Monday, May 14, 2007


My last treatment program supervisor once characterized himself as "King-Baby" before he got clean and sober. One moment he would behave in a grandiose manner, believing he was superior to everyone around him, demanding perfection from them, and acting as if he were entirely self-sufficient. But at another moment, filled with resentment and self-pity, he would be having a tantrum because he felt others were not responding positively to his demands.

Both the King and the Baby were defense mechanisms to cover up painful feelings of shame and low self-worth. The King and the Baby enabled him to deny his need for intimacy and attachment. As long as he continued to drink, his false self kept those painful feelings at bay.

Treatment and participation in AA provided a safe holding environment to manage such feelings when he no longer had alcohol to push them away. With the help of his sponsor and others in the program, he was able to contain the negative, destructive impulses which had done so much harm when he was drinking. But the feelings themselves did not go away.

That did not happen until he had been sober several years. Then he fell in love with a woman who was capable of being in a healthy and healing relationship. She admired and encouraged him. She valued his recovery. At the same time she was clear about her boundaries and her unwillingness to be treated badly by him.

This relationship was very healing for him. It gave him the opportunity to experience and internalize a positive sense of himself that had been lacking in his childhood. Although several fourth and fifth steps had given him an understanding of the reasons for his feelings of shame and inadequacy, this understanding did not change them. It was the emotional engagement with his wife that ultimately dissolved those feelings.

Over the years I have learned that insight is rarely, if ever, an agent of change. Indeed, I have come to conclude that insight is usually the result of change. And change comes only when a person is willing to take the risk of being emotionally engaged. When we are emotionally engaged with someone, our old patterns of attachment are activated. When that happens, we are presented with an opportunity for a new experience that can heal the old dysfunctional pattern. But we have to be willing to take the risk.

1 comment:

therapydoc said...

There's a difference between primary and secondary change. In the first, a person makes a choice for himself. In the second, the choice is for someone else. Guess which one sticks?