Nearly every serious emotional problem can be seen as a case of misdirected instinct…Every time a person imposes his instincts unreasonably upon others, unhappiness follows.
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, 1952 -1981
We Are Not of One Mind, We are of Many
In 2015, Disney Pictures released a great film called Inside Out. It’s a story about an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. She is happily living in Minnesota and playing her favorite sport, hockey, when her life is suddenly uprooted: her family unexpectedly moves to San Francisco for her father’s new job. Viewers can relate. What’s interesting about this film is the perspective it takes. We get to go inside Riley’s head and see how the different parts of her are reacting to this traumatic situation. Inside Out reveals how each of us is comprised of various parts or selves. We configure these parts with the aim of feeling loved, experiencing joy, and being accepted by others. Ultimately we seek to feel a sense of belonging.
What I love about this film is that it illustrates the dilemma we all face. We are not of one mind. Each of us is comprised of many different selves, which we organize around the concept of who we think we should be. Very early in life many of us make a decision to shift the focus of our personal growth away from self-actualization— the understanding and expression of our truest self, in which all the components of our personality (our “selves”) are valued and integrated— toward actualizing a concept of who we should be. Our organizing principle is no longer the self that we truly are— it’s the self that we think we should be.
As the psychologist, humanist, and author Rollo May so astutely observed, the self that we become is the one we think will ensure our existence. We become a false self because we think it will ensure our psychological survival; we will magically feel like we belong.
We believe that this false self— which is largely based on what we think others want us to be— will protect us from feelings of rejection, inadequacy, separation, and isolation. It would give us emotional security. We pay a huge price for this shift in our psychic forces. Karen Horney, a psychoanalyst instrumental in founding feminist psychology, noted that the development of the false self is always at the expense of the true self.
The goal of therapy and recovery is to remove the constraints of the false self on the organization of our personality, so that we can begin to coordinate all that we are into a harmonious, working whole self. By freeing the constructive forces of the true self, we become more integrated. We reorganize our personality so that we function better under challenging conditions. We will be flexible and yet solid. We will support ourselves and validate ourselves. We will intuitively know how to soothe ourselves and heal our wounds. No doubt, as you read, you are recognizing the way the false-self actors perform on your personal stage. Don’t feel alone; the problem of the false self is shared, to differing degrees, by almost everyone on the planet. The false self– true self problem comes with living as an individual in a society, where we seek to balance our desire to belong to a group (to be loved and feel safe) with our desire to express our individuality (to be faithful to our own needs and wants).
But this problem becomes much worse when we are addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Let’s explore what happens then.
The Addict Self and the Recovery Self We’ve noted how brain research has demonstrated that addiction hijacks the brain: that various essential functions of the brain are recruited to support the use and abuse of drugs. Just as the brain physically changes to support the addiction, we also reorganize our personality to support our addiction. As the disease progresses, we eventually develop an alcoholic or addict self that becomes one of the essential selves discussed above. That’s what people in Twelve Step meeting rooms mean when they say, “The disease was talking to me today.” The alcoholic or addict self becomes a very powerful voice among the voices of the other selves in our personality. As addiction progresses, it gains even more clout, exercising veto power over the rest of our selves. It becomes the governing self.
When we begin the journey of recovery, another self begins to emerge and vies for a more important position in our personality. This is the recovery self, which is a version of our healthy self. The recovery self is the antithesis of the addict self. It’s the part of us that wants a better life and wants us to be the best we can be. This self hangs out onstage with other essential selves, such as the healer, the compassionate self, the wise self, the seeker, and the spiritual self, to name a few. This part of us seeks wholeness, integrity, and meaning. This recovery self will help us recover the lost true self, but only if it’s well integrated into our personality. If we let it, the recovery self will stay focused and committed to getting well, and to taking whatever action is necessary for our restoration, redemption, and salvation.
As you might expect, the recovery self and addict self are in conflict. Until we do something that helps us reorganize the way we’ve configured our various selves into a personality, we will keep doing the same thing, expecting better results.
Carl Jung described the powerful results of this kind of psychic reorganization. In a session with Rowland Hazard, a patient who was having trouble getting and staying sober, Jung told him, Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have what are called a vital spiritual experience . . . They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions and attitudes which were once the guiding forces for the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them. (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 22) Recovery requires us to let go of our old ideas so they can be replaced with new and more effective attitudes and ways of thinking.
This shift in our attitude and way of thinking is the aftermath of a reorganization of our personalities. Recovery entails the same “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements,” as Jung put it. So the question becomes, How do I reorganize my personality so that it supports my efforts in recovery— so that my recovery self is actualized? This is a critical question because it speaks to what needs to happen internally to support the decision to get and stay sober.
One of the most important things you can do to support your recovery is to become aware of and better understand your addict self.
PART TWO PART THREE
Disney Pixar “Inside Out” photo credit: Fandom “The Disney Wiki” retrieved February 27, 2018 from http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/File:Inside_Out_3.png