Alanon and powerlessness

Love, Self

A central pillar of Alanon is the belief that you are powerless, in Bottled up we don't believe that

One of the central pillars of Alanon is the belief that you are powerless over the drinker. For many who join Alanon this comes as a relief, as they are told – “you didn't cause it, can't cure it, and can't control it”. Anything that removes the guilt and shame that people living with an alcoholic feels is a good thing in our book.

In Alanon they suggest that you to detach with love from your drinker. Alanon also suggests that you look after yourself and make a life that is separate and non dependent on the drinker. Again these are good survival strategies and we welcome them. Indeed we would like to stress that we have a lot of respect for the Alanon fellowship and are thankful for the people that it has helped over the decades. We also spent a lot of time studying Alanon when we wrote and created Bottled Up.

So if we are in favour of Alanon’s program, is Bottled Up just a kind of Alanon group? The answer to that is no! While we like some of their program, the fellowship and support that they provide, we do however fundamentally disagree with the central tenet of powerlessness. We not only believe that you can influence your drinker but we show you how that may be achieved through the Bottled-up program.


So why would we disagree with powerlessness when Alanon supports it?

The concept of powerlessness is a double edged sword. On the up-side it allows the partner to get rid of the shame and guilt that they so often feel about the drinker and his problems. They often do feel that somehow they are to blame for it all and being told that they are powerless absolves them. However, being told that you are powerless also greatly limits what you do or attempt and, it has to be said, it flies in the face of all the principles of social psychology.

For example, we tend to act and behave in ways that are appropriate to where we are and who we are with. That is we would behave very differently at a funeral than we would at a wedding, at an office Xmas party to a business meeting. That is obvious, isn’t it? But why do we behave different in these contexts? Most of us will pick up our cues about how to behave from the context we are in (place, people, occasion) and act accordingly. As the context changes, so too does our behaviour.

Have you ever worked for a boss, or had a friend, that you wanted to do things for or wanted to please? Have you ever worked for a boss, or knew someone, that you really grudged doing things for? What was the difference between these people? Let me hazard a guess, it was their attitude towards you. It is much easier to do something for someone who you feel is supportive of you than for someone who you feel is not. Again this is another fundamental psychological principle!

Also if you are told that something cannot be done then, most times, we don’t try to do it. So if we are told that we need to wait till the drinker is ready change because we cannot do anything about it, then most likely we will not try and change them. Yes we know that you have been trying to get him to change for years without any success, so being told that you are powerless both makes sense and is a relief since you don’t have to keep wasting your time trying. However after finding out you are powerless people tend to stop trying.


Motivation is the key to change

Not that long ago most rehabs were 12 step based. That meant that they (the therapists and doctors) also believed that people were powerless over alcohol and we had to wait until the drinker was ready to change. One eminent researcher was asked “What makes a good therapist?”. His answer was “One that is there when the drinker wants to change.

In the early 1980s research showed that, rather than just wait, if instead you address people’s motivation they change (you would expect that wouldn’t you, you expect that treatment would change drinkers). This was not a new revelation, the ancient Greeks knew it and so did you. Most people react to people doing things that they don’t like by making their feelings plain, they shout, nag, punish etc. Sometimes this works. Indeed at one time it was the accepted way of teaching children and criminals right from wrong. Other times it tends to make a bad situation even worse and living with a drinker seems to be one of those situations. However, there are ways we can address the drinker’s motivation that don’t involve these methods and they are much more effective.

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We are not saying it's easy, it's not in fact it feels very counter-intuitive but if you change your reactions and so change the context for the drinker this in turn may result in them changing their behaviour. It does not work for everybody but it can work more often than not. Research has shown that when people used these methods around two thirds of their drinkers sought treatment compared with about one third for people who were in Alanon. In fairness to Alanon they never suggest that you can influence your drinker. After all they suggest that you are powerless. We don’t believe that you are.