Not a Good Way, Part 2: Relationships & Reactions

By Christopher Dale 06/25/15

The second installment of an ongoing self-exploration process made possible by AA. 

Christopher Dale

In the first entry of this two-part article, I discussed my desperate need to be accepted by other people in the period before and during active alcoholism. I was a classic people pleaser—at least until my disease progressed to the sort of inevitable, no-way-to-hide-this-in-plain-sight-anymore isolation that only addicts know.

I then discussed how, in sobriety, I slowly stopped allowing the opinions of others to affect me in such unhealthy ways. In fact, I learned to largely shrug off the uninvited insights of others save for a select few: my wife, my boss, my AA inner circle. Basically, people who I either need to keep on my good side or are a crucial part of my continued personal growth.

I chose to write a second installment of this piece because somewhere between pandering to people and mostly dismissing them lies an important truth, part of an ongoing self-exploration process that Alcoholics Anonymous made possible by teaching me the simple concept of honesty.

That truth is this: I am not a people person.

In sobriety, my former forced gregariousness—the hard-drinking, back-slapping partier who was always up for an adventure—seems so foreign to me as to be nearly unrecognizable. As I’ve learned more about exactly what makes me tick—an under-promoted aspect of the 12 steps for which I am unfailingly grateful—I gradually realized that, in terms of interpersonal relationships, my true, sober self is a stark yin to my former, sick self’s yang. I can’t relate at all to that poseur schmuck—further proof that this program works.

The fact that I’m not a traditional people person, of course, is by no means an earth-shattering admission. Plenty of people are introverts.

I’ve come to think that my personality, however, ranges a few steps further than the typical introvert. And it is here where I start to wade into potentially controversial waters in a program that teaches tolerance and acceptance.

Specifically: I don’t really like that many people.

I don’t hate people, of course. I don’t wish them harm, or take delight in their misfortunes—something my former self certainly did. I just happen not to be a fan of very many people, and am generally disinterested in dealing with most individuals on anything more than a courteous or professional surface-level. This holds especially true for individuals outside the Fellowship of AA, probably because recovering alcoholics almost always have something to offer each other, whereas most other relationships are far less symbiotic. Before I dig myself a deeper hole here, let me temper this revelation by clearly stating that I am not some sort of hermit. In fact, I think my general disinterest in most people actually strengthens those relationships I deem truly valuable. My inner circle is exactly that: a small core of close friends, family members and, of course, fellow recovering alcoholics who I truly admire, respect and love.

So no, I’m no hermit. Curmudgeon maybe, but no hermit.

It would be wondrous—and perhaps more palatable—if I could wholeheartedly grab the hands of my fellow man and sing "Kum Ba Yah." I just can’t… it’s not in me. Doing so would be just as forced now as it was when I was drinking, except that I wouldn’t be able to anesthetize or lie to myself in the process.

Assuming this isn’t some sort of mid-range sobriety phase, what I’m left with is treating my uber-introvertedness (read: I’d rather be left alone) like any other reality-based situation that doesn’t exactly please me.

Namely, I have to accept it, and learn to adapt to it.

This point, like so many others amid a sensitive subject where honesty can be mistaken for obnoxiousness, requires a side conversation before further elaboration. An argument can be made that a major facet of the acceptance-promoting Serenity Prayer is that some things, through courage, are worth trying to change. At face value, this option seems perfectly reasonable because, after all, it is through the 12 steps that we change our character defects and learn to live a productive life.

Like other tricky situations, the key here lies in the wisdom to tell the difference between a situation that warrants change and one that simply must be accepted. Character defects such as anger, fear, egoism, dishonesty and arrogance all clearly fall into the liabilities column that can—and must—be diminished and, as much as humanly possible, vanquished by working the program.

But being generally disinterested in most people? Finding them by turns boring, silly, lazy, or somewhat annoying? That’s not a character defect, but rather a natural reaction based on personal preference. It’s not them, it’s me… and that’s perfectly OK.

Of course, sometimes it is them. Sometimes my standoffishness is in reaction to other people’s character defects—glaring flaws that I don’t have interest in (or any real business) addressing, let alone associating with or mimicking. These two scenarios have this in common: I didn’t get sober to be phony; as I mentioned earlier, I find my former phoniness highly distasteful. Fraudulence ranks among my least desirable traits.

The Truth About Taking Others’ Inventories

Neither I nor anyone else can refrain from taking the inventory of others—of pretty much everyone we meet, in fact. In turn, we naturally use these judgments to determine which people we want to spend significant time with and, conversely, which we do not. As guilty as it sometimes makes me feel, I seem to deem a lower percentage of people worthy of investment—of time, of energy, of concern—than most others do. I’m coming to realize that this is simply who I am.

There are consequences to not realizing this truth about myself until my mid-30s. My newfound self-awareness has come with cumbersome baggage in the form of friends I either never should have made or with whom I never should have been as close. This is, as any recovering alcoholic will concur, a typical aspect of getting sober; we can’t hang out in bars with our drinking buddies anymore and expect to stay dry. My case, however, is a bit different. I really didn’t have drinking buddies; exactly none of my friends fell into the “had to go” category in terms of directly impacting my sobriety. That said, the numerous “friendship fades” I’ve pulled share a common, more personal denominator: my noticing traits in friends that I found deal-breakingly unattractive, especially when compared to the upstanding, altogether good people I’ve befriended in the Fellowship. I haven’t dropped friends out of fear they’d make me drink; I’ve dropped friends because I honestly don’t like them anymore, as cruel as that may sound.

Part of this awkward, potentially offensive purge is, ironically, AA’s fault. As my life continues to fill up with blessings beyond my wildest dreams—a healthy, fully restored marriage; a fulfilling, upwardly mobile career; physical fitness through exercise; this blog-writing gig—time becomes increasingly precious. So even though downsizing the number of people I consider “close” certainly suits my personality, it probably would have been necessary even if it didn’t. Consider it a bonus.

There are other benefits, it turns out, to not particularly liking too many people. For starters, the same guy who, pre-sobriety, was the office gossip has, in my newest job (which has basically spanned my 3+ years of sobriety), mastered the art of professional distance. Though certainly courteous, I’m not someone who joins coworkers for lunch or, of course, happy hour. I come to work to work, and my colleagues respect me for it. But by far, the greatest aspect of my less-than-personable personality has been an expedited freedom from the judgments of pretty much everyone I haven’t chosen for my inner circle. Here again, the seemingly limitless value of the 12 steps comes into play because, without them, someone with such a dismissive mindset would probably be a jerk in everyday life. But though I’m certainly guilty of this on occasion, I actually have a much more positive relationship with my fellow man than I ever have before. This is practiced by taking the next right action and, to the best of my ability, treating others as I would want to be treated.

Loving thy neighbor, it turns out, doesn’t require me to particularly like him.

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Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.