This is a continuation of our series on the 12 steps or principles of recovery from addiction. This series is not just for those of us ending compulsive behavior, but all of us trying to add more emotional health to their life.
Each of us has the capacity to pay attention to our senses, emotions, impulses, thoughts, and actions. We also have the capacity to observe the world around us: its beauty, its danger, its design. When we make an internal commitment to reality, we naturally want to become more aware. Change can come about dramatically by paying attention and gaining an awareness of what goes on inside and outside our body and mind.
TRANSCRIPT: The 12 Steps | Principles of Recovery: Awareness
Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. Today’s episode is a continuation in our 12-part series on the 12 principles, which can be found in Dr. Patrick Carnes’ book “A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Principles” and they align with the 12 steps.
So today we’re going to be talking about principle #2, which is awareness, and I wanted to start out with this short story written by Portia Nelson. It’s called “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters.”
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
So again, what does that have to do with awareness? Well, often as we begin to work on our own healing journey or our own recovery process, there’s a lot of holes when we’re walking down the streets, and we don’t see them, and we fall in and we don’t understand how we go there, and it can take us a really long time to get out, and some of it isn’t our fault, and then we start to see the hole, and like they said, it’s a habit. Like she said, it’s a habit, and we fall in, and it is our fault, and slowly but surely we start to spot the hole, we’re able to walk around the hole, and eventually we can walk down another street.
Each of us has the capacity to pay attention to our senses, emotions, impulses, thoughts, and actions. We also have the capacity to observe the world around us, its beauty, its danger, its design. This capacity can go by several names, including attention or mindfulness, and it’s often called awareness.
So with principle #1 that we covered in our last episode, which was all about acceptance, we stopped living in fantasy and magical thinking. Now with those no longer controlling us, we can begin to notice things as they really are. It’s no accident that acceptance leads to awareness. When we make an internal commitment to reality, we naturally want to become more aware. Now change can come about dramatically by paying attention and having awareness to what goes on inside and outside us.
Now a while back I did an episode on the inner observer. I spent a whole episode talking about this process and how we can develop an inner observer, so if you want more information on that, you can go back to that episode.
The key question that goes along with principle #2 is how do I know what’s real? That’s a great question. It can also be a daunting question depending on where we are standing when we’re asking that question. As our awareness grows, we also begin noticing some wonderful and unsettling things about life. Dr. Carnes writes in this chapter, “Life is not random or meaningless. We observe that events often come together in a helpful or meaningful but often unpredictable and unexpected way.”
Carl Jung called this process “synchronicity.” He said about synchronicity, “Events appear to have a purpose even when they involve disappointment, struggle, or even disaster. The right people show up in our lives just when we need them. Even as we recognize patterns and synchronicity, we also notice that the next moment is always uncertain and unpredictable. We’re always in a sort of freefall, not knowing what the next day or moment may bring.”
Now if we’re living in addiction, this usually goes along with bringing about a lot of chaos. This is where we talk about self will run riot, but we also start to recognize in recovery that there’s uncertainty and unpredictability, but that doesn’t have to lead to chaos.
Now when I was in elementary school, I think it was the third grade, we were learning our multiplication tables, and I was really good at memorizing. There’s another story that goes along with that that I’m also bad at listening to directions, but good at memorizing. It didn’t always work out in my favor. But I was really good at memorizing things, so I was the first one to pass off all my times tables in my class.
I don’t think at that time, it’s hard for me to remember, but I don’t think at that time in third grade that I realized that me being the first one to pass off my class was more about my memorization skills and less about understanding the mathematical concepts that were being taught, and eventually this led me to getting lost in mathematical concepts and having what I call “math anxiety.” This is when anything math-related comes up and I’m not prepared for it, or I’m asked something that has to do with math and I kind of get this freeze in my body and I kind of panic, and then sometimes I remember, oh this isn’t trig. They’re not asking me about calculus. This is add / subtract / times / divide. I got it.
