Step One in Growing Up If you hear something your whole life…you will believe it…whether it is true or not.
We are products of our environments and our identity was formed initially within a system. For most of us that system was a family of origin. Our identity is the sum total of our experiences. Childhood and adolescent experiences formed our beliefs, attitudes, personality, perceptions, and values. Some of us were nurtured and supported in establishing an identity based on love of self and others. Many of us were just surviving and because we were forced to maintain an external perspective to ensure our safety/security, we were robbed of developing a solid foundation for who we would become.
We encountered other systems that either perpetuated or modified our foundational identities. We were impacted by public schools, organized religions, our peer groups, kinship, work settings, the media, and the larger cultures within which we exist. We learned about the world and our place in it. We developed a sense of our worth and what we had to offer. We came to have places and people in which we felt relatively comfortable and we stuck with them. If we grew up around sick and selfish people, we stay around sick and selfish people because we know how to be around them. This is how false beliefs given to us by our families of origin get perpetuated. We accept what people tell us about ourselves and our worth as long as it fits with what we feel comfortable believing. Sadly, so many of us are comfortable living with shame, fear, and guilt. It’s not that we enjoy this – it’s that we know how to be this way. When we meet healthy and happy people, they will tell us the truth about ourselves but it will be uncomfortable because it doesn’t match up to everything we were ever taught. If we were told by a hundred people that we’re “no good and will never amount to anything”, we will reason that they can’t possibly all be wrong and a handful of people in recovery be right – and yet it is exactly so. This is why we love the words, “came to believe.” Our belief system is not simply about a HIgher Power. We have beliefs about the world, the people in it, and how things are “supposed” to be.
Our identity is who we are and yet how many of us actually know our true selves? e.e. cummings said, “It takes great courage to grow up and become who you really are.” Today we are adults of 30, 40, 50, 60 or more years…but did we ever really grow up? It is possible – even desirable to grow up without becoming a “grown up.” Grownups are people who forgot how to have fun and how to be in the moment. They cannot be said to be truly living life. “Growing up” means having the maturity to feel confident, capable, and most of all safe and secure in who we are. This will forever be a work in progress, but too many of us don’t know where to start. If nobody ever told you, how are you supposed to know?
Everything – absolutely everything about the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is about growing up. The steps provide lessons in healing, believing, and developing faith in a Higher Power, in self, and in others. Practicing the steps in earnest transforms us and allows us to choose who we wish to be and ultimately to choose to be what a “God of our understanding” would have us be (happy, joyous, and free). Fellowship with our newfound brothers and sisters allows us to build a new family with those who understand us, accept us as we are, and believe in what we may become.
Growing up starts with step one, in which we learn to accept powerlessness and begin to build a manageable life. Powerlessness is a lesson that we learned all too well as children. We could not accept this lesson early on in life because we learned it in unhealthy ways. We learned that we were powerless to make people love us, be kind to us, or keep us safe. We learned that acceptance was conditional on doing what others wished us to do and being who they wished us to be. We learned that if we did everything “right” we might expect to be thrown some crumbs. How sad it is that a child must learn to savor crumbs. It’s sadder still that we do so as adults.
We learned that if we did anything wrong we would be rejected, hurt, or even abandoned. We came to believe that codependency was normal and we reasoned as children that there must be something very, very wrong with us because we could not get our needs met. Our lives could not be manageable because we could never relax, must always have our guard up, could never really trust, nor safely assume, and all too rarely could we depend on anyone or anything positive. We learned self doubt. We learned to not speak our minds. We learned the extremes of being either passive or aggressive, and to disguise our words and deeds by being passive-aggressive.
“We found the only thing we needed to change was everything.” We reject the idea of powerlessness because we crave control and we crave control because we are almost constantly, extremely, and palpably afraid. We’re just good at hiding it. Trick question – how many people do you know who live with fear? Answer – all of them. We are skeptical people and we accept nothing that isn’t proven to us many times over. We learned the Serenity Prayer and we scoffed. We had never known serenity. We did not see ourselves as having courage. We see wisdom as learning from our myriad of mistakes, not as something beautiful that can be learned. We learned the Lord’s Prayer and many of us cannot get past the first two words, “Our father” without being triggered or having painful feelings evoked.
So how then are we to move from knowing unhealthy powerlessness to accepting healthy powerlessness? In part we do this by identifying what can change and what cannot. We come to believe that we can be loved, but often not by the people we have longed to be loved by. We sift through people, places, and things like a miner panning for gold and we remind ourselves not to throw the gold away when we find it. We recognize that we have limitations and we accept that each time we run head first into them it will hurt. We notice that what we feel stressed by is almost always beyond our control and we cease our endless and (often subconsciously driven) manipulation of others in favor of managing our selves.
We come to be rigorously honest with ourselves even if we are not honest with others because we cannot manage a life that is built on lies in any healthy manner. We learn to talk to ourselves without being mean – the way we’d talk to someone we care about. We make plans and involve others in them. We come to believe that we can stop following our hearts in a Thelma and Louise fashion and start trusting our gut feelings. Most of all we learn accountability – to ourselves and others. We learn that good intentions and too much thinking leave us dead in the water. We learn to share our fears with others, lest they hold us prisoner. We learn to break things down until they are manageable. One day at a time, one thing at a time, one small step at a time. We learn that having a manageable life hinges on accepting powerlessness and that it starts us on a journey of accepting ourselves and others. It allows us to get our needs met in healthy ways. Manageability is balance. Balance is what we have never known, are afraid to ask for, and it frees us to become the people we long to be.