Fix Broken Self-esteem with Ego Deflation? Huh?

 By life-j and co-authored by Beth H. 

I was lucky to be able to attend the 3rd ICSAA convention, and one workshop in particular stood out. Halfway through it I broke down sobbing. That’s how close to home it struck. It was called, “Reframing the steps for people on the flip-side of Bill’s controlling, ego-maniac personality” and given by Beth H. You can hear it here:

Sounds like a cranky and obsessive title, doesn’t it? Well it covers a big, but little-addressed problem. I did touch upon some of the same issues a while back in my own article Don’t Fix It if It Ain’t Broke, but this workshop went way deeper. I asked Beth if I could use her workshop notes as basis for this article, and so, while much of this is my own writing, there are some parts where I have re-written her notes to better reflect my personal journey, and other parts where I have used her notes directly. I’m grateful to Beth for allowing me to use them.

Bill Wilson was about three years sober when he wrote the Big Book, and while his thinking evolved over the years, much of his early writing strongly bears the mark of a three years sober guy. All alcoholics, he assumed, were just like him: white, male, Christian, well-educated, (formerly) wealthy, egotistical, power driven, and with a Type A personality.

While there are some alcoholics today, who fit this mold, many do not, even among the men. Many are of an entirely different type. I think they could even be the majority of those who at one time or another walk through our doors. Bill did suffer from depression, but other than that you get the feeling he had mostly been on top of things, way on top, and he worked hard to stay there. But many of us came to AA downtrodden, abused as children, sexually or otherwise. And while it can often be helpful to just put it all behind us, and focus on what we can do right now to change things, in many cases the AA approach is not helpful. Many of the messages we get in AA working the program are awfully similar to the destructive messages we got during our upbringings and in the abusive relationships we later sought because they were familiar to us: You’ve committed wrongs, you are defective, what was your part in it? You need ego deflation.

Our egos were already flattened many years before we got to AA, if we even ever had any. And while we have surely all committed wrongs during our drinking days, our wrongs were often just incidental acts while trying to navigate a world which we felt we had no real right to be in. We lived out of guilt, shame, and inferiority complexes; we second-guessed everything and everybody out of an all-pervasive fear. Maybe Bill had been trying to play God, but for us that was the farthest thing from what we were capable of.

So when we got to AA and got to hear all the AA messages which sounded all too much like what we had heard all our lives up until then, whether from the people around us, or from our own committee in our heads, all it did was make us feel even worse about ourselves. All we wanted to do was to run, and many of us did, and died an alcoholic death. Some of us stayed because our lives had gotten so bad that it seemed worse to continue living the way we did than to knuckle under, and have AA, too, tell us we were no good.

Yes, that’s how it felt, and while many of us stayed because we had nowhere else to turn, and many of us indeed found help, love and companionship in AA, our recovery was often more in spite of “the program” than because of it. Our recovery was slow, because everything about the program’s Type-A approach felt wrong to us, and it was only the love from some of the other members that sustained us. So because of elements of the program, here I am after 30 years still struggling with many things which it seems I ought to have been able to resolve years ago.

Countless others who had been more damaged than us could not stay. They were the ones whom the program totally failed. We strongly believe it was mostly not their own fault, and we who stayed are now asking our fellow members to have an honest look at how the program can be hurtful, and recognize the need for the program to not only be designed for ego-maniac personalities like Bill’s, but also for those who sustained a lot of harm in their lives. We still need One Big Tent, but it needs to be way bigger than what Bill could envision with three years sober. The God stuff does chase many people off, and that is finally being recognized, but we think this is a much bigger problem yet, and it urgently needs to be addressed.

We can call it by many different names. When I call us the downtrodden, this indicates that the problem lies outside ourselves, harm was done to us, and while I do believe this to often be true in a socio-political sense, I recognize that at this point in our lives, having been running from the problems with the help of alcohol, all we can do now is to take responsibility for making changes in our own lives that get rid of all the twisted survival skills we acquired early on, and which in most cases have not served us at all well for many, many years. We have to accept the world as it is, our upbringing as it was, and learn to take charge of our lives from here on. And we need empowerment to do this, not a god or yet some other external authority figure or dogma to submit to. We have lived a life of shame and low self-esteem. Some of us did put together a twisted ego of sorts with the questionable help of alcohol, so we may relate somewhat to both sides of the following table, which shows some of the differences between ego-maniac tendencies, and a shame-based life.


Egomaniac tendencies Shame-based tendencies
Sense of entitlement, the world’s their oyster Feel unworthy, undeserving, leave the good stuff for someone else
Feel superior to others Feel inferior to others, defective, unlovable. Not guilt (something I did) but shame (who I am)
Seek praise from others to validate inflated sense of self: “I’d prove to the world I was important.” (Bill’s Story) Avoid attention by fitting in, for fear of being found out (as defective)
Can’t handle criticism, or erroneously perceive criticism, because everything is about them Can’t handle praise because undeserved; can’t handle criticism because too painful
Lack empathy, use other people as supporting cast where they are the star Very in tune with other people’s feelings but not their own; try to control how others feel towards them to makeup for hole inside (use esteem of others as a substitute for self-esteem
Create the egomaniac false self to avoid conscious or unconscious feelings of inferiority Create the egomaniac false self to avoid conscious or unconscious feelings of inferiority. Create false personas that look good on the outside to prevent others from seeing the (believed) ugliness within
Behavior is driven by the largely unconscious defense mechanism of “I’m the best” to avoid feeling “I’m the worst.” Behavior is driven largely by internalized feelings of shame, being unworthy, defective, unlovable
Don’t care what most people think.  Think they know better. Play God. Care way too much about what anyone might think. Hypervigilant to avoid being blind-sided (complex PTSD). Treat others like they are God in the sense that others have the power to determine our worth
Don’t ask for help because they think they don’t need it; it would be an admission of weakness. Don’t ask for help because they don’t want to bother anyone, feel they don’t deserve it
Always want more – driven by need to succeed, to top others, anything that feeds the ego Never feel like they’ve done enough (or are enough)
Always have to be right. Unable to see the world from other people’s point of view. Differences of opinion are seen as right/wrong, and theirs is right. Point of view depends on whose approval is needed at the moment. Lack a solid sense of self. Do a lot of second-guessing of themselves, their thoughts, feelings, opinions. Chameleon.
Don’t respect authority Need approval from authority, or will rebel against authority, but may need alcohol and/or drugs to pull it off.