Now years later, I’m a mom, and my oldest daughter is in the third grade, leaning her multiplication tables. Now she is not a memorizer like I was, so as I sat with her every evening reviewing and going over her times tables, she just wasn’t getting it, and this is when maybe in my frustration I realized that all I had done in the third grade was memorize what they were. Here’s what the answers are, and this just wasn’t going to work for my daughter.
This is a little bit embarrassing to admit. I had to start thinking outside my box to help her with her homework, so I was thinking to myself, how can I help her understand this concept when I myself really hadn’t learned it? She kept asking me, why? Why is it this way? Why is 3 x 4 = 12? Why is 7 x 8 = 56? And my answer was because this is one of my memorization tricks, my good friend in elementary school, the last 4 digits of her phone number were 7856. Well that’s great if you’re learning multiplication tables and you’re in the 7s or the 8s. That’s not helpful to my daughter who her friend’s number is not 7856.
So rather than relying on memorizing skills or tricks of memorizing and remembering random information, we sat at our kitchen counter and we counted out 12 items. We put them into 3 groups with 4 items in each group and had her count them again. We did this over and over with the different series, and she was able to learn the concepts, and then eventually the memory of each set of multiplication came for her.
Now I think I want to say… again this is the embarrassing part to me, I think that I knew the concept behind multiplication, but sitting there with her, it clicked in a way that it hadn’t before because when I initially learned it, I just memorized it, and I moved forward not necessarily having to connect with a larger concept. I just memorized numbers that went together.
Now I had this awareness that hadn’t really come before. Sometimes I wonder as my kids have gone through elementary and junior high and high school, I wonder if I went back to math class today with the brain that I have now and learned the concepts that followed later on in junior high and high school, I wonder if I could do better. I wonder if my brain is more prepared to learn those concepts.
I’m not going to do that, but for me, this experience with my daughter years ago was a learning of something on a small level, those multiplication times tables, being connected and part of something on the larger scale and starting to see the connection between both of them.
So when we talk about awareness, awareness occurs when a person understands herself or himself and why she thinks, feels, and behaves in specific ways. It’s the opposite of denial, which occurs when a person ignores or avoids difficult and problematic thoughts, feelings, and behavior in her life. Moving past denial and into a state of healthy awareness is not easy, but it’s an essential component of any type of effective self-improvement.
There are certain aspects of awareness that we can focus on as we’re starting to expand our own awareness. The first one is emotions. Learning to identify and label emotions as specifically as possible can help us become more aware of what we’re feeling in any given situation. We can also start to become aware of patterns. Any events, feelings, thoughts, or sensations that occur repeatedly should go on our radar, and we should look at those. We should assess and analyze and address them in order to help us understand the reasons behind why we feel and act in certain ways.
The next one is sensations. Sensations is anything that a person feels physically, and those should be assessed in relation to your other issues so that you can better understand how your body physically reacts to events, feelings, and thoughts.
And then the next one is about thoughts. We can develop awareness around our thoughts, which means that we need to identify what goes through our mind, what ideas and beliefs control our thoughts, and how our inner monologue influences our emotions and our behavior.
One of the most common reasons for turning to addiction is to avoid emotional pain. One of the most transformational steps you can take in recovery is facing those challenging emotions and dealing with emotional discomfort, and awareness helps us do that. Generally speaking, people who have awareness have a good grasp of their well-being in specific areas like emotions, thoughts, sensations, and behavioral patterns.
We also have to develop the ability to identify certain behavioral patterns, negative thoughts or false assumptions that may precede unhealthy behavior, whether this is drug or alcohol use, other behavioral addictions, relationship problems, or any type of emotional dysregulation or other problems that we might be struggling with. Now once these issues are detected and we’ve understood and developed an awareness around the how and the why and the where and the what behind it, we can begin developing healthier coping mechanism and change our behavior and heal unhealthy patterns.
In the field of social work, which is what my training and background is, we often talk about the micro, the meso, and the macro level of an issue. Social work theory kind of addresses all of those issues. Now micro-issues are the small issues, what we see when we’re working with each individual. The meso starts to connect this individual client to part of a larger system. Maybe it’s their family of origin or their family of creation, their workplace, their culture, their community, their religion. And then the macro level starts to look at issues such as policy.
