Whether you are in therapy for addiction or improving your mental health, developing a sense of responsibility plays an important role. Jackie Pack continues her series on the 12 principles taught by Dr. Patrick Carnes, or as many commonly refer to it, the 12 steps of recovery.
In our individual personal healing journey, we stop hiding from ourselves. We understand the importance of examining our life, and we accept responsibility for everything in it. We realize that a deeply painful or trauma-filled past does not let us off the hook. Nothing lets us off the hook. We are always responsible for what we do, and we decide the impact it will have on us.
TRANSCRIPT: The 12 Steps: Principles of Recovery | Responsibility
Hello, friends. Welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. Today’s episode is our fourth episode in our 12-part series, so this episode focuses on the fourth principle, which is responsibility. Dr. Carnes wrote in his book:
“There can be no recovery without responsibility. When we are caught in the web of addiction, we use our emotions to protect us from reality. We guarded our delusions with anger. We masked our pain with fear. We obscured our difficult choices with shame. We blurred our sense of self with sorrow. It’s as if we threw a blanket over our life, keeping it dark and confined.
When we practice our addiction, we used our pain to try to shed personal responsibility. We told ourselves that we weren’t responsible for our behavior because we had been abused or abandoned or cheated or because our life sucked. In recovery, however, we stopped hiding from ourselves. We understand the importance of examining our life, and we accept responsibility for everything in it. We realize that a deeply painful past does not let us off the hook. Nothing lets us off the hook. We are always responsible for what we do and what we decide.
Early in recovery, we discovered that reality was often quite different from our ideas about it. We thought we were in control of our life. We believed we were capable of managing our illness on our own. We imagined that other people were to blame for our situation. We chose delusion and magical thinking over the reality of the here and now. In recovery, we accept that reality is irrevocable.”
I think they should actually start a 12-step fellowship for those who are addicted to delusion and magical thinking. Wouldn’t that be an awesome 12-step fellowship? And I would really be interested in reading a big book that would go along with such a fellowship.
Now maybe, just a thought here as I’m talking, maybe for those of you who listen to my podcast who don’t necessarily identify with addiction or particular addiction in your life, maybe that’s one of them because who among us can’t be seduced by delusion and magical thinking when reality can be so stark and harsh?
Now in my opinion, step 4, taking a fearless moral inventory, and principle 4, responsibility, is where real change and transformation begins to happen. This is when our awareness begins to expand and our emotional intelligence deepens. Recovery is often inconvenient because it demands the best from us.
Now I often tell clients, and I do believe this for myself as well, that everything we do has an intent. We may not be aware of our intent. Our intent may be in our subconscious or even our unconscious, but I do believe that everything we do has an intent, and we’re responsible for what that intent is and how that intent is carried out.
In our old neighborhood, we had a neighbor family that had a yellow lab named Daisy. Now she was a lovable yellow lab that the kids played with and adored. Daisy was friendly, and she was curious, and she was outgoing. Daisy was especially hell-bent on garbage day. She wanted to get out of their gated yard and run down the street, getting into as many trash cans as possible and pulling bags of trash out of the cans, ripping them open to find some hidden treasure inside.
Now our neighbors learned the hard way week after week after week that Daisy could detect the sound of the garbage truck before it had entered their conscious mind. Daisy could detect the sound of the garbage truck making its way to the neighborhood, alerting her that today was in fact garbage day.
Now if you left your garbage can where she could get it, on any given day, if she got out, she would go to the garbage cans, but garbage day made it particularly easy for Daisy because we all wheeled them out to the street where she could have easier access. So she would make her way out to the backyard and then soon out of the fence and run with delight down the street, stopping at each garbage can as she could.
Now the impact on the neighbors and the street was a mess of garbage littered up and down the street that once the cans had been emptied, the garbage trucks left the neighborhood, there was still trash strewn across the streets, sidewalks, and front lawns.
Now our neighbors could have argued that it wasn’t their intent to trash the street, which was true. They could argue that Daisy was such a good dog and was so good with all the neighbor kids. Again, this was true. They could tell us that it was their intent to be mindful that it was garbage day and to not let Daisy get out, and I would have believed that that was their intent. However, the impact was still garbage littered all up and down the street.
Now fortunately because they were good neighbors, they took responsibility and on the days that Daisy ran free from one garbage can to the next, you would see their five kids and often Mom and Dad out walking the street, picking up the trash and depositing it back in garbage cans.
Now sometimes I tell clients that story about Daisy, and I tell them we all have Daisy inside of us. We all have days where we want to run a little wild, whether that’s with our words, whether that’s with our actions, whether that’s with our emotions, we have days that we want to run wild, and just like the owners of Daisy, we have to own that part of ourselves.