So this does not exactly make the Big Book wrong. It does work to a large degree for the egomaniacs it was made for – it just makes it horrendously incomplete.

When I’m asked to “look at my part in it,” all it reminds me of is my dad terrorizing me to confess to whatever infraction he had discovered. And it makes it way too easy for me to get stuck on who in my past I can blame for the problems in my present, something which doesn’t serve me at all. There can be some value in looking at all these traumatic events of course, but it is unsafe dealing with them in a peer support system which primarily focuses on where we were wrong. It might be better with the help of a trained professional, but many of us came to AA because we couldn’t afford such help.

The way we are admonished to approach these traumatic events in AA, is to look more at our own faults. We have lived a shame-based life where we were all too prone to looking at our own faults. True, we did it in an unproductive, going-in-circles way, characterized by self-centered fear, but the AA program just plows through it all much like a construction company building a subway would plow through an archaeological site before there were laws against it.

While the ego-maniac members of AA come in with guilt for things they have done, we come in with shame for things we think we have done. Years of abuse well to the surface when we are told to:

  • Take the cotton out of your ears & put it in your mouth.
  • Quit playing God.
  • It’s your pride & ego that keeps you from believing in God
  • You’re looking at the problem.
  • Let’s talk about your defects
  • You have the same big ego, only you feel special because you think you’re worse than everyone else.

This triggers shame responses so that we aren’t listening anymore or we get defensive. Our response to AA’s attack on our supposed big egos is to try to salvage that little bitty sense of self we may still have, a little flickering flame. We go hide in that place out behind the wood shed where no-one can find us. We hide there as long as we can, until it gets late and we have to go face the inevitable beating.

AA? Nah, we aren’t coming back.

So, a gentler approach to recovery is needed. We need to build self-esteem, not have our egos taken down. We need positive affirmation. Rather than a list of defects of character – we already have a list a mile long – or a list of people we have harmed – we have already harmed the whole world by our very existence – we need to make a list of the critical things we say to ourselves, and make a list of affirmative statements to counteract it.

We need to treat ourselves to things other people do, but we normally wouldn’t – nice things, maybe even self-indulgent things such as spending money on frivolous stuff if we are realistically able to do so, and take time for ourselves, which we would too willingly give to others. It’s a long road, every step of the way we will tell ourselves we aren’t worth it, but we need to keep doing it, until those voices subside.

And while the egomaniac personality needs to pick up the phone and call someone to remind themselves that they can’t, and never really could, do it alone, we need to do it to remind ourselves that we no longer have to try to make it alone anymore. People are willing to help, even if it is hard for us to believe it. Big difference. We need to call to find out that the person we’re calling really isn’t bothered by our call. That we, too, are allowed to ask for help.

We need to give ourselves pats on the back for big and little accomplishments and decisions – another day sober, picked up the phone, trying to change our lives.

We need to start learning to treat ourselves as well as we would treat a friend. Bill Wilson admonishes us to be hard on ourselves, easy on others. We already are. Compare what we’d say to a friend to what we say to ourselves:


What I’d say to a friend in this situation What I say to myself
Sounds like you’re going through a really tough time. Take it easy on yourself You brought this on yourself, you deserve it.
It’s not your fault, there are many factors beyond your control. You suck. You can’t handle anything. Why do you bother to get up in the morning?
You look fine. No one pays any attention to the little things we focus on about ourselves. Everyone is staring at you because of your glaring imperfections. You shouldn’t go out in public.
Came in second? That’s fantastic, congratulations! LOSER!!!  What a wasted effort.
Another job will come along, your friends and family will stand by you You’re unemployable. Don’t let anyone know you’re out of work
Everyone’s kids have problems. I’m sure you’ll work this out. You’re a complete failure as a parent. Why don’t you off yourself and maybe they’ll get someone better.
It’s okay to cry. I’ll listen and be there for you.  Stop crying. You look even uglier with your face all contorted like that.


My upbringing for the most part was about what other people think. This was how my parents operated. They were more concerned with what other people would think about me, and, by reflection, about them, than about my well-being.

They did not want to have to be ashamed of me, and they let me know, directly, that I was to not be an embarrassment to them. My comfort, well-being, identity, happiness, my development into a functioning human being was subordinate to all that. This generalized “other people” ran our lives.

Some of us rebelled. I did so myself. Rebel or else submit. It was the only way out, since I did not want to live my life based on what other people might be thinking. That I still in a round-about way, by rebelling, wound up living my life based on what other people were thinking did not register with me at the age of 16. I started drinking and smoking pot, growing long hair, and constantly battling with my parents about how long my hair should be. Wearing work clothes instead of something nice.

Rebellion gave me an identity to replace what I had beaten out of me. The trouble, of course, is when to give up the rebellion. Normal people with a normal upbringing give it up by 20. I held on. It became so much a part of my life that without it I would again no longer have an identity. And while I have slowly given up most of the rebellion, I still don’t feel comfortable in “normal” clothes. I am distinctly uncomfortable in “nice” clothes, not just a pinstriped suit, but even “normal nice.” If I have nice clothes on I have to be careful to not get them dirty, and it triggers the same PTSD discomfort I felt when I was forced to wear the “nice” clothes my mother had picked out for me as a kid, even in middle school, even into high school. So now I seem stuck wearing Walmart sweats, so I don’t have to deal with it. It’s a way of rejecting those parts of society where I might ever again be compelled to wear nice clothes, and have to feel inferior. I isolate myself first, so you don’t do it. Does it serve me? Of course not.

My dad died 6-7 years ago. And I have to confess I’m glad he did. Since then my mom and I have actually been able to become friends. She, too, after passing 80, has blossomed some, not having to work my dad’s agenda. But the generalized “other people” has been a spectre hovering over our family most of my life.

Let me relate a little story – this happened when I was about 55 years old, well into adulthood, one might suppose? My parents lived in Denmark, so I would only visit them about once every three years, for about three weeks each visit.

So one day – I had been there perhaps a week for the first time in 3 years – my parents set me down:

“We didn’t sleep last night,” my mother says.

