What exactly is a 12-step program?  It is the people, principles, prayers, and lifestyle practices of recovery from addiction that was started by Alcoholics Anonymous back in the 1930’s.  To work a program successfully, you need all four—the people, principles, prayers, and practices.  You can’t just read and learn at home, just go to meetings and call your sponsor, just ask God to take away the desire to act out, or just change your ways with willpower or healthy thinking.  To recover you need to do it all.

12-step programs are being used by many to recover from addictions to substances like alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and addictions to behaviors like gambling, internet pornography, overworking and overeating.

You start new recovery behaviors in order to change the thoughts, feelings and situations that used to trigger relapse.  To insure change, much repetition is built into “the program.”  Certain things are repeated verbatim at each meeting, like reading the 12 steps of recommended problem-solving tools.  What are the 12 steps?  Here’s the gist of them in six pieces:

  1. Admit you’re powerless over your addiction, and that your life is unmanageable by you alone. Admit you will always need help from “a higher power.”
  2. Entrust your will and your life to the care (not control) of God “as you understand him.  If you’ve been burned by organized religion, you can make your higher power to be the spirit of the program, the wisdom of the Big Book (AA’s collection of stories and advice for staying sober), or whatever works for you until your understanding of God grows.
  3. Examine your past behavior and motivations.  Take inventory of your moral strengths and weaknesses.  Look at your problems and ask, “What was my part of this?  How do I clean up my side of the street?”  Confess what you’ve done and why to God, another person, and yourself.  You make no external excuses, taking responsibility by owning these choices and habits as expressions of your newly named character traits.
  4. When you ask God to take your character flaws, you find that God doesn’t usually take them away.  But God does take care of them, by taking away your denial and bondage to them, so you never again need to forget or lie about those traits, and you never need to use them as excuses anymore.  When you admit them freely, you talk them out, so you no longer feel compelled to act them out.
  5. Make amends to yourself and others for the mistakes you’ve made.   Pay back the money, self-esteem, truth, etc. you have taken from other people, “except when to do so would injure them or others.”  We go tell people we are sorry, and make every effort to restore what we have taken.
  6.   Give back to others what you have received.  You give service to your groups by telling your story, chairing meetings, helping newcomers, and cleaning up.  This keeps you growing and avoids relapse.


How does recovery work?  Meetings sometimes begin by reading also the 12 traditions of how groups manage their affairs.  The 12 traditions keep groups from owning property, competing with each other, making public statements, or taking stands on divisive and controversial issues like politics and religion.  To make sure they keep the focus on principles not personalities, they emphasize protecting the anonymity of its members.  They have “no leaders, just trusted servants.”

           The program grows “by attraction, not promotion,” so 12-steppers don’t make public statements about whether they are in a program like AA or not, or how much good it’s doing them.  They don’t try to talk others into sobriety or joining the group.  It grows only by people noticing changed lives, and deciding to come try 12-stepping for themselves, because “I want what you have.”

All this makes 12-stepping different from religion, which encourages its churches to own property, and encourages its members to testify, evangelize, and do public witnessing.  AA encourages worship and bible study, but it endorses no particular “sect or denomination.”  Like the self-help movement, people are encouraged to be in charge of their own program, and grow at their own pace.  They decide for themselves if they are an alcoholic or gambling addict or whatever, and they choose their own home group, sponsor, etc.  A home group is the one you go to most regularly, usually every week, and it’s usually where your sponsor goes.

