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Making it about Me.

9 December 2013

In AA, we’re taught to talk about our own experience. We find that when people go to active alcoholics, and talk to them about their drinking, the defensiveness immediately erupts and chances at honest and effective communication are rare. I’m not a big fan of interventions, as a concept. I’ve known lots of people who had them done. I don’t recall an alcoholic in recovery telling me that that had an impact on them except to harden them. I’m not saying they can’t work; I’ve just never heard of it.

Instead of approaching an active alcoholic and telling them what they need to do, we’re taught in AA to talk about our own experience. We tell them about how we drank. Why we drank. How we felt and then how we changed. What it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. What we’re like now. But telling our own stories, we don’t lay judgement on the alcoholic. In fact, we relieve it. Our own stories are usually as full of crime and bad acts and shame and humiliation and disease and degradation as the life they’re living today. In this way, we connect. Then, sometimes, the active alcoholic decides that they want what we have, and seeks change in their own life. And embarks upon the journey.

I’ve found this approach to be useful in communicating with people on all sorts of topics. I try not to tell people what to do, or how they feel, or how I think things should be done. I generally try to listen to them, and then think of an experience in my own life that is somewhat similar, or applicable, so that I can relate to what they’re sharing. Now, for a lot of topics, I don’t have anything. But most of the time, I think the human experience is broad and generalizable. I think that when we try, we can find things in our own lives that apply to another person’s experience.

But I’ve also found a problem with this approach. I take the approach so that I don’t step on a person’s experience or agency by telling them how they need to behave or feel. But when I try to relate by sharing my own experience, it risks them feeling that I am making the topic of conversation me instead of them. This is especially problematical in discussions where there are different levels of privilege.

Since I have about the highest level of privilege there is, sharing my own experience can be seen as entitled assumption. But the other way, talking about the other person’s perspective can be seen as dictating their experience. The simple answer is this: sometimes, I just have to shut up. Whether I’m talking about you or talking about me, I’m talking. Sometimes – and this is hard to fathom – a person isn’t interested in what I have to say on a topic, whether I frame it about me or about them. And that is their inviolable right.

However, I’m also allowed to have thoughts and opinions and motivations of my own. Once I’ve listened to someone, and accepted their perspective and their experience, it’s usually reasonable to offer my own experience as a way to connect to their understanding. After all, shared (or similar) experiences are one of the basic foundations of human connection. Then, if they ask for it, it might even be reasonable for me to offer advice or thoughts about how they can proceed, if I have anything relevant.

But many people have no interest in that. For many reasons. Sometimes, a person wants to share with no input at all, solely for their own sake. Sometimes, people are hostile, and will not accept any possibility of shared or similar experience. All of that’s fine. Everyone has the right to choose how they interact, or don’t interact, with other people. Active alcoholics especially tend to be very hostile towards advice. They are more receptive to shared experiences, usually, but not always. “You can’t understand me!” is a common and depressing phrase I’ve heard from a lot of people who have no desire to change their drinking.

But it’s generally none of my business who drinks and who doesn’t. My goal is not to drink. To understand the principles of sobriety. To apply them to my life. I hope to be understood. Most of us do. So when I listen, and then share about myself, I’m doing it as an attempt to find common ground so that I can understand the other party’s position and perspective, their life, better. Because I know it’s not about me; but finding connection matters to me. And a connection has two people in it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 December 2013 10:50

    I always share my experience, and if that is not the correct approach for someone, they can find someone else to talk to. Many people would prefer someone to “tell” them what to do. But long ago someone told me that we in AA don’t “tell” anyone what to do, we share our experience strength and hope. That is all I have to give.

    I remember my first sponsor talking endlessly about herself. I thought it was kind of rude. Later I realized that was exactly what I needed. I had been telling my own story in my head or to anyone who would listen for a long time. It was part of my illness, not my recovery. She had what I wanted, so I learned to listen to how she got it.

  2. Syd permalink
    12 December 2013 23:14

    This post seems to apply to the real world out there. Many people don’t want to listen or engage even in a thoughtful dialogue. More’s the pity.

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