on self control

In active addiction, many of us tried to control, curb or otherwise manage our behaviour. Our efforts usually were accompanied by mixed results. In this post, I simply want to reflect on the way in which self-control requires a very particular kind of strength – particularly the strength that flows from partnership with a Higher Power, which Christians call the Holy Spirit. But first, a few brief examples of ways we try to control our selves with other kinds of power.

Sometimes, we use the power of thought. Our thoughts can be about lots of things, and many times these can be good or otherwise helpful things. Christians may think deeply about how much God still loves them in spite of their mistakes, sins and defects, and yet these wonderful thoughts themselves do not stop them from engaging in the addictive behaviour. Other examples of fruitless thinking could be endless wondering about what ‘other’ thing (a person, a cultural reality, an experience, a genetic inheritance, etc.) made us the specific way that we are. These and other abstractions fail to help us precisely in the same way that wheels fail to move a car when the car is hoisted above the ground. Hoisting a car with wheels spinning, and getting our mind whirring away with elevated thoughts, can be useful of course, but unless our spinning wheels touch the ground, we simply won’t get anywhere.

Other times, we seek to be rescued by the power of experience. We want to act differently, so we seek a strong or strongly different kind of experience (whether good and healthy or otherwise) to get us there. Whether the ‘jolt’ we seek from the experience is geographically, physically, emotionally, or socially based, sooner or later (too often sooner) we find a way to act addictively even after the jolt.

Still other times, we try to manage ourselves with the power of the will. Whereas thoughts are often about ‘other’ things, and experiences come from ‘other’, from outside ourselves, to rely on the will is to rely on the self. Like good thinking and a good experience, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the application and engagement of our will. In fact, as we said above, we will not get anywhere without it. But as every addict knows, their experience is a depressingly progressive failure of the will, which does increasingly more and worse things; things that another part of ourselves does not want to do (see Romans 7).

Instead of pulling ourselves upward via a righteous thought, hitting the reset button with a profound experience, or charting the way forward through iron clad will-power (or won’t-power!), self control is powered by spiritual power. Recovery principles and Christian principles are agreed that spiritual power is the result of a partnership between humans and God (for example, see “Into Action” and “Working with Others” chapters in the AA Big Book; and Colossians 1:28-29). This is why Galatians 5 lists self-control as one of the fruits, not of the self, but of the Spirit. Yet at the same time, it is not called ‘spirit-control’ as though the self could merely stand by passively and be zapped with good behaviour.

Lest all this be another exercise in thinking, what does this look like ‘on the ground’ in our actual experience? Quite simply, it looks like a continual conscious decision to act in partnership with God. We tried asking, detached theological questions (“Does God love me if I keep doing this? Surely…”)… We tried pursuing psycho-therapeutic explorations (“If ‘x’ had not happened to me, would I struggle as I do now?”)… We tried seeking a transcendent experience (“Surely if I experience ‘x’ I will feel new and not feel like acting out again…”)… We tried managing ourselves through brave and naiive reliance on the will (“I swear it; I am over this; I cannot and will not do it again.”)… The spirituality of self control, however, is fundamentally and simply characterized by the pursuit of partnership with God (“What can God and I do about this, right now?).

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early, simple action

I’ve written before about how quality recovery is characterised by simple actions, and addiction is characterised by complex thinking.  In this post I want to add just one more important thing.

This simple action needs to happen as early as possible.

Before entering recovery, I can remember acting delaying any healthy ‘simple action’ too long… too often it was delayed until it was too late.  Even after joining a 12-step program, I would delay action.  Here’s an example…

In working step 3, I remember my sponsor asking me, toward the end of our monthly meet up, “So… are you ready to make that decision to turn your will and life over to God’s care?”  My brain immediately got in the way.  Complex thoughts and questions and curiosities choked out any chance of a simple, active and affirmative response.  “Well…”, I muttered out… hesitatingly, “my understanding is that this is a decision that nobody can make perfectly, so we make it as best we can and we have to keep making it as we live our lives.”

This response was too muddy, too heady, and too hesitant.  Prolonged, complex thinking.

My sponsor eventually was able to point out that the answer to these questions should always and instantly be “YES.”  At least then, we have handed our will and life over for at least a few seconds!

The point here is not do invalidate the observation which every addict learns, namely that we must learn to accept progress not perfection.  Of course, we never do anything perfectly.  But that’s kind of the point.  We don’t need a ‘perfect’ surrender.  We also don’t need a perfect explanation of why such perfection can’t be attained.  We certainly don’t need an extended, complicated treatise on the matter.

The only kind of surrender we need…
is the only kind we can give…
…an early, simple and active one.

simple actions

In this post, I want to contrast two huge differences between the lifestyle of addiction, and that of recovery and sobriety.

Complexity v. Simplicity

First, the addictive way of being is riddled with excessive complexity.  Sometimes, this complexity has to do with how we handle our memories of our behaviour; how we talk about it, either to others or within ourselves. Whether we gently minimize, tell half-truths, or outright lies, we expend ungodly amounts of energy with complex ‘bookkeeping’.  “It was only that once, so it’s OK.”  “I only do [x] sometimes.”  or “I was feeling an unusual amount of pressure at work that day, so that explains why I did [y].”  In the light of sobriety, we are finally able to cut through these dishonest, inaccurate, self-protecting and complex ways of remembering our behaviour, and we are able to view our behaviour with (often painful!) simplicity and accuracy.  “Whatever may have been part of why I felt like doing that, I still chose to do it, and I could have chose not to.”  “This is not just an isolated occurrence, it’s part of a pattern, that I’m powerless to stop.  I need to ask for help.”

Other times, the complexity has to do with the seemingly infinite and complex variety of ‘solutions’ we tried in order to stop.  “I’ll put a picture of [loved one] in my wallet to remind me.”  “If my new sobriety date is memorable, that will keep me from acting out again.”  “If I read up on how addiction ‘works’ in terms of brain chemistry and neural activity, I’ll be able to out-smart my addiction.”  Sobriety, on the other hand, is incredibly simple.  “I just can’t go there.”  “Other people may be able to [x], but not me, and I’m ‘OK’ with that.”  “What’s the ‘next right thing’ I need to do instead of [y]?”

Thought v. Action

Secondly, addiction can be accompanied by a lot of thought, which almost never stops us (or even hinders us) from acting out.  Whether it is ‘stinking thinking’ or coldly logical observations, we can distract ourselves with an endless stream of excessive rationality (or irrationality).  “Oh my goodness, I am so crazy right now, I can feel the neural pathways buzzing with energy.”  “Whatever I end up doing, I am sure that God still loves me.”  “I really have to stop this eventually… I’m taking advantage of God’s love… this is the last time… I really mean it this time…”  However much such thinking may reflect truth (or not), we are not going to think our way to being sober.  Recovery is a ‘programme of action‘.  “Right, time to stop and pray.”  “OK, time to get up off this couch and make myself a cup of coffee.”  “I’m going to journal these thoughts and feelings so I can ‘right size’ them.”  “Time to ring somebody… anybody!”

In summary, then, in addiction we were like caged rats, flailing about trying to get somewhere on our spinning wheels.  No matter how fast the wheel spun or what our technique was, we got nowhere, and only were more exhausted from the effort.  In recovery, we stop talking about getting sober and simply do the things necessary for us to get there.