Now most of my clients and I think in general find the fourth step inventory overwhelming and quite intimidating, and I tell them, yeah it can be. I understand that. I think it’s a huge paradigm shift when we begin to see our role in our life and in the life of those around us.
It reminds me when I was in elementary school, I can’t remember which grade I was in. I want to say it was a higher grade, like 5th or 6th, but it could have been 3rd or 4th, and we were introduced to optical illusions. Do you remember those? Now I particularly remember the one with the old lady and the young lady. If this isn’t ringing a bell for you, you can simply Google “optical illusion old lady young lady’ and it will pull it up. You’ll remember what I’m talking about.
Now when I was introduced to this, I saw the young lady first. I think if I remember correctly that that’s what the majority of those of us in my class saw first. But there were a few who saw an old lady, and I could not for the life of me understand what they were seeing. When I looked at the very same image they were looking at, I very clearly saw a young lady with a feather in her hat, and after debate was going back and forth amongst us in the students and we were getting our allies who agreed with us, and the few who didn’t agree with us, they had figured out who each other were and they had bonded together and were allies.
The teacher then traced out each of the images in this optical illusion, and when she was tracing out the image of the old lady, it just shifted. Something just shifted in my brain and with my vision, and I saw it. I could then see both. I could see the young lady and I could also see the old lady.
Now to this day when I look at that image, I immediately see the young woman, and then with intent and some effort, I can then also see the old lady, but I also know that she is there, so I keep looking for that.
There was a study done in the UK about this image actually, and what the study found was that whether you see an old lady or the young lady is probably related to your age. Older people see the older lady, and younger people see the young lady. Now I’m not the young lady I was when I was first introduced to this optical illusion, so maybe the age in which you’re first exposed to it also has something to do with it.
But isn’t that true with a lot of things? We don’t see things objectively. We see them subjectively. We see things as we are, from our point of view, and it’s harder to see things from another point of view. This is what the fourth step and the fourth principle asks us to do. This paradigm shift allows us to see our responsibility or our role.
The paradigm shift that recovery asks from us reminds me of this shift that happened when I was young in elementary school. Now usually later in life when we’re doing this inventory or self-examination, it may not happen as quickly as it did when I was back in elementary school, but I think it can be just as profound when we start to look for our role in things and our intent and our impact on situations.
There was a time several years ago when this paradigm shift happened for me on a profound level. It’s not the only time that’s happened on a profound level. Now I’ve talked before on episodes on this podcast about my mom and my dad and the defunction of my family of origin. I think I’ve talked more about my dad than my mom.
Now my mom was definitely the more healthy parent of the two by far, but staying in an unhealthy, toxic marriage took its toll on her, and the hurt she felt often got handed on to us or taken out on us. Now I couldn’t always see that cycle or understand that this was her pain. I could see and feel the pain that she gave to me and passed along to me, though.
I was the second of six kids, and my mom had favorites. She did play favorites, and I kind of jokingly but not really jokingly would say to my siblings mostly is who I talked about this with that I was her sixth-favorite child. Second born, sixth favorite, and I felt this. I knew that this was true.
I don’t recall if I ever actually talked to my mom about it. I doubt that I would have done that, but I remember once talking amongst us siblings about it, and some of the favorites of my mom could acknowledge that they could see that she treated different kids and by extension different grandkids differently, and they felt bad about it, which I was very grateful for, like it wasn’t their intent to be a favorite. They didn’t intend to have their kids favored over other grandkids, and they could feel sadness for those of us who knew we weren’t at the top of the list. I don’t even know why my mom played favorites, and for a lot of years, I don’t think I even really tried to understand why. I just thought it was wrong, and it felt awful.
So one day I’m driving in my car by myself, which was somewhat unusual because I had four young kids, like my oldest two were young teens, so busy time of life. I don’t know exactly what had me reflecting on my relationship with my mom. If I were to guess I would say it was an interaction I had had with her, maybe right before I was reflecting on this or close to that. I don’t really remember, but I was reviewing in my mind my grievance list that I had accumulated over the years in relationship to my mom, and I was feeling sad and frustrated and pain and confusion over why we had the relationship we had. At a particular place on my grievance list, I don’t know that it even had anything to do with where I was at on my grievance list, but I had this realization come over me.
Now let me backtrack for a minute. I am what I have called myself in my family the memory keeper. Now I have my theories as to why, and it’s not like my siblings don’t have memories about our family and growing up, but I definitely have the most, and I’ve always been able to recall them, even from a young, young girl.
Now I don’t have a perfect memory. I don’t know if that exists. I don’t have a photographic memory. I wish. But I do have a pretty good memory, and I’ve always had a lot of memories about what happened in our family and what was happening, and some of that was I was the witness and none of my other siblings witnessed things. Now I’ve also been told throughout my life that my eyes reveal exactly what I’m thinking. Now I don’t think that that’s always true, but it’s kind of true.
