Recovery Capital

Recovery Capital

Nourishing and Toxic Attitudes in Recovery

By Allen Berger, Ph.D.
© 2014

Recovery capital is a relatively new concept in the field of recovery. Our recovery capital is determined by the number of external and internal assets that we have which support recovery. External assets are things like having a home group that we attend regularly, a good connection with our sponsor, the support of our family, legal problems, etc. Internal assets are things like our level of commitment to recovery, the degree that we have accepted our devastating weakness, our attitude towards our problem, and our attitude towards ourself and others to name but a few.

External assets are much more fragile and fickle than internal assets. Therefore we want to be more heavily invested in our internal assets. To increase our internal assets we need to assess our attitude towards our problem, our attitudes towards ourselves, and our attitudes towards recovery. What standard do we use to assess our attitudes? I suggest that we ask if our attitudes are nourishing or toxic. A nourishing attitudes will increase our internal recovery capital while toxic attitudes will sabotage or subtract from our recovery capital.

Answer the following question, “What attitude do I have towards my problem with alcohol and other drugs?” Most of us were quite ashamed that we had a problem period. In one sense it didn’t matter the nature of our problem, the issue was that we shouldn’t have any problems whatsoever. So admitting that we were or are powerless over our addiction and that our lives had become unmanageable was a tall order and nearly impossible. As Bill noted our natural instincts cried out against the idea that we are powerless. What makes it so hard for us to accept ourselves as we are? Here is what happens that interferes with us admitting to and surrendering to Step One.

At some point in our development we shifted our energies away from self-actualization to actualizing a concept of who we should be. We abandoned our true-self in favor of becoming who we thought we should be.

As Fritz Perls stated, “The one who wants to actualize a concept attempts the impossible.”

It follows that admitting we have a limitation is difficult because it doesn’t fit with the concept we have of who we should be. We mistakenly believe that having a limitation means we are defective, it means we are less human. This attitude is toxic, both for our recovery and for our self-actualization too. This belief makes it hard for us to own who we really are – a flawed, imperfect being. But no change can occur until we own who we are. We know that this is how change occurs – it is a process that begins by owning who we are, not when we try and be something we are not.

As we learn to challenge our beliefs along with the concept of who we think we should be, we begin to change our view of ourselves and our problem. We are able to turn a weakness into a strength. We see that owning our limitation is something that adds to who we are. It doesn’t subtract from us. It helps us actualize the self that we truly are and helps ground our efforts in recovery in the possible. This is the path to creating a stable recovery. So question all of your attitudes. Are they toxic or do they nourish you?

Allen Berger, Ph.D. is a popular recovery author for Hazelden Publishing. He is the author of  12 Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery, 12 Smart Things to do When the Booze and Drugs are Gone, and 12 Hidden Rewards of Making Amends. His interpretation of the 12 Steps is included in The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps. You can learn more about Dr. Berger and his work at his website:

20 Responses

  1. Roger says:

    I want to respond to some of the people who have made negative – sometimes overly-negative – comments about this article, Recovery Capital.

    I believe there is some real merit in the idea, and this piece by Allen Berger.

    What “external assets” do we have to help us maintain our sobriety? Well, we have meetings that we can and do go to. Some of us have sponsors. Our more religious members have a God.

    But I don’t have a sponsor and I don’t believe in God. So do I have to go to meetings every single day of the week? I know some people who do just that, and you probably do too. But that’s not for me. I need other external assets, and sometimes I actually have to work at that.

    What could these assets be? Well, a job would be nice. I don’t have one now, and as a result I am not always in a cheerful mood, and that doesn’t help my sobriety. Maybe that’s why Allen said that “external assets are much more fragile and fickle than internal assets.” He’s right about that.

    How about a hobby?

    How about friends, and especially friends outside of AA?

    A nice place to live?

    All of these things are external resources that would help most anyone maintain his or her sobriety.

    Let me now take a quick look at “internal assets”. I’ll be brief about this because Allen dealt with it in some detail in Recovery Capital.

