Compliance and Acceptance; Submission and Surrender

By Dr Harry Tiebout, an early friend of AA who wrote extensively about alcoholism and AA. This edited article illustrates an often subtle but devastating state of mind in recovering alcoholics.


Dr Harry Tiebout

In alcohol treatment and recovery one fact must be kept in mind, namely the need to distinguish between submission and surrender. In submission, an individual accepts reality consciously but not unconsciously. He accepts as a practical fact that he cannot at that moment conquer reality, but lurking in his unconscious is the feeling, “There’ll come a day” — which implies no real acceptance and demonstrates conclusively that the struggle is still going on. With submission, which at best is a superficial yielding, tension continues. When, on the other hand, the ability to accept reality functions on the unconscious level, there is no residual battle, and relaxation ensues with freedom from strain and conflict. In fact, it is perfectly possible to ascertain to what extent the acceptance of reality is on the unconscious level by the degree of relaxation which develops. The greater the relaxation, the greater is the inner acceptance of reality.

Acceptance appears to be a state of mind in which the individual accepts rather than rejects or resists: he is able to take things in, to go along with, to cooperate and to be receptive. Contrariwise, he is not argumentative, quarrelsome, irritable or contentious. For the time being, at any rate, the hostile, negative, aggressive elements are in abeyance, and we have a much pleasanter human being to deal with. Acceptance as a state of mind has many highly admirable qualities as well as useful ones. Some measure of it is greatly to be desired. Its attainment as an inner state of mind is never easy.

Compliance needs careful definition. It means agreeing, going along, but in no way implies enthusiastic, wholehearted assent and approval. There is a willingness not to argue or resist but the cooperation is a bit grudging, a little forced; one is not entirely happy about agreeing. Compliance is, therefore, a word which portrays mixed feelings, divided sentiments. There is a willingness to go along but at the same time there are some inner reservations which make that willingness somewhat thin and watery. It does not take much to overthrow this kind of willingness.

[In the alcoholic] . . . surrender is essential to wholehearted acceptance and that unconscious compliance, which is a halfway surrender, can be a vital block to genuine surrender.” “. . . alcoholics frequently show marked unconscious compliant trends which not only help to explain some puzzling aspects of their behavior but also account for their frequent inability to respond meaningfully to treatment.

After an act of surrender, the individual reports a sense of unity, of ended struggles, of no longer divided inner counsel. He knows the meaning of inner wholeness and, what is more, he knows from immediate experience the feeling of being wholehearted about anything. He recognizes for the first time how insincere his previous protestations actually were. If he is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he travels around to meetings proclaiming the need for honesty — usually, at the start of his pilgrimage, with a certain amount of surprise and wonder in his voice. Quite frankly, before he was able to embrace the program, he had no idea he was a liar, dishonest in his thoughts; but now that A.A. is making sense — that is, he is accepting A.A. wholeheartedly and without reservations — he sees that previously he had never truly accepted anything. The A.A. speaker does not follow through to state that, formerly, all he had been doing was complying; but if asked, he nods his head in vigorous assent, saying, “That’s exactly what I was doing.” A more articulate individual, after a little thought, added: “You know, when I think back on it, that was all I knew how to do. I supposed that was the way it was with everybody. I could not conceive of really giving up. The best I could do was comply, which meant I never really wanted to quit drinking, I can see it all now but I certainly couldn’t then.

Obviously this speaker is reporting the loss of his compliant tendencies, occurring, let it be noted, when he gave up, surrendered, and thus was able wholeheartedly to follow the A.A. program. Let it further be noted that this new honesty arises automatically, spontaneously; the individual does not have the slightest inkling that this development is in prospect. It represents a deep unconscious shift in attitude and one certainly for the better. After (Tiebout, 1953)

Related Reading:

The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You
Stop Drinking Start Living!
Denial: A New Adult Romance Novel
I Need To Stop Drinking!