When I first began training dolphins for the Navy, I witnessed a junior trainer being upbraided by her mentor for failing to follow the mentor’s instructions during a critical phase of an adolescent dolphin’s training.

It might be tempting to think nothing could be simpler than accustoming a dolphin to open water work in a large bay. But possession of tail flukes and a blowhole doesn’t necessarily make a dolphin raised in captivity feel any more secure in the open ocean than a domesticated human might at being reintroduced to the wilds of the forest primeval.

Moe was young and skittish, wary of the unknown, when the bayside gate to his free-floating enclosure swung wide and he was invited to go for a swim. The junior trainer – I’ll call her Alicia here, to protect her anonymity – was doing her best to make Moe comfortable.

Moe was reluctant to leave the sheltering confines of his familiar enclosure, but now and then he would dart out into the bay just far enough to gulp down a fish snack from Alicia who was standing on the bow of a nearby boat. Because skittish dolphins can do odd things under stress – like panicking and heading out to sea even when that was the last place Moe wanted to be – Alicia was not working without a safety net of sorts. A senior trainer was on hand to guide her efforts.

The training session went well enough at first. But after a time, the senior trainer spotted some potential trouble spots and shared his suggestions with Alicia by calling out to her from a nearby vantage point. Alicia became flustered and failed to react. She ended up stuck in a rut of repetition, ignoring her mentor’s advice in favor of her own gut-level – but less proven – methods.

After several minutes, the senior trainer shouted slowly and deliberately, punctuating each word with a pause: “Alicia, listen to what I am saying – not to what you are thinking!”

From that point, the session went predictably downhill. No one, after all, likes to be told that their thinking isn’t to be trusted, and no one likes to be told they’d be better off putting their own judgment on hold.

To this day, the episode uncomfortably reminds me of what recovery communities sometimes unwittingly do to addicts when discouraging them from thinking, critically and freely, for themselves. The long-term results can be crippling.

Attend a few recovery meetings and you’ll likely hear addicts reminding each other that “Your best thinking got you here”, “Your mind is a dangerous neighborhood”, or even, “Your mind is broken.” Although such messages are well-intentioned and may even save lives early in an addict’s recovery, they can be crippling in the long-term. A story from Greek mythology poignantly illustrates the point:

According to the ancient Greeks, nymphs were beguiling young women who served the gods as protectors of nature’s untrammeled places.

Considered the fairest among them was Echo, whose voice was as appealing as the warbling of forest birds, as alluring as the purling murmur of woodland streams. Her power to enchant was peerless.

When Hera, wife of the supreme god Zeus, suspected her husband of an adulterous dalliance with a nymph, she descended from Olympus to visit a forest clearing. Upon hearing the captivating quality of Echo’s voice, Hera flew into a rage and cursed Echo with an inability to speak – except to repeat the words of others.

As time passed, Echo became so despondent at the loss of her power to initiate speech that her physical form gradually withered away until there was nothing left of her but the haunting reverberations of voices not her own.

Equally haunting today are the reflected voices of modern addicts who, in their quest for recovery, can easily find themselves echoing messages all but drained of personal meaning. The result can be an endless cycle, not of addiction, but of growth-blocking compliance to a collective will not really their own.

Psychologists call this plateau learning – a point at which behavior levels out and begins to repeat itself because, at least for the moment, the saturation point of active learning has been reached.

When recovery communities broadcast messages of generalized brokenness such as “Your best thinking got you here”, they reinforce the notion that the recovering addict will remain forever less than fully functional. The truth is that we humans are behaviorally robust – and all of us, whether addict or not – have the potential to successfully progress through stages of development and emerge as reliably changed individuals.

When a recovery community tells an addict that their mind is a dangerous neighborhood, what they are trying to do is encourage the addict to check his thinking with others before making decisions or initiating actions. Not a bad idea early in a person’s recovery, given the addictive personality’s propensity for instant gratification at all costs.

But once active addiction has been mastered, addicts should be encouraged to think more and more for themselves. Otherwise, addicts will tend to mistake former behavior for current identity, and few mistaken beliefs could be more predictive of stalled growth and long-term personal dissatisfaction – some of the very traits that caused addiction in the first place.

At the time of Alicia’s upbraiding at the hands of her mentor, Alicia was an animal trainer with several years of experience under her belt. She hadn’t yet attained the veteran status of her mentor, but she was competent, strong-willed, and eager to continue learning her craft.

Her supervisor’s shouted comment, understandably enough, provoked a strong, even if understated reaction. Alicia’s eyes narrowed and her jaw set. From that moment, she completely ignored her mentor – and proceeded to make the very same mistakes that she had made earlier in the session. In effect, she had reached a learning plateau precisely because she had been actively discouraged from trusting in her own judgment.

Alicia and her dolphin-in-training, Moe, may well have experienced more success in that particular training session had the advice of the more experienced trainer been heeded – but the success would likely have been limited to a single session. The fact is that part of a trainer’s growth toward professional competence requires that mistakes in judgment be made – often repeatedly – in order to acquire the ability to make her own corrections.

Recovery communities tacitly acknowledge the same need to grow into leadership positions through the common twelfth-step mandate to carry the message of recovery to other addicts. That’s often the phase of recovery in which the former addled addict assumes the role of a sponsor – a trusted and experienced mentor who can gently guide a fledgling addict in recovery along the path of success. Such partnerships should ultimately produce two distinct voices, equally robust and full-bodied – and importantly, not always in accord. Anything less means that one voice is a mere developmental echo emanating from a hollow personality capable only of ever diminishing returns.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2012

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