*Extracted from various chapters of 12 Essential Insights for Emotional Sobriety. These extracts were based upon the book quotations and supporting materials when searching on ’surrender’
What Is The Relationship Between Surrender & Emotional Sobriety
Bill W struggled with depression for most of his life. He took on his depression in recovery. For the first two decades of Bill’s recovery, he turned himself inside and out while he learned what caused and what helped his depression. He shared what he had learned in a letter published in the 1958 AA Grapevine titled ”The Next Frontier-Emotional Sobriety”.
In the letter, Bill W. defined emotional sobriety as “real maturity and balance (which is to say, humility) in our relations with ourselves, with our fellows, [with life], and with God.” Notice that Bill leads off with the word maturity. Maturity occurs when we transcend our childish urge to gain environmental support (support by making external conditions conform to our needs) and instead develop self-support (support by accepting reality and others as they are and actively seeking the kind of help we need when appropriate). Real simply means that it’s not an idea but has become a pattern of actions and behavior. Real maturity happens when we learn to act on our own behalf without manipulating others to support us or make us feel good about ourselves. Real maturity is achieved when our satisfaction is determined by how we are coping with what is happening in our lives. It is about growing up and learning to respect and respond to our emotions without giving them privilege. A good example of this is courage. Courage is defined as doing something that frightens us. If we gave fear privilege, we would not do what frightened us. We would withdraw or freeze. Feelings are to be respected but not given privilege.
Bill W. also used the word balance in his definition. What kind of balance was Bill referring to? I think he was talking about being emotionally balanced in our lives. Many of us can define our addiction as being “addicted to more.” Bill articulated that our primary problem is that our natural instincts have become unbalanced. He elaborated on this notion when he said, “Never was there enough of what we thought we wanted” (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services 1981, 71). So, I believe that Bill used balance to refer to restraining our urge to seek ever more external sources of emotional solace. This means returning ourselves to a place where our emotions are in balance with other kinds of information in our lives (this might include information from our inner wisdom, the support of our fellows in AA and elsewhere, and our relationship with our Higher Power).
This is our dilemma: turning to a material solution for a spiritual problem. This will never work. No matter how much of “more” we get in our lives, at some point we will need to face the reality that we won’t find our solution outside ourselves. The solution is within us. This means at some point in our recovery we surrender our expectation that something or someone is coming along to make us okay.
Bill W. equated maturity and balance with humility when he said “real maturity and balance (which is to say, humility)” (1988, 236). That’s fascinating, isn’t it? What did he mean by humility in this context? Well, surrendering our expectations is where humility comes into emotional sobriety.
Having humility means that we realize we are not that important. I don’t mean this in a belittling or negative way. I mean that no one is here on earth to serve us or make us happy. Humility tells us that no one is coming. No material object and no special person outside us is going to make our lives better. To make our lives better, we must surrender our expectations and show up for ourselves. To get our lives unstuck, we must give up being passive and relinquish the belief that life should be generous or gracious or that some fairy godmother is going to come along and turn a pumpkin into a carriage for us.
Humility disarms our attempt to insist that people and circumstances conform to our demands or invisible unenforceable rules. This will have a big impact on how we relate to other people. We have no business expecting others to live up to our expectations. When we demand that others live up to our expectations, we exclude them from the very relationship we’re attempting to have with them! The relationship becomes all about what we want, what we expect, what will make our world “right.”
Are you starting to see how humility, emotional maturity, and balance are connected? Why Bill W. carefully chose those three terms?
Perhaps now you can see that humility is the antidote to the poison of emotional dependency. Or, to state it another way, humility is the medicine that leads to emotional sobriety. We have to be humble in order to cast aside the childish belief that we’re at the center of the universe and that other people should conform to our expectations.
As Bill W. realized, we need to reorganize the way we think about ourselves, the world around us, and others. We need to humbly surrender our expectations and become better aligned with reality by seeing people for who they are rather than as a source of approval or disapproval.
How Is Surrender Essential In Accepting What Is
Bill W. accepted that he needed to grow up. He accepted what he was doing that produced his immaturity. He accepted that he was emotionally reactive. He accepted his basic flaw of dependency on people or circumstances for his security.
Bill W. also accepted the responsibility to grow up. He realized that he needed to surrender the hobbling idea that people should behave according to his “perfectionist dreams and specifications” (Wilson 1988, 237). He needed to unhook people and things from his perfectionistic specifications. Another way of saying this is that Bill needed to surrender his crippling expectations.
