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Winning the battle against addiction is this month’s theme, and so far we’ve looked at two dimensions of what it means to be victorious over drugs and alcohol: first, the discovery that addiction doesn’t define you; and second, taking responsibility for your life. This week we examine another dimension of overcoming addiction — giving back in recovery through service to others and the sharing of one’s gifts and life experience.
Why Giving Back Can Be Scary
The idea that you alone have something unique and valuable to share with the world can be scary. Many of us can think of a time when we sought to offer something of value to another person and felt rejected in the process. Giving back in recovery necessarily involves some of that same risk. It takes courage and vulnerability. This is especially true for those in recovery, for whom drugs and alcohol once served as an escape from the world and from feelings of rejection and inadequacy. Service is at heart a form of sharing our very self, so naturally, fears of rejection or of our own inadequacy are real.
The spiritual writer Marianne Williamson helped articulate this fear beautifully when she wrote that “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” but rather, in actuality, “that we are powerful beyond measure.” She continued:
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
How Giving Back Frees You From Your Fears and Is Good for You
Williamson’s wisdom turns up a powerful, seemingly paradoxical truth about helping others. On the one hand, the prospect of using our gifts and life experience to help others can itself be scary, as an act of vulnerability. On the other hand, it is this very act itself — helping others — that can set us free from our fears and open us up to greater health, wellbeing, and happiness.
A large body of research has confirmed that service to others is one of the best things you can do for yourself, because of the physical and mental health benefits of altruism. The takeaway is that caring for others is intimately connected to caring for oneself. A posture of seeking to serve others and be helpful is thus “self-serving” in a healthy and constructive way.
In addition, giving back in recovery has worked for millions of Americans in 12-step recovery. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are encouraged to “carry this message” (Step 12) of spiritual awakening and recovery to others. Those who have progressed to a certain level in their sobriety are encouraged to become sponsors whose main role is encouraging and helping others who are new to AA.
Real-Life Examples of Giving Back
But AA is only one outlet among many for service and helping others. There are countless avenues for giving back using the gifts and life experiences unique to you. Many of the clients I’ve had the privilege to serve are now themselves serving others in often creative and inspirational ways. One of them sings and writes poetry at local shops, often weaving stories from her recovery journey into her art. Another client now works in addiction treatment as a behavioral health tech, working as a mentor for others. He reports feeling gratitude and a deeper sense of connection to his own sobriety, as a result.
How are you giving back in your recovery? Share your experience with the rest of us! We’d love to hear it.