Identity - Part 1

NOTE: While this is not an official 12-step site and is not endorsed by any 12-step program, I am going to give a disclaimer about this post. This is the first post where I am going to openly question some 12-step dogma. This is not to question the way 12-step programs operate in this particular area, nor am I suggesting that you try to change things in your own group. I am only relating an important part of my own journey. The views expressed here are my own.

“Hi, I am Rick and I am a sexaholic.”

This is the way I have introduced myself in a lot of 12-step meetings since 2016 (I still attend two meetings a week). “I am” is a statement of identity. It tells me who I am, or at least how I see myself. 

“I am” statements are significant in the Bible. The Lord Jesus Christ used them throughout the gospel of John to establish who He was (and is). Here are just three:

“And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35, emphasis added).

“Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12, emphasis added).

“Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:25, emphasis added).

When confirming His deity, Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). God used this description of Himself when He instructed Moses how to identify Him to the children of Israel:

“And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you” (Exodus 3:14).

It is clear to me that “I am” statements are quite significant and powerful. Who I am (my identity) is related to what I do (my behavior). Or perhaps it can be stated the other way around: I do what I do because of who I am. The most important aspect of my identity is not how others see me, but how I see myself.

For example, I identify myself as an avid cyclist. What do avid cyclists do? They ride their bicycles a lot. Why do they ride a lot? Because they are avid cyclists. The behavior creates the identity and the identity drives the behavior.

James Clear, in his excellent book, Atomic Habits, stresses the importance of establishing identity as early as possible when trying to change. Here is a quote from the book:

Imagine two people resisting a cigarette. When offered a smoke, the first person says, “No thanks. I am trying to quit.” It sounds like a reasonable response, but this person still believes they are a smoker who is trying to be something else. They are hoping their behavior will change while carrying around the same beliefs.

The second person declines by saying, “No thanks. I’m not a smoker.” It’s a small difference, but this statement signals a shift in identity. Smoking was part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes.

This is more than psychological word play. Words are powerful—the Bible says that death and life are in the power of the tongue—and we have to be aware of the identity we establish through our words about ourselves. And honesty, I have an internal struggle whenever I identify as an addict in a meeting. I feel like I am sticking with an identity that is too limiting and doesn’t reflect the person that I am becoming and want to become.

I understand the wisdom behind identifying as an addict, especially when establishing sobriety early in recovery. Identifying as an addict breaks down the denial and self-deception that often hinders people from getting the help they need. It can be a reflection of personal surrender: “I am sick and I need help.” Identification with the group is an important part of getting established and it provides motivation to get a sponsor and work the steps.

But this kind of “I am” identification has limits, in my opinion. I don’t think anyone would suggest that when I lose, I should say, “I am a loser”; or when I fail, “I am a failure.” Losing and failing are a part of life and actually vital components to growth. But they shouldn’t become identifying characteristics of who we are.

I liken it to physical health. When my clogged arteries were discovered, some radical steps were taken to correct the problem: I was rendered unconscious, tubes were inserted into my body, my sternum was sawed in half, my chest was pried open, etc. The initial goal was that I wouldn’t have a heart attack and die. But that wasn’t the ultimate end; the end goal was overall cardiovascular health through better nutrition, exercise, and reduced stress. Health means more than repair. It means identifying as a healthy person and living consistently with that identity.

What is the ultimate goal for those of us with addictions? Is it just sobriety and recovery? And what is recovery? Does it include unlimited growth and healing? Does it include the spiritual, emotional, and relational health that God wants for me? 

I want to be sober and in recovery. And I want growth and healing. I believe that all things are possible with God. I want my identity to reflect those aspirations and beliefs.

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