[emphasis pause]

“Finally about 4 am your dad said to me – if you die first, do you want me to wait until after the funeral before I tell him?”

[emphasis pause]

My mother continues, “We cannot – WE CAN NOT – handle this. Yesterday afternoon when your dad took you to the bank, he was SO embarrassed that your overalls were not hemmed up. If you are going to keep visiting us, you HAVE to have some decent clothes on. What aren’t other people thinking?”

My dad was an orphan. I have had a lot of work to do on forgiving him. He didn’t deserve the cards he was dealt any more than I did. Frankly his hand was way worse than mine. But knowing that didn’t really make mine better, though in the long run it did give me some empathy for him.

Finally, being able to forgive has been way more important to me than looking at my character defects. Forgiving is an act, and a state of mind and being that is empowering. “I” have the power to forgive. By doing so I’m building the magnanimous person I should have been all along.

So to use the steps as “suggested” works rather poorly in many respects.

We have to change the negative self-talk, and while they still are going to make us look at some parts of ourselves we’re not proud of, we need to take stock of what we DO have to be proud of FIRST, so we don’t lose sight of it.

So here are some thoughts on how the steps miss the mark for those who came into AA feeling downtrodden, and some of what it may take to make them work better:

1. Powerlessness & unmanageability – not just alcohol but other people. We try to control how people relate to us by second-guessing the world, and we feel responsible for things we can’t control. Life was unmanageable long before we started drinking. I need to begin to straighten out what’s mine to do and what is not mine.  We need to look at the power we do have – to set our own standards, not let others determine our worth, not take responsibility for things we can’t control.  The power we must give up, paradoxically, is the power we don’t actually have.  Then we can aim to become more empowered, not less.

2. I need resources beyond my own, mostly I need some new input – books, doctors, AA. I know how to be responsible and self-sufficient, I don’t know how to be emotional, social, or interdependent, accept help.  AA meetings and AA people are a great place to try out new behavior, check whether a long-held assumption is actually true, see if people are really thinking what I think they’re thinking.  Find a group that will love me until I learn to love myself.

3. I make a decision to be in recovery – not to turn my life over to yet something else outside myself. Besides being abstinent I need to feel my feelings, pay conscious attention to my life and take corrective actions where needed. If I don’t pay attention, I revert to old habits. It requires conscious effort to change ingrained undesired thoughts and behaviors.

4. We don’t need to be hard on ourselves and easy on others.  We need to be honest about ourselves and others.

My behaviors and beliefs when I was a child – when different than thoughts and feelings I was told to have – were met with consequences (usually further shaming). I do not have defects of character, I have survival mechanisms learned as a child which no longer serve me, and I need help to get rid of them. They were an unfortunate necessity with lasting effects.

My part in it? None as a child. But as an adult, it is my responsibility to stop doing what I learned to do, and treat myself better. Once I let go of my unhealthy survival mechanisms I will develop better skills in my relations with those around me.

5. Get rid of secrets – shame is about fear of being known (or found out and found defective). Once our secrets are exposed we find we really aren’t so bad.

6. Don’t use the word defects – it triggers a shame response.  Call them survival skills – don’t feel, don’t trust, don’t talk, don’t think well of yourself, don’t do anything unless you’re the best, etc.   They just don’t serve us any more, we’re no longer in the same environment, though we may behave as if we were.

Some undesirable behaviors that stem from shame:

  • Judgmental of others who don’t live up to our very high shame-based standards
  • Putting others down to feel better about ourselves
  • Questioning people’s motives when they’re nice, generous, or complimentary
  • The “I reject you first defense” – contempt for people and groups that we believe would never accept us
  • Self-deprecating talk so no one can hurt us because we already know
  • Rage because we feel threatened even when we may not be.

7. Thank our low self-esteem and its many offshoots for getting us through our difficult childhoods. Tell them we appreciate what they did for us, but we don’t need them anymore.  We are adults and can choose who we want to be, set our own standards, not live in fear because we are not dependent on unhealthy people anymore.  Yes, change the behaviors, but don’t fault ourselves for having them or feel that there’s some bad part of us that has to be removed.

8. List not only persons we had harmed – including ourselves, but also people who have harmed us, whom we hold resentments against or are still afraid of.

9. Make living amends to ourselves as well as to others – for the rest of our lives.

  • Continue all the esteem-building work we did before beginning the steps
  • Apologize out loud for critical thoughts – I’m sorry, I should not have criticized you like that. You didn’t deserve it.  You’re just being human.
  • Look over our past accomplishments – graduations, promotions, events, whatever. Take a minute or several to feel proud and acknowledge it instead of dismissing it as nothing. (What would we have said to someone else?)
  • Look in the mirror and say something nice every day.
  • Wreckage of past – do the things we denied ourselves. Maybe back to school, career change, mend broken relationships, more attention to our health
  • Say no when asked to do something we really don’t want to do – we make our own choices and accept the consequences
  • Take better care of ourselves physically, emotionally, socially (stay connected!)
  • Stand up for ourselves when we don’t want to be a part of something. Need to make waves, rock the boat sometimes for our own integrity.
  • Learn to forgive, and do it, magnanimously. Not for our perpetrators’ sake, but for ourselves.

10. Inventory

  • What did I do right today? Pat on the back, give myself credit
  • What did I do better than I used to do – credit for progress, perfection not required
  • What underlying thinking or feelings motivated the behaviors I didn’t like? Try to make the unconscious conscious so I can work on it.
  • Challenge my thinking – when I judge whatever I did as not enough – enough for what? For who? Some fictitious, unidentified “what people think” that is really just me projecting my old shame-based standards?
  • Learn about defense mechanisms – deny, minimize, rationalize, intellectualize, project, justify, etc. Their purpose is to protect us from things we can’t face, but now I want to face them rather than continue to act them out. When I’m doing one of these – Why am I being defensive?  In what way do I feel threatened? (an ad hoc step 4 – how does it affect me?)    Is it a realistic fear?  Does it really threaten my self-esteem or only how I think I may look to others?  Self-esteem comes from within.

11. Take time to be at peace with ourselves. Know that we belong, we’re just like other people – frustrating and glorious, imperfect and magnificent. OK to have a quiet mind and just be.

