500 Lambda Circle, Apt A, Wernersville, PA 19565 

Helping Those Who Need It Most - One Day At A Time

Surrender versus Compliance


A longtime friend of AA, Dr. Harry Tiebout explained the difference between alcoholic submission and surrender. He wrote:

"In submission, an individual accepts reality consciously, but not unconsciously. He accepts reality as a practical fact that he cannot at the moment conquer reality, but lurking in the unconscious is the feeling: ‘there'll come a day.’ True surrender, on the other hand, is acceptance on both a conscious and unconscious level, which allows us to put the conflict to rest and move on to other parts of our recovery. In fact, it allows us to forget the conflict and no longer be troubled by it."

As an Advanced Relapse Prevention Specialist I have worked with many relapsers who have experience short periods of this "submissive compliance" which has allowed them to stay clean and dry for brief periods of time. In each case the prospect of returning to their true love of drinking and using never truly left them. It was their lurking in the shadows, deep within, hidden in their inmost thoughts and desires. The fantasy that someday I won't know enough, I will understand the disease enough, I will be able to figure out how to control it, and again be able to return to successful use of my drug of choice. This lack of genuine and true surrender on both a conscious and unconscious level can truly be a set up for relapse.

If this is true then how are we to find surrender. What the program teaches us is that we cannot do this alone. In fact it boldly states that the only way that we can find true surrender is to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand him. Recovery is a spiritual process. In the big book, it says that we are granted a daily reprieve based on our spiritual condition. We can indeed take actions to consciously attempt to surrender, but to do this alone is not possible. We need help from a power outside of ourselves in order to experience the true nature of surrender. To experience the psychic change that we need requires not only effort on our part but more importantly intervention from a power outside of ourselves. It is only when this intervention occurs that we are able to truly and absolutely let go and find surrender.

Compliance on the other hand is a part of the passive submission that many addicts and alcoholics experience in the earliest parts of their recovery. They begin to see the evidence in front of them that they indeed do have a problem with alcohol or drugs and that their way is no longer working. They will comply with the pressure to abstain that may come from different sources such as family, employers, and even the legal system. Simply going along with the requirements, and following the rules, and learning to understand does assist the alcoholic or addict in establishing initial abstinence. This compliance with stopping drinking and using however does not produce lasting change. If that is all that is involved in recovery then all we would need is a one step program.

Today, we know a whole lot more about addiction and recovery then in the earliest days of AA, but we still struggle with the same issues as those early alcoholics who developed the 12 step program. Addiction to alcohol and drugs is a biopsychosocial and spiritual disease. On a biological basis we must learn to understand that we are completely powerless and have no ability to control our substance use with any predictability. Even after periods of abstinence we cannot go back and learn to drink successfully again. Our genetics, brain chemistry and brain functions have changed in a way that we will never be able to go back and drink and use in a healthy manner.

On a psychological level, addiction affects our thinking, our emotional responses, and are behavior. We need to learn in recovery that our way of thinking, feeling and acting does not work. We need to recognize that we must rely on help from others to point us in the right direction and show us the way. In this matter, both professionals as well as the 12 step programs can help us learn to reshape our thinking, feeling and actions and allow us to develop a new and healthy way of living. But here, the 12 step program shows us that we have much more to change than simply stopping drinking and using. We must learn to properly self-assess and determine our strengths and weaknesses. We need to find many of the deeper underlying core issues that exist in our lives that need to be addressed and healed.

Then there are the social aspects of this disease. We learn that there are people places and things that we need to avoid. We began to recognize how our actions and behaviors have affected other people. We learn that we need to make amends and begin to rebuild our lives based in honesty and trust. In the program we begin to learn how to have healthy relationships with other individuals. We learn about asking for help and accepting guidance. We learn about important things such as self-esteem and values and their role in our lives. We find that there are some troubles that we have that we cannot get through alone. It is here that we find that others can show us the way.

And finally, there are the spiritual aspects of the program. Have I learned that my way doesn't work? Am I my willing to let go of my self-reliant attitude and behavior and begin to trust in a power outside of myself? Have I made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God as I understand him? Do I talk to God through regular prayer? Do I listen to God through regular meditation? There are many questions that we need to learn to ask in recovery and even more questions that we need to find the answers for. Many of these answers we cannot find a by ourselves and we must rely on a power outside of ourselves to find the answers.

The real question is am I simply going along and complying in order to appease someone or something in order to take the pressure off. Am I simply trying to recover from the consequences, knowing that deep inside there is part of me that still believes, "maybe someday?" Am I ready to find a spiritual solution that will give me a daily reprieve from the insanity of my disease?

© 2013 John W. Stiemke