Self-acceptance is grounded in humility. We realize that no one is here on earth to live up to our expectations. Neither are we here to live up to the expectations of others or to the expectations of our false self. We see ourselves as we are, not according to the specifications of our false self. We are free to own who we are because we are no longer being controlled by false pride. When we accept ourselves, our life will no longer be dictated by should demands. We begin to experience true emotional freedom.
Earlier I said that acceptance was one of the “big ideas” in recovery. There is a natural connection between self-acceptance—learning to accept our true self as we are—and learning to accept the world as it is. And the world as it is never fits our expectations. That’s a tough lesson, because a part of us always clings to the idea that the world will magically solve our problems. That is, a part of us refuses to grapple with reality. However, our wise self knows the world does not belong to us. It knows that our expectations do not fit reality.
When we are not aligned with reality, we will experience internal conflict. We will be in a civil war with ourselves. We will try to control something that is not in our power to control.
We cannot alter reality to meet our expectations, but this doesn’t stop us from trying. We cannot negotiate with reality, but this doesn’t stop us from negotiating. We cannot force reality to bend to our will, but this doesn’t stop us from trying to force it.
But at some point, reality forces our hand. We are forced into acceptance.
Acceptance aligns us with the reality of the situation we are facing. When we are aligned with reality, we can discover new possibilities and paths. I cannot overcome a fear whose reality I deny. I cannot correct a problem in the way I deal with my associates if I will not admit it exists. I cannot change traits I insist I do not have. I cannot forgive myself for an action I will not acknowledge having taken.
If we accept the situation we are in and we let the situation inform our actions, then we learn to cope with life.
The Serenity Prayer is one of our most powerful tools in coping with the seemingly unfair events of life: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. The prayer, which can easily be secularized, reminds us to differentiate between those very few things that we can control and the many things in life that we cannot. Among the few things we can control are our expectations— our shoulds. When we recognize and then surrender our shoulds, we clear the way for acceptance. We clear the way for emotional sobriety.
We can also create a different context around our shoulds. Many people have found success reframing the word unfair as unfortunate. In a sense, this is what the Serenity Prayer invites us to do. We cannot control unfortunate events. When we cling to the idea that our life should be fair, we set ourselves up to determine what is fair and what is unfair according to our own expectations. When we reframe events as unfortunate, we release ourselves from the expectation that events should conform to our wishes. We can back into acceptance of the world.
Surrender’s Role In Living Life On Life’s Terms
The concept of living life on life’s terms sounds so simple. That’s because it is, but don’t confuse simple with easy. Living life on life’s terms takes a major and difficult shift in our consciousness. We have to surrender our expectations. All of our expectations. Simple concept, arduous execution.
Our expectations are deeply woven into the fabric of our consciousness. Some of our expectations are obvious to us and we can easily state them: We expect to be treated fairly, we expect others to be honest with us, we expect to gather on a holiday, and we expect that a contract will be honored.
Other expectations are hidden and unconscious. They surface spontaneously when we hit a bump in life: We expect that our mate will automatically know and do what’s best for us, we expect that our work colleagues will notice and appreciate our performance, we expect a fellow member in recovery to have empathy, we expect a sponsor to make our time together a priority, and we expect that our holiday gathering will leave us with a sense of being loved and being a part of something greater than ourselves. We expect life will unfold in a certain way.
For most of us, letting go of our expectations—both the obvious and the hidden—will be the greatest challenge in our quest for emotional sobriety. Surrendering our expectations and living life on life’s terms takes humility and the ability to “roll with the punches.” These two traits are necessary to achieve emotional sobriety.
What makes these two traits important to emotional sobriety? The answer is important. Humility is defined as “the quality of being humble, characterized by a low focus on the self, an accurate (not over-or underestimated) sense of one’s accomplishments and worth, and an acknowledgment of one’s limitations, imperfections, mistakes, gaps in knowledge, and so on” (American Psychological Association 2015).
Humility creates an experience of being right-sized. The important part of this definition for our purposes here is that we have a “low” (a reduced and more realistic) focus on self and acknowledge our limitations, which means we surrender the idea that we have the right to impose our expectations on people, on circumstances, or even on life itself.
Having the flexibility to roll with the punches is also important in achieving emotional sobriety. We need to be able to adapt to the demands of whatever situation we are facing. If I am rigid, I am going to be unable to roll with the punches. That means that when I take a punch, I will complain about it and get caught up in my should demands: Life shouldn’t be like this, people shouldn’t act this way, people should just see it my way, etc.
When I let go of my expectations, I am not up against should demands or supposed-tos. I can roll with the punches. The more flexible I can be, the better I can take care of myself. I can respond in a healthy way to whatever a situation demands from me—meaning in a way that keeps me balanced and whole.