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Thoughts on the 12 steps and Self-Forgiveness


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#1 Michael Stuart Kelly

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Posted 23 October 2006 - 06:07 PM

Thoughts on the 12 steps and Self-Forgiveness
by Michael Stuart Kelly

The following is based on an e-mail I sent to Barbara Branden when she made a comment to me about the distinction between guilt and remorse and how much she hated guilt.

I really liked her distinction between guilt and remorse. This caused a “click” in my mind and gave me words for something I have done in the past. I know quite a bit about guilt, redemption and forgiveness from what I have lived through in life. Unfortunately, I did not learn about it in Objectivism. I have noticed that the following is the way some people practice the philosophy: they encourage guilt to become embedded in their souls because the don’t forgive themselves for failings and the slow rot starts spreading until all joy in living is lost. This is recounted in case after case in the literature of people who have had a bad experience with Objectivism.

The purists simply say that they got the philosophy wrong, but that is nonsense. There are too many cases to ignore where people learned Objectivism backwards and forwards. Telling a person who is suffering that he did something wrong without telling him how to stop the suffering is completely worthless to him. Formulating a routine for implementing redemption from an Objectivist perspective is not only a good idea. It is sorely needed.

One of the strongest factors for a person to overcome guilt is for him to forgive himself. Then he should turn guilt into remorse so he can do something about it. But talk is cheap. The hard part is doing it.

One of the best manners I have come across for dealing with guilt is in the 12 steps of AA. This is a wonderful routine for getting a grip on the problem, fostering a desire to change, forgiving oneself, discharging the remorse, and maintaining the change. I don’t think places that deal with the 12 step program realize how much the focus is on eradicating guilt. They are aware, but they emphasize that getting rid of guilt is turning ones life over to a Higher Power. They transfer the responsibility instead of eliminate the error in thinking.

For example, below are the AA 12 steps with summary at top of each. This comes from a site called 12step.org.

Powerless
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-- that our lives had become unmanageable.

Hope
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Faith
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God AS WE UNDERSTOOD HIM.

Inventory
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Honesty
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Preparation
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Letting go
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Humility
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Forgiveness
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Continued inventory
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Conscious contact
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God AS WE UNDERSTOOD HIM, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Carrying the message
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Here are some initial thoughts on how I would go about adapting the 12 steps from an Objectivist angle. I know this still needs work, but it is more than an interesting approach. It works. I did every step myself for my own recovery, but without putting it into the specific words given below.

Admitting the problem
1. I admit I am powerless over a wrong moral choice I have made—that my life has become unmanageable.

Hope
2. I come to accept that reason is a power greater than any other in my life and that it can restore me to sanity.

3. I make a decision to turn my will over to reason.

Changing guilt into remorse and self-forgiveness
4. I make an honest, searching and fearless moral inventory of myself.

5. I admit to myself, and to one or more human beings, the exact nature of my wrongs without condemning my own worth as a human being.

6. I deepen my wish to remove all these defects of character through reason.

7. I humbly decide to use reason to remove my shortcomings as they arise, to accept myself as a worthy human being each time, and to start by forgiving myself for the past.

Cleaning up the past
8. I make a list of all persons I have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.

9. I make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure myself, them, or others.

Maintenance
10. I continue to take personal inventory and when I am wrong I promptly admit it.

11. I seek through study, introspection and meditation to improve my awareness of truth, seeking only for knowledge of wisdom and the power to act on it.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening to reason and self-love as the result of these steps, I try to carry this message to those who are suffering from guilt, and to practice these principles in all my affairs.


This procedure is not only very similar to what I went through to overcome both alcohol and crack addiction, it also has worked for other small failings I have had over the years. It is not a hard-and-fast routine. It can and must be adapted to suit the problem.

For example, obviously, you don’t need to do a full moral inventory if you do something silly like claim you have read the whole Bible to fake an image of erudition, then start covering that lie with others, and over the years get to the point where you claim you read it two times, then three times (which is one of the foolish things I did for some damn reason). But to overcome that problem, I had to admit that there was a problem, the problem was growing beyond my control, forgive myself, realize how ridiculous I was being toward myself and to others, and then change it. Years after finally adopting an attitude of “I will look it up when I don’t know,” I now look back on the effort that was needed to keep that lie in place and wonder what in hell I was doing.

