Constitutionally Incapable

what does constitutionally incapable mean?

I remember coming to meetings, hearing this term, and wondering if the term, constitutionally incapable applied to me. The phrase in question is related to a common 12 step group reading,

The full sentence reads, “Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.” – AA Big book Chapter 5

The statement might imply those who do not recover are not all in, for lack of better words for the AA program, and more often than not, the ones that are not all in are mostly the ones that are not able to be honest with themselves.

Constitutionally, as defined by Merriam-webster is:

“1a: in accordance with one’s constitution constitutionally unable to grasp subtleties.

b: in structure, composition, or constitution despite repeated heatings the material remained constitutionally the same.

2: in accordance with a political constitution was not constitutionally eligible to fill the office.” –

In this sense, “Constitutionally” would mean at the core of one’s own individual self. Honest, as we know, or being honest with self, or in reference constitutionally incapable of being honest with self, would mean at the core being one is not able to see the truth about themselves.

When I first heard this clause, I felt as though I were doomed. I felt I was fundamentally flawed and would never get sober. I personally had a hard time getting sober, and this phrase rang true with every relapse. A sober friend of mine, who happened to have an education and was a psychologist, told me there are very few people who this would apply to, and he doubted I was one of them. That gave me some relief.

This still raises the question though, what if I don’t personally agree with the philosophies of 12 step groups? Does this mean I am going to relapse and that I am constitutionally incapable of being honest with myself? Chances are, I would say that is a definite no. Let’s discuss what the phrase actually means.

Learning to be Honest with yourself is the Key

Alcoholics and addicts are selfish people. Most often, there is a consummate affinity to lie and manipulate to others to get to the substance of choice. Getting honest with oneself about this problem is where the real problem exists regarding being constitutionally incapable with oneself.

In the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous, there is reference to acts of altruism in the Doctors Opinion. Basically, Dr. Silkworth points out that these unselfish acts in part contribute to a person getting sober. Add on top of this, spiritual growth. Those two acts are the bread and butter of change. Want to stop using or drinking? Put simply, be a better person, and try and grow spiritually. Sobriety can be as simple as that.

Spiritual Growth

Please note, I said spiritual growth not religious growth. These two terms often get confused between each other. Religion is a group of peoples agreed upon version of what exists beyond life. Quite often, this agreed upon version is passed down from generation to generation in the form of a belief system, and along the way, certain peoples opinions get woven in. Wars have been fought over religion, and far too many problems have existed as a result. Let’s be clear, when I or many others in the 12 step rooms state spirituality, we are not discussing religion.

For myself, spirituality is trying my best to understand and live by the of qualities of Loving kindness. Compassion, understanding, forgiveness, appreciation, awareness, giving, generosity, to name a few. I don’t choose to identify with any one religion; however, I have a great respect for all of them, and I try to focus on their good qualities, not the qualities that used to make me angry.

For more context, spirituality, in my opinion, is well defined in a paper written by Dr Maya Spencer, titled What is Spirituality? A personal exploration. Her paper states, “Spirituality means knowing that our lives have significance in a context beyond a mundane everyday existence at the level of biological needs that drive selfishness and aggression. It means knowing that we are a significant part of a purposeful unfolding of Life in our universe.”

To sum up about being constitutionally incapable, if you’ve read to the bottom of this article, changes are, this phrase does not apply to you. The secret that I didn’t hear until I had been in the rooms for awhile are, willingness, honesty and open mindedness. Rearranged, this makes the acronym of HOW. How do you get and stay sober? Be Honest with yourself, be Openminded to new ideas and suggestions from those around you, and have the Willingness, to put some of these newfound ideas into action. And don’t forget, change isn’t instant, it happens one day at a time, so be nice to yourself today, as is often said, it is progress, not perfection.

For more information on these three principles check out our article, Willingness, Honesty and Open-mindedness.

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