Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tell me about your anchor.

Disclaimer: Throughout this column, I make repeated reference to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). I am not a member of AA and therefore, I’m on thin ice when I attempt to explain anything about AA. It is true that for many years, I was Clinical Director of a treatment program for those with addiction problems. Many of my patients and friends are members of AA. I have read much of AA’s official written material – nevertheless, it would be a great mistake for the reader to be left with the impression that I am an expert in AA or that I am in any way speaking for them. I am not.

Do you have an anchor? I don’t know much about boating – actually, I know next to nothing about boating – but I know boats have anchors. I think anchors are really heavy things that in cartoons look like a trident. An anchor is something used to keep your vessel from drifting too far. Without a secure anchor, the tides and currents can take your boat far from where you’d like it to stay.

By the way... here's a picture of an anchor... notice that does not resemble a person very much.


People need a psychological anchor. That anchor takes many many forms. For my father, his anchor was art. It was one thing which no matter what happened in his life, he always had his art. (Maybe, art had him?) Some find religious faith to be a sustaining anchor. What (or who) is your anchor?

Not infrequently, I see a patient who made another person (usually a love interest) their anchor. Generally, people make poor anchors. Even if an anchor-person is REALLY good, nice, thoughtful, caring and loving – it remains true that humans are inherently unreliable. Humans are fallible. If your anchor is a person and your anchor-person says they’ll pick you up at a certain time; there’s a chance they won’t. Maybe they will get a flat tire – maybe there’s bad traffic – maybe their watch stopped – maybe they misjudged time or maybe they totally forgot. (OMG!) If you are DEPENDING on being picked up at a certain time, and your anchor-person is late or (gods forbid) fails completely to show up… well you’re in a bad spot, aren’t you? As I said earlier, humans are inherently unreliable. My old teacher, Carl, used to tell a story that today would be politically incorrect. I’ll clean it up for this blog:

A (fill in the ethnicity) child is at the top of the stairs – his grandfather (same ethnicity) tells him to jump. The child jumps and the grandfather catches him. The grandfather sends the child up the stairs and again tells the child to jump. The child jumps again and again the grandfather catches the child. Again, the grandfather tells the child to jump from the top of the stairs – but this time – the grandfather lets the child hit the floor! The grandfather tells the child, “Let that be a lesson to you; never trust a (same ethnicity).

When I first heard my teacher tell the story, I was shocked to hear him tell a story which I thought was a racist story; I later understood that the grandfather was teaching his grandson that just because another is your grandfather – or of the same ethnicity – the quality of unquestioning trustworthiness does not attach.

More often than not, my patients (mostly females) make an anchor of a person that is far from nice and loving. Now my patient is really in a bad spot. Often, my patient doesn’t understand why their anchor has left them adrift, why their anchor treats them badly, why they are unreliable. My patients want an explanation and they want answers. Frequently they want to know why their anchor disappoints them – and they want help in transforming their wayward anchor into an anchor of stability and reliability. “Why am I in this situation?” “How do I change the situation?”

Neither is an easily answered question and the unsatisfying truth is, therapists only have theories about why and about what to do about it.

I will try to give an idea about the theory as well as ideas for what to do about it, but be forewarned – as I said, the answers are unsatisfying and the offered solution is a tedious one.

A theory in psychology designated “object relations theory” suggests that as infants, our experiences with our primary care-givers (primary part-objects) exert a formative and ongoing influence on our relationships with others (secondary objects). The theory (if you believe in these kinds of stories), goes that if our primary part-objects are adequate, we are said to have a “facilitating environment” and within our psyche, we develop a sense of a “whole”-object instead of a part-object. (i.e., Instead of experiencing only one aspect/part of an individual, we are able to accept the constituent and sometimes conflicting parts – “the whole-object.) Individuals, who see someone either as “good” or “bad”, see only parts or fragments of an object/person. The theory says that if we’ve had adequate parenting we are able to tolerate the ambiguity of people sometimes being good while at other times being bad. People who experience inadequate parenting have horrible anxiety tolerating the ambiguity (sometimes good – sometimes not) of their mate/object.

So that is a story offered by some psychologists. Does it sound a bit like psycho-babble or some creation myth? I’m a therapist so it makes some sense to me. So, we have a theory, but like so much of psychology, theories of etiology offer little as far as what to DO about a situation.

Ideally, the problem has simply been successfully addressed during childhood. Most of us know that we learn far more easily and quickly during childhood. The bad news is as children, we can’t discriminate between having a good facilitating environment and having a very dysfunctional environment; we don’t have the requisite cognitive development yet. As children, we don’t get to pick the situation into which we’re born. If we have adequate, reasonable and predictable care-givers, we will develop an internal psychic anchor (sometimes called a "core" or "self") and become emotionally independent. If we have unpredictable, absent and incompetent parents, we develop into emotionally needy and dependent adults.

What if you didn’t have the good fortune to be born into a nurturing facilitating environment? This is where the answer becomes annoying. It’s similar to the question, “Can an illiterate adult learn to read fluently?” I suppose the answer is a qualified yes. IF the adult is motivated – and IF the adult is diligent and IF the adult is willing to accept that the process will be long and sometimes very frustrating – then the adult has the POTENTIAL to learn to read. If you don’t have an internal anchor as an adult, building one will take time and be arduous. There will be times of great frustration and one will have to manage their anxiety instead of performing a “Vesuvius” gesture. (This would include threatening behaviors to oneself and others or “meltdowns”.)

A movement begun in the early 20th century offers what I believe is a near miraculous answer. In many ways, it offers the essence of what intensive, long-term and very expensive therapy offers and it’s free. The “movement” is Alcoholics Anonymous or its analog, Al-Anon.

When one considers what is accomplished every day in these meeting rooms, it truly is remarkable. It is true that one can easily make many criticisms of AA – so too, one can criticize long-term therapy (Not the least of which is the considerable cost.).

The many elements of AA and Al-Anon are too many to fully describe in this brief blog column, but I will comment on a few of the aspects I consider significant. (Note: Because I leave out many, please don’t infer that I see other aspects as less important – it’s only reflective of the fact that this blog is meant to be brief.) I will try to draw some correlation between the alcoholic who begins working the 12-Steps of AA and the unhappy person who has attempted to moor themselves to an imperfect, unreliable and painfully frustrating anchor/person.

Step 1 of AA states: “We came to believe that we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.”

For the unrecovering alcoholic, there have been innumerable attempts to control the effects of their use of alcohol as well as the disastrous secondary effects. (employment trouble, family trouble, DUI, etc.) The more the alcoholic tries to control and moderate (not abstain) the drinking, their situation in life becomes increasingly problem-filled. When the alcoholic takes Step 1, they acknowledge that their attempts to drink in a “controlled” manner were in vain. They have determined they are powerless and to try further (in the same manner) is insanity. This is an ego-deflating admission – that they cannot change their nature.

The individual with an unreliable anchor/person would benefit tremendously if they accepted the fact that their view-point that leads them to believe they can change the nature of their anchor/person is fundamentally flawed. What needs to change is their view that the anchor/person will change. The anchor/person (like all humans) is inherently unreliable. Attempts to “change” the anchor/person meets AA’s definition of insanity. (Doing the same thing but expecting different results.) Repeated attempts to make the anchor/person reliable will be an ongoing frustration and disappointment, eventually leading to despair.

Step 2 of AA states: “ We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” When the abstinent and recovering alcoholic assents to this position, they accept that their heretofore typical outlook on life is inadequate. Psychologists may say that one’s ego alone, is not able to surmount the problem; that one must draw on another resource greater – more comprehensive (binocular – allowing one to see with added dimension) than their ego alone (monocular – lacking a depth dimension). Having a broadened world-view, the alcoholic has the ability to view the problem differently and chart a different course to “sanity.”

The individual with an untrustworthy anchor/person is well advised to take a similar step. Hopefully, they will give up their monocular view which invariably leads them to the same perceptions and the same painful despair. If one is able to surrender their monocular, ego-view of their anchor/person, insisting on consistency and unwavering trustworthiness and instead, adopt a broader view of the situation from an elevated stereoscopic perspective, seeing the sometimes-good-and-sometimes-bad anchor/person not as their anchor but as a full person ( sometimes good and sometimes not), they will have a chance to see their situation differently – with different interpretations and hopefully different decisions which lead to better outcomes. (Note: Just as recovery from alcoholism is painstaking and frustrating, so too is the process of “recovering” from having a monocular world-view and accepting a broader view of life that is not solely defined by their ego. A stance that does not depend on far-from-perfect anchor/people for a sense of stability and comfort. Remember, learning to read as an adult is more challenging than if we learned as children – but it is better to learn as an adult than to not learn at all.)

Step 3 of AA states: "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.”

(Remember the AA “Big Book” was written in the 1930’s and accordingly modern readers will detect certain anachronisms like characterizing God as male and anthropomorphic. Don’t allow yourself to quibble with petty issues. As I used to say when I was in a pulpit, “Eat the chicken and spit out the bones.” If you’re vegan, use some similar hermeneutic device.)

For recovering alcoholics, it is important that they emphasize the essential action suggested by this step. MADE A DECISION… turning one’s will and life over to the care of a point-of-view that is broader than that perceived by our limited ego-view is a day-by day (sometimes minute-by-minute) learning process. The recovering alcoholic will remind themselves of this idea many times throughout the day.

One recovering from being anchored to a person will also need to remind themselves (initially maybe over one hundred times daily) frequently that their anchor is not the person that they had hoped would be a stable anchor – their anchor must be something greater. They remind themselves that their former insistence that a person be an anchor was unrealistic and based on a worldview that lead them to believe that people are more virtuous than is warranted by the facts.

Remember my teacher’s story – no human is unquestionably trustworthy. If we demand unflagging integrity, we are guaranteed to find disappointment.


I have said many times that if all of my patients – whether they suffer from depression, substance abuse, anxiety, bipolar disorder, marital problems, panic disorder or work stress – probably 75% would be greatly helped by working the steps of AA. I STRONGLY encourage the reader to read a copy of a small book published by AA entitled: “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions”.

Also, I’d like to say that I’ve been trying to read the essay by Gregory Bateson entitled: “The Cybernetics of “Self”: a Theory of Alcoholism. Bateson is brilliant beyond my ability to comprehend. When I try reading him for too long – my teeth hurt. If you’re smart, you might try to understand it. If you have sensitive teeth – steer clear.


  1. Very well written and very solid advice! Now I just have to figure out what my anchor is. Thank you

  2. I'm glad you thought so - figuring out your anchor IS NOT for the faint of heart. It reminds me of the Indiana Jones film wherein he has to pass all the tests or "The Never-ending Story".
    Some are in a life-long quest for a person to be their anchors... it doesn't work.


As always, your comments are helpful.