The final stage of the Alpha Series, having already discussed biblical self-awareness and developing our true identity, is relational empowerment. This is the stage at which we begin assessing the teachings that have brought us to a new understanding of ourselves, and then ministering these teachings to others who are in need of an identity that will help them to cope with sobriety as they attempt to recover from addiction and alcoholism. This is not necessarily the most difficult stage, but it can present problems for those who do not trust their ability to lead or to help others.
Many of us make certain false assumptions about ourselves that cause us to doubt our ability to effect change in the lives of others. And to some extent, this ability is in fact limited. If a person does not want to change, then we can say nothing so right that it will enable them to see the light. But if a person possesses the willingness to lead a positive life free of drugs and alcohol, we can by contrast say nothing so wrong that it will lead them astray. It is when they are uncertain that we have either the potential to do much good or—unfortunately—much harm.
But if our intentions are pure, this harm will likely not come to pass. For our own empowerment has made relational empowerment impossible. And while we should endeavor not to be controlling, our focus on relational empowerment will do as much for our own lives as it will in the lives of those with whom we wish to maintain healthy and empowering relationships. In fact, the only major roadblocks we will face on this last leg of our journey will often occur within ourselves.
Roadblocks to Relational Empowerment
The major roadblocks to relational empowerment will generally occur in our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Each of these has become negative during our years of substance abuse, as is the nature of the disease. We have undergone immense struggles, and even this late in our recovery we will find that some of us have not completely recovered from the downward spiral in which we found ourselves when we were drinking and abusing drugs with little regard for the consequences to ourselves or others. We may now be on the mend, but parts of us are inevitably still broken.
Those who encounter problems in their thinking will likely suffer from many false assumptions that result in severe depression. We do not believe we are worthy of love, or capable of loving others. We may also bargain with ourselves, believing that we could be worthy people if only certain changes would occur. This type of thinking may lead to eating disorders, self-harm, or any number of negative consequences. It is often seen in people who feel like outsiders, such as men and women of the military who feel guilt over having taken lives, or members of the LGBT community who feel they struggle for social acceptance. Or, as the case may often be, it’s simply yet another instance of an addict or alcoholic being too hard on themselves and struggling to reach a necessary level of self-forgiveness.
Or perhaps it is not ourselves that we need to forgive. Anger is one of the toughest emotional roadblocks we will face along with grief. We have a tendency to blame others for things that no mortal can control. Perhaps we even blame our definition of a Higher Power for the state of our lives. There’s a very pointed set of lyrics from the musical comedy, The Book of Mormon:
“Heavenly Father, why do you let bad things happen?
More to the point, why do you let bad things happen to me?”
Some of the least spiritual people on Earth have prayed out of similar sentiments, but this type of thinking simply will not work if we are to remain sober, let alone become pillars of our recovery community.
And in many ways, this brings us right into some of the biggest roadblocks we will face as we seek relational empowerment—our behaviors. Obviously, selfishness and stubbornness are not conducive to the relational empowerment we currently seek, yet these things have been second-nature to us while in active addiction. Our motives have not been in the right place, and we will not become less dysfunctional immediately upon detoxification. To some extent, it should have happened in the previous two stages of the Alpha Series. But there is still some work ahead of us.
Overcoming These Obstacles for Good
If we are to overcome our thought-based roadblocks to relational empowerment, we will require some cognitive restructuring. We must change how we think about ourselves, replacing our previous false assumptions with biblical ones. We must believe that some Higher Power, whether religious or otherwise, felt we were worthy of walking this earth. Our thinking must do a total 180, leaving behind the shame, the hopelessness, the sick need for approval, and the performance trap that causes us to constantly set higher and more difficult standards for ourselves.
The biblical teachings of the Alpha Series teach this primarily through Romans 6-8 (teaching us to be dead to sin and alive in Christ) and Ephesians 1 (teaching us that we were chosen to be holy, destined to be accepted, and redeemed by grace). But it isn’t enough to think this about ourselves. If we are truly to let go of our resentments, we must believe the same of others. Relational empowerment is impossible if we do not have faith in those around us. We cannot accept our losses in life if we are constantly blaming others for them. And this realization will require some emotional management.
So what is emotional management? Do we dump our emotions on others, or simply stuff them inside? How about neither? Perhaps we need a faith-based coping strategy, acknowledging our emotions to our Higher Power and its trusted servants. We often do this with our sponsor when we reach Step Five, and many walk away from this step with a new sense of spirituality and freedom. We will also gain much in the way of emotional management through service work, which reaffirms our faith both in spirituality and in ourselves. And this is at the heart of relational empowerment, especially if we are to minister to others. But it takes more. We cannot be surprised at every loss—we must be malleable, seeing each end as a potential beginning. Through this level of faith, we cannot lose. And once we have acquired it, changing our behaviors will become much easier.
Behavioral redirection is a logical extension of cognitive restructuring and emotional management. Our behaviors were previously driven by fear of failure and rejection, guilt over loss and character defects, and pride in our self-perceived betterment over our peers (in other words, judgment against others). Healthy behaviors are instead motivated by faith in our own worth as taught to us by the gospel of grace, hope that our personal needs for security are being met (whether or not we are able to see it), and a genuine sense of love for those around us. Without these healthy thoughts and emotions, we may be driven to manipulate rather than minister. And while the cynic may not see a difference, there is a big one. In terms of relational empowerment, the choice between the two is the most important choice we will ever make.
A Choice—Ministry or Manipulation?
When we find that we have the ability to sway those who are uncertain, manipulation can be tempting. Many of us feel that we became quite good at it during our periods of active addiction, and it can be hard to take that urge and turn it off for good. Some may even think that manipulating someone can be positive if the goal is to get them sober, but things will not likely work out ideally if we are only trying to help others in order to make ourselves feel better. Relational empowerment is about love for others—it is not self-motivated.
This means that we must consider why we are seeking relational empowerment. We must learn to cultivate honesty with ourselves, with others, and with our Higher Power to discover when we are being selfish and when we are being charitable. Recognizing our own motives is not always easy, but take the following scriptural passage from John 1:5-9 as an example:
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”
In other words, we must recognize that relational empowerment revolves around the ministry of teachings that already exist, whether scriptural passages or even lessons from the Big Book. We cannot get so wrapped up in our own self-serving egos that we allow ourselves to believe that we are the light we wish to bring into others’ lives. According to Chapter 7 of the Big Book, the most we can do for people is to tell them of our experiences, to act as a witness. But the moment we let our ego run the show and pretend we have all of the answers to life, we may easily lose their attention. “Look at this egotistical, self-serving alcoholic,” they may think. “If this is where AA will get me, then I shall have no part in it.”
This will not do. Relational empowerment does not just depend on love—it is love, in the truest sense, for it is through this love that we are able to truly care what happens to others. Yes, we often get a nice feeling out of it. But we have to do it for more than this feeling alone. Relational empowerment requires trust with those to whom we are ministering, so our actions must come from the right place. Through biblical self-awareness and the development of a healthy identity, we will get there. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. And when it does, our ties to sobriety will become stronger than ever. But once we reach this level of relational empowerment and begin helping others, we must stay there. Our addiction only stays away as long as we are helping others to overcome theirs. This is how we gain our purpose in life, which will bring us to spiritual fulfillment. More importantly, it will help us to stay sober.