To find the right sponsor for you, try to pick out one or two people that you like at each meeting you attend, especially meetings that your schedule allows you to make on a regular basis.  Try to pull those folks aside after the meeting, and tell them you liked what they said.  Be specific about how it relates to you, and then wait for them to say more.  If you like what they have to say again, ask if you could have their phone numbers.  (Nearly everyone will give this to you, because that's how they stay sober and serene – if they don't give it away, they know they will lose it.)  Use the phone numbers two or three times, and if those phone calls go well, ask if you could talk with them about possibly sponsoring you.  Ask how they like to structure their relationships and contacts with their sponsees, and try it their way.  Talk out frankly with them any problems you ever have with what they say.  It helps to “do what you're told,” but if it works out badly for you, tell your sponsor about it straight up.  You don't have to tell your sponsor everything, but you would be a fool to lie or misrepresent things to your sponsor.  The frequency and format of meetings with a sponsor is worked out between the sponsor and sponsee.  You can’t work a fourth and fifth step without a sponsor, and you can’t stay sober or get serene without taking those steps.  It is important to make this relationship a priority, because it has very important purposes.

There are three main jobs of a sponsor.  One is to make your meetings work for you, to make sure that going to meetings is a constructive experience for you, and for others.  Your sponsor is always your same gender, but here I will talk as if he is male.  He gives you feedback on what you say and how you interact.  He troubleshoots any relationship issues you have with others in the group, and in the program as a whole.  He cannot do this very well if you don’t both go to the same meeting on a regular basis.

His second and most important job is to walk you through the 12 steps.  This is a master-apprentice system: recovering people need to be ushered through the 12 steps one at a time by somebody that has himself been ushered through the 12 steps the same way.  To make it a good learning experience, your job is to do as you are told.  If you don’t think it is good for you, check it out with somebody else, and then talk it out with your sponsor.  Think of the steps as problem-solving tools that are dangerous in the hands of a novice.  Just as you would need to have somebody show you and oversee you as you learned how to use a gun, a power tool, or take care of a baby, each step is meant to be learned by first listening to instruction, hearing what others have experienced to be safe and effective, and finally letting others watch you do it.  The spirit of the law is as important as the letter of the law:  the purpose and attitude of a behavior is as important as the exact action that you decide to take.

The last purpose of a sponsor is to help you live a better life, by giving you encouragement and advice on the practical problems of living in recovery.  The thing is, he won’t know very well how to do this if you don’t let him do the first two things as well.  People often ask, “How long do I have to go to meetings?”  The best answer is, “Until you want to go, because you like the better living, laughing, and loving you find in those rooms, and later, you find coming out of your heart.”

Recovery is like the medical model.  It teaches that your addiction is a disease.  Alcoholism for example is portrayed as a physical allergy and a mental obsession, and medical treatment and hospitalization is encouraged as an adjunct to any recovery that needs it.  We aren’t responsible for having the illness or addiction, but we are responsible for whether we get treatment, by working the program of recovery that gets us well.

In conclusion, as I understand it, 12-step recovery teaches that “anything you put before your recovery you will lose,” including your job, your health, your family, and your faith.  That’s the bad news.   The good news is that if you follow the 12-step way of life, it is free, and it makes everything else in your life better.  You get not only sobriety, but serenity.  As they say, “it works if you work it.”  For a more elaborate cost-benefit analysis of recovery, ask me for my outline by that title.


Have you ever wondered why vampires and zombies have become so popular in American culture?   I believe it is caused by the huge rise of addictions in America, and by so many parents over-protecting and over-indulging their children.  Both of these trends have produced people whose lives resemble vampires and zombies on the inside, because they love in dependent ways.

When children see their parents overly involved with each other, or with a child, these children don’t grow up looking for intimacy and bonding in a life partnership of strong, equally yoked adults.  Rather they look for intimate connections where they have seen them at home – in relationships between mutually dependent people.

To me, a psychological vampire is a seductive, lively-looking person who actually needs to steal real liveliness from other people.    Such a person is thus a cross between a vamp and a pirate, so to me, what they do is vampiracy.   They prey on dependent people who seem like zombies, because they are enthralled with those they love.   Vampires are so preoccupied with their own feelings and needs that they neglect their partners and caretakers.

Caretaking people have the opposite problem:  they are so preoccupied with the needs and feelings of other people that they neglect their own.  When anyone points this out to them, they are likely to tell you they feel that they do not have the power, the right, the desire, or the freedom to love themselves as much as they are loving another person (or group).  An awful lot of caretaking people are burning out and becoming zombies, because they don’t take good enough care of themselves as caretakers.

