There is a big gap between what I do and how I want to be. My life is spinning out of control.
The following audio is a commentary on Step One for the 5th edition of the Proactive 12 Steps. See written transcript immediately below the audio player.
Transcript (edited for clarity):
There are many forms of denial: “It’s no big deal” or “I don’t really have a problem” or “I can handle it” or “I could stop anytime I want” or…
What happens is that you don’t see what is now visible to everybody else. You have a problem; things are not working out; things are out of control.
Why have you been in denial? Well, you didn’t intend to. Denial is a mechanism that is in all of us. It is a coping mechanism that allows us to function under very tough circumstances.
For instance: We are all mortal. It is an inescapable truth that we are all eventually going to die. It is scary and sad. But, if we kept thinking about our death every moment of our existence, and feeling scared and worried about that, what kind of life would we have?
So denial, in and of itself, is not wrong. It can be a beneficial mechanism that helps us disengage from problems we cannot solve, and focus on living in the moment.
And so, you ask: How do I know when it’s good for me to be in denial, and when it’s not? The test is how it affects your life. If it prevents you from taking action that you could be taking, then it is not productive for you.
In this way, the discussion of Step One introduces us to a significant theme of this proactive program: Personal development is a learning process. We don’t just assume we know it all. We don’t just take it for granted that somebody else has all the answers. We get information, we experiment (with caution), and we learn by trial and error. This is the meaning of the quest for serenity, courage, and wisdom (a.k.a. “the Serenity Prayer”).
It’s essential to keep in mind that denial is a powerful protective strategy that has deep biological foundations. There is a mechanism in our nervous system that is triggered when we are faced with insurmountable problems—very much the way it works on animals in the wild.
When animals encounter a threat, they have two basic strategies: Either fight or flight. Neither is inherently good or bad. For instance, if you’re an antelope and a lion is hunting you, it makes no sense to show some resolve and fight! You better run away.
When the threat is overwhelming, the animal’s nervous system simply can’t handle it. It just doesn’t compute. This is the “deer in the headlights” phenomenon: The deer is paralyzed.
Denial, in this case, is not useful. It is not allowing the animal to go on happily with its life. It would be much more helpful to take action (in the case of the deer in the headlights, to run away). But it can’t because its nervous system is in short-circuit mode.
So, think of denial as some sort of short-circuit mechanism that gets triggered when there is an overwhelming threat. When the animal is in that “short-circuit” freeze mode, it cannot override the freeze.
What we’re encountering here is another strand that is a significant theme in this program—the role of fear. Once you’re in the grip of fear, your nervous system has its logic. It’s not what we call being logical. It’s the logic of fear, of panic even. It has nothing to do with the outlook on the world you have when you feel safe.
The critical part of this process is to find safety. Without safety, it’s going to be very difficult to give up your old habits. They are ways of coping that you have developed over time.
“Coping” is too mild a word. To your nervous system, the old habits feel like time-tested protections. They may not work well, but they are the only protections you know, and you would feel unbearably vulnerable without them. Imagine a baby crying as an unfeeling adult tries to pull away his safety blanket… and multiply that baby’s fear exponentially: This is the terror of having to live without the protections you have grown accustomed to in the course of a lifetime.
The healing process of the Proactive Twelve Steps works by building a genuine sense of safety. From that stable, safe place, it will be possible to replace old “protections” that don’t work, with new ones that work.
A new beginning
Somebody once said: If the only tool you have is a hammer, you try to solve everything by hammering. Well, if the hammer is not solving the problem, it may very well be time to try something else.
The problem is, you may feel that the hammer really should be working, that it will work if you just try a little longer.
There’s nothing wrong with persistence. But Step One introduces another consideration: Accountability.
It’s not enough to just say: I believe it will work one day if I just keep trying. You need to set goals and deadlines. Doing this will help you face the reality of what is happening.
Step One is about looking squarely at reality. If what you’re doing is not working, you acknowledge that. When you do, it may very well give you a feeling of emptiness. You don’t know what to do, or even whether there is a solution. It can be terrifying. However, it is this emptiness that allows you to make room for new, unexpected ideas.
Seeing the possibility of change
It is a tradition in Twelve Steps programs to “own” the problem, make it part of your identity: “I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” The idea is that owning it prevents denial by making you aware of how easily you could relapse.
With this formulation of Step One, you can “own” the problem, but you also have an extra tool for fine-tuning.
Step One is described in terms of the difference between what you want to be and what you do. This is different from making a blanket statement about who you are. It is not that you are by nature a stuck person; it is that you are stuck at the present moment. So you can acknowledge that you have a predisposition, but also feel good about making progress (when there is less of a difference between who you want to be and what you do).
The spirit of the first step
The first step is about facing the reality of your situation. It makes no sense to keep trying to solve problems with “solutions” that can’t work. Whenever you realize this, throughout the process, you need to look for a different approach.
In other words, the first step is not just the beginning of this process. It is an attitude. It is about staying grounded in reality as you keep track of your progress.