12. Personality change sufficient to overcome alcoholism – when I don’t live in constant pain and fear, I don’t need to self-medicate. When I express instead of stuffing my feelings, I don’t need alcohol to numb me.  When I’m not painfully self-conscious, I don’t need to take the edge off.  When I acknowledge that I have a place here, I don’t need to be self-destructive. 

When I work with others – I get to see my own progress.  It is a joy to watch others begin to claim their power and take back their lives.  My past is useful to others like me.

I didn’t have a God-sized hole.  I had a me-sized hole.  Now, bit by bit, I’m finally becoming full of myself instead of being full of everyone and everything else.

Additional Information

Download Beth’s original presentation as a pdf file. 

About the Author

life-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there. He’s been involved in service work of every kind all along, but now thinks the most important work is to help atheists and agnostics feel safe and welcome in AA. Events in the fellowship conspired to make him become way more radicalized than he ever wanted to be, and he finds it difficult to settle back down to focus on his own program again, for better or for worse. He’s spent parts of his life as a building contractor, part as a technical translator, and has dabbled a bit in artwork and writing. life-j is now semi-retired on a five-acre homestead together with his sweetie, and his dogs, chickens, and gardens.

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  1. John S April 17, 2019 at 12:20 am - Reply

    Your message overall is fine but it’s funny how everything you said I have heard over and over again in AA meetings – and OA meetings – and ACA meetings over my 30 years.  It’s not like your thoughts about recovery are original. I wonder what it is about people who want to take credit for the wisdom that has been passed on to them? Sure the philosophy of recovery has grown and changed over the 80 years, but it isn’t the philosophy that keeps us sober or in the process of recovery.  It’s the simple Steps that we continue to take over and over again that saves us.

    • life-j April 17, 2019 at 1:24 pm Reply

      Hmm, John, thanks for joining us here, but I’m not sure where you’re trying to go with your comment. Other than that you don’t want me to take credit for having come up with everything I write, all by myself? That’s fine, I haven’t. Neither did Bill, by the way. I just read Peabody’s The Common Sense of Drinking from 1930, and it is evident that Bill got half of his ideas from there, and the other half from the Oxford group. No, he did have a few original ideas of his own, too. Some pretty powerful, too, such as that an alcoholic will trust another alcoholic before he will trust just about anyone else.

      And while I have also heard my assertions voiced in AA meetings from time to time by people taking courage to stick their neck out, there is precious little in regular AA literature to support it – especially what’s in this particular article. Or are you saying “if it has already been said or written once, that’s enough”? I have heard How It Works read well over 4000 times by now – why isn’t that enough?

      Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke? Hmm – not to take all the credit, but I wrote an article about that too……


  2. Joe K December 30, 2018 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for this! Ever time I come across ego deflation I just don’t relate to it. I think my ego was already pretty fragile to begin with (prior to sobriety) and just a lot of low self esteem. I never looked liked the term character defects, since that suggests something that needs to be returned to a factory, I try to reframe it in ways of what things do I want to improve on and how am I going to achieve that.

    sometimes I just need to change the language around, for me it makes more sense to say I need a resource versus a higher power.

    I was glad to find this today and see other people feel the same way about the ego deflation line.

    • life-j December 30, 2018 at 2:05 pm Reply


      Thanks for joining this discussion. We’re talking a bunch about the higher power stuff below. So many key concepts in AA, higher power, ego deflation, “real” alcoholic (the kind who can only get sober with god’s help), allergy, “moral” inventory (I thought alcoholism wasn’t a moral failure? – so why…?), damn near everything in “the program” that Bill sat down and wrote in 39, makes so little sense, that it’s hard to see how AA will survive its fundamentalism. Kick the BB upstairs! Let’s move on.

      • joe k January 24, 2019 at 9:33 am Reply

        Hi Life J,

        sorry for the delay in reply. Just wanted to thank you for your reply. I agree with everything you wrote. I get so frustrated with the BB sometimes, well most of the time, I’ll share with like minded AA friends that it needs an overhaul but wouldn’t share that at a meeting since that would be an act of heresy!

  3. Gerald November 26, 2018 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    Hey Everybody,

    This is, like, the ACA message, and … I LOVE it !!! 🙂 You know what? ACA constructively criticizes us (AA) in their Big Red Book. (Theirs is red, ours blue).

    ACA calls AA “starter recovery.”

    And, so do I 🙂 🙂 🙂

    They say AA really whiffed when they called resentment the number one offender. Actually, it’s shame 🙂

    And, I agree 🙂 🙂 🙂

    … I hope to plug back in to f2f ACA when I get back to the US next spring. There’s secular AA in the area, too, where we’re relocating. I hope I’ll have time for both.

    … I did the ACA steps three years ago using their Yellow Workbook and shared what I found there with an understanding friend (an AA-Alanon double winner, who was familiar with the Yellow Workbook; his Alanon home group used it.)

    By the way, check this out! Some Adult Children actually aren’t codependent, like, _at all_ 🙂

    That’s me!!!!!!

    And that’s why I could never relate to Alanoners over the years, each time I visited their meetings looking for the what-I-didn’t-know-what-I-was-looking-for that I would eventually find in ACA 🙂

    Just one more thing, ACA explains how some people can be both axxholes & victims simultaneously. However, this was not me, either. I strongly identify with the shamed person being described in this article, “Fix Broken Self-Esteem with Ego Deflation, Huh?”


    Gerald 8/29/1993

  4. Stephanie R November 26, 2018 at 10:03 am - Reply

    I have thought for ages that the ego-deflation idea only ever really applied to men, and then only to men who suffered with what we call “grandiosity.” Problem is, we have come so far with psychology that we now understand the appearance of inflated ego and the grandiose behavior that accompanies it is almost always to cover up the complete lack of self worth. In truth, while some women use that same defense (I was one of them), I had never suffered with any kind inflated ego–quite the opposite. There is the argument that obsession with oneself can also come in the form of self-pity, and I agree that self-pity isn’t helpful to oneself or anyone else, it still is not the same as a healthy view of oneself. And, because I’m an atheist I have always asked my sponsees to give themselves a pat on the back instead of thank god because I know that THEY need to feel proud of themselves and since THEY are putting in the work and no one else they deserve–NEED–to acknowledge it. Why stay sober if I don’t think I’m worth it? You cannot stay sober for god or family. As self-esteem returns the desire to stay sober grows stronger. I can’t tell you how important it was for me. I have 8 years now and the thought of ever hurting my body or mind with a drink makes me cringe. Not only do I not crave it, I don’t want it. I feel no envy for the “normal drinker.”

