no matter how good these foods tasted, the fact remains that they were poor, unnourishing, substitute foods. None of them satisfied the real hunger–the hunger of the spirit for an out-going, satisfying relationship to other people and to life. The AA solution is to set about satisfying the real hunger. When that is satisfied, there is no longer any lingering craving for prestige or for any of the other old substitute foods.
In my opinion, that is what the AA program does: it guides the alcoholic to a way of life which satisfies his real hunger. The program calls not only for the elimination of alcohol (by which the alcoholic has tried to cover up the deficiencies in the old spiritual diet), but also calls for the abandoning of all the substitute foods on which he has so vainly tried to nourish his spirit. The AA program, it seems to me, rests on the psychological or spiritual supposition that to displace the bottle it is necessary also to displace the substitute spiritual foods, like prestige, with a diet that’s adequate. And the diet which meets our real needs–which truly satisfies our spirits–consists of wholehearted, deep-running, positive relationships to other persons, to our work, to life and to God.