Criticisms of Recovery - Part 2
by Dale S. Ryan
In the last issue of STEPS I
discussed the most insensitive, intransigent and personally painful
kind of resistance to recovery - our own resistance. We tend to be our
own worst critics. We resist the changes most tenaciously. In most
cases we fight it, reject it, hate it - probably more than anyone
It is often true, however, that the recovery journey takes us through
territory that is either ambivalent towards or downright hostile to
recovery. Recovering codependents, for example, may find that some
people prefer the 'good old days' when they were more compliant and
self-sacrificing. Unpleasant emotions, once medicated with addictive
substances or processes, may be experienced as threats to
relationships that have adapted over the years to the insanity of
addiction. Some people in recovery experience hostility when they
start telling the truth in social systems which have been committed to
silence for generations. Other people experience shame and rejection
when people are skeptical about or merely uncomfortable with the
changes that recovery brings.
Recovery is about change and most of us will encounter resistance when
change produces new and unfamiliar behaviors. It is not reasonable to
expect that all of the changes which take place during recovery will
be received with rejoicing as if they were 'answers to prayer'.
Resistance and Rejection
Most of the resistance we encounter in recovery will be personal and
painful. Even when resistance comes in the form of intellectualized
'arguments' against recovery, it may feel like personal assault rather
than dispassionate analysis. For example, suppose someone says:
"You can't change the past, so you should focus on the
positive." This may make some intellectual sense to you. It may
'ring true.' It might, indeed, be good advice at this particular stage
of your recovery. But for many people it may also feel like a profound
dismissal of their struggle towards sanity. The key to sorting out
confusing stuff like this is not the truth or falsehood of "you
should focus on the positive". What is critically important is
the tone of voice in which you hear "you should focus on the
positive". Is the tone practical and understanding? Or is it
shaming and dismissing? Do I feel rejected as a person when I hear
I have found it very helpful when I am confused about a critique of
recovery to ask myself questions both about the content of the
criticism and about the 'tone' of the criticism. What tone of voice do
I hear when I hear the critique? Sometimes I can identify a specific
person's voice in how I hear negative comments about recovery. It may
be that understanding how you experience a criticism - it's tone and
'feel' - will be as important to your response as the content of the
The Anti-recovery Backlash
Few of us need additional criticism. So, why focus on criticisms of
recovery? Well, it might not be a good time for you to do this. At
some stage of the recovery process, however, taking the time to think
through predictable criticisms may help you to sort out the confusion
more easily when someone criticizes your recovery. The point is not to
try to be so 'educated' about recovery that you can 'argue'
effectively with people in denial. There just isn't any mileage in
that. There is, however, some benefit in disciplining your
intellectual capacity so that it can support your recovery.
Over the last year I have read most of the popular books of the 'antirecovery'
genre. The Top Ten Reasons Not To Work On Your Recovery list is a very
brief summary of the kinds of criticisms which people hostile to
recovery make about recovery. It is NOT the purpose of this short
article to provide you with intelligent responses to these criticisms.
It is, rather, my hope that you will spend time struggling with these
criticisms and that, in the process, you will learn to trust more
deeply your capacity to think through criticisms of this kind. It is
my hope that you will learn to trust your instincts about 'content'
and 'tone' more deeply. You are not stupid. You can think through
things that seem very confusing at first!
Responding to Resistance
I'm not sure that I have any general advice about how to respond to
criticisms of recovery. Each instance is so unique. There are,
however, a couple of things that come to mind:
First, some criticisms of recovery, even when published by
distinguished folks with scholarly credentials, are just 'cheap shots'
- critiques that are uninformed about the realities of the recovery
process. The best example of this from the Top-Ten List, I suppose, is
'recovery is simple minded.' It is, dare I say it, a simple minded
criticism. (I know that sounds like 'I know you are, so what am I?',
but I enjoyed writing it!) It is true, of course, that many of us
desperately needed to learn to 'keep it simple'. One way the addictive
process sustains itself is to make things so complicated that no one
can possibly figure out what's really going on. Because of that kind
of confusion, recovery necessarily involves getting back to basics.
There is a sense in which Martin Luther got it right when he said
"To progress is always to begin again." (Martin Luther,
Lectures on Romans). I suppose 'tell the truth' might sound
simple-minded to some people. It seems like a pretty simple thing.
And, in theory, I suppose, it is. It has been my experience, however,
that becoming the kind of person who has a capacity for the truth is a
very difficult and complicated process. Recovery may be about simple
things, but that doesn't make recovery simple minded.
