In Praise of Our Character Defects

By Jodi Sh. Doff 08/07/17

Instead of feeling safe from the world inside our castle built of anger, we’re trapped inside all alone when everyone else is outside having fun.

man clenching fists on wooden table
Many of our perceived flaws are actually remnants of defense mechanisms.

Step 6: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

I knew an old-timer who defined character defects (Step 6) as those things you're still doing that you know you shouldn’t, and shortcomings (Step 7) as the things you're not doing that you know you should. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous spends only a single paragraph on Step 6. Four sentences that boil down to a single question: Are we entirely ready to let God remove all the things about ourself which we have admitted are objectionable?

Okay, parts of us are objectionable, we can admit that. This should be easy, no one wants to hang on to something that by definition is unpleasant or offensive. So, why is it so hard?

Because for people with alcoholism and addiction, our character defects aren’t flaws or mistakes. They were survival skills for our old life. They’ve simply outlived their usefulness. Habits, mindsets, and ways of simply being that kept us alive and allowed us some drunken version of sanity and at least an illusion of safety for however long we were out there. We learned ways to defend ourselves as naturally as we learned to breathe. Those skills are as ingrained as the ability to tie our shoes. No wonder they're so hard to let go of. Understanding how there was an upside to anger, arrogance, and dishonesty makes it a little easier to stop beating ourselves up about those defects.

Anger: The world steers clear of an angry girl, afraid of becoming the focus of her rage. Without the life skills necessary to manage our everyday lives, we frequently found ourselves in physically dangerous situations and emotionally dubious relationships. Anger worked like a forcefield, and we felt safer from predators and creditors. See also: aggression, argumentativeness, belligerence, hate, hostility, rage, sarcasm, short-tempered.

Arrogance: This is the “act as if” segment of active addiction where we act as if we’re better than you to keep you from seeing how insignificant we really feel. Think of it as the Emperor’s New Clothes of low self-esteem–-our invisible coat of arrogance keeps that self-hate hidden even from ourselves. Having no idea how to be a worker among workers, what it means to be right-sized, of the belief that “middle” equals death through boredom, we had only two choices: top of the heap or bottom of the barrel. For me to be the reigning queen, I need people who are below me. See also: aloofness, snobbery

Braggart: Kissing cousin to arrogance, braggadocio is the magician’s sleight of hand that tricks you into seeing what we want you to see and ignoring the frightened little man cowering behind the curtain. See also: attention-seeking, grandiosity, vanity

Co-dependency: Also known as I’m Okay, You’re Fucked Up. The nice thing about being or having a hostage is that we’re not alone. Someone else is doing the stupid thing, making poor decisions or no decisions. If things go badly it’s not all our fault, if they go well, we’re not the only one who has to carry the weight of responsibility. See also: dependent, self-doubt

Dishonesty: Say it often enough, with conviction, and a lie becomes the truth. There are times, many times, we just have to lie to you. We lie to save your feelings and our face. We lie so you’ll only see a version of us that is lovable, so you’ll see the world the way we want you to, so you’ll help us, so you won’t hurt us, so you’ll give us what we want and not take what we already have. We do it all for you, you can see that, can’t you? See also: deceitful, lying, secretive

Fear: This is our innate early warning system, alerting us to danger, and absolutely necessary for survival. Under no circumstances can we imagine letting this one go. See also: distrustful, inhibited, insecure, overly cautious, prudishness

Promiscuity: Sex and romance are complicated for the most stable of us, for people with addiction and alcoholism it’s a minefield. Sex can sidestep the kind of real intimacy that needs to develop for a lasting relationship: If he’s still here in the morning, he must be my boyfriend. Sex is proof of our desirability and therefore, our self-worth: If s/he wants me, I must be okay. If everyone wants me, I must be great. To paraphrase Descartes: I fuck, ergo sum. See also: lust, negative body image

Rationalization: We tell ourselves lies without ever knowing we’re lying, making up stories to avoid feeling guilty or bad about what we’re doing, or not doing. Rationalization is what allows us to keep moving that line in the sand we said we’d never cross. Without it, the statistics on suicide and self harm would be much higher. See also: self-justification

Self-pity: This is one reason for not taking chances, trying new things, or trying at all. When the world is against us, how could anyone expect us to succeed, to do this on our own, to thrive? The odds are stacked against us, so why bother? Also, and usually related to “everyone is against me,” this is a way to ask for attention and love, without actually having to ask or risk anything. Poor me, no one loves me is an engraved invitation for your own personal superhero to swoop in and make life right / easier / okay / not as shitty. See also: blaming others, complainer, defensiveness.

Unscrupulous: Morals, ethics, and scruples are great when life is easy breezy, but there are times in a drunk’s life that a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do to stay alive/ahead/employed. I need what I need, I need it now and you’re in my way, a/k/a damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead . See also: cold-hearted, selfish

Withdrawn: If you don’t take chances, there is no risk of failure. If you don’t let anyone get close, you’ll never get your heart broken. In other words, there is safety in stasis. No risk, no pain. See also: avoiding confrontation, shyness, timidity

We spent years building this tool chest, usually starting before we even picked up the first drink. Without that “life manual” everyone else seemed to have, we jury-rigged what we could to make life work, hoarding our “life tools” and keeping them at the ready. A person with addiction or alcoholism will never give up their well-stocked arsenal of survival skills while they still work. We blast through early sobriety using the equivalent of a backhoe to sweep the kitchen floor, and wonder why our lives are still a mess. But given some time sober, lives change and our tool chest needs to change along with it. Many, if not most, of our real and imagined threats dissipate. Instead of feeling safe from the world inside our castle built of anger, we’re trapped inside all alone when everyone else is outside having fun. One by one, we see how the situations, or at least our perceptions of them, have changed, and how we’re using old tools in a new life.

We cannot build a life of peace and joy using the tools of war.

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