Humility in Recovery and How to Develop It

Still Figuring It All Out
December 2, 2020
Evolution of the Alcoholic
December 22, 2020

Humility, Defense Mechanisms and the Creation of the False-Self

In relation to Twelve-Step philosophy, humility in recovery is considered a prized virtue and essential to the practice of both the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions.

Humility is difficult for most human beings and I doubt it can be practiced absolutely by many, if any of us. It requires a secure sincerity and integrated sense of oneself, a self-love, compassion and emotional maturity that’s often absent, particularly in those of us with a history of alcoholism and/or addiction.

Humility is simply having a realistic sense of oneself. A humble person accurately acknowledges both their strengths and limitations. These people have the capacity to be honest and without pretense in relation to themselves. They are “right-sized” and without false pride, arrogance, or importantly, low self-esteem. They are modest and without “ego”, they are authentic and real, and can admit to their vulnerability.

Humility in recovery is an essential foundation for a better life. For instance, it provides us with the willingness to surrender our ego and false pride. It also provides the courage to show our vulnerable side and admit to the problem of addiction. Humility gives us the willingness to ask for help and guidance from others and to practice trust beyond ourselves. It enables us to see the need for and to embrace change. Humility connects us to others through the expression of our humanity and is a bridge to freedom from our self-imposed isolation.

The Virtues Inherent to Humility and the 12 Steps

The virtues of self awareness, acceptance, and self-honesty, give us the courage and willingness to be vulnerable, to be truly humble. In other words, by working on these virtues we increase our capacity to be humble in our relationship with ourselves and others. However, if we lack self-awareness and self-acceptance we will also lack self honesty and therefore fail to be humble. We’ll be unable to show our true self to others, to be vulnerable, and will lack authenticity in our relationships. We will need to defend ourselves instead.

The 12 Steps all involve practices and principles that encourage the aforementioned virtues. They require the practice of humility, as well as develop it. The Steps involve:

  • admitting our limitations to ourselves and others
  • asking for help from outside of ourselves and seeking guidance
  • a willingness to accept, take responsibility for, and to admit our faults and weaknesses
  • the willingness to practice forgiveness
  • enthusiasm, courage and honesty to be vulnerable with others, and to make our amends
  • the spirit to practice faith and trust
  • and the willingness to be of help and of service to others

These are all humble actions, attitudes, and virtues that help us to grow in recovery and develop as human beings. Moreover, they reduce egotism and promote a healthy sense of oneself, and are therefore good for our relations with others and the world. Humility allows us to be honest, open-minded, and willing in our efforts to recover. These attitudes are the essential HOW that we need in recovery. Ultimately, when humble we are willing to seek and receive help, support, guidance and direction with our lives. We are not alone anymore.

The “Ego Defenses” That Prevent Humility

Denial, rationalization, minimization, projection, etc., are the unconscious “defense mechanisms” (see Psychoanalytical Theory) that diminish our capacity to be humble. These psychic or ego defenses promote and perpetuate the following defensive attitudes and behaviors that can be harmful to our recovery: dishonesty, arrogance, false pride, anger, aggression, criticism and being argumentative. In addition, they can also allow us to continue with our addiction, which in itself is a major defense strategy.

The feelings of shame, rejection, insecurity (emotional, physical and social), low self-worth, trauma, loss, and emotional wounding are why the ego is trying to defend itself. These are very painful states of being which create FEAR and its defenses or relations: anger, anxiety, self-centeredness, controlling behavior, dishonesty, depression, avoidance and social isolation. These shame and fear based defenses are attempts by the ego to protect itself. And, to escape the underlying painful states of being and related unbearable feelings.

The Creation of the “False-Self

According to the theory of Person-Centered psychology feelings of shame, rejection, and “conditions of worth” (parents, teachers, peers, and society’s values, beliefs and views), cause us to deny certain aspects of ourselves and our experience due to the innate human need for social approval. We view these parts of ourselves as below par to others. And, so develop false attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that we consider more socially acceptable. And, we create a “false-self” or “distorted self-concept” through the defense mechanisms of denial and distorting experience.

In doing so, we lose contact with our “true-self” through this process and can develop a false persona (people pleasing traits and behavior). In addition to false pride via our poor self-esteem and irrational beliefs. And, consequently lose our ability to be humble or real. We lose our integrity and become disconnected from our organic self, which causes anxiety and other associated mental health problems.

Often, but not always, people with a history of addiction have been abused, neglected and deeply wounded by others close to them. And so, have learnt to protect themselves against being open. They lack trust in others and in life. Therefore, are defensive and tend to push others away, often without even knowing. Their defenses are varied and can include all manner of shame and fear based behaviors. These are strategies for avoiding the underlying pain of their emotional wounds.

Applying Humility for Healing

Sadly, these defensive strategies often prevent connection and true intimacy with others, and result in a painful isolation and a feeling that life lacks meaning. Our underlying wounds and their defenses prevent humility and the capacity to connect with our more positive feelings as well.

The healing process is not an easy one. It is a long and difficult journey and requires a lot of drive and courage; as well as faith in our ability to be healed. The 12-Step recovery process can help guide us in this journey of healing our emotional wounds, and in letting go of unhelpful ego defenses, thereby regaining our capacity to be humble and real.

By Steve K.,

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the AA Cleveland District Office.