    Let me name just one: self-esteem. That’s a word that does not appear once in the Big Book, but I would argue is quasi-essential to sobriety. Allen Berger suggests that we have to have a realistic sense of ourselves, including our limitations, to develop a proper sense of who we are, and to have a sustainable sense of self-esteem.

    There are other internal assets. There are other external assets. These are the resources that we need in order to maintain our sobriety, and nourish our recovery.

    Increasingly, that is called “recovery capital.” May not be the words I would have chosen, but so what?

    At the end of his article, Allen says that “as we learn to challenge our beliefs… we begin to change our view of ourselves and our problem.”

    I think I need to challenge my own beliefs and I need always to be ready to look in new places to find what I need to maintain and, yes, to “nourish” my sobriety. And I doubt that I am the only one who needs to do that.

    • Dan L says:

      Thanks Roger. I enjoyed the article very much myself and I found Dr. Berger’s books to be of great benefit to my sobriety. He writes in a way that I have no problem understanding and puts things in much more acceptable scientific framework which appeals to my “intellect”. There is not much that people do that psychologists do not have a name for… and that somebody has done a useful study on. I prefer to incorporate as much of this as I can in my own sobriety program. Knowing what was wrong with me was essential to me formulating a recovery plan and, quite frankly, if one more person accuses me of over analysing and thinking too much I might feel a need to push back, hard. There comes a time where each person in recovery has to “just do it” but at what point blind faith comes in varies from one to another.

      As an atheist my reserves of unreasoning faith are limited without some intellectual understanding of what is going on within me. Thanks for putting out the article and for your follow up.

      • Roger says:

        Welcome Dan! And Bill Wilson wanted me to throw in a quote from him: “Research has already come up with significant and helpful findings. And research will do far more.” You can read his whole talk right here: Responsibility Is Our Theme.

    • Duncan says:

      Roger, We cannot be overly-negative. This is what some people thought about the article. Some will like it and others won’t. Its the same thing about God, Sponsors,the Programme, the Steps and whatever. We all take out what we want and leave the rest.

      Personally I don’t like the bookish approach, nor all of the so called experts who make livings from it. However others do as Dan L has pointed out.

      All I can do is be honest and tell people how I got sober.

    • Eric T says:

      Some folks in my neck of the AA woods would argue that self-esteem is the same as ego, that the objective of step work is ego-deflation, so beware self esteem lest it divert us from our primary purpose, etc etc. round and round. Confused, inaccurate, and downright harmful. And I could see how any article discussing self actualization and/or self efficacy in a positive way might offend them.

      Let them be offended. They have a ways to go yet in their own recovery.

      Just my “overly intellectualized” opinion of course ! LOL

      • Roger says:

        You touch upon an important quandary, Eric.

        The evangelical pietism of the Oxford Group, in which AA had its origins, considered humans worthless. It emphasized a “deep aversion to all emphasis on human strengths”. (Not-God, p. 180) You had to “Let go and let God.” This attitude is very much reflected in the original 12 Steps.

        And that’s why those of us who don’t believe in an interventionist deity have to write our own versions of the Steps. And it also why we have to count on the mere mortal, as frail as she or he may be but there ain’t nothing else, to identify the resources, the “inner and outer assets,” that will be crucial over time to maintaining and “nourishing” sobriety and recovery.

        That is the basic difference between fundamentalists or literalists in AA and we agnostics, atheists and freethinkers.

        Can both groups live together in AA? Well, if we are first and foremost a “spiritual not religious” fellowship it shouldn’t be a problem.

    • Allen says:

      Roger, I appreciate your perspective. I found the negativity curious because what this idea of recovery capital suggests is that there isn’t one way or one path to recovery. As the old saying goes there are many roads that lead to Rome. But even more important is the idea that we do at least need a balance between our internal assets and external assets. Listen oxygen is one environmental support that we need. But we also need a sense of worthiness to stand with ourselves and support ourselves in the process of recovery which is to say in the process of discovering new possibilities within ourselves and how we cope with life.