I do remember the extreme discomfort I had on changing that particular defect. The discomfort did not vanish from one minute to the next. It gradually went away as I insisted on being absolutely honest. I especially made a point of telling the truth to people I had bragged to before. I was astonished that hardly anyone cared. That actually made my discomfort greater for a while (I think that came from realizing that I had been a dork all that time for no reason at all, since nobody ever was impressed or influenced at all with the faked knowledge).

I mention this case because the feeling is similar to what a person goes through to hide his addiction—and hide all the little lies that go with it, such as trying to get money pretending it is for something else other than the substance, trying to justify not showing up, trying to justify why something important wasn’t done and other things of this nature. An addict is extremely familiar with all this.

Getting out of discomfort and learning new behavior (especially in circumstances that were similar to the ones where the wrong thing was practiced) is what I call part of moral learning. This is the part that takes time.

I am not talking about the physical discomfort of withdrawal, although this is very real. The point here is behavior—learning a whole new approach to dealing with people—essentially not hiding the problem anymore or faking it. It is very uncomfortable to tell the truth where telling a lie has been a habit. The good news is that the discomfort does not last very long and the reward a person gains in feeling good about himself (especially as the discomfort abates) is enormous.

I think Objectivism needs an approach and environment for people who wish—and need—to forgive themselves. Notice that the ones who are the loudest in condemning others are precisely the ones whose lives are shot through and through with moral failings and compromises. They can fool everybody but the man who stands up and says, “I have had a problem and I have corrected it. I see you have the same problem I once had.” I think they live in mortal fear of that person.

But a truly selfish person is one who is concerned with overcoming his own problem. He is not so much concerned with the hypocrisy of others, although he notices it. Often he can’t help but notice it because the condemnation is so loud and the crowd gathered is so big. It is tragic when you desperately need advice and this is all you find, so the only way out is a church or religious-based recovery group. I mention this because so little is provided for addiction in Objectivism and what little is available is often flawed with oversimplification and wholesale condemnation.

But reason is most definitely a way out of guilt and addiction when the solution starts with self-forgiveness, i.e., relearning how to be selfish on the deepest level.

Know thyself...


#2 Paul Mawdsley

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Posted 23 October 2006 - 10:54 PM

Michael,

I am quite interested in this subject on at least a couple of levels. I have a friend, and now a new business partner, who has substance abuse in his past and still has a sub-self that can look to alcohol or energy drinks to elevate his social flow. He is a very intelligent and honest man who has a gift for reading and influencing the flow of social dynamics. His role in our new enterprise is to influence the social flow to our economic advantage. He is in charge of sales and marketing. One of the reasons I am interested in your subject matter is that I want to understand the psychology of substance use and safeguard our venture and all those involved.

I tend to see substance abuse as being largely motivated by the sub-self that tends to orient toward the social rather than the physical realm. I have found people usually lean to one or the other quite strongly. My friend is clearly oriented to the social realm, although he can carry himself with confidence in the physical. I am oriented to the physical realm but can carry myself with confidence in the social. I made note once on another website that the different lenses through which we see the world can produce their own unique elements in language. What you have written has reminded me of this thought in relation to the different orientations we bring to the social and physical realms.

I am short on time but consider for yourself the difference in the meaning of the following two groups of words:

1) guilt; blame; and forgiveness

and

2) cause; responsibility; and acceptance

The first set comes from an orientation to the social realm and the second from an orientation to the physical. The first is implicitly based on a perspective of relative social status that results from certain actions. The second is implicitly based on the identification of facts and one's relationship to those facts. The first sets one's self-esteem as being based on an entirely subjective judgement of our relationship to others. The second sets one's self-esteem as being based on our psychological relationship to the facts of reality. Which orientation leads to healthy self-esteem?

I tend not to do guilt and blame and have no need for forgiveness. I tend to focus more on cause, responsibility and acceptance. This is the result of my strong orientation to the physical realm. I think it is healthier because it grounds our judgement of ourselves in evidence and reason.