So what happens when adults (who were often spoiled as children) develop some sort of addiction, and then expect to be taken care of by a lifeless zombie?  And what happens when zombie caretakers (who may have grown up identifying with a martyr-type parent) over-protect or over-indulge a loved one?   Vampiracy happens, that’s what.  Both the over-protected, over-indulged vampire and the lifelessly bitten zombie have been rendered ineligible for life partnering with a normal person.

When people try to suck the pain and problems out of another person (or a group of people), they are really sucking the lifeblood out of them.  Their healthier loved ones tell them to “get a life,” but they are too over-extended and exhausted to enjoy living life through their own bodies. They can’t really die, because they aren’t really living, except vicariously through those they have bitten, and through their addictions.  Addicts bite into their partners and caretakers (their vampire lovers), and then for rest, they crawl back into their addictions, the coffin-like retreats they keep taking from their responsibilities and relationships.

Dependent relationships illustrate an increasingly common condition – people loving in ways that interfere with the personal growth and welfare of their lovers, and with their own.   Dependency involves too much loving and too little respect or understanding.   It is loving your neighbor instead of yourself, or the opposite, loving yourself at the expense of your neighbor.  Either way prevents living by the standard Jesus gave us, loving your neighbor just as you are loving yourself.

For something so prevalent, it’s amazing we haven’t had a name for vampiracy yet.  And it’s tragic, because it’s hard to recover from a sick habit when nobody knows how to call you out on it.  Well, nobody now except you.   You won’t be looking out for fangs, capes and hickeys anymore.  By challenging others to love both themselves and others in healthy ways, by disengaging from them when they don’t, and by calling vampiracy what it is, you now have some stakes you might be able to drive through the hearts of their lifeless little dances.



At most big family gatherings, there will be an alcoholic, a nicotine user, or a drug abuser present. The table likely plays host as well to a few non-chemical bad habits that also threaten the family. Nearly every family has folks who have an eating, work, video game, pornography, sex, gambling, hoarding, or spending disorder. Some may also have abusive or violent tempers, infidelity or love addiction, or online screen addictions to their electronic devices.

As damaging as all these chemical and behavioral addictions are, they don’t mess a family up nearly as much as their strongly different views of the addictive behavior. When the house is divided by different narrow-minded solutions, the addict can divide and conquer, and the addiction has free reign. When the family agrees on the causes and cures, they can all grow stronger with each relapsing misbehavior of the addict. Let’s look at six different views one could take about what is wrong and what is needed.

The first view is usually the first approach loved ones take: denial. They look the other way and pretend nothing is really wrong. He just had a rough night. She’s a victim of circumstances. It’s just a phase he’ll outgrow someday. At least she’s not pregnant, and she’s still in school. He’s still got a job. This is the view addicts take of their own misdeeds, and they are good at charming others into agreeing with them. The problem is that this view and this behavior almost always fuel the addiction, and help the addict slide further into gradually more outrageous misbehavior.

Don’t be in denial. A behavior is an addiction if it does most of the following: it hurts people, wastes time and money, becomes an obsession, produces sudden shifts in mood, takes more and more to satisfy over time, and defies the addict’s efforts to quit entirely, or even to set and keep her behavior within limits for a given episode. Most forms of love, encouragement, and support given to an addict just serve to feed his addiction, not his recovery, and this naïve way of loving is called enabling. (If you don’t know how to tell the difference between this and healthy love, ask me for my article on “How Loved Ones Enable Addicts.”)

A second view is that addicts have personal problems they need to solve. Maybe the problem is emotional, mental, or relational, but whatever, they should get better with counseling, because it’s just a bad habit. This is the view of my profession, but our cure rate for addicts who do psychotherapy alone is embarrassingly low.