    • Nancy W November 26, 2018 at 10:24 am Reply

      So true! I remember my first sponsor (def old school) scolding me for just that – patting myself on the back. My response was that I was doing the work and making the choice to stay sober. No supreme magic involved, thank you very much.  Still sober. Still a non-believer. Still making those choices.

  5. Dan L. November 19, 2018 at 7:55 pm - Reply

    Thanks again life-j.  You certainly have your thoughts in order.  Thank you for this essay about the “shaming” that is such a part of our AA culture.  I did need to learn to be considerate of others and that I had to live by the same rules as everyone else.  I was not a special case who got to drink when others could not.  I had to learn that my enslavement to alcohol had given me some really bad habits.  Habits that had to go if I was to begin recovery.  What I did not need was to be told I was a useless piece of trash who should shut up and learn to follow the directions of his betters.

    So many of us drank to relieve social anxieties we could not name or even understand.  Why the bruised remnants of the egos of such people needed to be crushed is beyond me.  What I had to do was become teachable and learn the essential nature of humility and empathy.  Only then  could I find my voice.  I needed to be told I was worth the effort of recovery.  I needed to be told that I was not a worthless piece of garbage and I could enjoy the rest of my life without my dread companion.

    Thanks again for your priceless insight.


  6. Tomas L November 19, 2018 at 6:03 am - Reply

    Thank you for an excellent article! I haven’t listened to Beth’s talk yet, but I’m looking forward to it. The talk of ego deflation alays felt like “somebody else’s business” to me. My drinking started out as an attempt to cope with my social anxiety – ironically, fellowship was what I was looking for and longing for, but it took me some decades to figure out that there was a sober fellowship where I could fit in without drinking. I found AA after self-medicating a depression for a few years, so deflating my ego was completely redundant – there was nothing left to deflate. My impression of my years in AA is that this is a far more common problem, “playing useless trash” rather than playing God.

    • life-j November 19, 2018 at 11:27 am Reply

      Thomas, thanks, well put: “playing useless trash” rather than playing God.

  7. Kjoe November 19, 2018 at 5:44 am - Reply


    My problem with drugs and alcohol was a hell of a lot bigger than a me sized hole. I needed a higher power that actually worked for me, a higher purpose, a calling not to die an alcoholic death.

    (Perhaps today I am a stronger individual who can problem solve most of life’s  challenges on my own but even after 30 years clean & sober I still get help from the rooms and a core group of trusted friends)

    The group became my higher power, good orderly direction was the only thing that made any sense to me.  To this day it’s the code of my life and sobriety. When I continue to do the next right thing, amazingly things come together, problems are solved life goes on peacefully.

    As far as the Bill W. thing goes, despite all his failings, he did give up the foundation to build these programs on. None of us would be here without his gift. I’m not a Bill W. Groupie but these founders gave us AA, which lead to NA and countless other fellowships. AA Beyond Belief wouldn’t be here or countless alternative treatment programs directly opposed to 12 step treatment method.

    So, I am glad to be in recovery at this time and have choices.

    • Stephanie R November 26, 2018 at 10:12 am Reply

      The reality, though, is that none of us is ungrateful for AA or Bill W. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need tweaking 80+ years on. This is Catholicism. The Big Book is not a bible. Bill himself wrote 20 years after the publication about the necessity of it to change with the times in order not exclude anyone. I’ve worked with a lot of women and it has always meant that I, as the sponsor, have to reframe a lot of the book in order for them to identify with it. Totally happy you found a higher power of your understanding. Have at it. The point isn’t to stop that but to stop ideologues from insisting theirs is the only way and that the book is akin to a bible. The opening page says that, it’s just suggestions. The writers were flawed, very. And we, as humans, have evolved. We know more. We know better. That’s the bottom line.

    • Beth H November 19, 2018 at 1:47 pm Reply

      I think Bill got it right for the small, homogeneous group of original AA members.  They probably did need ego deflation.  The problem is that he extrapolated from a small, self-selected sample to all alcoholics.   He was not a social scientist, just a drunk, and I can’t hold that against him.  It’s more the resistance to change within AA that has become a problem.  As you can see, my presentation had very little mention of higher power or no higher power, and would not be rejected by mainstream AA for that reason. It would be rejected for suggesting there’s room for improvement in the steps (and I would surely be accused of having a big ego for thinking I know better).

      I will be eternally grateful to Bill for starting the idea of AA meetings, because that loving and supportive environment provides a safe place for shame-based people to come out of their shells and not get the negative reaction they expect.

      • Stephanie R November 26, 2018 at 10:06 am Reply

        I agree. Maybe the time and place mattered. The context. That said, I think they just didn’t have enough information about the psychology of it yet. As I said above, the appearance of an inflated-ego and the grandiose behaviors that can accompany it, are often a cover for low self-esteem even in “normal” people.

    • life-j November 19, 2018 at 11:17 am Reply

      Kjoe, thanks for joining us here today. So let’s see if I’m getting you right here:

      I get help from the group, the fellowship, the people in it. With the support of the group I do some (a lot of) work on myself, and get empowered to live a better life.

      To you the group, the fellowship, the people in it is a higher power, and so you pray to it, and subsequent to your prayers the group in its own divine time intervenes in your life and removes your character defects.

      Funny how things go sometimes. When you listen to the Facebook kids, unless they are lying of course, they really did intend to create a way to link all the people in the world together in an online brotherhood, but they didn’t know what they were doing, really, didn’t understand the full consequences of their actions and decisions, didn’t understand the many ways their work could trail off into something they didn’t intend, or lived to regret, and they created a monster.

      It’s a bit like this with Bill. He had some great ideas, had a few great insights, and at three years sober – more or less as ignorant as I was at three years sober –  he decided he knew enough about everything to set the course of AA in cement.

      He did live to regret it, but it was too late for him to do much about it.

