what is unmanageability

A.A. Step One: What Is Unmanageability?

“We can take back possession of ourselves, by choosing intrinsic values like wisdom rather than extrinsic ones like status or power.”  – Jules Evans (1)

Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

If you misunderstand the dash, you will misunderstand Step 1. This is important. If you miss it you…well… you won’t make it to Step 2. It’s that’s simple. Of course, a spiritual problem cannot be solved numerically – as if one can plumb the depths of the soul in a linear fashion. But in terms of understanding what Step 2 is attempting to articulate is founded solely upon the “power principle” of Step 1. Ok, first let’s return to the dash.

“Think of dashes as the opposite of parentheses. Where parentheses indicate that the reader should put less emphasis on the enclosed material, dashes indicate that the reader should pay more attention to the material between the dashes. Dashes add drama—parentheses whisper.” (2)

Though dashes can emphasize a conclusion, for instance, that the unmanageability is the result of the addiction, I believe that regarding Step one the “drama” of unmanageability is being stressed and it’s not necessarily just as the concluding factor regarding the “powerlessness” component.

Why? Because unmanageability is integral to its counterpart (manageability) and therefore is a creative force. Indeed, inner unmanageability demands inner manageability. It will find it one way or another…

Sure, unemployment, inability to sustain a relationship, constant incarceration, and riding the institutional circuit may appear as unmanageability – and it is, but only inasmuch as it reflects or is indicative of inner unmanageability (maladaptive thoughts/stinking thinking, the chaos, the sin nature, the disease, etc.). The Big Book at least implicitly states that the drink is a vehicle for producing inner manageability, or inner peace and quiet.

In other words, the addicted substance/behavior ‘creates” inner manageability aka “sanity,” through whatever substance/act pulls off the deed. It creates “adaptive thoughts.” Oddly enough, this is precisely the same language offered in Step Two, only in this dimension, God is this “restorer of sanity,” the adaptive redeemer as it were.


The A.A. Power Principle

Understanding the power principle is crucial. And, rather than get caught up with higher versus lower power debate, wherein the almighty God launches lightning bolts towards Beelzebub, let’s change the direction to fit a more contemporary construct.

What do I mean by that? It’s simple. First, unmanageability is overturned by power; is this not obvious? All order has a power behind it. There is a tendency to attribute order to divine power and disorder to demonic power but even the devil is clothed as an angel of light.

I’d argue both are a power and both accomplish order. It’s how they are accomplished that differentiates them; therein lies the distinction.

  • Power from without (lower)
  • Power from within (higher).
  • Power from without = Addiction
  • Power from within = Higher Power (God, Spirit, Nature, etc.)

What do these powers both have in common? They both resolve inner unmanageability. Only one is organic and lasting, the other is temporary and actually exacerbates the dis-order which in turn demands more consumption from without to lessen the inner growing unmanageability.

Habituation…Power From Without Is Avoidance

In Psychology Today Dr. Noam Shpanzer in an article titled “Overcoming Fear: The Only Way Out is Through,” wrote that the key to reducing anxiety – inner unmanageability as I’ve labeled it – is through the physiological process called habituation. He writes,

“Habituation, defined formally, refers to the fact that nervous system arousal decreases on repeated exposure to the same stimulus. In layman’s terms, it means that familiar things get boring. This mechanism is hard-wired into the human genetic program. It has clear adaptive value, because habituation to familiar stimuli allows more energy to be directed to novel stimuli, hence improving the odds of survival…”

He continues,

“But the most important application of the habituation principle has been in the area of anxiety treatment. The experience of anxiety involves nervous system arousal. If your nervous system is not aroused, you cannot experience anxiety. Understandably, but unfortunately, most people attempt to cope with feelings of anxiety by avoiding situations or objects that elicit the feelings. Avoidance, however, prevents your nervous system from habituating. Therefore, avoidance guarantees that the feared object or situation will remain novel, and hence arousing, and hence anxiety provoking. Moreover, avoidance tends to generalize over time. If you avoid the elevator at work, you will soon begin to avoid all elevators, and then all buildings that house elevators, etcetera. Soon enough, you’ll be living in a prison of avoidance.” (3)


Traditionally, people have been quick to label addiction as a form of escapism. Though I must admit I understand and agree with the sentiment, I prefer to call it a very subtle and insidious form avoidance. The most subtle. Because it actually does confront and deal with the anxiety! It combats the inner unmanageability and makes it manageable. It “appears” to go viz-a-viz, toe to toe with the chaos…It tricks the brain/body into thinking its habituated but, perniciously, actually distanced itself from the fear.

