Part of the reason why I gravitated to and fit in so well in AA (until I started sharing about abuse at the hands of AA members), is that there were similarities in communication styles in both AA and in my family. Both my family and people in AA rely on story telling in order to get their ideas across, they share their experiences as a way of giving advice (but don’t admit that they’re giving advice), and you are encouraged to try to relate to people through the sharing of your experiences.
In AA this kind of sharing of experiences and relating to one another is supposedly done in a way that is not advice giving. But I’m here to argue that it is definitely a form of advice, and can be pretty damaging to others.
What I saw in AA was a bunch of people patting themselves on the back for not giving advice when in actuality they most definitely are. In fact, this covert method of advice sharing could have even more of an impact on a person than just a few overt or direct words of advice. In my experience, when a family member or person in AA would share a story to me or talk about their experiences rather than just give direct advice, I always felt so grateful to hear their stories and didn’t really think twice about it or contemplate what had been said. I found myself swayed, too, to follow people who shared this way like a sheep. It’s like somehow they knew how to lean in and touch a deep part of me with what they said…. but the indirect advice that they gave me wasn’t always healthy! And the truth is that the whole program of AA was founded upon the sharing of experiences in a certain way in order to change another person’s behavior. In other words, it was founded on a way of giving advice that doesn’t seem like you’re giving advice at all. This idea that people in AA aren’t giving advice but instead are sharing from their own heart and experiences really can make the program seem like it’s something that it’s not.
I myself, though, learned to share in this experiential way throughout my life. I also came to expect that kind of sharing with others. So of course when I met my boyfriend David and his family, who are not influenced by 12 step programs like my family or myself (my Grandfather also went to AA, which had a huge influence on our family) it was practically culture shock. When I started working on healing from trauma, for example, I was actually mad at David because he would just listen. And when he did share advice, it was done in a very different way that I was accustomed to.
The truth is, though, that we are taught in AA that if you don’t follow group norms, that you will drink and die. So of course when David and his family spoke to me in ways that didn’t follow these norms, it kind of freaked me out because I feared that I might do it too, and therefore I would die! This sounds silly and irrational, but this is actually the kind of fear based thinking that is promoted in AA.
For me, though, I had a big reason to overcome these communication styles, and that was and still is David. I wanted to marry him within probably six months of meeting him and he was smitten with me too, and still is! He gave me the strength to change simply from unconditional love, which I had never felt from another person before.
I began to also see that the style of relating to others through your own experience can be damaging to another person after I’d been working through my trauma for some time. As I worked through my trauma, I’ve had some people from 12 step programs try to relate to me rather than try to understand me and what I’ve gone through. As I outgrew the messages I’d learned about that form of communication, I eventually found this type of communication from others to downright frustrating at times. This especially happened when someone equated their life or the trauma they went through to mine when they just didn’t understand my own experience of trauma. But when I would ask them that and ask them to try to understand versus give advice or relate to me, these people would usually always end up getting really angry at me. This opened up my eyes to the fact that giving advice (directly or indirectly), sharing your own personal experiences openly, or even trying to relate to another person isn’t always a wise thing to do.
I still, though, tend to fall into this habit of sharing personal experiences myself or trying to relate to others when it’s not necessary or even respectful/appropriate. Because of this, I felt myself torn as to what to do in regards to a post in a Facebook group. I saw a person’s post about their child’s/adolescents bizarre behavior and interest in sex. I immediately thought “This sounds just like how a child would react to sexual abuse.” I looked through the comments and found that indeed someone had brought up the fact that this looks like sexual trauma, but many others thought that it was some sort of acting out behavior and kind of slammed the child.
So I decided to second the sexual trauma idea and just said that a child showing an early interest in sex is an effect of child sexual abuse, and so this possibility must always be considered. I tried to keep it as brief as possible, and to leave my own experiences out of it. I knew, though, that I’d probably get some nasty or weird comments because I helped to bring a delicate subject to the surface, and was unsure of how appropriate it was even though someone had already shown this same concern. Still, I felt obliged to speak up.
Within a few minutes, someone had already confronted me with a weird comment. I felt immediately inclined to share my story of how this happened to me as a result of child sexual abuse, but I stopped. Instead, I simply told her that I don’t know how to reply to your comment. Sorry. But she still fired back. I continued though, not to share my experience and to stick to the facts that surround this issue. This seemed to stop this woman from continuing to argue and did the same for a few others who replied with “let’s not talk about child sexual abuse” comments. I am proud of myself for not giving in to sharing my own story, as this can result in re-victimization, especially if it is done on Facebook. Still, though, I worry if it was wise of me to make that comment at all.
I know that I’m still learning how to communicate effectively with people after living a lifetime that was filled with unhealthy communication patterns. But I’m getting there! What kind of communication patterns are you working on undoing in your life?
Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment below.