      May I suggest last week’s article here of mine, “AA and the Art of Automobile Maintenance”?, or “Standing on the shoulders of Giants” on aaagnostica from about a year ago.

      Would like to hear your further thoughts.

      Of course I, like you it seems, am grateful to AA for helping me keep sober for 30 years, and live a life way better than anything I could have imagined at 9 years old when the walls of my childhood reality were closing in, or, for that matter at the age of 36 when the walls were closing in once again, this time as a result of the best solution I could come up with without help – alcohol.

      I too have a calling or a higher purpose, and I’m trying to fulfill it here as much as one person is able, and shoulder to shoulder with many others: Help AA change before it fades into fundamentalist obscurity, and this wonderful 2 million strong fellowship of at this time mostly old people gets lost to history like all organizations that didn’t change with the times have done.




      • Kjoe November 25, 2018 at 5:03 am Reply

        You said >>”May I suggest last week’s article here of mine, “AA and the Art of Automobile Maintenance”?, or “Standing on the shoulders of Giants” on aaagnostica from about a year ago.”

        I don’t know even where to look for the one article from a year ago. Link?

        • life-j November 26, 2018 at 10:54 am Reply

          Copy and paste those titles in each of the web pages’ search box.

          AA and the Art of Automobile Maintenance

          Standing on the shoulders of giants?


          • Stephanie R November 26, 2018 at 12:42 pm Reply

            Read. And?

            • life-j November 26, 2018 at 8:21 pm Reply

              And perhaps it will help shed light on why all this higher power stuff is not needed, except for religiously minded folks, who do seem to need it, but that’s different from it needing to be part of the liturgy of AA. And it will perhaps help shed light on how ignorant those people who made early AA were. Ignorance is not “bad” unless it proposes to possess the whole truth. And I would have thought that perhaps it would stir up more in  you than “And?”. But it was of course primarily suggested to Kjoe. I hope he read it.

              And I didn’t think it would past in big images like that. I just had a little URL in mind.

              • Stephanie November 26, 2018 at 9:17 pm Reply

                Huh? We agree! I’m entirely appalled by the scourge of religiosity and ideology in AA now. So much so I don’t attend meetings anymore. Hope it passes but I can’t abide it anymore.

      • Kjoe November 22, 2018 at 7:01 am Reply

        Hi life-j, I believe that a Group Of Drunks is more powerful than a lone drunk in solving the ever elusive sobriety issue.

        The group continues to help me grow and live life on life’s terms.

        I don’t pray to the group.

        Many of the steps have little to no meaning for me, the good thing about AA is it is only suggested, never written in stone and  customizable to suit ones needs.

        • life-j November 24, 2018 at 10:56 am Reply


          Thanks – what I’m taking issue with in this discussion with you is the concept of a higher power. The group – obviously – is more powerful than the individual. That’s plain common sense, it’s third grade math, it’s ……

          But what makes the group “higher” in any other sense than an attempt to jump in with Bill’s assertion that the group can be your higher power until you find a real god?

          A higher power is, must be something transcendent, something in the world beyond the real.

          Some people’s assertion that there are lots of powers “greater” than me, such as the ocean, the ocean is obviously way more powerful than me, yes – and therefore we must obviously accept the idea of “higher” powers is a manipulative jump.

          A “higher” power is something beyond the laws of physics. It is something that can be petitioned for intervention in our lives. It is in the world of gods.

          There is no reason to call plain human co-operative effort “higher”

          Nor is there any good reason to call “untapped inner resources” “higher”, that is just another manipulative effort to find a way to fall in line with Bill’s insistence on having a higher power which we soon will allow to morph into Bill’s concept of God with a capital G.

          If you don’t pray to your local AA group, there is no good reason to call it higher. Only entities which can perform miracles should be called higher. Only entities which can respond to prayer with action which is pardoned from the laws of physics, should be called higher.

          The most important reason to make this distinction is so that we avoid the continuum which Bill created, so that the group as your higher power little by little could be morphed into the one true all powerful god of Bill’s upbringing. We need to abolish all talk of higher power in the program we work together.

          It is not my business what people of a religious frame of mind do. Privately, on philosophical grounds, I may not hold much respect for religiosity. Publicly I have to because if I don’t, in this pluralistic world there would be as much, if not more, risk that my attempt to deny religious people a right to be religious would be turned into religious people denying me the right to not believe. This has been the main theme throughout history. We have to have a pluralistic society which tolerates religion, no matter how nonsensical it may seem to some of us, in order to counter religious intolerance. I’m not sure it is inherently so, but in this time and place it seems to be.

          So let all who want to believe in a higher power do so. But we need it expunged form the literature and language which we SHARE. I know it will be an uphill battle, but that’s no reason to shy away from it.

          • Kjoe November 25, 2018 at 4:52 am Reply

            IF AA had simply stopped at the “power greater than” part and not gone on to higher powers and Ga-ga-ga-God. The program would be a heck of a lot easier to swallow. The huge ga-ga-God objection would become mute but there are things we can not change. The Big Book is written in stone or the first 164 pages are. Frozen in a by gone age.

            Perhaps on a local level we can influence our own AA groups to change, maybe after a long bloody fight we get them to stop saying the F#%king Lord’s Prayer, maybe.

            Or perhaps we start a free thinkers AA meeting near us. AA steps need to be read as written so as not to be de-listed as a non-AA meeting. After that alternative steps can be read.

            I never gave it much thought as to Calling the group my higher power. I used whatever adaptations I could think of to “work the steps”. Good Orderly Direction, Group of Drunks… higher purpose… all these contortions to try to work these crazy steps.

            In the beginning everything was a power greater than me, I was a very sick person when I arrived multiple times at AA/NA’s doorsteps. Today I don’t really use that terminology , I don’t think of the group as my higher power per say. I believe they have the power of collective wisdom that at times I do not possess.

            • life-j November 26, 2018 at 2:06 am Reply

              Kjoe, now it sounds like we’re mostly agreeing.

              As far as reading the steps as written to not be de-listed, where is that happening still? Seems like we have enough precedent and enough (if a bit reluctant) support from World Service to where that shouldn’t be happening anymore. I wonder if the rest of us can help support your group?

