an alcoholic at the ripest point of a bender, and you'll
see a pretty complete demonstration of proven ways to
lose friends and alienate people.
anything he does, from talking too loudly to burning
holes in a hostess' carpet, is certain to bring disapproval
and rejection. Watching him, one could easily conclude
that the alcoholic just doesn't care about approval
and acceptance and seems able to live his own life without
regard for the opinions of others.
he does care, so deeply that it hurts. Alcoholics as
a group probably need approval more than most people.
And strange as it seems, the alcoholic's appalling behavior--the
very words and deeds that repel others--may be a twisted
result of his desperate search for approval.
may be this need for acceptance that creates a mounting
tension which can be released during a drinking escapade,
when the alcoholic is able to indulge himself in foolish
attention-getting acts that actually bring scorn down
upon his head. Perhaps there's even a negative index
working here, with the alcoholic who generates the most
rejection actually being the one who requires the most
it works, we're able to see in AA that the need for
approval is really a good thing gone sour. It can be
turned to good purpose if we recognize its potential
dangers and don't let it get out of hand. The AA founders
must have understood the dangers very well when they
developed the tradition of anonymity. The alcoholic's
swollen need for recognition is so great that it could
continue to be a problem even in sobriety. It's probably
the anonymity tradition, more than anything, which keeps
our members from competing with one another for AA honors
and for the front pages of the local newspaper.
also have a colorful language that helps keep things
in proportion. The "Big Ego" is the alcoholic
who is always seeking to be recognized for what he really
wishes he could be. "Big Shot-itis" is a similar
affliction, the ailment of the blusterer and the swaggerer.
The "Bleeding Deacon" is the AA old-timer
who feels he is being overlooked and ignored by the
ungrateful people he lovingly sponsored at so much personal
sacrifice. Those simple terms remind us of our constant
susceptibility to the need for approval, and they are
especially amusing because most of us will admit that
the "Big Ego" and "Big Shot-itis"
can be located within ourselves.
Alcoholics Anonymous would simply be acting negatively
if it curbed inordinate glory-seeking without recognizing
that the individual's need for approval must have some
kind of expression. If an AA group is functioning properly,
it should be giving the individual the kind of acceptance
and approval that will make up for the deficiencies
in his past life and the rejections he still finds elsewhere.
It should be freely given to anyone; nobody should have
to compete for approval in AA anymore than he should
have to compete for air to breathe and water to drink.
the same time, we won't find much relief from this tyrannizing
need for approval until we understand it more and can
see how it operated so destructively in our own lives.
Much of our insane behavior while drinking is understandable
when we come to see how we were being driven by a compulsive
need to be admired and accepted. AA's Twelve Steps offer
a means of bringing this compulsive need under control;
more about that later.
did the alcoholic get to be so approval-starved in the
first place? Many of the professionals who study alcoholism
point to the early rejections the alcoholic received
from his family. The alcoholic's parents may have been
over-indulgent or overly abusive, but in either case
they failed to assure him that he was truly loved and
wanted. Perhaps he also caught the idea that he had
to succeed or to measure up to certain high standards
in order to merit approval. The standards may have been
far beyond his capacities of the moment and he may have
failed to reach them. On the other hand, perhaps he
did reach them temporarily and still felt insecure.
Whether he succeeds or not, such an individual already
has a problem because he is really seeking a kind of
approval which should not have to be earned. A
possible term for it is "genuine self-approval."
seeking of approval of ourselves, proper self-esteem,
is an endless task. Mark Twain wrote, "We can secure
other people's approval, if we do right and try hard;
but our own is worth a hundred of it, and no way has
been found of securing that." Perhaps this explains
why so many people have been unable to find true happiness
even with the world at their feet. One current example
is a noted playwright who is in almost constant mental
agony though he has had more success than almost anybody
in his field ever had. A few years ago, a beautiful
actress committed suicide at the height of her popularity;
fame and the admiration of millions had not given her
real contentment and genuine self-approval. There are
hundreds of other examples, both currently and in past
history, of individuals who received the world's approval
but were unable to translate this into self-approval.
These tragic examples show us that we're seeking more
than the applause and admiration of others; we want
to know within ourselves that we are adequate, worthy,
and that we share a certain equality with the rest of
probably why parents' feelings are of such extreme importance
in the growth of the individual. If a person is truly
loved and wanted as a child, he is already headed for
a happy and successful life. He will probably grow into
maturity with the kind of self-esteem that will sustain
him in all kinds of situations. But if he doesn't have
this, he may run into serious trouble, and alcoholism
is only one of the many forms it can take.
adults cannot return to infancy and grow up again on
a better basis, what is the answer for the person who
recognizes his problems and wants to do something about
them? He may realize that his early environment was
an emotional shambles, and part of his problem may be
a hatred of his parents for "short-changing"
him. How is he going to grow into real self-approval
and find the kind of maturity that others acquire more
process seems to begin with inventory, embodied in five
of AA's Twelve Steps. If a person takes a thorough inventory
and puts aside all fear of looking into the dark corners
of his own motives, he'll soon see how the need for
approval led to foolish and troublesome behavior. Its
forms were common, and they included such things as
lying about one's accomplishments to casual acquaintances
in bars, or setting up drinks for everybody in the house
while the bills were going unpaid at home. Showing-off,
fighting, boasting, promiscuity--all are twisted expressions
of the "Big Ego" and "Big Shot-itis."
Most of the time, this kind of behavior leads to grief
and ruin for the person who practices it. It is probably
well that it does, for otherwise there would be no check
on such behavior.
is needed, however, than mere inventory if a person
is ever to grow into real self-approval. The AA Steps
beyond inventory include seeking spiritual power in
daily living and making an attempt to help others. It's
been said over and over in AA that Higher Power helps
people to do things that previously seemed impossible.
We've never been able to prove by reason alone that
such a Power exists, but we do know that something does
happen when a person believes that God exists and is
active in his own life. It may be that a true spiritual
experience, more than anything, serves to repair the
deficiencies of the early years.
are not the only people who grow up out of joint with
themselves and the world. There have been countless
individuals who faced the same problem, and most of
them never overcame it. Now and then, however, a person
with everything against him has had a wonderful spiritual
awakening that made everything right again. Something
like that happened with the people who started AA, but
it wasn't anything new. It's happened thousands of times
in a variety of ways. Interestingly enough, many of
the subjects in William James's Varieties of Religious
Experience were approval-starved souls who finally found
themselves through contact with a Higher Power, God
as they understood Him.
final thing we can do to find genuine self-approval
is to give approval and help to others. There's no surer
way to cure a streak of self-condemnation than to get
out and share with others. If we seek approval and help,
we have to learn to give it and to acknowledge the real
worth of others. This idea might be stated in a paraphrase
of the Golden Rule: "Therefore the approval that
you would have men give to you, give also to them, for
this is the way it works."
a person has won the battle for self-approval, it's
surprising how much easier it becomes to gain the approval
of others. At the same time, however, there's less need
for social approval when an individual learns to like
himself in the right way and to feel that he has a place
in the world. He appreciates the good opinions of others
but he is not a slave to them. He has at least learned
that what he is does not depend on what other people
chance to think he is. The applause and accolades of
the world are sweet and wonderful, but they do not really
satisfy man's deep hunger for self-approval. He needs
to find within himself a person he can really like.
Such a person awaits discovery within ever