Second, some criticisms of recovery are fundamentally misguided even
though they may contain elements of truth. Most people in recovery
recognize that there is some danger of excessive self-focus in
recovery. That's part of the reason, of course, that the 12th Step of
the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous involves a disciplined effort to
'take the message to others'. Sobriety, like any kind of recovery
journey, can't be sustained without an outward focus. A kind of
disciplined narcissism may, however, be a necessary part of early
recovery - particularly for people in recovery from trauma or abuse.
Someone who has spent 30 years disciplining themselves not to pay
attention to their feelings, their bodies or their memories, may not
be able to break these habits without a very disciplined season of
self-focus. It will certainly not look like a 'healthy balance' of
self- and other- focus. Narcissism is not one of the goals of
recovery, but an appropriate, disciplined self-focus will be a
necessary part of the process for many people.
I encourage you to spend time with each of the kinds of resistance to
recovery listed in the Top-Ten List. Ask yourself:
- Does this criticism have any truth
- Does this criticism have any
specific relevance to where I am right now in my recovery journey?
- If this criticism has some
relevance to my personal recovery, is it okay for my recovery to
be imperfect or do I have to get this right too?
- When I read this criticism, what
tone of voice do I hear?
- If what I hear is shame, what do I
I think it is likely that each of the criticisms of recovery on the
Top-Ten List will be baptized with Christian vocabulary and presented
as 'Christian' critiques of recovery. So, it makes sense to give some
thought to these criticisms now - you may see them again! In the next
issue of STEPS I'll look at some of the forms of resistance to
recovery that are most common in the Christian community. The
Christian community may not be more resistant to recovery than the
culture as a whole, but the religious reinforcement of denial can pose
some unique obstacles to Christians in recovery.
Top Ten Critiques of Recovery
- Recovery is simple minded
We should worry about the willingness
of so many to believe that the answers to existential questions can
be encapsulated in the portentous pronouncements of bumper-sticker
books. Kaminer p 7
- Recovery makes mountains out of
the term "victimization,"
like addiction, has come to describe incidents that were previously
considered accidents, misunderstandings, or the normal ups and downs
of life. Katz and Liu, p 30
- Recovery is authoritarian
The self-help tradition has always
been covertly authoritarian and conformist, relying as it does on a
mystique of expertise, encouraging people to look outside themselves
for standardized instructions on how to be, teaching us that
different people with different problems can easily be saved by the
same technique. It is anathema to independent thought. Kaminer p 6
- Recovery encourages
I have done all these terrible things
and hurt all these people, the program follower learns to say, and I
am dreadfully sorry, but it wasn't really me doing it --it was this
addiction, this disease over which I had no control Katz p 47.
People are active agents in - not passive victims of - their
addictions. Peele p 3.
- Recovery is too religious
Although the literature about recovery
from addiction and codependency borrows heavily from family systems
theory and seems, at first, an offshoot of pop psychology, it's
rooted most deeply in religion. . . .More than they resemble group
therapy, twelve-step groups are like revival meetings, carrying on
the pietistic tradition. Kaminer p 3
- Recovery encourages narcissism
Recovery gives people permission
always to put themselves first, partly because it doesn't give them
a sense of perspective on their complaints: parental nagging is not
the equal of physical abuse and deprivation, much less genocide;
vague intimations of unease are not the same as cancer. No one seems
to count her blessings in recovery. Kaminer p 27
- Recovery encourages people to
find their identity in negatives
One of the hallmarks of poor mental
health is the tendency to view oneself in the bleakest terms
possible. Yet most self-help groups insist that the only way to deal
with a problem is to adopt it as your primary identity. Katz and Liu
- Recovery fails to distinguish
degrees of trauma
The failure to acknowledge that there
are hierarchies of human suffering is what makes recovery and other
personal development fashions "selfish" and narcissistic.
Kaminer p 27.
In most cases, no matter how bad the
addiction seems at the time, people recovery from such a phase
without mishap when they move on to the next stage in their lives.
Peele p. 149
- Recovery expects weak people to
help each other
Relations that are based on mutual
weakness cannot serve as sources of strength or enrichment.
Unfortunately, self-help groups breed just this kind of connection.
Katz and Liu p 56
Peele, Stanton, Diseasing of America: Addiction Treatment Out of
Control, Lexington Books(D.C.Heath & Co) 1989
Katz, Stan J. and Aimee E. Liu, The Codependency Conspiracy,
Warner Books, 1991
Kaminer, W., I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, Addison
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