A third approach is the self- help movement. Its gurus are celebrities with books, CD’s, DVDs, and seminars. Each one has new angles to sell, and new stories to tell. This method is by far the most popular one to combat over-eating. This approach’s Achilles heel is also its curb appeal, that it requires no submission to help from a professional, institution, or organization. Like a good American, you get yourself over your own addiction. The benefits of these cures do not usually hold up well over time.

A fourth view is the medical model: addicts have a disease. They need medicine and the structured environments of first a hospital, and then usually an intensive outpatient treatment program. Doctors and hospital staff bring healing through medicines that reduce the cravings, and treatment programs that are mostly educational. Addictions are like diseases in that they make us sick and can kill us, but they are not diseases. The disease model can excuse addicts by allowing them to blame relapses on a faulty diagnosis or treatment plan. The disease model may hold addicts somewhat responsible for their recovery and compliance with the treatment plan. But it cannot hold them accountable for the selfish and deceitful behavior that invited and grew the addiction, for the effects their behavior has had on others, or for their relapses back into addictive behavior.

A fifth approach comes from religion: addicts are lost children, and like all sinners, they need to give their lives over to God. The medicines they need are prayer, Bible study, worship, forgiveness, and good morals. The healing institution is the church, and its pastors are its healers. The Bible’s favorite models of sin are idolatry, adultery (cheating on God), and foolishness. These metaphors do show how the sin of addictive behavior betrays God, the one-flesh life partner of a spouse, and the addict’s own holistic health and wellbeing. But if the addict’s church is close-minded, if his God is too small and cannot be embodied in other fellowships and traditions, if her faith is too small and immature to use the other four approaches, when life turns up the pressure down the road, my training, research and experience all agree that relapse to the old habit or to a new addiction is likely.

The best approach is twelve-step recovery. It holds the addict fully responsible for his recovery. It educates and heals both her spirit and her flesh (the ego-kingdom, old nature, heart, brain, natural instincts). Going both to church and recovery groups gives both advanced prevention and on-the-spot cure. 12-step recovery is the most effective approach for overcoming denial, and it is the most friendly to all the other views, encouraging the addict to get counseling, education, religion, and when needed, medication that isn’t addictive. Research has shown 12-stepping alone to be clearly the most effective of the five approaches at producing long-term abstinence, bringing serenity, and avoiding new addictions to replace the old one. It is even more effective when it includes the other four approaches, and back to the family, when they also are working a 12-step model for their own recovery from the traumas, losses, and betrayals they have experienced from the addict’s behavior. Elsewhere, I have outlined how to work a good program, and how to tell if a loved one seems to be doing it right (ask me for “How to Work a Good 12-step Program”).

Like religion’s teaching about sin, recovery teaches that addiction is a progressive and fatal disease, and that whatever you put before your recovery you will lose. That’s the bad news, but the good news is that recovery is free, and it will absolutely make everything else in your life go better than you ever could have imagined. When you are delivered from denial of your character flaws and bondage to your bad habits, you are delivered from the fear that anyone can ever again take your sobriety and your serenity away from you. When your higher power is the author of freedom, you have at last found the one healthy dependency.


With any addiction to chemicals or to a habit, loved ones trying to help addicts need to realize and continually remind themselves of three things:  “I didn’t cause the addiction, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it either.”  But you can make it easier for addicts to keep their addiction going.  How?  The counterproductive efforts people make to help and reform their addicted loved ones are called enabling behaviors.  Those who do them are calledcodependents, because these behaviors make them just as dependent or hooked on helping the addict as the addicts are hooked on their addictions.   This over-protection and over-indulgence just stimulates the shame and irresponsibility that fuel the addict’s habit.   

How come most efforts to reform addicts work in reverse?

Because addictions work on people like hypnosis does.  I have studied and seen how skilled hypnotists can hypnotize virtually anyone, especially people trying the hardest to resist.  Their secret is that they know how to make your efforts to resist hypnosis work in reverse to stimulate the trance. Hypnotists wear out those who resist them, by getting them to push against themselves to the point of exhaustion. Those trying to resist hypnosis surrender to the trance in any manner much like addicts slipping into their mindless habit.  So when loved ones try to straighten out addicts, this enables even more addictive behavior, excuses and cover-ups, which wears the loved ones out to the point of exhaustion and surrender.  And like hypnosis, this all works out under the cover of denial, subconsciously, with loved ones thinking they’re helping when they’re actually playing right into the hands of the addiction.

