I look at my life systematically, to see patterns in how I have been relating to people and situations.
The following audio is a commentary on Step Four for the 5th edition of the Proactive 12 Steps. See written transcript immediately below the audio player.
Transcript (edited for clarity):
There is something very striking about the 12 steps: They were originally written for alcoholics, and yet there’s not much mention of alcohol in them. They talk about putting things in a broader context, and many of the steps, starting with Step Four, have to do with how you interact with other people. So how can one make sense of that?
A couple of things here. One is about understanding patterns of behavior. And two is: How patterns of behavior are related to what happens in your life.
The religious context of the original 12 Steps
If you pay attention to the language of Step Four (and of the following steps), it is full of words such as being wrong, making amends, asking for forgiveness. In the traditional 12 Steps, God is very present, and the context is one of sin and redemption. You admit your sins, ask for forgiveness, and you are healed by the grace of God.
This kind of framework might work for you if you are a religious person, and your religious tenets are following that kind of pattern. But if you’re not, then what do you do? Even if you are religious, this kind of explanation is not an explanation of the way change happens. It relies on the metaphysical, on some miracles happening, as opposed to an understanding of what happens as you change your behavior. So in the Proactive 12 Steps, the wording reflects a different understanding of what it is that makes change happen.
A different context
We’re not speaking the language of sin. We’re not speaking the language of morality as something that is imposed on you. We’re talking about understanding patterns. So the wording of Step Four in the Proactive 12 Steps has to do with patterns of behavior and understanding these patterns.
What does this mean? What we are talking about is thinking in terms of patterns, as opposed to isolated individual actions. To take an example, let’s say you have been inappropriately rude with somebody. If you think of this as an isolated incident, all you need to do is apologize. Thinking in terms of patterns means taking into consideration different circumstances, different times, different people. You look at the way that several unrelated incidents may have some characteristics in common. Then, you are able to reflect on what it is that tends to activate you. For instance, what tends to make you angry or to overreact to the situation. So, of course, it’s not just about being angry, I’m only using this as an example.
Thinking in terms of patterns is an entry point in trying to understand why you do what you do. Understanding, of course, does not mean condoning. It means that, before you can effectively change anything, you have to understand why it happens. Because if you don’t, then you don’t have the tools to change it.
As you’re starting to see with Step Four, and you will see even more in the following steps, the Proactive 12 Steps describe a path that is different from the traditional 12 Steps. The Proactive 12 Steps are oriented to changing the way you behave, by understanding what it is that makes you do what you do. So it’s not going to have the moralistic tone of “wrong” or “atonement” or “repenting”… But it’s going to have the much more mindful approach of observing what is, to understand it.
We’re talking about mindful understanding. So this is different from trying to analyze and to force-feed some logic, some rationality into this. It’s not that human behavior has no logic whatsoever. There is a logic, but that is an emotional logic. For instance, when you are scared, shadows on the ground will look threatening. When you are happy and safe, behaviors that otherwise might scare you are not going to be nearly as scary.
As I am introducing the notion of mindful observation, you probably see the link with Step Three. There, we were talking about finding yourself moment by moment by taking a mindful pause. At this point, you have not perfected the art of the mindful pause and the art of finding serenity and patience in looking at yourself. But you’re starting to be more aware of the difference between being in your default mode, between being in a kind of mindless state, and being at least a little more mindful. So now, in Step Four, you’re making use of this growing ability to shift from mindless to more mindful to pay attention to patterns in your life.
How to do it
To be mindful means first and foremost, being curious and having the intention to stay as calm as can be, given the circumstances. In practice, how do you do this? Probably the easiest way to do it is to do it with a friend, or a group of friends: You take turns narrating a section of your life: When you were a very young child. When you started going to school. What it was in high school, and so on. You talk about work. You talk about friendships. You talk about relationships. You talk about incidents that come to mind. Good moments and bad moments. And, as you hear yourself talk, you may start to see some patterns emerging.
You can do it by yourself. Write about different periods of your life, the same way as if you were talking to a friend. Having done that, ask yourself what might be the possible common points between several of these stories. Not necessarily all the stories having the same common points, but some of them.
It takes curiosity and openness for you to notice patterns. It is quite OK not to see them right away. It’s quite OK to spend quite a long time wondering what patterns there might be if any.
As you cultivate an attitude of openness and you contemplate your experiences through that perspective, then at some point or another, things will start coming up for you.