How the AA program deals with our need for self-approval and recognition by others
OBSERVE an alcoholic at the ripest point of a bender, and you’ll see a pretty complete demonstration of proven ways to lose friends and alienate people.
Almost anything he does, from talking too loudly to burning holes in a hostess’ carpet, is certain to bring disapproval and rejection. Watching him, one could easily conclude that the alcoholic just doesn’t care about approval and acceptance and seems able to live his own life without regard for the opinions of others.
But he does care, so deeply that it hurts. Alcoholics as a group probably need approval more than most people. And strange as it seems, the alcoholic’s appalling behavior–the very words and deeds that repel others–may be a twisted result of his desperate search for approval.
It may be this need for acceptance that creates a mounting tension which can be released during a drinking escapade, when the alcoholic is able to indulge himself in foolish attention-getting acts that actually bring scorn down upon his head. Perhaps there’s even a negative index working here, with the alcoholic who generates the most rejection actually being the one who requires the most approval.
However it works, we’re able to see in AA that the need for approval is really a good thing gone sour. It can be turned to good purpose if we recognize its potential dangers and don’t let it get out of hand. The AA founders must have understood the dangers very well when they developed the tradition of anonymity. The alcoholic’s swollen need for recognition is so great that it could continue to be a problem even in sobriety. It’s probably the anonymity tradition, more than anything, which keeps our members from competing with one another for AA honors and for the front pages of the local newspaper.
We also have a colorful language that helps keep things in proportion. The “Big Ego” is the alcoholic who is always seeking to be recognized for what he really wishes he could be. “Big Shot-itis” is a similar affliction, the ailment of the blusterer and the swaggerer. The “Bleeding Deacon” is the AA old-timer who feels he is being overlooked and ignored by the ungrateful people he lovingly sponsored at so much personal sacrifice. Those simple terms remind us of our constant susceptibility to the need for approval, and they are especially amusing because most of us will admit that the “Big Ego” and “Big Shot-itis” can be located within ourselves.
But Alcoholics Anonymous would simply be acting negatively if it curbed inordinate glory-seeking without recognizing that the individual’s need for approval must have some kind of expression. If an AA group is functioning properly, it should be giving the individual the kind of acceptance and approval that will make up for the deficiencies in his past life and the rejections he still finds elsewhere. It should be freely given to anyone; nobody should have to compete for approval in AA anymore than he should have to compete for air to breathe and water to drink.
At the same time, we won’t find much relief from this tyrannizing need for approval until we understand it more and can see how it operated so destructively in our own lives. Much of our insane behavior while drinking is understandable when we come to see how we were being driven by a compulsive need to be admired and accepted. AA’s Twelve Steps offer a means of bringing this compulsive need under control; more about that later.
How did the alcoholic get to be so approval-starved in the first place? Many of the professionals who study alcoholism point to the early rejections the alcoholic received from his family. The alcoholic’s parents may have been over-indulgent or overly abusive, but in either case they failed to assure him that he was truly loved and wanted. Perhaps he also caught the idea that he had to succeed or to measure up to certain high standards in order to merit approval. The standards may have been far beyond his capacities of the moment and he may have failed to reach them. On the other hand, perhaps he did reach them temporarily and still felt insecure. Whether he succeeds or not, such an individual already has a problem because he is really seeking a kind of approval which should not have to be earned. A possible term for it is “genuine self-approval.”
The seeking of approval of ourselves, proper self-esteem, is an endless task. Mark Twain wrote, “We can secure other people’s approval, if we do right and try hard; but our own is worth a hundred of it, and no way has been found of securing that.” Perhaps this explains why so many people have been unable to find true happiness even with the world at their feet. One current example is a noted playwright who is in almost constant mental agony though he has had more success than almost anybody in his field ever had. A few years ago, a beautiful actress committed suicide at the height of her popularity; fame and the admiration of millions had not given her real contentment and genuine self-approval. There are hundreds of other examples, both currently and in past history, of individuals who received the world’s approval but were unable to translate this into self-approval. These tragic examples show us that we’re seeking more than the applause and admiration of others; we want to know within ourselves that we are adequate, worthy, and that we share a certain equality with the rest of mankind.
That’s probably why parents’ feelings are of such extreme importance in the growth of the individual. If a person is truly loved and wanted as a child, he is already headed for a happy and successful life. He will probably grow into maturity with the kind of self-esteem that will sustain him in all kinds of situations. But if he doesn’t have this, he may run into serious trouble, and alcoholism is only one of the many forms it can take.
Since adults cannot return to infancy and grow up again on a better basis, what is the answer for the person who recognizes his problems and wants to do something about them? He may realize that his early environment was an emotional shambles, and part of his problem may be a hatred of his parents for “short-changing” him. How is he going to grow into real self-approval and find the kind of maturity that others acquire more naturally?
The process seems to begin with inventory, embodied in five of AA’s Twelve Steps. If a person takes a thorough inventory and puts aside all fear of looking into the dark corners of his own motives, he’ll soon see how the need for approval led to foolish and troublesome behavior. Its forms were common, and they included such things as lying about one’s accomplishments to casual acquaintances in bars, or setting up drinks for everybody in the house while the bills were going unpaid at home. Showing-off, fighting, boasting, promiscuity–all are twisted expressions of the “Big Ego” and “Big Shot-itis.” Most of the time, this kind of behavior leads to grief and ruin for the person who practices it. It is probably well that it does, for otherwise there would be no check on such behavior.
More is needed, however, than mere inventory if a person is ever to grow into real self-approval. The AA Steps beyond inventory include seeking spiritual power in daily living and making an attempt to help others. It’s been said over and over in AA that Higher Power helps people to do things that previously seemed impossible. We’ve never been able to prove by reason alone that such a Power exists, but we do know that something does happen when a person believes that God exists and is active in his own life. It may be that a true spiritual experience, more than anything, serves to repair the deficiencies of the early years.
Alcoholics are not the only people who grow up out of joint with themselves and the world. There have been countless individuals who faced the same problem, and most of them never overcame it. Now and then, however, a person with everything against him has had a wonderful spiritual awakening that made everything right again. Something like that happened with the people who started AA, but it wasn’t anything new. It’s happened thousands of times in a variety of ways. Interestingly enough, many of the subjects in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience were approval-starved souls who finally found themselves through contact with a Higher Power, God as they understood Him.
A final thing we can do to find genuine self-approval is to give approval and help to others. There’s no surer way to cure a streak of self-condemnation than to get out and share with others. If we seek approval and help, we have to learn to give it and to acknowledge the real worth of others. This idea might be stated in a paraphrase of the Golden Rule: “Therefore the approval that you would have men give to you, give also to them, for this is the way it works.”
Once a person has won the battle for self-approval, it’s surprising how much easier it becomes to gain the approval of others. At the same time, however, there’s less need for social approval when an individual learns to like himself in the right way and to feel that he has a place in the world. He appreciates the good opinions of others but he is not a slave to them. He has at least learned that what he is does not depend on what other people chance to think he is. The applause and accolades of the world are sweet and wonderful, but they do not really satisfy man’s deep hunger for self-approval. He needs to find within himself a person he can really like. Such a person awaits discovery within everybody