              Another option which we used for a bit was to not read “the steps”at all, original or modified, but take our own modified version and make it into a piece of prose without the numbers. It went like this, sorry, it’s a bit long:
              It seems that any formal reading of the steps, even modified steps, only feeds an expectation that the steps should be worked one way and one way only, so we will not do a formal reading of them at all here. The most important thing at first is to quit drinking and start going to meetings. The steps can easily be found in AA literature once it is time to start working on them. Instead we will just list some of the principles we have found to work in the 12 steps.
              The first thing we needed to do to get started with recovery was to fully admit that we had lost control of our drinking and that our lives had become generally unmanageable as a result. From seeing AA at work we came to realize that help from other alcoholics in recovery would be necessary for recovery. We could not do it alone. We decided to start living our lives based on the core principles of the AA program, as we saw them. We took a good honest look at how we had lived our lives, and how our alcoholic personalities had gotten in the way of our relations with those around us. We shared honestly and without reservation what we had learned about ourselves with another person, and became willing to change whatever was necessary in our lives. We also took a look at who we had harmed and who had harmed us, and made amends for what we had done, so long as it did not cause further harm to anyone involved, and we sought to forgive others for wrongs done to us.
              We realized that quitting drinking was not enough. It would be necessary to keep working on all these changes, so we continued looking honestly at ourselves, and our relations to those around us, and whenever we did something wrong, we promptly admitted it and did what we could to remedy it, so we wouldn’t have it gnawing at our newfound serenity.
              We found that a broader awareness of life and our place in it was important to our recovery, and that meditation or other work such as what is often called spiritual practice would be helpful to our recovery. We also realized that working with other alcoholics would be essential to our own continued recovery, both to help us keep our focus, and because when other alcoholics in recovery took it upon themselves to work with us, it had given us a place to go to seek recovery for ourselves. We needed to pay it forward, both for our own sake, and for the next suffering alcoholic. So we tried to carry the AA message as we had experienced it to other alcoholics.
              – no modified steps! Invite the AA police over!

  8. Talitha L November 19, 2018 at 1:05 am - Reply

    To life-j and Beth, I would just like to say thank you, thank you, thank you. Here I sit in South Africa, and you’re describing me from the other side of the world. Your alternative steps are some of the best I have yet come across. The next time I chair our conventional AA meeting, I will definitely work these ideas into my presentation.

    Talitha L

  9. Lance November 18, 2018 at 10:37 pm - Reply

    Hi Life; I read your article early this morning and made two copies for use at the meeting.  Then wrote a thank you note which has apparently been lost in space.  Among the things I said was that it seemed to me that replacing chapters 4 and 5 of the big book with this article would be now and would have been in 1984-86 (while I was still not convinced) a much more appropriate piece of writing for me than the original.

    One of our members read aloud down to the first table and then we began discussing.  I believe 3 of  us identified wholly.  The other three had a harder time.  I think partly because they were newer and had not been beaten around by chapter 4 & 5 as much as I had.  But all participated to the extent of their ability and had, I think, a profitable hour.

    At any rate, the plan is to plow on next week trying to get deeper understanding of the identification section.  I shall try to be less talkative and demanding.  I don’t think we’ll get very many pages further in that session, however.  Too much important content,.  And too close to my emotions.

    Your story of embarrassing your parents hit me hard as I have a very similar memory.

    It was all just what I wanted to express, but a few years before I could do so.  Thank you.  And my thanks to Beth and to the editorial staff as well.  I shall have pictures in my big book now.

  10. Rob T November 18, 2018 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    first off, thanks for this article! It helps in many ways. I’ve heard you mention you live in N. cal, so do I, in santa rosa. are you safe from this current horrible fire?? I don’t know where you live but I hope to hell you and yours are ok, my best Rob T

    • life-j November 18, 2018 at 6:02 pm Reply

      Rob, I’m a couple of hours further up 101. Please feel free to contact me at I am in running contact with Chris S, and have visited the meetings in your area, Forestville, Petaluma a few times.

      We’re ok, aside from the smoke. thanks for joining us here today.

  11. John M. November 18, 2018 at 2:09 pm - Reply


    I continue to be so impressed with your sharing of late, both the quality and quantity, by your essays and your comments to others’ essays, both here at AA Beyond Belief and at AA Agnostica. 

    A very sensitive and wise presentation of the egomaniacal and shame-based tendencies. Thanks to you and Beth.

  12. Tim M November 18, 2018 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    Thank you for writing this article. I went to a men’s retreat as a newcomer, and we discussed the idea of reminding newcomers of their accomplishments as well as their defects of character. I got a lot of push back because I was new. I was repeatedly told that it was my ego that kept me drinking.

    This article better discribes what I was ineffective at communicating. That some of us already suffer from an ego so low, that the lack of any self esteem is what we were chasing in the bottle.

    Thank you for this.

  13. Dan Lee November 18, 2018 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    Wonderul article.

    “I didn’t have a God-sized hole. I had a me-sized hole.” – this touched something in me and it resonated so deeply, I could feel the chills.

    I came to AA completely smashed – a dysfunctional/alcoholic home, boarding school, continuous emotional/verbal bullying and growing up gay in a violently homophobic society left me a shell of a young man. I was fortunate that the AA I found was very loving, gentle and accepting, though it was traditional, to a degree, AA. I latched on to the notion that some supernatural father figure loved me unconditionally, as my own had rejected me. And I had a sponsor who showed me complete acceptance (unconditional positive regard) when I revealed all my deep shame-laden, guilt-laden secrets, which allowed me to start healing.

  14. Charles G November 18, 2018 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    Arguably the most on point, relatable recovery post I have ever read. Thank you for articulating this so admirably. I hope this article reaches every corner of the 12-Step fraternity.

    A grateful member of Al-Anon.

    • kyo dee November 21, 2018 at 12:16 pm Reply

      Absolutely Beth, my sentiments exactly. A disease cannot be afforded new treatments w/o the changes necessary to do so, thus it should be with any program supporting it. Operating w/o anesthesia or meds for Diabetes would be unthinkable today. It’s time, past time, for updates in this 12 step program in order for the most people to be afforded the best recovery program.