Paul

#3 Michael Stuart Kelly

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Posted 23 October 2006 - 11:20 PM

Paul,

There is no pat answer to your questions. It depends a great deal on what kind of addiction a person has (and I don't mean only the type of substance) and what his personality is like.

Almost all addicts do things they are ashamed of at one time or another, or have things they are ashamed of that led them to abuse a substance. My little article here focuses only on this particular aspect - eliminating guilt so recovery can proceed without that particular obstacle.

Everything you mentioned is involved in addiction to some degree. I always use an example of heart disease. Saying you have a heart disease is too vague to treat it. You have a heart and it is not working correctly. All that does is tell you that there is a problem.

The same with addiction. You have substance and a craving for it and compulsory behavior. Sure, if you cut off the substance, the short term effects stop, but to cure the addiction, it must be analyzed and broken down into components (physical, psychological and volitional) and the ones that are highly active treated.

What I am suggesting here in the lead article is not a cure for addiction. It is a cure for guilt, which is a strong component of many types of addiction.

As to the causes of substance abuse, these also are highly varied. I wish it were easier, but it isn't.

If you are worried about your business partner relapsing, I would need to know more about him to make any kind of intelligent observation. And I am not sure he would appreciate a public discussion of his problem, so where you wish to protect his privacy but still want to discuss the matter, I am open to discussing this off line.

If he doesn't mind, a public discussion is good, especially for lurking readers. (Believe me, there are some readers out there who are very grateful to have what little we have here on OL and would use a discussion like this to great benefit.)

Michael

Know thyself...


#4 Paul Mawdsley

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Posted 24 October 2006 - 10:27 PM

Michael,

My best judgement says that my business partner has the tools to manage his psyche. My best judgement says I should keep my eyes wide open and my mind engaged. My best judgement says I should always have a contingency plan should my best judgement prove to be mistaken.

I don't think I want to talk about his specifics at this time. Even though he is very open about the facts of his life, it is not my place to discuss his business. But I am still interested in the dynamics of substance abuse. I'm putting together a more considered and thoughtful response to your opening post. I would like to talk a little psychology/philosophy/causation before going back to discussions on physics/philosophy/causation. :)

Paul

#5 Michael Stuart Kelly

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Posted 24 October 2006 - 11:14 PM

Paul,

I very much suggest my article, Understanding Addiction -- One Objectivist's View.

I discussed something in it that I am pretty sure is universal to all addictions, but it is a theory I developed based on Objectivism and needs some work corroboration-wise. Just as Rand originated the theory of Sense of Life, I extended her thinking to add Sense of Identity. Here is a quote from the article:

There is one major part of the subconscious that is affected by addiction. It is almost a sense of life issue, but runs parallel to it -- a merging of the addictive substance with the person’s sense of identity. According to Rand (“Philosophy and a Sense of Life,” in The Romantic Manifesto), a sense of life is “a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and existence.” A sense of identity is similar, but it is a pre-conceptual equivalent of the axiom of identity at the personal level, an emotional subconsciously integrated appraisal of who and what a person is in relation to life and existence. I know I just coined this term, but the basic conceptual idea is Ayn Rand’s. These levels are about the deepest ones where a mental event can be perceived.

The article details this a whole lot more, but the idea is that a substance becomes a part of the addict's sense of his own identity. He cannot imagine his life without it any longer. When he thinks of himself, it is always present.

This is good news, actually, because this is something specific that can be cured. (Just like guilt can be cured.)

I will be interested in hearing what you think.

Incidentally, I HATE the title. I am keeping it because this article is now on 3 websites. I was just starting out as a writer when I posted that on the old SoloHQ and my original title was changed by the site owner at the time because, as he told me, he had a boneheaded idea that wanted to "protect" himself and his site. (From what, he was unable to say.) The original title was, "Understanding Addiction -- An Objectivist View." My understanding was (and is) that I was examining addiction from Objectivist principles like Sense of Life, so it was an "Objectivist view." I only learned later that he was a guru-wannabe, which explains his arbitrary pseudo-reasoning.