So I’m driving in my car this day, and all of a sudden as I’m going through my grievance list, I had this experience where I could see myself and I could see the disappointment on my face and in my eyes that my mom would see when she looked at me. From the time I was a very young girl, my mom would have gotten that look at times when she looked at me, and as I kind of saw that I could feel the pain that she would of course feel having her daughter look at her with disappointment, distrust, fear.
In that moment, I could see the role that I had played in our relationship. It wasn’t intentional. I don’t think I’ve even been conscious prior to that moment, but of course, of course it impacted our relationship, and after that, I started thinking about it. I talked to my husband about the realization. I knew why I felt how I felt. I was going through my grievance list when I felt that, but I was also a mom, and I also had daughters, and I could just feel the pain that my mom would have had, and it changed some things.
Now I never did talk to my mom about that experience I had driving in my car that afternoon, and I never really even talked about or verbalized disappointment or distrust or fear that I’m sure I had communicated on my face, through my eyes, through my body language, but I was more aware of it, and because I was more aware of it and had taken some responsibility for the role that had played, I could begin to have a different intent. I could begin to be conscious of what my intent was in my interactions with my mom.
I didn’t want to have a negative relationship with my mom, and while there was some grieving to do and the fact that I think I knew even then I was never going to have the relationship with my mom that I wanted, or even one that I wanted for my daughters to have with me. Beginning to grieve what wasn’t going to happen led me to some acceptance about what could be and what I wanted with what I actually had. It brought me into the reality of this is who we are and this is where we are, and what can we do with this intentionally?
Now I tell therapists that I’m supervising or training or coaching that I believe the number one reason clients come to therapy, regardless of what the presenting problem is, I believe that clients are looking to understand themselves, why they do what they do, why they are the way they are. They have a question about can it be different, and what would that feel like, and what would different look like? I believe it’s when we’re looking at our intent, whether it’s known or unknown, conscious or unconscious, covert or overt, that we begin to truly understand ourselves.
Now I came to learn years ago in therapy, and I didn’t have access to this quote, and I can’t remember right off the top of my head who says it, but the quote goes that trauma rewires our need for connection into a need for protection. Again, when I realized this in my own therapy, I didn’t have those exact or succinct of words, but it explained so much about why I was the way I was, why I reacted a certain way or why I did things or didn’t do things, and can still react in that same way.
I also at that time when I had that realization in therapy, I was focusing on some of my fears about parenting, and I wanted to be very intentional about parenting. I did not want to pass on what was given to me. Whether it was intentional or unintentional, I didn’t want to do that, and one day in therapy as I was talking with my therapist about me as a parent, I summarized what we’d been discussing in that session, and I said, “Oh, so you’re telling me that approach dictates response.” And my therapist added that informed approach has an impact on response, which is probably not as succinct, but probably a little bit more realistic.
I came home and I told my husband, “Hey, guess what I learned?” And so I told him approach dictates response. He thought I was brilliant in that moment. He still says that sometimes to our kids as we’re talking to them and trying to teach them communication and relationship skills.
Now we can’t take 100% responsibility for how another person responds to us, but I do believe that when we accept and believe that our own approach has a significant impact on the response we get, I think it makes us more intentional about how we approach.
Insight is a cornerstone of recovery and healing, but it’s not a one-time thing. Insight is not so much a goal or an accomplishment as it is an ongoing process. Sometimes we need to just on a regular basis ask ourselves, what am I not seeing? What do I need to be aware of that I’m currently not aware of? And I think if we can do this in a way that is not shaming to ourselves for our less-than-civilized intentions, if we can do it in a way where we hold acceptance for whatever this is and whyever this is there, we start to have some pretty profound insight into ourselves.
I often tell therapists too that I’m working with that in therapy, we examine our lives with this therapist each wee in our appointment, and in the early stages, this self-examination usually ends once the session ends, and clients usually don’t pick up this skill or this tool until the next week or the next therapy appointment that they come to, and maybe that’s because insight and looking at the self and taking responsibility or accountability can feel daunting, but eventually this tool becomes more used and more practiced using it, and we find that most growth comes when we use this insight, self-examination and awareness in between sessions in real time.
Now I believe the fourth step or this inventory of self, responsibility and accountability, whatever you want to call it, is a deeply personal experience, and each time we experience ourselves with awareness and responsibility, it guides us to a deeper, more intimate relationship with ourselves.
As I said, everything we do has intent, and everything we do also has an impact. We can hang out with justification, rationalization, blame, defensiveness, and denial, or we can become friends with self-examination, self-awareness, and self-acceptance. I believe that accountability for ourselves is the first step of transforming.