Friday, July 10, 2020

What I Learned from ACOA - Externalization

One of the premises of the 12-step programs is to take responsibility for your own actions and stop blaming others, or "externalization".

I noted in a very early posting that I went to an ACOA - Adult Children of Alcoholics - meeting, and learned a valuable lesson that turned my life around.  I only went to one or two meetings, and that was enough.  Maybe I am a fast learner.  The facilitator at the meeting, when I explained how my parents would get drunk and go off the deep end, told me, "you can't control their behavior, but you can control yours."   It was profound advice - so simple and direct and I felt stupid for not seeing earlier.

When my parents got drunk, I could stay sober and not be a punching-bag.  I could decide to leave until they were sober again.  It changed the whole dynamic.  It became clear, after a while, to them that I was not going to stick around for drunken tirades anymore.  So they cleaned up their act, and in the last years of their lives, I had nice meetings with them, of only an hour or two in length.  Only once, in Alexandria, did I break the rules and not take my own car.  I ended up jumping out of a moving car as a result, leaving Mark a little befuddled (but he exited shortly thereafter).  My parents thought maybe the rules were going to be relaxed.  Not so.

What was interesting to me was how many of the people at the meeting used their parents dysfunction as an excuse not to succeed in life. One nice young lady in her early 30's had a professional career but still lived at home with her drunken parents.  Like members of the "Children of Narcissists" movement, all she wanted to do was bitch about her parents.   When we suggested she move out and find a boyfriend, get married and settle down and start a family of her own, she acted as if we were speaking Esperanto.   Move away from the dysfuction?  Not be a perpetual child?  You can't do that!  She was obligated to be an audience for her parents' lives.   It was a sick dance, to be sure, but she wasn't be forced into it.   But she couldn't see that.

In the various 12-step programs, one of the things they promote is the "Serenity Prayer" which was written by Reinhold Neibuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
It is a neat little hand-grenade designed to blow your mind.   What that prayer says is what I have been harping about in this blog for a decade: externalization.   So many people want to blame all their problems in life on others - often unseen others or abstract concepts.  The boring man I met had an excuse for every failure in his life.  Nothing was his fault, it was the banks, his employer, his boyfriend, his parents, the Fed, the President, the congress, Nancy Pelosi, or whoever is the whipping-boy this week.

This is not to say none of these things affect your life - they do.  But for the most part, other than voting (and often this means voting with your feet) there ain't much you can do about those things other than complain, make yourself depressed, and drive away friends, family, and lovers.   A better approach is to acknowledge what you can control and admit to your own failures rather than blaming them on others.  If you make a bad stock trade, it is not the fault of the people who hyped the stock, but your fault for believing them.   It is a hard thing to admit, but a useful thing to admit, because the next time around, when someone on the Internet or the television hypes a "hot stock pick" maybe you can remember how you lost all your money last time because you believed when you should have been skeptical.

Another idiot who believed in this "Robin Hood" nonsense, lost all his money, most of which was borrowed on credit cards and a second note on his homeThe media reports he lost all but $6000 or so, but he borrowed tens of thousands of dollars that all has to be paid back, so he really not only lost it all, but came out behind.  Now he is in major debt trouble.

You can blame these Robin Hood people for encouraging chumps to invest in derivatives they don't understand.  It goes on all the time - Just saw yet another pitch on line on "how to make money on the VIX!" (answer:  write a book about how to make money on the VIX and sell it to chumps).  Or, you can look inwardly and realize you believed the siren song of something-for-nothing and that you made a huge, unthinkable mistake by mortgaging your family home to gamble in a casino.  Until one owns up to ones own mistakes, nothing changes.

For me, the ACOA meeting and the advice from the facilitator was liberating.  I realized my whole life was based on externalization and that my family was a host of externalizers.   Each had a reason why they could not succeed in life - "Greater issues were at stake!" I was told.   Who can worry about getting a job in this Reagan economy?   Of course, political conditions never changed enough for them to succeed in life.   Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama - it made no difference.  There was some sort of conspiracy against them personally that made even trying, a loser's game.

We see this today as well.  On the Left, young people who have decided that $25,000 in student loans (the average amount) is too much to pay back, so you might as well default and then set fire to a Burger King in some sort of protest.    Why bother trying?  Unless Bernie is elected and we all get free checks from the government, the system is stacked against you!   working is just for chumps!

I think these "Antifarts" need a 12-step program of their own.  And one for the "Buggery Boys" as well.  Left or Right, these extremists have posited that all their troubles are someone else's fault.  And if they can't protest a cause of their own, they'll latch onto someone else's.

It takes a lot of courage to say, "Hey, I fucked up, this is my fault, and my fault alone" regardless of whatever it is that happened in your life.   And courage is in short supply.  It is a lot easier and a helluva lot more fun to play the victim and claim that "but for" external forces, you would be successful.  Wow, another posting that made it to Google Snippets.

It is, of course, a never-ending battle.  It is so easy in life to blame others, when we are at least a little bit culpable.  For example, I used to buy esoteric technology and then get upset when it didn't work as advertised.  I realized, later in life, that all this junk goes out the door in beta form, and we are expected to be the testers.  Better off to buy further downstream, once the bugs were worked out.  It took me a long time to see that the problem wasn't the tech geeks selling this crap, but me for blindly believing them, again and again, when the vast volume of evidence showed them to be liars.

We all want to be externalizers.  We all want to be victims.  No one wants to say, "I'm a fuckup, I'm a loser!"

But the reality is, the real "losers" in life are the externalizers.   You've known people like that, maybe had them interview for a job where you work.  They have voluminous reasons why they got fired from their last seven jobs.  Or maybe you know them personally - and they have the same number of reasons why their last seven girlfriends dumped them.   Once you go down the path of externalization, it becomes a perfect feedback loop.   All that loser talk scares away other people, potential mates, friends and family.  And the externalizer never looks within to see why - but blames them for being "bitches" or "materialistic"or "selling out to the man" or whatever excuse they want to use.  So they spiral down further into depression and despair, not realizing the key to their jail cell is in their own hands.

OK, that's a long way from ACOA, but it just hit me today, for some reason, that this serenity prayer thing is what I have been getting at all along.

I could have saved myself ten years of blogging!