In this respect, power from without will never fail to ensure that life is forever novel and thus forever terrifying and unmanageable. Why? Because drugs, or any external power of like nature, creates instant but temporary habituation.

This is the trick. Suppress the nervous system unnaturally and never naturally allow habituation to grace it. From the pen of wormwood Himself. For all intents and purposes, one literally needs to start all over once they decide to tap the power within – once they decide to sober up. Evil indeed! It is the great counterfeit; the unholy mimicker; the wolf in sheep’s clothing, as it were.

Spiritus Contra Spiritum

As some of you may already know, celebrated psychoanalyst Carl Jung is mentioned in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. He actually played a vital role in the “spiritual awakening” doctrine as prescribed in the 12-Steps as the antidote to the spiritual disease of addiction.

(Spiritual awakening is the term used of the process of redirection wherein one moves from power-from-without to power-from-within…it’s also worth noted that the Christians called this direction change “repentance” which undoubtedly coincided with rebirth)

On pages 26-27 the tale is retold of Roland Hazzard and his treatment under Dr. Jung. After some time, Jung declared Hazzard’s condition (chronic alcoholism, the term employed in the Big Book) as hopeless apart from a religious experience of sorts. Subsequently, Roland had the awakening/experience using the principles of Oxford Group (now called Initiatives of Change) and recovered.

Years later, after the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, Jung penned a letter to Bill Wilson (co-founder of AA) which enlarged his initial opinion of Roland’s hopeless plight and gave us even greater insight into the power principle as mentioned above.

He writes,

“His craving for alcohol was the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.”

Here we see the power principle as delineated by Jung, only much more eloquently captured.  Per Jung, Roland was demonstrating what all humanity seemingly present, that is, an innate thirst for wholeness, for connectedness, for inner manageability.

This craving is as natural as the thirst for water. Moreover, as in water, this thirst is necessary for survival – only its an emotional and spiritual survival. Thus, people will seek to quench this thirst by all means possible. Jung appears to suggest that Roland merely found his means in alcohol. Or, at least the illusion of it.

Jung even insists upon a simple albeit ancient solution for beginning the healing process, the process of redirection as it were, he states,

“You see, Alcohol in Latin is “spiritus” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”


The Translation: Spirit against spirit

Spiritus contra spiritum is best understood as Spirit (capital “S” i.e., inner power) against spirit (lower case “s” i.e., outer power). Society, perhaps unknowingly, is in accord with this distinction as is evident with the many Wine and Spirits Shops of our day. People blame money, alcohol, drugs, sex, etc. as being the real evil of our time but in reality, these things in themselves are neutral. It’s when they are leveraged and extended beyond their purpose that evil flexes its muscle.

Jung rightly concludes,

“I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world (power from without), leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by a real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community (power from within).” (4)

Thus, the term “powerless” in Step One refers to the inability to endow outside power with the capacity to create sustaining and authentic inner manageability (sanity, habituation, union with God, soul satisfaction, whatever you want to call it). It’s powerless to achieve these results. Moreover, over time it is accompanied by an obsession because it teases the individual into experiencing brief habituation, and is consequently sought after with more and more willpower. Working harder using the wrong method to get the right results. The irony.

Instead, only by tapping into one’s organic power can this end be achieved; so far throughout this post, we have called it “internal power, but Higher Power, Nature, or to use the term of our ancestors, the title God will suffice. A frequent acronym for God found in recovery groups is “Good Orderly Direction.” Perhaps this has little to do with the instruction given, but everything to do with the direction. Namely, only when power is sought inward (right direction) can inner manageability (right order) be found, and this is the supreme good since it is arrived at via virtue, which is best summed up as the absence of self-centeredness…or better yet, love.

Timmy G (2018)



  1. Jules Evans (How Ancient Philosophy Saved My Life) 2012.
  2. https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/semi-colons-colons-and-dashes/
  3. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/insight-therapy/201009/overcoming-fear-the-only-way-out-is-through
  4. http://www.a-1associates.com/aa/LETTERS ETC/Carl Jung Letter.htm (parenthetical emphasis added).


  1. Jordan Gee November 21, 2018
    • Timmy G. November 23, 2018

Give a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.