Michael

Know thyself...


#6 L W HALL

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Posted 27 October 2006 - 07:38 AM

Michael,

First of all I would like to say I enjoyed your treatment of the Twelve Steps in regards to an Objectivist view of them. In regards the guilt that is associated not only with an addictive lifestle, but other less tumultuous ones as well this, I believe, is at the root of holding a large portion of the population back from what could be much more productive and fulfilling lives.

I also have some questions I want to ask Paul in regards to his situation, in addition to exploring your ideas more.


L W

#7 Paul Mawdsley

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Posted 28 October 2006 - 10:08 PM

Michael,

Finding time to sit down and enter my favorite virtual home away from home has been difficult recently, hence my disappearing act here. The essay you linked is scarily long so I have been putting it off. I would like to take it in before posting any further thoughts on the subject. I'm sure you understand. I will never be gone for long because I have a yearning to continue to develop and express my worldview in a community of authentic, intelligent individuals who are also developing and expressing their worldviews and who hold mutual respect as their highest social value. The civil interaction of different worldviews is much more interesting and enlightening than simply learning and discussing the worldview of some profit, no matter how wise the profit is. It is also much more interesting and enlightening than some of the mudslinging that is seen elsewhere. The civil exchange of ideas produces a non-linear causal system which can give rise to a complex and unpredictable dynamic in the thinking of the participants and holds the possibility of new integrations. At least, this is how I find it affects me. How could I possibly stay away from this for any length of time? :)

------------------------


L W,

You left me hanging. What questions do you have about my situation?


Paul

#8 L W HALL

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Posted 29 October 2006 - 10:37 AM

Paul,

Sorry about being slow to get back, this has been a busy weekend. I have a couple of questions, but I will post this one for right now untill I have more time to word the other one better: In reference to what you were saying in the quote below:

I am quite interested in this subject on at least a couple of levels. I have a friend, and now a new business partner, who has substance abuse in his past and still has a sub-self that can look to alcohol or energy drinks to elevate his social flow


I understand you are saying that your friend had substance abuse problems in the past, but I am unsure if by the latter part of your statement when you speak of his sub-self looking to alcohol or energy drinks you mean he specifically still uses alcohol. I kind of got lost there. In more plain language does he still drink and was his substance abuse problems in the past alcohol or other chemicals?

L W

#9 Paul Mawdsley

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Posted 29 October 2006 - 07:47 PM

L W,

A few years ago my friend was into a lifestyle that was full of parties and cocaine. Without going into details, he looked around at the people he had surrounded himself with, saw their lives spiraling out of control toward self-destruction and death, and realized he was on the same path. A number of life changing events occurred at about the same time as this realization. He turned to God to bring order to his chaotic life.

Does he still drink? Occasionally. Has it shown itself as a problem? Not at work. But I have seen it raise its ugly side a couple of times after hours. My concern is what choices he will make regarding the role of his sub-self that enjoys being substance-enhanced. I speak in terms of sub-selves because I see a clear distinction in him along the lines of Freud's elements of the psyche: the ego, the superego, and the id. In such terms, substances enhance the role of the id, diminishing the role of the judgements of his ego and the effectiveness of the religion based structures of his superego. We have talked about it. He is consciously choosing the path of his ego supported by the structures of his superego (although we did not discuss things in these terms). The evidence suggests he is committed to the good life made possible by his commitment to his ego and superego. His id is always ready for a good time. In fact, he brings out the manic fun loving side of me. He's just learning to enjoy it more without enhancements.

Paul

#10 Michael Stuart Kelly

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Posted 30 October 2006 - 04:15 AM

LW,

Thank you very much for your interest in my ideas, from the bottom of my heart. I too believe that guilt is a huge impediment to happiness and self-fulfillment--and, in the wrong hands, it is one hell of a good tool for manipulation and emotional blackmail.

The Objectivist advice I have usually heard about how to cope with guilt is, "Deal with it." OK. So I did. I dealt with it. Nathaniel Branden also has some very good advice.

If you have any observations on guilt (or addiction), I would love to hear them.

Michael

Know thyself...





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