Being able to see ourselves and know ourselves on micro, meso, and macro-levels requires a great deal of awareness and living in reality. It may be uncomfortable to live with a level of uncertainty, but it’s far less painful than desperately clinging to a view of reality that may bring everything crashing down when it’s unable to account for the everyday inconsistencies and contradictions of life.
Now this brings us to the paradoxes of life, and there are many. One paradox that Albert Einstein observed is he said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” Now for many of us, this presents a paradox because while that might be an important decision to make, it also may not line up with some of our experiences. We may have suffered attachment wounds or abuse, whether it is emotional or neglect or verbal, physical, or sexual.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’” That may give us some courage as we start to increase our awareness and step into and lean into the emotions that maybe we’ve leaned out from.
Now it takes courage to live a good life. It takes courage to make meaningful connections. I’m not talking heroic acts of courage, although those are inspiring and often performed by just regular people, but I’m talking about the courage that it takes to say, “I’m sorry,” to admit we made a mistake and are imperfect; the courage to say “I don’t know” or “I’ve been there. I’ve done that”; the courage to be the first one to say “I love you”, to look another in the eye and express what we are feeling; the courage to let others see our vulnerability, and the courage to believe that despite our failings and imperfections, we are worthwhile individuals worthy of love and belonging.
Now one of the things that my mom used to teach all of us I think as kids, and I think this came from her being a school teacher for so many years, but if anything happened in my life, if I had an issue with a teacher or if something happened at school that I didn’t feel was fair or right or something was going on with my friends that I didn’t like, and I was talking to my mom about it, the question my mom always asked first was, “Well what did you do?” And I hated that. I hated it.
Now I have to say maybe this is another paradox where I think that was really a useful lesson that my mom taught not just me but all of my siblings, and I think actually we’re pretty good all of us at being able to recognize our role in things. We may not like to acknowledge what our role is in things, but I think she taught us pretty well to see what our role is.
On the other hand, there were times that I would just say, “Mom, can you just take my side?” And she would say, “Well I don’t know. I need to know what you did.” We’re going to talk about that a little bit more in a minute.
When we’re feeling happy, though, and serene, most of us are naturally aware, so you might be thinking to yourself as we’re talking about awareness, how am I going to do this? How do I become aware of something that I’m not aware of? Like I said, when we’re feeling happy and serene, most of us are naturally aware. When we’re under stress or in pain, however, we can easily lose our awareness.
If you’re not sure that you believe that, think for a moment about a time in your life when you were the most peaceful and serene. Now that moment may have lasted 5 seconds, 5 minutes, or 5 hours. It may have occurred when you were a small child or just a year or two ago. It might have occurred earlier today. Whatever and whenever it was, just close your eyes and mentally return to it. Picture it in as much detail as possible. Use all your senses. What can you feel? What can you see? What can you hear? What can you touch? What can you smell?
That little exercise is practicing awareness, and as we practice awareness, we also learn to pay attention to what matters and to be less distracted by what does not. As a result, we find ourselves able to get more done, be more focused. We start to become more creative. We’re able to generate new ideas, approaches, and options for dealing with our challenges. Carl Jung said, “Your vision will become clearer only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside dreams. Who looks inside awakens.”
Now a couple of years ago, I was introduced not in real life, but I was introduced to the work of Peter Block. He’s an American author, consultant, and speaker in the areas of organizational development, community building, and civic engagement. I was doing some work and cross-work with people in the field of organizational development, and I was introduced to his book, “Community,” and then the subtitle is “The Structure of Belonging.”
Now the overall premise of this book is that we build the social fabric and we transform the isolation within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole. We can shift our conversations from the problems of community to the possibilities of community, and we can commit to create a future that is distinct from the past.
Now this is when we’re talking about taking… you know, as I was talking to these people who had their degrees and their background in organizational development, and their work is looking at systems and it’s looking at organizations, and my work is much more on the micro-level, more so than like the meso or the macro, although I work with clients I would say micro to meso, but rarely in my role as a social worker, I’m thinking about this as I’m talking, rarely do I get the opportunity to see things through or work on things from a macro-level.
