What is Rigorous Honesty in AA?


November 17, 2020

By Andy F

Categories: Honesty

When I first got sober, I was so self-obsessed and consumed with fear that I was unable to listen to very much of what people were sharing at meetings. It took a long time to adjust to life without alcohol. When I started to feel a bit more stable, I noticed that a subject frequently discussed in meetings was the question of honesty.

What I found strange was that my fellow alcoholics were not only sharing about honesty. They were sharing about something they were calling ‘rigorous honesty.’ I wasn’t even sure what that meant. I sensed that this expression took regular honesty to a new level. People shared that only this degree of honesty would help them stay sober and get well.

Bill W’s use of the word “rigorous” in the literature.

Bill used this word several times in the literature. He always used the word rigorous or rigorously in statements that he considered central to recovery.

Big Book. The first paragraph of the first page of Chapter Five in “How it Works.”

“They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which requires rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.”

BB p. 58

Later on in the Big Book, we read:

“In fact, he may say almost anything if he has accepted our solution, which, as you know, demands rigorous honesty.” 

BB p.145

Then, in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill poses the question:

“Who wishes to be rigorously honest and tolerant”?

12&12 p. 24

What did “rigorous” mean to me as a newcomer?

I had this idea that rigorous honesty meant raw, gut-level honesty. It struck me as a much different level of honesty than you would expect from regular people. I thought that rigorous honesty was all about sharing emotions that alcoholics drank to avoid dealing with. Many of my peers in AA had graduated from treatment centers. There, they learned that recovery was all about getting in touch with their feelings.

I became convinced I had to open up in meetings with complete transparency to get well. People were openly sharing facts about their lives that were sometimes very personal. At first, This level of vulnerability shocked me, but therapy convinced me that this was the way forward. Therefore, I learned to share my wounds openly.

Exploring feelings: – The way of therapy.

In the early ’80s, when I first got sober, alcoholics in recovery were divided into two camps. They had very different ideas about how to get well. One camp believed that sharing their painful feelings at meetings would help them to deal with them once and for all. They were mostly the treatment center graduates. They pursued their recovery using therapeutic techniques learned from their counselors and therapists.

The other camp believed in the power of sponsorship and the twelve steps. Following suggestions and taking the steps was the only thing that worked for alcoholics. They spoke at meetings to carry what they saw as a pure, undiluted AA message to the newcomers. In their minds, it was all about encouraging them to take the suggested actions of a sponsor. As a newcomer, I quickly became a “therapy junkie,” I believed that sharing about sponsorship and steps was dishonest. At the time, I saw AA meetings as group therapy. It was all about bearing my heart and soul, just as I did in my therapist’s office.

I was very cynical about the steps, mainly because of the frequent use of the word ‘God.’ Also, I believed that recovery was a purely psychological process and had nothing to do with any spiritual ideas. To a great extent, my agnosticism propelled me to become a devoted member of the therapy camp. I genuinely thought my problems would be solved in psychology, not spirituality.

What is honest sharing at meetings?

Based on what I learned in therapy, private self-disclosure of facts about the past was the way forward. Despite believing in therapy, I never felt comfortable with this practice of spilling my guts at meetings. Opening up and sharing my feelings in a public forum felt emasculating. AA members who believed in this sharing assured me that only brutal honesty would help me deal with my demons.

Perhaps it works for some alcoholics, but making myself vulnerable by bearing my soul to a therapist or in AA meetings never worked for me. Being so emotionally transparent in a room of people I didn’t know didn’t seem right. Everyone was at different stages of recovery. Some AA members were very unwell. Several times, very sick people would use my emotional sharing at meetings against me.

Feelings aren’t facts.

I could be forgiven for convincing myself that I would eventually become a whole person by trying to be rigorously honest with my feelings. This approach to recovery was quite popular in the London fellowship, where I got clean and sober. I read up on therapy and convinced myself it would work for me. In my cynical mind about AA’s spiritual program of action, therapists were professionally trained clinicians with university degrees. I believed that they were more competent than an AA sponsor. After all, sponsors like myself were just alcoholics.

