Recently I found myself returning to a book I had read many years ago – The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz (Amber and Allen Publishing, San Rafael, CA, 1997). As I reflected on his thoughts about these “Four Agreements,” I began to see connections with our efforts to achieve and maintain sobriety – whatever our addictions might be. In this article, I hope to show you some of these connections. I am always open to your feedback and suggestions because I truly believe that learning happens best in dialogue.
So that we might all be on the same page, Ruiz’s Four Agreements are:
- Be impeccable with your word
- Don’t take things personally
- Don’t make assumptions
- Always do your best.
Be impeccable with your word
Impeccable speaks to me of speaking honestly to others as well as to oneself. My experience has been that if I am not honest with myself, how can I be honest with others? As I look back upon my years of growing up, I learned that there were certain things I could speak comfortably about – the weather, baseball scores – and there were other topics that would be better not spoken of – sexual experiences and fantasies, events that caused me to feel embarrassed and ashamed — amid others. As a result of this, there were experiences that I put into a kind of dark box within me not to be opened or talked about. Sound familiar? This could often lead to living a double life – one life for others to see and another that we only knew about and kept secret. Such splits often lead us into addictive thinking and behaving.
I see one of the goals in continuing to work our recovery is overcoming these kinds of splits. One of the ways we can do this is being able to open this inner box of experiences and to begin to share some of these experiences with others – especially those experiences which reveal our mistakes and imperfections. In sharing these vulnerable experiences with others, I have learned a couple of ground rules. The first comes from Brene Brown, a heroine of mine, who has written much about shame and its impact upon us. One of her caveats is beginning to share shameful events with only a few people we trust. Don’t begin by announcing these to the world?! Announcing to the world could be its own kind of grandiosity! The second is to go slow and get feedback before saying more. Are they with us? The third concerns with whom we share. I have learned, in walking with others as a sponsor where they have shared these kinds of experiences with their partner or a significant other, that it can be too much for the other to handle. Take it slow and seek to be aware of what our sharing of these experiences might do to the other person.
So, I agree with Ruiz in the importance of our word being impeccable. At the same time, it is important to be discerning about what we are saying and how much to say to others. I believe the place to begin is seeking to be impeccably honest with what we tell ourselves. That is a very important place to begin, especially as we seek to be impeccable with what we say to others.
Don’t take anything personally
For me, this is probably the most difficult of the Four Agreements. When something happens that I feel is less than perfect – that can happen often – I quickly react and take what I did or didn’t do very personally. I can get stuck in a place where I interpret everything that is happening is about me and never consider that it might also involve the other or others that are involved.
I have found two practices that have helped me slowdown from that reaction that this is all about me. First, when I experience moving into that reacting place where I am taking things personally, I try to remind myself to breathe, take a couple of deep breaths, and in this, remind myself to try to become less defensive. The second is being able to share with a trusted friend, or possibly a sponsor, or the 12 Step group what has taken place and request some help in trying to become less defensive. Asking and receiving support – as well as giving support – are always a very good practice.
Don’t make assumptions
Again, I find it relatively easy – especially in situations where I am not understanding what is happening – to begin to make assumptions about what is happening or what another person is saying. I have learned that it is often much easier to ask the other person what they mean or ask others what they are doing and possibly trying to accomplish. One time, I asked a friend what his motivation was in doing what he was doing. That gave him a chance to explain to me what he was doing. That helped me. I believe my openness in asking him to share was helpful to him and really a sign of a respect for him by asking.
Asking and receiving support – as well as giving support – are always a very good practice.I believe this Agreement recognizes that there are many perspectives from which to look at a situation or from which to act. It is only by asking the other that we possibly learn the perspective from which they are coming. This also can help us enlarge our perspectives as we discover perspectives what we had not previously seen.
Over the years, I have found this happening in the 12 Step meeting I have been attending for over 27 years. Asking for clarification from another, often leads me to see aspects I hadn’t seen. I believe recovery involves coming to see dimensions that can complete parts of ourselves that we had blocked or hadn’t seen. An example of this is coming to see how one’s Higher Power can be other than just simply a God-like figure. People spoke of how they saw the group or their sponsor or even a value as their Higher Power and how that really worked for them, whereas a God-like figure didn’t. Their sharing changed the assumptions about Higher Power that I had. I feel I am much richer from what was shared with me.
Another example for me has been engaging others in dialogue – that is, I am not trying to convert the other to my views. I want to engage in a conversation about what is important as well as to learn from them. The proverbial 2-way street! Those kinds of conversations can often shift my assumptions and help me to see what I hadn’t seen before. Such conversations can often lead people to find common ground with others that they didn’t know they had. Letting go of our assumptions, then, can be very helpful in learning not only about others but about ourselves.
Always do your best
I would immediately distinguish between trying to do our best and seeking to do everything perfectly. I can be a perfectionist, and when I fail to do things perfectly, I can become upset and embarrassed. As I have struggled with my own perfectionism, I have come to the conclusion that really perfection doesn’t exist! And when I am on a perfectionist track, I often make assumptions, speak less than honestly, and take things personally – basically working against the other Agreements.
So, if I desire to let go of my perfectionist track – and I do – and travel the path of trying to do my best, how will I know if I am actually doing my best? A challenging question for me! In regard to this question, I have learned a number of practices that have helped. The first involves the First Agreement, that is, being honest with myself about what I tried to do and what I did. I believe if we are trying to be honest with ourselves, we will know whether we gave it our best shot. Second, is a willingness to be patient with ourselves, especially if we are in the process of learning and trying something new or something we hadn’t done before. The usual ways of learning of doing something different involves making mistakes. So, trying to do our best doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes. It is important to accept this and also try to learn from them so that we don’t continue to make the same mistakes. Third, is a willingness to be accountable to others about our plans and what we are trying to do. In being accountable to others, we are not living in the shadows of life but in the light. Others who know us and to whom we are accountable can help us to see our perfectionism at work and help us to change. I see being accountable as an important part of a recovery plan and practice. I see addiction flourishing in isolation while recovery flourishes in community.
This brings to a close my reflections on the connections between the Four Agreements and our journeys toward recovery and sobriety. I see the Four Agreements as a very good companion to the 12 Steps. Some of these are: Surrendering to the wisdom of a Higher Power or Higher Powers, working with our shortcomings and character defects, continuing to take inventory and admitting how we are doing, as well as sharing with others. Reading such a book and talking about its contents with others – as well as other contemporary books and podcasts – can only add to our understanding and practice of the 12 Steps. And as I said at the beginning, I am always open to your feedback, suggestions, and ideas. We can all grow through this kind of a dialogue.
Mark T. Scannell is a veteran 12 Stepper who believes that communities or Villages are essential in helping people recover from our addictions. His most recent book – The Village It Takes: The Power To Affirm – explores this theme.
We may receive a commission via some of the links on this page, at no cost to you. Thank you for helping to support our website.
Last Updated on June 20, 2022