Just the nature of what I’m doing and what I spend my time doing, I don’t have a lot of time to work on the macro-level, so it was interesting to be talking to people who spend more time focused on the meso and the macro, and what I learned from them reinforced what I had learned sitting in the room with my clients, and so as they talked about communities or organizations, I was thinking about my clients’ lives and the change process that they undergo.
Now there were some things that they introduced me to, again developed by Peter Block, that I found to be extremely powerful, and I’ve used these sometimes in our group when we’re coming together and working on change whenever the group topic is about, a lot of group work, a lot of individual work is focused on change. One of the things that I learned from Peter Block, which I think I just loved the way that he said it, he says that “questions are more transforming than answers.”
I can think back to myself, even that part of myself that just memorized things, and there was a time I think when I appreciated answers, and that was probably a time when the world seemed kind of big and overwhelming and I don’t know that I looked at my parents and thought that they really had it figured out, and so answers were something I was interested in more so than questions. I had a lot of questions, and I was looking for answers, but as I was introduced to Peter Block and his work, and he started to talk about how questions are more transforming than answers, that spoke to me.
Now I think the skill is getting the questions right. Traditional conversations seek to explain, study, analyze, define tools, and then express a desire to change or how to go about creating change. Those are interesting. Peter would say they’re not powerful. Now they may be a necessary part, like the training that I do, I look for evidence-based tools. I look for evidence-based methods of engaging in therapy with clients, and I think those have a place and they’re helpful, but he’s saying they’re not powerful in terms of bringing about transformation.
He says that questions open the door to the future and are more powerful than answers in that they demand engagement. Engagement in the right questions is what creates accountability, which I think is just amazing, that questions demand engagement, whereas answers are kind of more final, like if I have an answer, then I’m kind of done asking questions, and there’s something about awareness that involves wondering and curiosity.
Now Peter has five different types of conversations when he’s doing community organization or if he’s working within an institution or a workplace or whatever he’s done. He’s done a lot of community organization. When he’s doing that, he has five different conversations, and he says the order of the conversations doesn’t necessarily matter because all of them, like it’s not like they build one on each other so you have to have them in a certain order, but all the conversations that need to take place are all part of the change process, and as I was learning about this, I thought how important that is to understand some of the questions that we might benefit from as we are looking at our own change process, as we’re working on our own recovery or healing journey.
So the first conversation he says is the possibility conversation, and again, I’m saying the first like it’s in some order when I just literally said he didn’t say it mattered, but I’m talking about the possibility conversation first. So he says the distinction is between possibility and problem solving. Possibility is a future beyond reach. The possibility conversation works on us and evolves from a discussion of personal crossroads. It takes the form of a declaration. Now he says that’s best made publicly.
So he says the questions that we’re discussing or dialoguing about in this possibility conversation, first one is, what is the crossroads you are faced with at this point in time? So that’s going to require us to be present and have an awareness about where we are right now. The second question is, what declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform your world and inspire you?
The next conversation he talks about is the ownership conversation. It asks individuals to act as if they are creating what exists in the world. Now he says the distinction in these ownership types of conversations is between ownership and benightment. So the questions are, what have I done to contribute to the very thing I complain about or want to change? This is where my mom had some wisdom when she was asking me, “what did you do?” I would come to her with a problem and her first question was always, “What did you do?” So what have I done to contribute to the very thing I complain about or want to change?
The next question is, what is the story about this issue that you hear yourself most often telling? Maybe these are the ones you’re wedded to and maybe even take your identity from. The next question is, what are the payoffs you receive from holding on to this story? And the last question: what is your attachment to this story costing you?
The next conversation is the dissent conversation. When I first came to know about Peter Block and his work and these conversations, I was working in a group setting, and these conversations hit me in a powerful way. I think I was just at a time where especially the dissent ones really hit me. He says the dissent conversation creates an opening for commitment. He says when dissent is expressed, just listen. We don’t have to solve it, defend against it, or explain anything.
