When discussing our battles with addiction, we often make mention of character defects. Sometimes, these defects of character are related to our lack of inhibitions while intoxicated. At other times, our shortcomings may be influenced by co-occurring disorders that cause us to behave in an antisocial manner. But whatever the cause of these defects, the fact of the matter is that every addict and alcoholic has them. And while we may wish to believe that they were caused by our addictions, this is usually not the truth. This is why the Twelve Steps only mention alcohol once; the rest of them are geared primarily toward overcoming our character defects and transforming ourselves into the best possible versions of ourselves.
Overcoming our character defects is no easy task. Imagine standing in a pool and trying to hold three inflatable balls underwater at the same time. As we strengthen our grip on two of them, we may lose control over the third and it will swiftly rise to the surface with a splash. With patience, however, we can come to better understand our defects of character as we endeavor to remove them. In some cases, we may even be able to metamorphose some of our more defective traits into attributes that will not stand in the way of our usefulness, but will instead give us a greater sense of utility than we have ever experienced before.
Examples of Character Defects
There is no shortage of character defects to be explored. In a blog for Ocean Breeze Recovery, the author defines their defects as certain negative personality traits that have wrought pain on themselves and those around them. When we take a good, hard look at the lives we have led while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, we will often come to realize that we possess such flawed characteristics in no small amount.
Many of us have, under the supervision of our sponsors, composed lists of our character defects so that we would be able to understand them a little better. For those who have trouble with such lists, there are numerous examples on the internet that will allow us to see just how many defects of character we may have exhibited in the past. And though it would be far better to devise such lists on our own, these sources may prove useful to those who feel as if their list is somewhat short.
The easiest way to begin looking at our character defects is to begin with the Seven Deadly Sins. One does not need to be a practicing Christian to note that these seven grave characteristics—lust, gluttony, greed, envy, wrath/anger, sloth and pride—are often the source of much harm to ourselves and others in our lives. While we may have several other defects to overcome, working on these seven primary flaws would certainly do much to improve our character. (We should mention that the Seven Deadly Sins were originally the Eight Principal Faults, Eight Evil Thoughts, or Eight Terrible Temptations, with the eighth being dejection or self-pity. We will not discuss this last one in much detail, but it is nonetheless an important fault for many addicts and alcoholics to overcome.)
Note that, in adding these seven traits to our list of character defects, we do not need to be too specific. We must not necessarily list out every time we were gluttonous, every time we gave into lust, or every time our pride and envy drove us to wrath. There is nothing wrong with doing so, but it is quite likely that many will recall numerous occasions on which they have expressed such defects the very moment they see the words on the page. And upon such reflection, we may begin to notice other character defects as well.
For instance, while not everyone is given to the practice of vainglorious boasting, has not our hubris often given way to other prideful behaviors? Much as pride is considered to be at the root of the Seven Deadly Sins, it may also be considered the root of numerous character defects such as self-centeredness, intolerance, and being overly judgmental of others. We might make sarcastic remarks in response to those who have said something that we consider to be unintelligent, as we believe that our own intelligence would never allow us to make such an error. And given that judging others is often one of our favored expressions of pride, it is more than a little likely that one of our character defects will be that of hypocrisy.
We could list character defects all day and night. To help you out, we will now present you a list of 26 defects not yet mentioned above. Upon seeing some of these, you may identify a quality that you are quite ready to have removed. Others may be a bit harder to let go. Some may sound as if they ring a bell, but will be more difficult to admit. Either way, this list should help you get started:
Jealousy (not to be confused with envy; jealousy is more about possessiveness)
Youthful behavior (to the point of immaturity)
Zeal (to the point of overzealousness)
Removing Our Shortcomings
As mentioned before, most of the Twelve Steps are about improving our characters; however, there are two steps in particular which deal with our character defects. The first is Step Six: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” Note that the passive use of the word “these” implies that we should already know most of our character defects by the time we reach this step. This is because we will have taken a moral inventory of our fears and resentments in Step Four, upon which we will come to realize that many of our resentments are rooted in our own defects. We will also have admitted to these resentments in Step Five, after which we will feel more accountable for our own shortcomings.
The problem that many of us face in Step Six is that our defects have not always caused us harm. In fact, many of them revolve around traits that we need at one point or another. Pushing ourselves to the very limit is not healthy, but giving ourselves too much of a break from daily living will result in sloth. Humans must eat and reproduce in order to survive, but it is when these actions are performed to needless excess that we find ourselves in the throes of gluttony and lust. And while there is no harm in wanting more for ourselves, greed and envy can indeed become harmful. Even anger and self-love are not always harmful, yet wrath and pride almost always are.
The same could be said for many of the 26 examples of character defects listed above. One does not have to be prim and proper at all times to steer clear of lewdness and vulgarity. And fear may be a natural human emotion, but we have often used it as an excuse for our substance abuse and must therefore learn to keep it in check.