  15. life-j November 18, 2018 at 10:06 am - Reply

    Thank you Reid. I guess I just ought to emphasize how much of this article was not my writing, but Beth’s. She put it together so well that in many parts I couldn’t see trying to re-write it in order to pretend I had written it myself. She really should have been credited as co-author.

  16. Pat N. November 18, 2018 at 10:05 am - Reply

    This is the most useful article I’ve read about recovery IN  AGES!  I intend to copy it out, highlight certain parts, and share it as widely as possible in AA. It’s largely my story, both before and after getting sober.

    About 3 years in, I was feeling like a hypocrite. I wasn’t drinking, I was active in AA service, I was starting to change what needed changing, but I was not “working the Steps”, because I found them trite/boring/poorly written/confusing/etc.  And I surely didn’t believe in some “God”. So how could I be sober?

    I suddenly realized that I had what I came for: I wasn’t drinking, I was starting to deal responsibly with life, and I was happier than I’d ever been. In other words, I was “working the program” after all. That’s when I realized that I didn’t need to believe what Bill W. or anyone else told me about the cause and cure of my alcoholism. It was the  Fellowship that came to my aid-the love, acceptance, hope, humor, practical ideas, compassion, inspiration, etc. that I saw in your lives and heard in meetings.

    That started me looking for better ideas than Bill’s, and led me to get active in the secular AA movement.  It eventually led me to meet folks like life-j, and I’m grateful beyond words.


  17. Reid B. November 18, 2018 at 9:50 am - Reply

    life-j, you have done so much work. Congratulations for seeing so much. I believe that I am uncovering, slowly, the same things you’ve detailed. The shame-based vs. ego based chart is gold.

    I have recently started going to ACA, Adult Children of Alcoholics/Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (their official name!). Just about everything that you mention in your two comparison charts has come up in the short (two months or so) time I’ve been going to their meetings. [I want to pause here to say that I had heard of them when I first got sober in AA 30 years ago. The name change and the relative acceptance of people who “lack” a belief in God or god, reflects a level of flexibility as “more is disclosed” from which AA could learn a thing or two.]

    AA and the “defects of character” language promotes the ideas behind the question, “What *wrong* with him (or her, or me)?” My life and recovery points to a more skillful and compassionate question: “What happened to him (or her, or me)?” When I first got into AA my question, “Why did I become alcoholic”? was met with a short list of answers. 1) Because you poured all that alcohol down your throat. If I asked, “Why did I pour all that alcohol down my throat?” the answer was: because you’re an alcoholic. Instead of that circular reasoning, the honest answer would have been, “We don’t actually know why people become alcoholic.” Now we know much more. See below.

    2) It’s not important why you became an alcoholic. What’s important is that you get and stay sober. Everything else will come into focus and resolution if you do that.

    Sadly, while I did stay sober (30 years and counting), I did not resolved the relationship (and deep codependency) issues that were essentially swept under the rug by me and with encouragement from many folk in AA with the above reasoning.

    But here’s the thing: At age 16 I had had a single sip of an alcoholic drink about two years prior — and had no “wow that was fantastic, I want some more” reaction to that sip of alcohol at age 14. At the start of the winter break of my junior year of high school I was on the A and B Honor Roll consistently, I was the managing editor of the school newspaper, the president of the student body, the most advanced string player in the school orchestra, the lead tenor in the school choir and chamber choir, and dating a well-like and pretty girl in my class. During that winter break, I went on a retreat with a clergyman, a Protestant minister and deacon, who sexually molested me. It turned my life upside down. Within 6 months of that event I had already had my first blackout drunk, was smoking cigarettes, and three semesters later graduated from high school only because the school made adjustments to my course load and graduation requirements. I received no meaningful therapy. I did tell my mother. Other mothers came down on my mom saying, “How dare you accuse that great man of this?” Amazing. We’ve come a long way since 1969.

    But! While alcohol and drugs were a big part of my coping mechanisms (I honestly think that without the relief of intoxication and euphoria they provided, I would have committed suicide), the real damage was in how I internalized how relationships work, what intimacy is, and what the role of sex is in an intimate relationship — something that AA had no opinion on as it’s an “outside issue” — and something I didn’t know was really dysfunctional until my whole world came crashing down about a year and a half ago.

    Here’s a link to what happens to folks who are sexually abused by clergy. It closely tracks the features of my life since age 16.

    And here’s a link to a New Yorker article by a successful writer who spells out eloquently the disconnect between sex and intimacy that rings close to my experience:

    And here’s a link to the ACE Study, which shows pretty clearly why the risk of addiction climbs higher with exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). This is the “more will be disclosed part.” Anybody claiming that we don’t know why people become alcoholics, drug addicts (same thing, IMO), or have process addictions (eating disorders, sex, gambling, workaholism) needs to get current. This is the best science on the subject to date.

    Anybody with a life history similar to mine needs a multi-faceted approach: 12-Step Groups, group therapy, and individual therapy.

    May all beings be happy, may all beings be at peace, may all beings be free from suffering.

  18. Rita Stima November 18, 2018 at 9:02 am - Reply

    Yes to it all! Great article.  A lot of what I heard at womens meetings over the years.  And I think shame is the number one take out over resentment the supposed offender.

  19. nancy w November 18, 2018 at 8:38 am - Reply

    Wow, the head of that nail just got blasted! I’ve often asked myself (when looking back on my childhood) just what I was rebelling against. Pretty middle-class upbringing-born in 1955; Dad worked (and drank too much), Mom stayed home (til 50, when she had her awakening and went to work) but did the martyr thing pretty good. So there were no beatings, physical anyway; but always hanging over my head – what would ____________ think????? And rebel I did, my story after 16 sounds just about the same. And I think about how I parented my daughter, wanting “the best” for her, no – demanding her best. What would “I” think if it was less??? Yikes.

    Anyway, I really like your interpretation of the steps and how lacking self-esteem makes us react and respond to the world. Your “shame” behaviors ring so true.

    I sure wasn’t expecting so much to chew on when I clicked the link for your article.  But thanks. I’ve  had several conversations with my daughter, who had been getting counseling, about what drives certain behaviors. My response was that no matter what “sins” from the past drove a behavior, it was my responsibility, as a sober grown-up, to alter that unkind or unpleasant behavior.  So thanks again, for shedding a bit of light on the past, and giving guidance on how to remedy the present.

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