I was reminded about this just this past summer and really just this past year leading up to the 2020 election, and I think it has continued since then. I don’t think we’re at resolution yet. There’s a lot of dissent being expressed, and he says when dissent is expressed, just listen. He says the primary distinction with dissent is between complaining or dissenting and giving lip service. We can’t just talk about it and then not do anything with it. He says the other distinction is dissent vs. denial, rebellion, or resignation.
Now the questions in the dissent conversation include, what doubts and reservations do you have? So again, this is just where you are right now. When I’ve done this in amends group, it’s about where you are currently. Take an assessment. What doubts and reservations do you have?
The next question is, what is the no or refusal that you keep postponing? When I first was introduced to this, that question really hit me because I knew it immediately. As soon as somebody asked me that question, I knew it immediately but I had never spoken it.
The next question: what have you said yes to that you no longer really mean? And then, what is a commitment or decision that you have changed your mind about? The next one: what resentment do you hold that no one knows about? And the last one: what forgiveness are you withholding?
The next conversation is the commitment conversation. The commitment conversation requires a promise with no expectation of return. That makes commitment distinguishable from bartering. Bartering is I’ll give you this if you give me that. Commitment is I am committed to this because of something internal within me.
He says that commitment embraces two kinds of promises. The first promise is about my behavior and actions with others, and the second is results and outcomes that will occur in the world around me. The questions are, what promises am I willing to make? What measures have meaning to me? What price am I willing to pay? What is the cost to others for me to keep my commitments or to fail in my commitments? What is the promise I’m willing to make that constitutes a risk or major shift for me? What is the promise I am postponing? What is the promise or commitment I’m unwilling to make?
Then the final conversation is the gifts conversation. This distinction is between gifts and deficiencies or needs. We’re not defined by deficiencies or by what’s missing within us. We are defined by our gifts and by what is present, and we start to choose our destiny when we have the courage to acknowledge our own gifts and to choose to bring them into the world.
Peter says, “A gift is not a gift until it’s offered.” The questions with this conversation, the first one is, what is the gift you still hold in exile? What is something about you that no one knows? What gratitude do you hold that has been unexpressed? What have others done that has touched you?
I thought talking about an episode of awareness that those would be some great conversations, great questions for you to start to discuss with the people who know about your process of change, whether that’s from addiction, whether that’s just a healing journey from trauma. Whatever that looks like, those questions would be good for you to explore yourself, and again to explore with somebody else who can be a fair witness for us.
Now I have to admit I still get lost at times. I still sometimes feel unsure, scared, sad, angry. I still have days where I need to be reminded to let go and to open up. I think that’s one of my probably my most frequently visited trauma reactions is to just close it all down and put up a wall.
As I go through all kinds of feelings and experiences in my journey through life, whether that’s surprise, delight, chagrin, dismay, betrayal, shock, and disappointment, I try to hold this question as a guiding light, and that is just simply “What do I really need right now?” Now what I come to over and over again is that only qualities as vast and deep as love, connection, and kindness will really get me through in any sort of enduring way.
I also now know that my ability to love is greater than any wound I have experienced or will experience. That was kind of brave for me when I first made that declaration. It was one thing to know that my ability to love is greater than any wound I had experienced, but to add that part of “or will experience”, that took some courage on my part. I didn’t know that for a really long time, and that uncertainty or that lack of awareness kept me living pretty small.
Now they say it takes a village, and it does. I believe that. I also think it’s important to believe that the village isn’t an angry mob out to get us or trick us, but rather a group of supporters who have also been bruised and broken in their own journey through life and are part of a team that supports, cheers, and sometimes drags us along in our own journey.
I’m grateful for the people on my team who keep me moving forward, who are willing to open up and share their brokenness and their bruises that they’ve experienced. They inspire me, and they help me commit to keep going myself and to continue evolving. I hope that as you work on your awareness that you also bring in other people who have been bruised and broken and who have had to travel a similar journey and can share space with you and dialogue with you about these questions as you explore them, and I hope that as you start to increase your awareness that you find that it’s not as scary as we thought it was when we pushed it away or refused to look at it.
We don’t have to keep walking down the same street. We don’t have to be haunted by the holes that we do or do not see. We can begin to walk down another street, and awareness is the key to that.