In short, just about anything we do to excess is probably the result of one or more character defects. But we have usually exhibited these defects with such frequency that they feel inseparable from our overall character. As a result, we may not wish to have them removed. We may rationalize that our impatience and perfectionism have made us more productive at work. And to an extent, we may be right. But what have these qualities done for our own happiness? How have they affected our relationships with others? In order for us to become truly ready to overcome our character defects, we must first overcome our denial regarding the harm that they have caused to our lives and to the lives of others.
Once we have overcome this denial, we are ready for Step Seven: “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.” To those who are not Christian, do not let the mention of God in these steps act as a deterrent. As we have mentioned in our article on the disease model of addiction, the concept of spirituality in twelve-step programs such as AA and NA is actually not as rigid as it may seem. In this case, those who have an alternative concept of a Higher Power must at the very least come to realize that their own attempts at control have done little to remove their character defects up to this point.
And how could it? As we noted above, pride is at the root of many character defects. Is not our attempt at control merely another expression of pride? But how can we remove our shortcomings without taking the reins?
The answer is simple: we must discover the true meaning of humility. To discover humility is to see ourselves in a more objective light. We do not blind ourselves to our attributes, but we come to realize that our character defects are still very much a part of who we are. In doing so, we come to realize that certain things about us must change if we are ever to discover true contentment in sobriety.
A big part of this is to do what we are supposed to do, while maintaining faith that we will evolve in the process. We must be honest with ourselves about our character defects, open-minded about what sobriety may have to offer us, and willing to work a solid program of recovery. We must attend meetings, work with our sponsors, and be upfront with those we trust when we feel that our defects are coming to light.
Note that giving ourselves over to a program of recovery does not free us from any amount of work or responsibility in the removal of our shortcomings. There is some work to do in addition to working our program. And regardless of our own personal religious and spiritual beliefs, we may find some answers in the Seven Heavenly Virtues.
Discovering New Attributes
The best method of removing our character defects is to replace them with traits that will help ourselves and others instead of causing harm. Using the defects we discussed earlier in the form of the Seven Deadly Sins, we may utilize the Seven Heavenly Virtues as a guideline for such transformation. The virtues correspond to each of the sins, standing as their direct opposites. They are as follows:
Chastity (opposite of lust)
Temperance/Abstinence (opposite of gluttony)
Charity/Generosity/Liberality (opposite of greed)
Diligence (opposite of sloth)
Patience (opposite of wrath/anger)
Kindness (opposite of envy)
Humility (opposite of pride)
Much as pride is the root of many character defects, humility may be seen as the root of many character attributes. Through our humility, we discover the need for kindness toward others. We recognize our previous excesses, and counteract them through chastity and temperance. We are diligent because we do not want to return to our old ways, and we are charitable and patient because we recognize that we are not the only ones with character defects—there are many like us, and they deserve the same second chance that recovery has given us.
One approach that many take to removing their character defects is to write each item on their list on a separate piece of paper, drawing a defect from a hat or a jar every day so that they may work on them one at a time. In order to work on our defects, we must do more than simply avoid expressing them on a given day. We must seek to find the virtue which opposes the chosen defect, and find a way to develop that virtue in our own character. For instance, someone who draws self-loathing from the hat may work on finding reasons to appreciate themselves. A person who draws ungratefulness may write out a gratitude list, and find ways of expressing their gratitude to those who have been there for them in their times of need.
There are some character defects which may be harder to work on in the above fashion. For instance, how do we actually work on replacing gluttony and lustfulness with temperance and chastity? Temperance is built in to sobriety, and chastity will be required of those to whom it has been recommended to refrain from dating in early recovery (often for the first full year). Still, those who draw lust from the hat may spend a day making an effort to appreciate the opposite sex on the basis of personality rather than objectification. Those who draw gluttony might try to improve their health through better nutrition. No matter which character defects we are attempting at any given time, we can always find one or more positive practices to replace them.
In so doing, a wealth of character attributes will be born of our character defects. In some cases, we may even learn to practice potentially defective behaviors in a much healthier way. Thrill-seekers will find exciting activities that do not emphasize danger or recklessness. Those of us who are perfectionists may still attempt to do our best work, but will not worry excessively over every little flaw. Those of us with control issues may learn to practice leadership without micro-managing everyone around us. We will embrace healthy fears while disregarding irrational ones, and we will learn to express a healthy zeal for life without overcompensating through a false veil of overzealousness.
Removing our character defects and emphasizing our character attributes is a lifelong journey, but this is something for which we should be thankful. It means that every single day opens the door for further self-improvement. It means that we are never finished growing unless we stop trying. There might be days on which we falter, but these provide us with the learning experiences necessary to grow even further. It’s a rewarding way of life, and one we hope that all recovering addicts and alcoholics will learn to embrace as they seek to grow more content with themselves.
Just remember to take it one day at a time. Nobody grows overnight. If we did, the journey would not be half as rewarding.