Character & Emotions

PTP123 Front Cover


"As an abiding master concern this passion for God and his will for me becomes deeply imprinted in my character and gives shape to my psychological identity. It is what now drives and informs my practice of the principles in all my affairs, for that is how his way of life is fulfilled and becomes manifest in me. The virtues themselves become concerns and construals, shaping what matters to me and how I see things in the course of everyday events. I am moved by and see through the eyes of faith, hope, love, compassion and gratitude.  

Virtues and emotions are inextricably linked in this process. As spiritual traits, they share the same perceptual and motivational foundations that are built through the process of a spiritual awakening. Yet emotions are episodic states, they ebb and flow with varying degrees of duration and intensity. It is the virtues that, through repeated practice, can become etched in our character and become firm and settled dispositions. It is the virtues that, through character building, can provide a stable spiritual and moral foundation for the emotions. By practicing them in all our affairs, the virtues can give shape not only to our moral, but to our emotional life, disposing us to right action and right feeling.

The emotions then have an identifiable source in our character. They are by and large affective expressions of character traits. Healthy or wholesome emotions are manifestations of virtue and good character; unhealthy or unwholesome emotions of character defects. Said differently, character defects will tend to show up in warped emotions that are out of line with the true nature of a given situation, while character virtues will tend to manifest in emotions that are appropriate to a particular circumstance. By practicing the virtues we cultivate the soil from which healthy emotions sprout; by letting go of our character defects we drain the swamp in which diseased emotions breed.

This connection between character and emotions is not a fully conscious part of our understanding or practice in AA. But it is what clearly underlies Step 4, as noted in our earlier discussion of the “exact nature of our wrongs.” 

Our moral inventory as laid out in the Big Book is an examination of our character flaws as they relate to three emotions. These are anger, resentment, and fear. We make a list of the people we are angry at and note next to each the “cause” of our resentments (our perception of what they said or did, how we construed their words or actions) and next to that the areas of concern that were affected or threatened, things we cared about such as our “sex-relations,” “security,” and “self-esteem,” affixing in parenthesis next to these the word “fear,” the third emotion issuing from the perceived threat.

Reversing the habit of a lifetime, we focus on finding the cause of these emotions not in the other person, but in ourselves. It is then that we can make the connection between emotion and character. As we take inventory and examine our resentments, issuing from hurts real or imagined, we begin to see the exact nature of these resentments in the character defects that lie behind and trigger them.

But this doesn’t happen automatically. We need to consciously look for these defects. The “cause” column of the Big Book’s “grudge list” will reveal, if we look hard enough, such flaws as jealousy, dishonesty, disloyalty, competitive pride, intolerance, and self-righteousness. We will find these and more “common manifestations” of self in us, if we dig deep enough when we look for the real “cause.” They are what feed the unforgiveness eating away at us, and the chronic anger we call resentment.

Our character defects generally rest on a perception of others as being deficient in some manner, that is, on a perception of their character defects. What this does of course is to blind us to our own. Anger, resentment, and fear recede when we ask God to help us see people, especially those who have actually harmed us, as they really are, as being “spiritually sick,”7 just like we are.

This understanding or “construal” helps us to identify with people’s weaknesses—even when they impact us. Intolerance and the other character defects lose their perceptual justification and we can more readily surrender them. Honestly seeing our defects for what they are instead of trying to justify them, we can then focus on letting them go and practicing their virtuous counterparts, rather than responding to wrong with wrong.

Motivated by a desire to do God’s will, to be of service and of help, we ask “each morning in meditation that our Creator show us the way of patience, tolerance, kindliness and love”8 for when we practice these and the other virtues as reflections of a spiritually transformed character, anger loses its triggers and resentment its fuel.

When we reflect on that part of our 4th Step list that pertains to our fears and inquire as to their cause, we find that they also spring from our defects of character. The Big Book suggests that our fears—and here we can add such associated emotions as worry and anxiety—often arise on the heels of a prideful self-reliance which invariably ends in failure, for it is motivated by a false understanding of ourselves, dependence on God being intrinsic to our nature.

We try to gain self-esteem and security by making demands of ourselves and others that neither they nor we can meet. With failure come anger and resentment and the related emotions of depression and self-pity. These diseased emotions lose their power over us when we consistently practice the virtues of faith and humility through a trusting reliance on the power and the goodness of God. As we progressively surrender pride in its many forms, serenity emerges as a stable state of mind. 

We have seen that AA considers pride the chief motivator of our character defects and humility the chief corrective virtue. Pride and humility are master self-construals, how we see ourselves in relation to the world, our fellows and God. Pride puts self at the center, and everything is seen in terms of it, what it gives to it and what it takes away, what it promises and what it threatens. All of our diseased emotions flow ultimately from that attitude and perspective. Humility acknowledges the center belongs to God, and selves exist to serve him and one another for the love of him. From that place proceed all the virtues and through them all the good and healthy emotions.

If anger, resentment, fear and the other diseased emotions that plague our recovery are to lose their hold on us, we need to work Step 4 and the rest of the housecleaning Steps in the context of a spiritual awakening, practicing the disciplines and the virtues as distinctly spiritual principles.

This will help us to see how specific defective emotions in specific situations are attached to specific self-centered concerns and perspectives, so that we can reorient ourselves spiritually. It will help us to identify the character defects that generate these diseased emotions and the virtues that counteract them. We can then practice these virtues, and let go of those defects. The virtues we practice gain increasing traction in our mind, our character, our brain; the defects we surrender grow weaker from lack of use. So do the corresponding emotions gain or lose strength. As with much else we do consistently, these practices develop into habits over time, so that we become increasingly adept at monitoring, shaping, and channeling our emotions toward the good."

– From "Character and Emotions," pp. 52–55 

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