Recovery Through Awareness, Acceptance, and Action

Nancy B. Alston

Awareness, acceptance, and action, sometimes referred to as “the three ‘A’s,” is both a process and a sequence that facilitates recovery from any number of addictions and those who were exposed to them, along with their inevitable dysfunction, during childhood.

Awareness, the first of them, is “like a light in the darkness (and) is the enemy of denial,” according to Keith Berger of Transformations Treatment Centers in “The Three A’s of Change: Awareness, Acceptance, and Action.” “With the light finally shed on the problem, these vampires of the soul begin to lose their power and fight even harder to keep what control they may have.”

Denial certainly constitutes a dilemma to adult children, who powerlessly endured unstable upbringings.

“If we admit that harmful behavior occurred, we can still be in denial if we fail to acknowledge the effects of harm in our lives,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 92). “Additionally, we are practicing denial if we attempt to explain away the behavior or to offer excuses for our family. By breaking through our denial, we seek a full remembrance. We find our loss and tell our story. With help and acceptance, we recognize the false identity we had to develop to survive family dysfunction.”

Awareness can be of many factors, including feelings, impulses, actions, misdeeds, misbeliefs, character shortcomings, emotions, reactions, and triggers, all of which seek to surface and enter the person’s cognizance.

Although it is the necessary first aspect in the recovery sequence, it may require several attempts before it can be transferred from the subconscious to the conscious.

“Coping with a new awareness can be extremely awkward and most of us are eager to spare ourselves pain or discomfort,” according to Al-Anon’s “Courage to Change” (Al-Anon Family Groups Headquarters, Inc., 1992, p.256). “Yet, until we accept the reality with which we have been faced, we probably won’t be capable of taking effective action with confidence.”

Awareness can be improved with a therapeutic technique known as “mindfulness.” A mental state achieved by focusing on the present moment and calmly acknowledging and accepting a person’s feelings, thoughts, and physiological sensations, it increases awareness through the senses.

Dr. Jon G. Allen described this as “present-centered attentiveness to mental states in self and others” in his “Attachment and Mentalizing in Plain Old Therapy: Treating Trauma and its Existential-Spiritual Impact” Course taught at Adelphi University in November of 2013. “Maintain a quality of openness and alertness so that whatever presents itself becomes the object of awareness, and let all objects of body and mind arise,” he instructed.

This process has been expressed by a simpler rhyme-namely, “spot it and you’ve got it.”

Once you have, it requires the next aspect of the process-acceptance-but this does not necessarily entail the seamless, effortless step it would appear to be.

“We may hesitate to accept an unpleasant reality because we feel that by accepting it, we condone something that is intolerable,” “Courage to Change” continues (op. cit., p. 256). “But this is not the case… Acceptance does not mean submission to a degrading situation. It means accepting the fact of a situation, then deciding what we will do about it.”

“Accept” does not imply “be okay with” or “like.” Instead, it means “make real,” “acknowledge,” “own,” and “claim as reality.” Rejecting and repelling will only produce the opposite of these effects.

“The problem is that until I accept the situation, effects, or memory that have come to my awareness, I can rarely take effective action or live serenely with the consequences… ,” “Courage to Change” advises (ibid, p. 256). “Most of the time, I still have to go back, sit still, feel the feelings, and come to some acceptance.”

“A leap from awareness to action leaves out a critical part of the recovery process,” according to Berger (op. cit.). “Acceptance is the stage in which an honest examination can be made of the ‘discomfort zone.'”

Like awareness, however, acceptance can be a progressive process, since some realities can be difficult to swallow and defects and flaws are sometimes impossible for an adult child to own until he reaches a level of greater strength and self-esteem. When he claims any of these aspects as his, he can change them as his, the third and last step in the process.

This can equally take many forms: attending twelve-step meetings, working with a therapist, consulting a sponsor, tracing unwanted feelings and actions to their origins, and, above all, understanding the inevitability of some of these manifestations as a result of a dysfunctional childhood.

“Actions” such as these necessitate time, patience, and perseverance, and progress is rarely linear, without setbacks and returns to old, familiar ways. Behavior, especially if adopted to survive adverse circumstances, becomes automatic, since the brain, wired to endure and tolerate them, formed neuropathways early in life that need to be rerouted. But with effort, they provide opportunities to “re-see” and redirect childhood-bred pathologies.

“If we wish to change our lives, we must learn a new way of life,” concludes the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (op. cit. p. 568). “The twelve steps are the tools that teach us how to live with a greater awareness. Through a process of awareness, acceptance, and action, we will begin to recover from the effects of family dysfunction.”

Article Sources

“Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Torrance, California: World Service Organization, 2006.

Allen, Jon G., Ph.D. “Attachment and Mentalizing in Plain Old Therapy: Treating Trauma and its Existential-Spiritual Impact.” Adelphi University, Garden City Campus, 2013.

Berger, Keith. “The Three A’s of Change: Awareness, Acceptance, Action.” Transformations Treatment Centers.

“Courage to Change.” Virginia Beach, Virginia; Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992.

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