Many members of AA and NA define the three primary principles of recovery as honesty, open-mindedness and willingness. In previous articles, we’ve discussed the importance of honesty and the origins of willingness. We have not, however, discussed the importance of opening one’s mind. And while willingness and open-mindedness may sound like similar concepts, they differ greatly in practice. In fact, open-mindedness precedes willingness in most cases. We cannot become willing to take suggestions without first becoming open to the possibility that they may help us.
We might say the same of honesty. Before we can become honest with ourselves about our disease, we must be open to the possibility that we suffer from it in the first place. Honesty begins when we complete Step One and admit that we cannot control our substance abuse. But before we do this, we must entertain the idea that we are less powerful than we once thought. Without this demonstration of open-mindedness, completion of Step One would simply not be possible. In fact, each of the Twelve Steps begins with our ability to believe that we may gain something from them. And in the case of Step Two, open-mindedness is all we need to believe that we are able to recover.
Below, we’ll discuss the benefits of open-mindedness and how to develop an open mind in treatment. We’ll discuss the need to take suggestions, and the need to accept that we do not possess all the answers. As you’ll soon discover, this requires us to sacrifice our illusions of control. The reward, however, will be well worth the effort. But before we get to that, let’s talk about what open-mindedness really means to the recovering addict or alcoholic.
What Is Open-Mindedness?
The basic definition of open-mindedness, receptiveness to new ideas, seems straightforward enough. But social psychologists have worked for some time to do more than simply define open-mindedness. They also wish to measure it. Previously, psychologists did this using the California F Scale. However, many criticized this method, as it appeared to judge respondents based largely on political party. This led to the creation of a new scale, using politically ambiguous statements. For instance, one statement describes the world as a lonesome place. Those with open minds might be less inclined to agree with this statement, instead maintaining hope that everyone can find their place in the world.
Individuals who lack an open mind tend to react poorly to cognitive dissonance. When they discover evidence that a long-held belief might prove false, they feel uneasy. In most cases, they immediately attempt to disregard or discredit any evidence that contradicts their beliefs. Substance abusers often experience this when first confronted about their addiction. On some level, we may see the merit in what we are hearing. But it so strongly interferes with our denial that we find ourselves uncomfortable. In many cases, we may even lash out in anger at our accuser.
Open-mindedness relates to humility (another important principle of recovery) in a big way. It humbles us to accept the possibility that we can be wrong. This is especially true if we harbor great dislike for the person whose viewpoint we now find ourselves considering. But open-mindedness requires us to accept the rights of others to speak their minds, even if we disagree with them. And to truly maintain an open mind, we must admit that many of their views possess at least some value. In cases such as this, open-mindedness comes down to basic respect for others and their beliefs. We are not required to fully agree with everything people say. We must simply accept the possibility that they speak the truth.
When seeking to develop open-mindedness, pride often stands in our way. We tell ourselves that our own intellect will prove sufficient. Despite our long struggles with substance abuse, we remain convinced that we can fight the disease on our own. Even if we do manage to achieve abstinence, we may find our spiritual growth stunted by our close-minded thinking. We become mired in our own thoughts, leaving ourselves vulnerable to relapse. Our best thinking got us here. We must learn to think differently if we wish to improve.
Benefits of an Open Mind
Maintaining an open mind allows us to learn more about recovery. When we admit that we don’t know all the answers, we enable ourselves to seek guidance from others. Perhaps some of the suggestions we receive will require practice. We will not always get it right on the first try. But open-mindedness allows us to keep trying instead of giving up after a single failure. Close-minded thinkers will disregard an idea based on one failed application. But those of us with open minds are able to learn from our mistakes. This type of learning makes all the difference in recovery.
Open-mindedness also has the potential to change our entire worldview. A belief is not always necessarily right or wrong. Some beliefs are complex, made up of several smaller elements that may contain a grain of truth here and there. Likewise, people are not always good or bad. Someone we see as a good person might have done bad things in the past. By contrast, “bad people” are capable of performing good deeds. In truth, most people possess both good and bad tendencies. We cannot treat the world like a movie in which every character stands on the side of either good or evil. This denies the true complexities of human nature and the world at large.
Another benefit of open-mindedness pertains to our need to fill the void in recovery. Addicts and alcoholics rarely deal well with boredom. We need to develop new hobbies, pursuits that can replace the time once spent on substance abuse. Open-mindedness allows us to broaden our horizons, trying activities that we once avoided due to sheer disinterest. Trying new things allows us to rediscover our sense of adventure without resorting to drugs and alcohol. And who knows? We might even make some new friends and expand our support network in the process.
More than anything, open-mindedness provides us with a new sense of freedom. Our past illusions of control may have fed our ego, but they also burdened us with an unrealistic sense of responsibility. You are not Atlas; you do not carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. When we accept our limitations, we can begin searching for ways around them. Quite often, this requires us to seek help from a sponsor or another trusted individual. In doing so, we remind ourselves that recovery is a shared journey. We don’t have to go through it alone. This provides us with much relief, and makes our recovery significantly easier to manage.
Opening Your Mind in Treatment
The development of an open mind begins the very moment we decide to enroll in treatment. Even if we enroll at the behest of our family or the judicial system, it requires at least a smidgen of open-mindedness to accept that treatment is better than the alternatives. Of course, some may enter treatment in an attempt to game the system by avoiding jail time. For these individuals, the development of open-mindedness may take some work. Such defiance stands directly in the way of spiritual growth. Nonetheless, those who enter treatment will find it difficult to remain close-minded once they begin therapy.
Group therapy challenges our close-mindedness by forcing us to share our thoughts with others. Our counselors, and even our group members, will point out flaws in our ways of thinking. They do so not to antagonize us, but to help us realize the need to develop a new mindset. We should therefore consider their feedback, and refrain from responding with personal attacks. As we begin taking the suggestions of the counselor and the treatment team, we discover that many ideas we once resisted actually possess a great deal of merit. This causes us to realize that other ideas we previously rejected might prove similarly valuable. As long as we can remember this lesson, we can maintain the level of open-mindedness needed to achieve sobriety.
Many of the therapeutic exercises we perform in addiction treatment require us to face our past. When looking back on our past thoughts and behaviors, we often feel like we are reviewing the history of a complete stranger. Our twisted thinking while intoxicated might not even remotely resemble our manner of thinking when sober. It can be easy to romanticize our substance abuse, remembering only the good times. But when we look back with an open mind, we begin to see just how unhealthy our lifestyle truly was. This realization strengthens our desire to remain sober. Having steeled our resolve, we can pursue our recovery with greater conviction.
Open-mindedness alone will not ensure our sobriety. It will, however, open the door to developing the rest of the principles we must embody in recovery. By learning to take suggestions and consider alternative beliefs, we become better at adapting to our new circumstances. And when we open our minds to the possibility that we can recover with enough effort and a bit of help from others, we learn to look toward the future with a renewed sense of hope. In this way, open-mindedness gives our recovery much greater meaning.
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