The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous describes “HOW” the program works with “HOW” being an acronym for:

  • Honesty
  • Open-mindedness
  • Willingness.

On each chip that members of AA receive, from day one as newcomers through each anniversary, there’s the saying, “To thine own self be true,” taken from Shakespeare’s quote, “Above all else, to thine own self be true.” Alcoholism is described as cunning and baffling. The same is true for all compulsions. That’s why they identify honesty, especially honesty with oneself, as essential for recovery. The same is true for people in trauma-bonded relationships or with histories of trauma-bonded relationships. The Big Book goes on to say that there are those unfortunates who lack the capacity for honesty and, because of their lack of capacity for honesty, the AA program cannot help them.

Rather than trying to reach out or communication with such people who cannot be honest with themselves, members of AA will simply pray for them because, without honesty, AA won’t be able to help them. The same is true for psychotherapy. Without a capacity for honesty — especially with oneself — the help that psychotherapy can provide is significantly limited.

Because the feelings of elation resulting from the initial formation of a trauma bond can be, essentially, addicting, the same is true for people who choose to recover from their trauma and move beyond creating and participating in trauma-bonded relationships.

The 2nd essential ingredient is an open mind. It can be difficult to let go of what’s familiar because even the most painful ruts are what we’re used to experiencing. Having an open mind means being willing to tolerate hearing suggestions from a recovery sponsor, therapist or others such as “drop the rock” or to focus on developing a relationship with yourself rather than getting into another relationship during the first year of recovery. An open mind builds on a foundation of honesty — especially a capacity for rigorous honesty with oneself. Is there an abundance of evidence that we don’t know how to have a healthy, long-term relationship? Have we ever taken the time to develop a healthy relationship with ourselves? If we don’t have a healthy relationship with ourselves, how can we expect to have the capacity to have a healthy, intimate relationship with someone else? An open mind includes having the capacity to be asked such tough, challenging questions.

The 3rd essential ingredient — willingness — means having the capacity and commitment to tolerate what’s uncomfortable at times. It sometimes means being willing to delay gratification. Willingness sometimes requires being willing to do nothing — to practice patience — and, in the beginning, what’s most likely, to have almost blind faith in the process. Sometimes, willingness means having the courage to make a decision or engage in an action,. Somehow, others who’ve been in recovery longer have something we want. Although we don’t yet understand how they got there, even if only out of desperation, we place some degree of faith in them when they say, “Keep coming back. It works, if you work it!” is true even though we are still confused and have no clue how that’s possible for us.

Willingness ultimately means that we’re able to tolerate hearing that we’re not “terminally unique” and, eventually, accept that. By doing so, we acquire a degree of humility. We’re human. And, in doing so, we also acquire self-compassion, which is essential. It also means that we’re willing to try living in the solution — to do things differently and try new things — rather than to cling to what’s familiar, realizing and accepting that, inevitably, we will make mistakes along the way.

Recovery is never a linear process. We’re human and, so, it tends to be messy at times. We’ll stumble and fall and that’s okay. At best, we’ll experience progress, not perfection. Willingness includes forgiveness of ourselves and accepting that it’s okay to make mistakes.

We learn to let go of shame — which is about who we are — and make productive, positive use of guilt — which is about what we do, including how we choose to behave in relation to what we feel. We learn to make use of forgiveness, to let go of mistakes that we and others have made in the past and those we and others will make along the way from here forward.

Honesty, open-mindedness and willingness are how we learn to live in the solution rather than continuing to live in the problem, In doing so, we give ourselves the chance to experience that when we begin to live in the solution rather than live in the problem then the problem goes away. It’s not a problem to be solved by us or others. It’s definitely not a problem that any therapist, friend, lover or 12 step sponsor can solve for us. Instead, it’s a problem to accept and to let go as we learn a new way of living with ourselves and others.

The Big Book of AA also says we’ll not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. Although we’re now living in the solution, it’s helpful to remember the past so that we can learn from it.

Among the many things that we’ll learn is that feelings aren’t facts. We’ll learn acceptance and how to practice detachment. Sometimes, we’ll practice detachment with love. We’ll learn that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing — that simply because we have feelings doesn’t mean we have to act on them. In doing so, we’ll become actors rather than reactors. We’ll learn that, although we don’t get to choose our feelings, we do get to choose what we do with them. We’ll begin to recognize when we feel fear and/or shame and how often we’ve let one or both dictate our behaviors and choices. We’ll learn to tolerate experiencing those feelings — sitting with them and talking them through with a trusted therapist, sponsor and/or friend and, then, letting them go — rather than acting on and/or running away from them. Fear and shame no longer will be what influence our choices, behaviors and, ultimately, our lives. That’s what it means to live “happy, joyous and free.”