Here are twelve of the most common enabling behaviors to avoid:

So what does work to help loved ones recover from an addiction?

Tell the truth.  Say that their addictions, excuses, and lies disgust you, and make you want to leave them alone.  Tell others the truth about the addict too—stop covering up for them.

Withhold whatever they abuse.  Take away the money, housing, vehicles, jobs, privileges, responsibilities, and loved ones you can’t trust them with. They all fuel the addiction anyway.

Show love by giving only your self to the addict, not the things in the previous paragraph. You talk on the phone or meet them for a meal, but you don't hang out for long. If they have stolen, meet in a restaurant, not in your home.

Ask about their recovery, what they are learning, what responsible things they are doing.  

Discipline lies with doubt.  “I would like to believe you, but you know you have lied about this kind of thing before. Time will tell. Actions speak louder than words.”

In the Later Stages 

Leave them alone.  Stop paying attention to them.  Don’t spend time with them.  Don’t let them see that they tick you off, just that they turn you off.  If necessary, kick them out or separate from them.  This may require that you "get a life," or at least live a life full enough for you to let go of the addict.

Take better care of yourself.  Most enablers don’t know how, or don’t care enough about themselves to do it. Those who do care would benefit from counseling.

Join a support groupa recovering community of friends and family.  Sharing your "experience, strength, and hope" with others in your situation will give you the strength you can't find elsewhere, and can't do without. This happens in the 12-step program for enablers, Al-Anon (www.al-anon.alateen.org).

Conduct an intervention.  When you’re tired of doing everything else, you might do well to gather loved ones and let a professional teach you whether and how to present an offer the addict can’t afford to refuse.  For details on this and other suggestions for codependents, see www.interventioninfo.org/research/family.php.   From what I know, the best local treatment available for addicts is at the nationally acclaimed Healing Place, in Louisville.

This column and the previous one are for people who are deeply frustrated with someone at home or at work. If most other people have the same problems getting along with this difficult person, your first step to making your peace is to understand your enemy.

Last week I explained how during hard times growing up, we all develop a character style. That’s the characteristic ways we’ve developed to handle feelings and relationships, to keep us safe from rejection and abuse. Extreme and inflexible character styles are known to us shrinks as "Axis Two", "personality disorders", or simply "PD’s".

Last week we looked at four pairings I often see when opposite disorders attract. With FEAR, POWER, ANGER, and RIGIDITY, those with too little are often attracted to those with too much, and the attraction works both ways.

This pattern of opposite extremes attracting is seen at all levels of life—human, animal, plant, cellular chemistry, and even way out there with astrological physics. Human relationships pair weak and strong, rich and poor, high IQ and emotional IQ, drunks and teetotalers, shy and outgoing, even healthy and sick.

The second step in making peace with difficult people is to realize you can’t change them. Accept your powerlessness over them. Stop beating your head against their walls by trying to rescue, appease, punish, or reform the difficult people.

The next mantra to repeat is accepting them: "I can accept them without approving of their behavior." "They have a right to act that way if they want to." If this is hard, it’s likely because you’re trying to skip to step four, which won’t work without the first three.

Now step four: choose a moderate emotional distance for your relationship. You can’t afford to get too close to PD’s, and if you want to get along with them, you can’t scoot too far back either. Stay close enough to where you both still need each other, but far enough back where you don’t need each other too much.

Step 5 is the most important, with the most potential for your coming to actually enjoy difficult people. It requires a good grasp on the first four. Hold them responsible for their selfish behavior by making your responses to their actions realistic, an accurate portrayal of how any normal person would react.