I convinced myself that some spectacular cathartic moment in therapy would release me from my inner demons. Seeing a therapist would restore me to wholeness and health. I would then live happily ever after. Undoubtedly, exploring wounded feelings in therapy works for many people. Sadly, as I discovered at great personal expense, therapy not only didn’t help but made me even more bitter and angry. A lack of rigorous honesty made it easier to blame my childhood instead of taking responsibility for the carnage I had created as a practicing drunk.

“Where other people were concerned, we had to drop the word blame from our speech and thought.”

12&12 p. 47

Why therapy failed me

One of the main features of my alcoholism was that I interpreted everything in a way that was convenient to me. It was much easier to blame my childhood than to face myself squarely and honestly. As I discovered later, this was part of my alcoholic pathology. Another definition of alcoholism that I learned in AA was the “disease of perception.” I only heard what I wanted to hear and saw what I wanted to see. I denied uncomfortable information, especially if it meant taking responsibility for my life.

It was the same with the literature. I initially twisted and distorted the Big Book to let me stay in the problem rather than move to the solution. I thought I was being rigorously honest by exploring what I saw as my valid feelings of anger toward my primary caregivers. This interpretation of honesty drove me into a merry-go-round of relapse that I couldn’t get off.

I recently looked up rigorous* in the dictionary.

Rigorous* “Scrupulously accurate or strict: Very thorough” – Wiktionary

An inconvenient truth

After thirteen years of relapse and the prospect of an imminent death, I asked David B for sponsorship. I have mentioned David frequently in former blogs. David was a rigid, fundamentalist sponsor in AA who founded the “Vision for You” groups in London. They were known for their very challenging and aggressive approach to recovery. David was like the chief warlord of the AA Taliban.

First, David B. asked me if I was willing to go to any lengths to stay sober. Then he gave me a sticker to put on my shaving mirror. It said, “You are now looking at the problem.” Here I was at thirteen years in AA, trying to get sober and still blaming my childhood for my alcoholism.

What did “Rigorous” mean to Bill W.

Could this be the rigorous honesty Bill W referred to in the literature? Was it really me that was now the problem and not all those other people I blamed for ruining my life? Despite being in AA for so long, my personal development was at a complete standstill. I achieved very little in my recovery. I remember David once saying, “As an alcoholic, you were more often the victimizer and not a victim. Get honest! When will you ever grow up”?

This new information was uncomfortable to hear, but I now had the “Gift ODesperation.” (A useful Acronym for God) I would go away and seriously think about what David had said. He insinuated that I was still very immature at age forty-five because of my constant need to blame others and see myself as an innocent victim. David convinced me my case was not unique or different. I was a ‘garden variety alcoholic’; dishonest to the core of my being!

The disease of perception

 My perception of reality is continuously distorted through the prism of a ‘victim belief system.’ I realized that all those self-defeating beliefs flow from my maladapted ego. Bill tells us that “Resentment is the “number one” offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else” (BB p.64). Could it be that when an alcoholic takes a resentment and refuses to let it go, it automatically activates the victim’s belief system?

The twelve steps are beautifully designed to dismantle these self-defeating beliefs. If I had not persevered with the steps, I would have gone through the rest of my life attracting all kinds of co-dependent dysfunction. I only knew two roles in my relationships: victim and victimizer. Jamie, a later sponsor, once told me, “Andy, if you keep doing what you always did, you will keep getting what you always got”!

What are your thoughts about rigorous honesty? Did Bill use “rigorous” to not only help us get honest about our drinking but also to challenge the sometimes distorted perception of our relationships with others? Didn’t our dishonest ways of seeing things continue to make “our lives unmanageable”? (Step 1)

In fellowship

Andy F

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