Let’s take a walk to your local 12-Step meeting, (or let’s be real, these days you may be opening your computer to log into a Zoom meeting.) Welcome! May G-d grant us the serenity to read through this, the courage to truly listen, and the wisdom to understand what we each need to hear. Yes, I know that is not the typical prayer, but let’s give ourselves some creative licensure here.
Our topic today is Step 4, “made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” If you have taken this step before, you are familiar with the four columns that are discussed in the inventory process. As any good business owner knows, you must take inventory of the assets and liabilities of a company to ensure that the business is turning a profit. So, we take inventory of our moral behaviors.
There are many ways that people deal with their past anger, hurts, and fears. The process is enlightening and can often be quite liberating. The question I bring up today is how to find a trauma-informed perspective on this particular step. The reason this is so critical is that there is a possibility of taking this step in a way that can be harmful to someone who has been through trauma. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states, “we searched out the flaws in our makeup which caused our failure,” and became convinced that “self, manifested in various ways, was what had failed us.”
Do you hear how this might affect a trauma survivor? Someone who has been through an experience that left the residual feelings of worthlessness, shame, hopelessness, and/or helplessness may have been blaming themselves for way too long, and for something that WAS NOT their fault. If by some miracle they escaped that feeling of responsibility for the traumatic incident, this may lead them down a rabbit hole of blame. This does not help recovery, if anything this mindset can turn someone away from a much-needed process or even lead them right back to the addiction they came to recover from.
I have a gift for you today. It is a pair of glasses, go ahead put them on. I call them my ‘trauma-informed’ lenses. With these glasses on, we will look at how the body responds to a threat, and with that knowledge apply it to taking a moral inventory. In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van der Kolk, MD identifies three responses to threat. These include social engagement, fight or flight, and collapse (or freeze). When the threat escalates to trauma this can significantly change the way the survivor responds to perceived threats in their environment. With this in mind, let us read a line from Stephanie Covington, Ph.D.’s book, A Woman’s Way Through the Twelve Steps. “If in our inventories we realize we’ve been manipulative, timid, vain, or defiant, we can ask ourselves, “What other options did I have? Could I really have done better given the circumstances?” Expand this to include the way a trauma survivor’s brain may be interpreting the situation.
The glasses teach us that even if we are looking to take action towards improving ourselves, we must be very careful about inflicting blame. Taking responsibility for our actions can be empowering, but it must be done in a way that is meeting our needs at that moment. Action for someone who has altered brain chemistry can be the resolution to work with a therapist and learn techniques for their unique brain and situation.
Another part of the 4th Step is forgiveness. While this is important, for a survivor it is essential that the forgiveness is directed primarily within. This is supported in the AA text Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, where it says, “We had to see that when we harbored grudges… we were really beating ourselves with the club of anger we had intended to use on others.”
With our new perspective in mind, let us resolve to always place kindness first. With others, and especially ourselves let us remember that character liabilities often developed as coping mechanisms to deal with circumstances. While they may no longer be helpful in the current life one is living, they were developed to help with survival. In this way, we can gently let them go as we understand how they no longer serve us. This leads to EMPOWERED ACTION, the self-berating bats are left on the curb for garbage disposal and we strive towards liberation!