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Responsibility vs. Control.

24 May 2012

Something that Syd said this morning about dry drunks made me think about the nature of feelings and how we respond to people. As a quick recap, in AA and Al-Anon we use the term “dry drunk” to refer to an alcoholic who is abstaining from alcohol, but who is not working any kind of program to deal with their internal selves, or in the vernacular of AA, to maintain their “spiritual condition”. Not that we need believe any supernatural phenomena occur (though most do), but that in order to be happy and serene and productive in our lives, we need to have a framework for the management of our core selves which comes from something other that ourselves. And it’s not important whether we think that thing is god, or the ‘spirit of the universe’, or the collective wisdom of the groups of AA, or any other thing. What’s important is that it isn’t us.

So, the stereotypical characteristic of a dry drunk is expulsive anger, and a refusal to take responsibility for their own emotions. And of course, once again I feel I must qualify that I do not believe that every alcoholic must either go to AA or be consigned to a drinking death or a miserable life of white-knuckled abstinence. However, my experience is that it I have found peace and serenity in the program of AA, and I have seen many people have refused to embrace AA and either have been unable to stop drinking or who have stopped drinking but remained miserable. I’m sure there are plenty of examples of different outcomes, but I have not personally encountered them.

Essentially, dry drunks exhibit all the characteristics of active alcoholics except for inebriation. That’s why we call them “dry”, but also “drunks”. The belief that other people’s actions have control and power over how they feel. That they are helpless to influence their own state of mind and mental and spiritual condition. As a result, they end up ceding an enormous amount of their own agency to other people, and feeling angry, depressed, wrathful and put-upon whenever they don’t get the responses they desire from others.

This is an inversion of how the program teaches me to confront my own emotions and responses. I cannot exert control over other people. So if I don’t get responses I desire, or actions I want, or behavior I think I’m entitled to, I may very well be upset about that. But that upset is internal to me. The other person didn’t cause it. Even if someone is deliberately hurtful to me, they do not have power over my feelings. My response is my own responsibility. My agency is just that: mine. I cannot control others, but I do have the ability to decide not to engage with others if I feel I am not interacting with them in a productive way.

When I start trying to insist that my way is correct and that others adopt it, or that my needs must be catered to, or even that my questions be answered, I am attempting to assert control over other people that I can never have. So if I am upset in those situations when I don’t get what I desired or expected, it’s my own fault. I’m responsible for how I feel. If someone refuses to acknowledge or agree that my way is correct, or will not answer a question I feel I am entitled to an answer for, my anger is still my own arena. They didn’t make me angry. Not even if I am legitimately entitled to the answer, or if I am objectively correct.

I do not have control over others. People can treat me badly, or indifferently, in ways that hurt me. But I do not have to give them power over my feelings. I am responsible. And that’s empowering. Because it gives me the capacity to be peaceful and serene even when other people would try to take that from me. Because one of the ways that many people try to control others is by assigning others blame for their own feelings. Then, demanding apology or insisting on some remedy is a way to force other people to give them what they want. I’m so glad I don’t have to play that silly junior high game anymore.

I treat people with respect and honesty, most of the time. When I fail in that, I apologize. But my feelings are my own. And I am only responsible for my own. Just as I cannot make anyone feel any particular way, nor does anyone have the power to make me feel good or bad. It is my reaction to a situation which governs how I feel. And more often than not, it is my choosing to stay in a situation in which I am unhappy which leads to my most serious disruptions of serenity.

I’m me. My feelings are mine. I can work with others to build things up, or I can strive with others and tear things down. But my feelings are still mine. No one but me is responsible for them, unless I choose to surrender control over my internal self to another. And I have learned how to not to do that. Just as I have learned not to accept responsibility for other people’s emotions when they try to assign it to me.

The program teaches me strength of self. Autonomy of feeling. Reliance on things greater than me to manage my condition. Relinquishment of impossible attempts control, but retention of personal responsibility. Acceptance of obligation when I do harm, but authority to decline liability for that which I cannot control. In other words, maturity.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 May 2012 17:07

    Thanks for this post. My friend who is 21 years sober is a miserable dry drunk. He rages, is negative and blames everyone else for his lot in life. Then, there are times when he can be kind and helpful. It is definitely the Jekyll and Hyde personality change. I know that his moods are not about me, and I am around him less and less because of the negativism. Yet, I feel sorry that he has diminished his participation in AA when it could help him if he would give himself to the program. He now finds everything wrong with AA–too many NA’s, no singleness of purpose, etc. Sad really.

  2. 29 May 2012 15:47

    wow, there are a lot of things I would like to respond to here, but for now I will limit myself to one question: If no one can “make you feel good or bad,” if no-one can influence your feelings, what on earth does a relationship with a woman have to offer you?

    • 29 May 2012 16:54

      What a very odd question. Not sure I understand. Obviously, I still react to stimuli, both emotional and physical. “Not able to make me feel good or bad” is in the larger sense: if I am continuously vexed by something, then eventually it’s my fault for continuing to participate.

      But more than that, I don’t feel that a relationship with a woman is about making each other feel things. It’s about lovingly collaborating on a life together. I participate in relationships because I value being part of them. Not because I can make the other person feel some way. If their emotional state is dependent on my actions, that’s a recipe for resentment.

  3. 31 May 2012 16:51

    Maybe I asked the wrong question – or maybe I didn’t exactly have a question. The idea of living a life wherein nobody can influence my emotional state is bizarre to me. In fact, I think it’s absolutely impossible, and not even desirable.

    It seems to me (and I might be totally wrong) that the state which you aspire to, a kind of eternal Zen mode existence, is antithetical to ordinary human interaction. If we want to have ordinary human relationships, we must accept that those relationships encompass emotional risk. Real risk, risk of being vulnerable, which means being affected.

    I worry about you creating an ideal which, by it’s very definition, excludes love.

    • 1 June 2012 06:41

      I 100% agree that a life in which no one can influence my emotional state is neither possible nor desirable. Which is why I never said or intended anything of the sort. I don’t know where you’re getting this Zen thing.

      It’s not what I meant to imply at all. I guess it’s better to talk off line about it. Text is clearly not doing the job.

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