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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Al
Al

The “what will people think?” That phrase, which was constantly hurled at me as a kid, was incomplete. My mother meant “what will people think of me as a mother?”.  So of course the rest of my life I’ve been at odds with the mainstream culture she hopelessly tried to please. F ’em: I don’t care what people think! Yet when I enter an AA meeting I say nothing about myself, or censor it heavily, because I am a non-thiest.  The thiests not only think but say all the rude judgmental things my mother feared. It’s totally deja vu and… Read more »

John S
John S

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… Read more »

life-j
life-j

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… Read more »

Joe K
Joe K

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… Read more »

life-j
life-j

Joe,

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
joe k

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!

Gerald
Gerald

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… Read more »

Stephanie R
Stephanie R

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… Read more »

Nancy W
Nancy W

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.