  2. Svukic says:

    Hmmm, the word “actualize” (written with an American ‘z’ in several grammatical forms including some with the prefix “self-“) appears five times here. What does it even mean in the context in which it is applied in this article?

    • Bryan says:

      I found if you use the word ‘acceptance’ it worked more than once for me.
      I’m the youngest of 9. Been around alcoholics and AA for 50 years.
      I quit when I went to a program called Daytox. They offered Qigong, Yoga, Grief and Loss, Anger Mgt., meditation and communication skills…. their approach was, whatever works for you; is the Right way.
      The religious types are intolerant of us. Let’s learn from that and have some tolerance for others.

      • Duncan says:

        Bryan, I really fail to see why AA did not work for you. You can have all of those activities outside of AA and in fact I have attended courses on some of these. AA is about being a “return to normal living”.

        I agree with you in that any way that works is right for that person, but some of the activities you mention may not work for others. Are you suggesting that Daytox will continue to add activities until all are satisfied?

    • Tommy H says:

      It’s just a big word eggheads use to try to impress us.


  3. Larry says:

    Pure unadulterated horse puckey here. Hazelcrap. The chapter in the BB is “Into Action”…not “Into Thinking.”

    Go pickup a wet puke and take him or her to a meeting. Bring some toweling in case they puke in your car.

    Intellectual recovery works right up to the second I pour booze down my throat. I can no more intellectualize my own sobriety than I could make monkeys fly out of my rectum.

    This kind of intellectualizing is of ZERO value to an alcoholic or an addict. It actually serves to kill them.

    • Dan L says:

      It is my opinion that some people function quite well in recovery with a certain amount of intellectual activity. I can hardly imagine recovering without it.
      Some people just do not work that way and perhaps never will. Different people need different things. This “only one way of doing things” just about killed me. It seems recovery is hard enough that many people can feel that the way that worked for them is the only one that can work for anyone. I have not found this to be true.

      • Tommy H says:

        Very well put.

        Intellectual activity is a very vague term and some people, bless their hearts, have a dim view of the term.

        My wife made 27 years earlier this month and I will have 23 years in two weeks, but we work our programs very differently, so we leave each other room. She’s Roman Catholic and I’m atheist. Works for us.

        Point is there isn’t one hard and fast way.

    • Bryan says:

      This kind of intellectualizing is of ZERO value to an alcoholic or an addict. It actually serves to kill them.

      Did you mean, In my humble opinion??

      I have tried the “into action” approach. It was just a little too much caveman for me. Intellectualizing saved MY life. One man’s poison and all that…

  4. david m says:

    External assets are much more fragile and fickle than internal assets. Therefore we want to be more heavily invested in our internal assets.

    A rather blanket statement cast almost offhandedly into the narrative without clarification or supporting evidence.

    Some observations about this concept.

    Most people I know in recovery had precious little in the way of “internal assets” when they began their journey into sobriety. I and just about everyone I know depended entirely on “external assets”.
    An AA group, perhaps, or a treatment center. Dedicated and loyal family and/or friends, possibly. Supportive employers, even.

    The point here being that “external assets” were pretty much the only ingredients available in the early going of recovery. Few if any of these “externals” proved especially fickle or fragile, and indeed if they had been many of us would not be here to participate in this discussion.

    AA in particular, as a fellowship and in spite of its obvious weaknesses and annoyances to thoughtful people, continues to prove astonishingly durable. Indeed, AA and fellowships which operate along similar lines have established tradition of encouraging members to apply their energies to reaching out to help others – a vital process which serves to strengthen the fellowship so it can be a reliable “external asset” for the next sufferers who show up.

    While it’s undeniably necessary to sort out one’s “internal assets” — determination, commitment, honesty about one’s personal reality etc., etc. — and separate the wheat from the chaff internally, focusing too exclusively on one’s inner workings, especially in the very early days of sobriety, can be confusing and counterproductive.

    But no change can occur until we own who we are.

    That’s just plain wrong.

    It’s simply untrue that no change of any kind can occur without an internal evaluation such as is suggested here.