Imagine how a future roommate, coworker, boss, spouse, or neighbor would treat them. Look at how the healthy people you know deal with them, and you follow suit. The idea is to teach difficult people that in dealing with you, they will get exactly what they pay for.

I said this step of changing your reaction to hold them accountable is important, but anyone who’s tried it can tell you it’s by far the most difficult challenge in making peace with these people. (If you want to know more about particular strategies for "Coping with Difficult People", I wrote a book by that title a generation ago, and though it’s out of print, you can get a used copy on Amazon.com. for next to nothing.)

When PD’s show us too much or too little of a certain behavior, our natural tendency is often to counterbalance: If they are irresponsible or unkind, we tend to be overly responsible or kind. But this only makes it easier for them to justify being difficult, so I’m saying counter your tendency to counterbalance (to go to the opposite extreme. Don’t go to any extreme.

Look for your tendencies to do too much of a good thing and cut back. This will round off your own rough edges of too much helping, analyzing, excusing, coddling, lecturing or punishing. If taking care of them keeps backfiring, take better care of the caretaker (that’s you!).

Do you see how this rounds off both your rough edges and theirs? It reduces friction between the two of you, and puts the rub where it belongs. The friction is felt inside each one of you, challenging you to be a more well-balanced person with smoother relationships.

When you become a more well-rounded person, you will soon discover a wonderful exception to opposites attracting. Well-rounded people attract other well-rounded people. The fellowship of the embittered losers will back away from you, and you will get more support from upbeat people. Take it and enjoy!

In conclusion, research has shown that opposites attract: unbalanced people with bad habits draw and are drawn to other losers at the opposite extreme. And winners attract: well adjusted folks are attracted to other healthy people. As many times as I’ve seen this work out in the lives of folks I work with, you can’t tell me there’s not a higher power somewhere trying to inspire us to grow up and get along with each other better!

Perhaps you’ve got someone in your life that year after year you just can’t get along with. Let’s call this person "Pat". You might want to ask yourself these questions:

1. Do other people have the same problems with Pat? If some people do not, find out how they get along with Pat, and imitate their approach. If you’re related to Pat as a spouse, a former spouse, a parent, a child, or a business partner, you have special needs of Pat. Your problems are probably more complicated than this column can address, but the insights here may well apply.

2. Do most people who try to get close to Pat (boss, coworkers, customers, parents, spouse, children, friends) have the same type of relationship troubles with Pat? If so, Pat has some kind of psychiatric disorder.

If Pat doesn’t have the symptoms of another type of psychiatric problem such as a psychosis, brain damage, mood or anxiety disorder, or behavioral addiction, he likely is the one person in five who has a "personality disorder." Like the term implies, folks with personality disorders have "an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture."

We keep expecting them to feel, think or act the way most other people do, but they are different somehow. What makes them different is their "character style", their habitual way of relating to people and emotions. They began to use these coping styles earlier in life to protect them from the full and to them very painful experience of human emotions and close relationships.

They don’t want to get close or feel vulnerable, and they are better at this game than we are.

The first key to getting along with them is God’s answer to our first request in the Serenity Prayer: we learn to accept these character styles that we cannot change.

One type of character style is the Addictive Personality. Folks with this way of relating to life will tend to overdo something, some chemical or activity that gives them a rush. If they shut down or enter recovery for one addiction, they are likely to soon pick up another.

A close relative is the Narcissistic Personality. Like addicts, these folks have an image of themselves as a special person, with some deep expectation or feeling of entitlement to special favors and privileges, like being the center of attention, or getting what they want at others’ expense. They use or manipulate people to get what they feel entitled to.

These addictive and narcissistic types tend to attract and produce another type of personality disorder, the Dependent (or "Codependent") Personality. These folks tend to play the roles of chumps and suckers who are so preoccupied with the feelings and needs of their significant others that they neglect their own. They draw way too much of their identity, purpose and direction from those they take care of. We keep expecting them to "get a life," but they don’t feel they can or should until first their significant other feels totally fine.

