When I was a kid, my mom would regularly bring home all these bags of cookies and candy for some reason. I say “for some reason” because she always kept it stashed in secret spots my sister and I never found. We just knew it was there, somewhere, calling out to us.
Each Halloween, I’d return from another successful trick-or-treating campaign with a giant garbage bag filled with goodies. I’d usually stuff myself all that night and get sick.
So what happens when I’m around sweet stuff now? Do I admit my inability to manage myself, and then rely on something more important than me to empower me to flee temptation?
Or, is it simple willpower that keeps me from buying and eating huge bags of cookies and candy every day?
Could it be both, or maybe some combination of the two?
Here’s something I once wrote while high:
“I’m still confused about my part.
“The next steps for me to take have become too obvious to ignore. I can no-longer stand the thought of not doing what will bring growth in those areas.
“The good things I want instead of the results of my current behavior have made themselves irresistibly appealing to me. They’ve begun to bring themselves about through my life, causing actual change.
“Those good things are my reasons—my whys. They’re my values.
“The question is: When do I choose to go after those good things?
“I must at least have to respond in some way to the good things I see—making an actual choice in some specific moment to not do what I know I shouldn’t, or to do what I know I should, right?
“How can I change my perspective enough to make choosing those good things inevitable?
“I’m starting to realize that, at its core, a question like that is really just a reaction to the utterly black-and-white dictates of my conscience.
“My conscience only ever tells me where I’m falling short.
“I’m so grateful that preparing to share my experience has made me aware of a whole context of other voices, all speaking at once.
“If all you can see is your distance from perfection, it’s understandable why you might conclude that you’re incapable of change and worthy of shame.
“Now, guilt and shame are not the same, and neither are their effects.
“You feel guilty for the things you do that go against your conscience.
“You feel ashamed for being the type of person that would do those things.
“Guilt on its own merely shows you behaviors you wish to change.
“In fact, the feeling of guilt itself implies you could do better.
“Shame is an interpretation of your character when measured against the perfect standard of your conscience.
“Always seeing yourself fall short, you conclude that your flaws aren’t just mistakes based on immature or unwise choices, but cracks in your being that can only ever be shored up or outrun.
“Since all you see is what you do, you can only really judge yourself by your actions.
“But what you actually care about—the source of all your reasons for wanting to change—is the type of person you want to be.
“This is where the discussion comes back to willpower.
“Shame makes you feel incapable of ever being in control of your addictions and limitations, which are seen as ingrained personal shortcomings that will forever manifest as temptations you’ll have to fight to keep yourself as far removed from as possible.
“Shame tells you you’re always at risk of falling into addictive or compulsive behaviors whenever you have opportunity to.
“12-step groups put the role of willpower at making the choice to flee—at using the steps and relying on something more important than yourself to empower you to flee all signs of temptation.
“If your standard is perfection, then behaviors that either cross or align with your conscience are as dark and light; it can only ever be one or the other.
“Your conscience, alone and unchecked, turns your life into a zero-sum game.
“You can try to ignore your conscience, but it never compromises its standard. It always exists to tell you where you’re not measuring up.
“I’m learning not to interpret my own distance from perfection as shameful—even despite the merciless tone of my conscience—because my conscience is no longer the only voice I hear. It’s just the loudest and least willing to reason.
“My conscience never ceases to thunder its judgments from a distance I know I can never reach.
“By going public with my real experience, I’m learning to balance and interpret all the inner and outer voices I hear, together.
“I still see myself doing things I regret, of course. I feel guilty for my actions. My conscience reminds me of my distance from perfection.
“But my standard now is only the next step I have to take toward those good things I value.
“I believe if you share your real experience publically, you become accountable to yourself; you see your own limitations, which makes your values all the more appealing; you experience those values despite your failures and shortcomings, which makes you acutely aware that you don’t deserve them; this makes you feel alive, as though life is finally actually happening (right now); you see yourself moving forward toward being the person you want to be.
“If always falling short of your conscience’s demands means you’re really worthy of shame, then going public with your experience to reach a state of balance and control shouldn’t be possible.
“Light and dark can’t ever be combined.