    Change can occur, and does occur all the time, as a result of taking different actions, regardless of one’s attitude of mind at the time.

    Just as one example, when I walked into my first AA meeting ever, I was in fact taking the action of admitting to myself and to a whole room full of other human beings (and to god too, if you believe in that kind of silliness) that I had a problem and was at the very least in doubt about whether I could handle it. That’s not what was consciously going through my mind at the time, not at all, but that is, in a very real sense what I was actually doing.

    This new action then set in motion a whole train of events and new personal contacts which began a long and complex process which eventually did indeed include the self-honesty this piece describes, but the idea that such self-honesty must be a precondition for meaningful change is simply not supported by the empirical evidence found in the details of so many of our personal stories.

    The notions of “recovery capital” is vaguely interesting, and distinguishing between “internal and external assets” may be marginally useful in some situations as an explanatory framework, but aside from that this is sloppy work riddled with oversimplifications and outright inaccuracies. Sadly, this is not an altogether rare phenomenon in the now massive body of published work in the recovery field. One is tempted to say the “recovery industry”.

  5. John M. says:

    Another way of looking at conceptualizing “recovery capital” is in recognizing that for far too long addiction and recovery theory and practice has tended to emphasize the psychological and ignore the sociological — even when social psychology is applied. “Recovery capital” takes into account both the psychological and the sociological in an integrative approach.

    Bill White and Ernie Kurt have been aware of this for some time and their interest in RM (Recovery Management) and ROSC (Recovery Oriented Systems of Care) reflect this. White’s and Kurtz’s colleague, William Miller, developer of MI (Motivational Interviewing), has also been involved with CRAFT (Community Reinforcement Approach and Family Training) and all of these are recovery capital approaches where the psychological and the sociological are fully integrated in order to see the wider picture concerning the problems and solutions in addiction recovery.

    Look at the majority of our responses at AA Agnostica — I include myself in this — and we will see that our responses tend to solely revolve around the psychological dimensions of our addiction and recovery in terms of self-motivation, individual choices and preferences, personal inventory, etc. As hugely important as these are, powers greater than ourselves that are available to us because of various historical sociological developments are all too often left unappreciated by us.

    Thanks, Roger, for bringing this to our attention via this article. It helps to keep us all better informed about what is happening out there in what Bill White calls the New Recovery Movement.

  6. IVAN K says:

    My name is Ivan K and at 2:00pm today a day at a time I have been sober 22,218 days and June 23 I became 83 year young. I call a spade a spade and not a shovel and if people do not like that, that is their problem. I look in the mirror,and the image come back and, says Ivan I like you

    I thought I heard it all, and after reading Recovery Capital I guess I have not staying Sober is very simple. Go to meetings work the 12 steps from 1 to 9 but once and stay sober daily on 10-11-and 12. Staying sober is simple Forget about Recovery Capital. Ivan K a grateful sober Alcoholic

  7. Dan L says:

    For a long time I have been working with the idea of “emotional capital”. I feel that we all have a certain amount of emotional capital which we can use for dealing with the things in our life. When I became addicted to ethanol something went wrong with me. On one hand I devoted a large part of this emotional capital to acquiring and consuming ethanol an on the other hand I wasted the rest because: a) generating stress is part of my drinking pattern (because that first drink when I am all wound up is SO much better) b) I have been using ethanol to medicate against my emotions for a lifetime. Thus I would commence each day in a depleted state of emotional well being (hungover) and then I would squander my “daily” allotment as quickly as possible. I had no emotional strength to combat addiction, it just wasn’t there. In commencing recovery I learn how to conserve these emotional resources and use them properly through attempting to remove my pre-programmed emotional squandering and developing methods of conserving emotional strength. For me this generates a little tranquility and serenity which I can use to further my recovery. The
    AA program seems to assist with doing this. I do not need to rely upon god and prayer to generate acceptance but I must cultivate these resources within myself. Thank you.

  8. Tommy H says:

    Just another way of saying it’s all in our motives.

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