The Role of Ego in Recovery

When sober people gather, we often start to speak a different language.

“He’s one of us” means someone is an alcoholic, whether or not in recovery.  Someone who “went back out” has relapsed. “Normies” are drinkers who are not addicted.

There are dialects to this language, depending on program influences. For example, people in AA often refer to themselves as “friends of Bill W”, and call quitting without a program “white knuckling”. Meanwhile, people in SMART Recovery use a lot of acronyms such as CBA (cost-benefit analysis), DIBs (disruptive irrational beliefs), and REBT (rational emotive behavioural therapy). AA uses acronyms too, but they are more to remember helpful cliches rather than therapy tools (“YET: You’re Eligible Too”, “KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid”, “ODAAT: One Day at a Time”.

Usually these phrases, words, acronyms and cliches are clear and helpful. One word, however, can give us some trouble: EGO.

Ego

Most people (normies, that is) equate ego with vanity and narcissism, considering it to be a negative quality. Recovery puts a more complicated twist on those three little letters: e, g, o. Given that the main difference between AA and SMART recovery is powerlessness vs empowerment, respectively, it only makes sense that each would have a different take on the concept of ego.

AA offers another acronym to illustrate its perspective on ego: Edging God Out. Ego is that part of us that is deeply affected by addiction – pushing God away by simultaneous feelings of pride (“I can handle things just fine on my own”) and shame (“I don’t deserve help from God”). The program is based on this chasm between us and God as being the void we try to fill with alcohol – a spiritual sickness that our addiction leverages to sustain itself. The 12 steps work to address the ego, admitting powerlessness and handing things over to a Higher Power – a process that brings healing and insight.

On the other hand, SMART Recovery looks at ego in more psychoanalytical terms. It is our self-awareness and identity, something we can harness and use to drive change. Ego is who we are, not what we do. This program focuses understanding the connection between thoughts and behaviours, working to understand why we have over-invested in maladaptive coping strategies and creating new ways to respond to our environment. Making these changes means using the ego rather than overcoming it, while assessing whether the self is being influenced by irrational beliefs or fears.

My goal here isn’t to show one perspective as being better than the other, but rather that we have to understand the very different premise of both pathways in order to make sense of what sometimes feels like mixed messages. Both programs champion abstinence and connecting with community. They have the same goals but take different routes to arrive. Each has something to offer and some find one fits better than the other for them. Many, like myself, make use of both as resources and have friends in both programs. This is where the language can overlap, where patience and understanding must come into play.

Ego kept me drinking, it’s true. I felt too proud to ask for help, and believed I couldn’t possibly be addicted to alcohol – that was for “other” people. That is the ego that AA speaks of, the prideful mind that causes destruction by attempting to hold power.

Yet it was also ego that got me sober by whispering, “I can change, I can make this happen!” It was self-awareness and self-respect that helped me press on – something SMART Recovery advocates identify as an “internal locus of control”. Ego served me well, in that case.

I admit that sometimes the ego-cliches frustrate me. It can be a “garbage can” phrase that serves as a catch-all for aspects of willfulness, arrogance, pride. But we have to remember that things aren’t always as they seem. If someone is offended by criticism, what appears as injured pride could easily be self-protection from the opening of an old wound – such as a painful childhood memory resurfacing. To brush that off as mere ego would be a missed opportunity to heal and grow.

So do we feed the ego or annihilate it? I think the answer lies in being gentle with ourselves and others. Understanding the many facets of and uses for ego helps us know ourselves better. The question I am learning to ask, regardless of recovery pathway embraced, is “what’s really going on here?” The acronyms, cliches, theories, and memes are simply tools to help us better answer that essential question.

Back up, reassess, move forward differently. That is recovery.

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13 comments

  1. I never found a SMART recovery meeting in my area, but would have enjoyed them I think. (don’t feel smart enough for those acronyms, though!) This was a handy little breakdown. Appreciate the overview and how they both work towards a common goal.

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    • SMART recovery has a superb reputation with my clients who have used it. I like its simplicity as well as its informative nature (I think the client workbooks are bloody excellent). I would highly recommend them Kristen.

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  2. AA helped me understand that I could no longer control my drinking, I cried ‘uncle’ , admitted defeat, in AA terms ‘admitted I was powerless over alcohol.’ In recovery, that powerlessness turned into the power to choose and commit to a life of sobriety, and taking back control. All in how you look at it. Use whatever means that gets you to the end result.

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  3. I take a different view.
    My ego is my inner child. It want my attention. For years i ignored her and so she grew angry and mean, like a child trying to get attention by misbehaving.

    Instead, I show her unconditional love. When I feel insecure, I love her. When I am jealous. I love her. And always things feel better. Less like the world is against me. And life becomes simpler.

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  4. When I first started trying to quit drinking, I went to an AA meeting and I found the whole idea of powerlessness to be demoralizing….after all I wanted to take my power back, not give up more of myself.
    It’s taken me time to realize that my personal experiences (I was in a long term abusive marriage) make it so I needed to first focus on self care and healing my ego so I could comfort my fears and begin to believe that I do have the power within me to live as a happy, whole, sober woman.
    Now, after some healing, I do see a lot of value in the concept of surrender, which for me meant accepting that I can’t drink, period.
    I do think that sometimes, some people in AA can be a little dogmatic and don’t leave room for other ideas or consider that many people have various comorbid issues along with drinking that can’t all be a dressed the exact same way.
    I think that in getting sober I’ve had to surrender some parts of my self/ego while nurturing other parts. It’s a balance. I’m keeping my mind open.
    Jenn

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  5. Being gentle to ourselves is the most important thing. I am still learning how to be kind to myself. My ego prevents me from it. Most of the time. That ego of mine whispers “You are a big girl, you should be able to …(fill in the blanks.) And I end up burning out because I am constantly trying to prove to myself that I can stop drinking and never look back. It doesn’t work that way. At least not with me.

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    • It’s frustrating to feel that way. Here is where you may decide that if the empowered “I can do it” path isn’t working, then embracing the opposite path by admitting powerlessness (Step 1 of the 12 Steps) may come as a great relief.

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  6. Love this- twelve step programs lump many things under ‘ego’, and when I was in counseling I was told that most things I was categorizing under ‘ego’ was in fact healthy self esteem. I think ego is overused and misunderstood by many in the twelve step community. This is important for women especially, for most women don’t have ego problems, often it is quite the opposite.

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  7. Yeah, somehow in the last years the term ‘healthy ego development’ has been chucked away. Everything ‘ego’ is generally called ‘bad’. It is my personal believe that all what we have been given is usefull in survival and procreation one way or the other. Balancing would be key, gheghegheghe. (Whoops, problem nr 1 encountered…. )

    I’m thinking we have been given an ‘ego’ (if such a thing even exists separately from our other traits….) to forward ourselves in this world, to go out and get that job we like, to introduce ourselves to the new boss, to the girl/boy we like, to want to excel at something. All very healthy, normal activity. Only when we unbalance, think that the job we are good in replaces our personality and is the way to gain love or acceptance, we get into trouble. So I am guessing when AA speaks of ego it speaks of the unhealthy ego and when SMART does so it focusses more on calling forward the healthy, well developed ego / parts of the character.

    xx, Feeling

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