Three other pairs of personality disorders tend to attract and produce each other. (I won’t define them all here, but you can Google them.) Paranoid, Asocial and Avoidant Personalities (too much fear of closeness) tend to attract and be attracted to Histrionic (hyperdramatic, hypercheerful) Personalities, who have too little.

Aggressive, Defensive, Explosive and Anti-social Personalities (too much anger and too little guilt) tend to attract and be attracted to those with character styles that are Self-defeating (too much guilt, too easily scape-goated) and Passive-aggressive (too little anger and assertiveness).

Overly rigid Obsessive-Compulsive Personalities (too much structure and deliberation) attract and are attracted to folks with too little: Impulsive Personalities who are not motivated to outgrow lifestyles which mimic the symptoms of ADD or ADHD.

Next week I’ll write about ways to get along with these people that don’t aim at changing them but rather at just holding them more responsible for being the way they are. I’ll show you how to keep their personality or character style from getting you down, and avoid the all too natural habit of beating your head against their walls.

If you’re feeling bad about yourself, you might as well do it up right. Make something good come out of it. You can do it three different ways, and though they all feel pretty much the same at the time, the way you think and talk to yourself determines whether you end up feeling better or worse in the end. Let’s look at three ways to do guilt and shame, each with its own self-talk approaches.


"I’m a bad person. I always seem to do bad." People who think this way were usually raised by parents who put them down: "Bad boy!" "Bad girl!" "You’re a spoiled brat!" "You stupid, lazy, good-for-nothing kid!" Kids who hear these remarks usually come to believe these words, and so they acted accordingly as children, and often still do as adults.

Bogus Guilt

"My (spouse, child, loved one) has been unhappy and has messed up. This situation must be my fault. I must think and try harder now to help them feel better and do better." These are the thoughts of people whose parents were not very responsible for themselves. Some of these irresponsible parents may have been addicts, lazy bums, habitually helpless, or maybe they just never had to grow up. Often such people manage to get their parents (and later in life their spouse or children too) to be overly responsible, too conscientious. These enablers overcompensate and overprotect the irresponsible person by making excuses for them, lying for them, or cleaning up their messes.

If one of your parents was an overly responsible enabler who overprotected or overindulged, chances are that irresponsible people in your life today sometimes get you to feel and take responsibility for their feelings and choices. So when they feel bad or make bad choices, you somehow feel and believe these must be something more you can do to help them. That feeling is bogus guilt.

The more you trust that feeling and act on it, the less self-esteem, self-discipline, and wisdom your loved ones will show. That’s why I call this guilt bogus, because problems just don’t get solved this way.

Healthy Guilt

"I’m a good person, smart enough to make good choices. I messed up there, but this will teach me to do better." You hang onto the guilt feeling as motivation to help you figure out where you went wrong, what you did wrong, what you should have done (and hope to do in the future) Once you’ve said all this to those you’ve harmed or disappointed, and taken actions to earn back their trust and make up for what you did wrong, you have no more need for the guilt as a teacher.

Your new motivation is love for others, love for yourself, and if you’re a believer, love for God. You don’t need to feel the guilt anymore. Save it for later, to motivate more character-building repair behaviors the next time you goof up.

In a nutshell, shame says "I’m messed up," bogus guilt says "Because you messed up, I’m messed up," and healthy guilt says "I messed up but I’m cleaning up my mess." Only the last one solves problems and leaves the world a better place.

I believe that America here at the turn of the millennium is going to be remembered in history as a nation of gluttons. Whether it is with our calendars, our budgets, our relationships, or our palates, we can’t get enough. Just about every celebrity I can think of is known for being or doing the most something. Who is known for being the most well-rounded? Most of us try to grow our self-esteem by owning or doing more and more things, not doing a few of the better things better.

What situations do you find it most difficult to say no?