“But notice the common threads: In both views, you’ve seen your life hindered, and you’ve felt powerless to change. In both views, it’s something good outside yourself that empowers you to move beyond what’s held you back, spurring joys and freedoms you know you don’t deserve.
“Could all your current limitations be but competing forces among many others, all of which you can learn to work with and manage in time?
“Or, are your shortcomings a consuming darkness that will always exist within you to tear you down?
“It would be easy at this point to get swept away into a debate about how to interpret your distance from perfection.
“I could say something like: ‘I believe I should treat others with kindness since that’s something my conscience generally leads me to do.’
“Someone else could write my statement off by saying: ‘Well, since you can’t always show kindness, your conscience is merely a window to reveal how bad you actually are, and how much you need something greater than you to empower you.’
“In either case, I’ll never be able to always show kindness perfectly. I happen to believe that’s because I’ll never just be my conscience.
“In both views, though, a value beyond just me must at least initiate delivering me from my limited state.
“And notice: I’m not telling you to ignore your conscience at all. I believe your conscience accurately reflects what you believe you should do.
“I know what I feel guilty for doing, and I know what I most want to do—what I think I should be doing.
“If I don’t want to argue about interpretations, why am I talking about 12-steps and shame at all?
“If both views incorporate similar dynamics to bring about effective results, why even bring up interpretations?
“Again, it all comes back to the role of willpower:
“Believing that the stringent voice of my conscience is but one of many voices means my guilt for not always obeying doesn’t have to be spun into shame.
“I still feel guilty when I go against my conscience, but I now believe I’m capable of making better choices.
“I feel like the 12-step view bypasses the uncomfortable uncertainty and ruthless humility required to deal with multiple forces at once. Its understandable interpretation of your distance from perfection replaces that uncertainty with a black-and-white prescription that says: ‘Admit you can’t, turn yourself over, and then use the resources to never again go near what you’ve been addicted to.’
“Living by such a prescription is the opposite of trying to find balance between competing forces, influences, convictions, temptations, ideas, and many other integrated pieces, all wanting to exist at once.
“Again, I’m not saying the prescription is wrong, or that it doesn’t get results. I’m just saying it might limit the growth that comes from gaining a new, more mature perspective as you learn to better balance every shifting piece of what you call YOU.
“You could make a child feel bad for eating cookies, and then lock the cookies away in a safe.
“Or, you could embrace the uncomfortable uncertainty and ruthless humility required to show a child over time the value of waiting for the best opportunities to enjoy things.”
Of course the 12-step method does require a great deal of humility as well. Admitting you’ve failed is always humbling.
But the “ruthless humility” needed for my interpretation is really just a constant awareness of how little you really understand of all the shifting forces forever at play (unseen) within yourself.
Take the example of the child with the cookies. You could tell that child, “You’re bad because you can’t control yourself, so we need to keep you away from sweets.”
That’s a prescription. Prescriptions are simple. Simplicity is valuable.
But the issue of the child’s “cookie addiction” is actually more complex than any prescription could allow for.
I think parents (and bosses, and other authority figures) are fond of prescriptions because prescriptions avoid the need for varying degrees of ongoing, unpredictable, honest communication and reflection.
We tell kids that breaking mirrors is unlucky because we don’t want them anywhere near our mirrors, right?
I see maturity as the result of many processes happening all at once.
Growth doesn’t tend to move in much of a straight line. There are often set-backs. It takes humility to honestly face each uncertain stage, and to stay open to adjustments in real time.
It would be much easier for me to say, “Here’s an acrostic for the word A-D-D-I-C-T that covers the six things you need to do to break your addiction in six months.”
But life doesn’t really work that way, does it?
Prescriptions are so much easier to applaud, to memorize, to sell, and to fall back on without ever having to question.
I don’t want to be disrespectful of 12-steps or other methods. If you’ve had an experience with a 12-step or other recovery program, I’d love to hear it.
Hopefully, hearing your story will make me more ruthlessly humble and honest.
By the way, I put together some further research on shame and addiction here, which I hope you find encouraging.
Tomorrow: the perfect self-help plan (how not to change).