Each Al-Anon group has but one purpose: to help families of alcoholics.
We do this by practicing the Twelve Steps of AA ourselves,
By encouraging and understanding our alcoholic relatives,
And by welcoming and giving comfort to families of alcoholics.
Each group should be autonomous,
Except in matters affecting another group, Al-Anon or AA as a whole.
- “All or nothing’ attitudes and thinking are common in alcoholic families, as if the only alternatives available are total freedom or total control. It is not unusual to see rebellion against all authority, with little recognition for how much authority is reasonable. In general, alcoholic families usually have little experience with healthy boundaries and frequently struggle with control issues. Tradition Four helps us understand the boundary between what is within our control and what isn’t. Learning to find the right balance between our autonomy and someone else’s is the mature alternative to the loneliness of total freedom or absolute control. It makes healthy relationships possible." Reaching for Personal Freedom p82.
Raising questions, discussing problems, talking things out in a quiet way helped members learn to respect differences and come to decisions that helped their meetings prosper. And when they made mistakes? They were able to learn from them and chart a new course.
- A member shares, “In my family nobody talked about what was going wrong. There was such a huge commitment to looking perfect. Knowing that the traditions came from mistakes is revolutionary for me.”
In Step Four we learned to look at ourselves honestly. Tradition Four follows the same principle – honest evaluation. Before we make a decision for our groups or for ourselves, we ask ourselves what’s the downside? Does this decision have the potential to harm my meeting or Al-Anon or AA – or my friends, co-workers or family? If so, we reconsider. And if a decision results in a negative outcome, we change course. For example, in the early days of AA and Al-Anon, groups often took it upon themselves to publish their own pamphlets. As time went on, however, it became clear that AA and then Al-Anon needed to keep their message consistent. In Al-Anon, literature now goes through a vetting process by Al-Anon’s World Conference to ensure that the message stays the same. Meetings are asked to use “Conference Approved Literature” or CAL so that the principles of the program are maintained.
- A member shares, “The common denominator in my experience was that I didn’t feel safe. Sticking to Conference Approved Literature and clarity of purpose in a meeting makes me feel safe.”
We aren’t perfect. We will make mistakes. Al-Anon makes it safe to do so.
- A member shares, “I don’t want you to think that I’m perfect or that I know more than you – I may have to call you!”
Al-Anon gives us the tools to consider our decisions and make corrections without blame or guilt if those decisions have unintended consequences. We are only asked to “practice the principles in all our affairs."
- A member shares, “Obedience to the unenforceable. It means there are no rules – just suggestions. I am choosing to be obedient – to follow the principles in all my affairs - no one is enforcing it.”
In Al-Anon we say there are no rules, only suggestions.
- A member shares, “I was raised in a religion ruled by fear. The steps are suggestions – that’s why Al-Anon is my religion. If I suggest something to a sponsee and they don’t do it, I learn something. We learn from our mistakes. It’s how the traditions came about. The early membership made mistakes. The traditions were developed as a result of what we learned from those mistakes.”
And if something goes wrong in a meeting?
- A member shares, “I once went to a room where they had “grand sponsors” and all these rules – you had to wear a skirt when you qualified. I heard that and my third finger wanted to fly up – that’s not Al-Anon. I stopped going to that meeting.”
In meetings it’s common to hear the expression “take what you like and leave the rest.” And that’s certainly useful for most situations. We learn to “live and let live” and “easy does it.” But in those situations where a group strays from Al-Anon, it is suggested that members take their concerns to their steering committee or business meeting and that the group take a group conscience on the practice in question. Sometimes the practice is benign and the members decide that it’s okay for their group.
- A member shares, “One room I was in had coins. We’d talked about it and decided it was a good thing. It didn’t hurt anybody and people liked it so we did it. I still have a coin from that room. It worked for me. And at the end of the day it’s just me alone in the bed with God and the blankets.”
This tradition of autonomy is all about balancing interests and maintaining healthy boundaries. And boundaries, as we’ve found, give us our identity.
- A member shares, “On a personal level, Tradition 4 helps me understand where I end and another person begins. Growing up, in a household with alcoholism, physical violence and mental illness, in addition to being one of eight children (4 boys & 4 girls), I was either, one of the older kids or one of the boys. I was very rarely seen and heard for simply being me. It felt dangerous to "shine" (standout). Jealousy, envy, and rivalry were rampant. I was always very wary of what I said and to whom. In order to feel safe and not offend anyone, I learned early on to say what I thought you wanted me to say and fly under the radar. I’d try to be invisible, to never be seen or heard - which is what I yearned for all my life. It took me years of recovery to ‘know myself’ outside my connection to other people and their needs, wants and agendas. And, many years to fully know and appreciate the concepts of autonomy and anonymity, and that I was actually allowed to be myself in this lifetime.”
Step Four showed us how the ways we’d learned to cope in alcoholic families and relationships, had ultimately limited us. Tradition Four helps us move forward in a recovered way in these relationships.
- A member shares, “In my family, everything was about gossip, achievement, a label – the surface of things. It made me always want to please – to get good grades. Or to hide so I wouldn’t get hurt. Because we don’t have labels in Al-Anon – we’re anonymous – it forces me to talk about feelings. It’s a new language I’m learning. I don’t have to put on a show or wear a mask. I’m slowly gaining the skills, the discernment, to know who is safe. I also get a barometer when I’m in a relationship. Am I pleasing or hiding or can I really share myself.”
And that’s really what we all want – to be able to be ourselves in the world. Al-Anon gives us the tools to make that happen.