Whining, demanding children or grandchildren? Spoiled teens and young adults in your family? Adult loved ones with behavioral or chemical addictions? Your main squeeze that you’re afraid of turning off or losing altogether? Your parents or authority figures whose frowning disapproval you can’t stand to risk? Your chronically down-in-the-dumps friend who has a talent for becoming a victim? Your church or charitable organization that needs to get a job done? A party-animal or shopaholic friend who’s inviting you to have some fun? A status symbol you suddenly find on sale? A stray cat on the side of the road?

When should you say no, and how can you explain it if asked? 

1. When you believe no one could possibly do what you’re being asked as well as you can do it. The problem here is you’re probably too vain, narrow-minded and workaholic, and folks could easily take advantage of you for this stuff, resent you for it, or both. Just say, "I want to see how somebody else would do it this time. It’s somebody else’s turn—let’s see some other ways it can be done." Or, "I don’t want to make it any easier for the people who created this problem to avoid taking more responsibility for solving it."

2. When you can’t decide what you’ll give up to make the time to do it. "My calendar is full right now, and I don’t see anything I can give up to make room for this."

3. When you’re having trouble honoring the commitments you’ve already made. "I’m so overcommitted I’m doing a poor job of several things, and I wouldn’t want that to happen here."

4. When you couldn’t do it well enough to satisfy yourself and those in charge. "The best I could do at this time would neither please you, me, nor the people I’d have to answer to."

5. When your family isn’t behind it. "This isn’t something my family could get very excited about or involved in, and I don’t need anything else to take me further away from them at this time."

6. When you haven’t been respectfully asked. Don’t reward people who tell, expect, guilt, or pressure you into things, like dropping something into your lap at the last minute. "I might have considered it if I had been asked and given some time, but I don’t do my best work under pressure, especially pressure I haven’t created. It’s not good for my immune system either."

7. Here’s the best reason of all to say no, because it is often a dashboard warning light, a sign that indicates one or more of the situations above: When your heart isn’t in it. "I don’t know why, but I just can’t find a passion for doing this. I’d rather wait and say yes to something I can put my heart into." This is reason enough to say no in my book, as long as my calendar is as it should be, pretty full of things I DO have my heart in, including a healthy balance of work, rest and play.

This gets us back to where we started. Doing fewer things allows us to do them better. Taking on too much erodes the quality of our performance, and with it, our reputation and self-esteem. Maybe it’s time you took a second look at saying yes to saying no. Often the times it’s hardest to say no are actually the times you and others most need you to do it.

Reader: My pastor says I’m a peacemaker, a good thing. My friends and doctor say I’m a sponge for stress, a bad thing. How could making life easier for others be wrong?

Is physical pain a good thing? It doesn’t feel good, but it does good. It draws our attention to the problem that’s causing it, and motivates us to get it fixed. Without pain, we’d all die of infection.

Stress works the same way in the mental/emotional realm. Carrying stress in a relationship is like being IT in a game of Tag. Unless you can solve the problem, (and many problems you can’t solve), you have to run around exhausting yourself until you can touch somebody else with the awareness that it’s their problem.

Say a man you know has a quick and nasty temper—he gets furious at the drop of a hat. He has a problem, you’d say. Yes, but not if he can get you to feel the tension, to worry about not setting him off. Then it’s your problem, because you’ve taken it on. The feeling of stress is the tag of "IT" on whoever is carrying the problem.

Some people are masters at downloading stress. Maybe they bring it on themselves with self-generated expectations and bogus beliefs of entitlement. But if they can get others to even be silent while they bark out their complaints, they never have to solve their problems, or even realize where they came from. And whatever group or family they’re in will always be awash with distress.

Unless somebody sets a boundary, and says things like, "I’m sorry you feel that way" or "Your anger is not my problem," and walks away without blaming, worrying or stressing themselves. Then the stress stays where it can do some good, at its source.

So who needs stress? The person(s) creating the problem, because otherwise, problems will continue to be carried around by the people who didn’t cause them, and thus can never solve them. Worse still, the people generating the problems and the stress sleep like a baby so they can generate more distress again tomorrow on a full head of steam and a clear conscience.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt