Ego Reduction and Surrender
Having been sober in AA for a while, I was encouraged to read some other AA literature as well as the Big Book. One of my favourites is ‘AA Comes of Age’. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, it is about the 20th Anniversary Convention of AA in St Louis and the special event of Bill and Dr Bob handing over the Three Legacies of Recovery, Unity and Service to the General Service Conference. It is a fascinating, essential and important history book of the development and early days of AA.
It also contains some addresses to the Convention by some early non-alcoholic friends of AA. One of particular interest is by Dr Harry Tiebout, a prominent psychiatrist in the field of alcoholism at the time. He had presented an early copy of the book Alcoholics Anonymous to a patient he had been working with – up until then – to little avail. The effect of this book on the patient was remarkable and led the psychiatrist to develop some specific ideas about the effects of ego on the alcoholic. Dr Tiebout talks in his address about ego reduction and being ‘cut down to size’. He was convinced that reduction of the ego was essential to the recovery of alcoholics.
Talking about his experience of the early days he says, “I heard of the need to hit bottom, of the necessity for accepting a Higher Power, of the indispensability of humility. These were ideas which had never crossed my professional horizon and certainly had never influenced my non-professional thinking or attitudes. Revolutionary as they were, they nevertheless made sense, and I found myself embarked on a tour of discovery”.
These ideas certainly make sense to me. Until I was beaten, there was no way I was going to do anything about recovering. When my ego was sufficiently deflated by my inability to stay sober on my own resources, I could begin to take the actions required to get sober. As Bill says in the 12 & 12,”All of AA's Twelve Steps ask us to go contrary to our natural desires… they deflate our egos.” Taking this further, if we look at the Traditions, maintaining ego deflation is again an essential part of their function in maintaining Unity. “They bring the individual down to earth and present him with the facts of reality. They say, ‘Pay heed to the teachings of experience or you will court disaster.’” But Dr. Tiebout makes two other important observations about the ego. One is that “a return of the fully fledged ego can happen at any time. Years of sobriety are no insurance against its resurgence.” “The assumption that one has all the answers, and the contrary, that one needs to know no answers, but just to follow AA, are two indicators of trouble. In both cases open mindedness is notably absent.” “The ego’s capacity for rebirth is utterly astounding and must never be forgotten.”
His second observation is that surrender is a disciplinary experience. It says to the ego “No, you cannot continue,” the alcoholic has surrendered and says, “I quit. I give up my headstrong ways. I’ve learned my lesson.” “Thy will, not mine, be done.” Tiebout goes on to say, “The spiritual point, at that moment, is a reality. We have become members of the human race.”
This coincides exactly with my own experience. I found my own surrender was made easier by hearing the solution. When I heard that I could take actions to recover, the admittance of defeat became quite easy to accept. I surrendered to a solution and when I asked someone to sponsor me and started to take the actions suggested, I began to experience that unique freedom from ego. As I worked through the Twelve Steps, I began to have a spiritual awakening. I began to feel I was a part of this world. I had no idea that ego was such a burden until I began to lose it. However, I have also experienced that resurgence of the ego. The ideas that I knew best, that I did not need to keep doing the things that got me sober, that maybe my sponsor did not need to know how I felt about some people and some things, began to take over my thinking. Before long, I was thinking of AA as a burden, my ego had returned and I was in full flight from reality once again. Thankfully, instead of leaving I talked to my sponsor who was able to help me get back on track.
Dr. Tiebout goes on to say that AA can never be just a miracle, a single act of surrender. “That ego will return unless the individual learns to accept a disciplined way of life, which means that a tendency for ego comeback is permanently checked.” There is much more than I have talked about here. AA Comes of Age is full of useful information which can lead to a fuller and more rewarding understanding of this programme and how AA works. As I learn more about the nature of my illness and the wonders of the solution, my faith in my Higher Power becomes deeper and more real.
As the Big Book says, “We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities.” When I do this my ego is cut down to size and I can enjoy the miracle of being sober.
Chris S, Road to Recovery, Plymouth, Dec 2010
Quotes from ‘AA Comes of Age’ unless otherwise stated.