Beware of the Danger of Complacency in Recovery

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Danger in complacency in recovery

By:  Rick Fannin

Beware of the Danger of Complacency in Recovery

We all become complacent from time to time.  We stop pushing ourselves to achieve new goals or become too comfortable in our relationship. Nonetheless, we start to perceive that our lives can continue going the way they are without any additional effort.  However, the danger of complacency in recovery from addiction can be deadly, and the hazard of Spiritual complacency is even worse.  When complacency sets in, we are on a slippery slope towards relapse and yet another rock bottom moment if we live to find that new bottom.  We must learn the signs of complacency and plan to address the complacency to avoid another relapse.

What is Complacency?

Cambridge Dictionary defines complacency as "a feeling of calm satisfaction with your own abilities or situation that prevents you from trying harder." Complacency is especially harmful when we have a sense of security with our existing situation are unaware of unpleasant realities, danger, trouble, harmful possibilities, or controversy which likely lies ahead.  Complacency is an uncritical satisfaction with who you are or what you have done.  Uncritical being that you lack self-awareness and critique what you are doing or how well you are doing it.  It is a sense of self-betrayal or delusion where underlying assumptions are neither fully identified nor questioned. Complacency is smugly refusing to accept responsibility for things over which you have some control. When we become complacent in our recovery, we tend to:

  • Taking things for granted
  • Smugness over achievements
  • Expect things will remain the same forever
  • Feel work is no longer necessary to maintain

The Danger of Complacency in Recovery from Addiction

Pain is one of the greatest motivators that we have.  Sitting upon a rock bottom moment is a painful experience, yet it motivates us to do whatever it takes for us to scratch, claw, and climb our way out.  And we do recover from these painful moments.  However, once we do, the pain decreases, and if we are not careful, complacency sets in, which robs us of our motivation to continue to get better.

The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book discusses the dangers of complacency. "It is easy to let up on the spiritual program of action and rest on our laurels.  We are headed for trouble if we do, for alcohol is a subtle foe.  We are not cured of alcoholism.  What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.  Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God's will into all of our activities" [1, p. 85].

In a 1961 Grapevine article, Bill Wilson states, "How many of us would presume to declare, "Well, I'm sober, and I'm happy. What more can I want or do? I'm fine the way I am." We know that the price of such self-satisfaction is an inevitable backslide, punctuated at some point by a very rude awakening. We have to grow or else deteriorate. For us, the status quo can only be for today, never for tomorrow. Change we must; we cannot stand still."

Warning Signs of Complacency in Addiction Recovery

You must know the warning signs of complacency.  When you start to see these things, you must take corrective actions.  Some of these warning signs of complacency include:

  • Thinking you are cured of addiction!
  • Overly confident. Let sobriety success go to your head!
  • Outgrown the need for meetings!
  • Dysfunctional thoughts of "I Got This," "I will NEVER drink or use again," "I don't need to do that anymore," "It is not my drug of choice, so just once is no harm."
  • Thinking it will be different this time.
  • Restless, irritable, and discontented
  • Delays in getting a sponsor.
  • Getting stuck on a step.
  • Forget how bad the bottom was
  • Questioning if you really had a problem.
  • Stop being of service to others
  • Forcing your will!
  • Not humble
  • Becoming less accepting of others
  • Return of dishonesty
  • Lack of transparency with sponsor…living behind a mask again!
  • Becoming close-minded again. You stop taking suggestions.
  • Lacking in willingness
  • You don't help others and start thinking of yourself most of the time.
  • You don't appreciate the gifts of sobriety; lacking gratitude
  • You stop seeking spiritual growth

Spiritual Complacency

Complacency not only applies to your recovery, but it also applies to your spiritual life as well.  C.S. Lewis [2] used a line from Macbeth, "Security is mortals' greatest enemy," describing the dangers of spiritual complacency. But what kind of "security" are we talking about here?  This type of security is rooted in ego, pride, self-centeredness, and the false sense of security that is found in the world.  Once you allow your false pride and ego to lull you into believing that you are secure, you begin to let your guard down, and the chinks in your invincible armor become wider.  This false security rots into complacency, and complacency eats into our soul, and we are in grave danger, and we don't even know that we are.  We must never forget that this is spiritual warfare, and we must wage the fight against complacency.

The Bible also has much to say about the dangers of complacency, as seen in the following verses.

  • Proverbs 1:32 "For simpletons turn away from me – to death. Fools are destroyed by their complacency."
  • Zephaniah 1:12 "…punish those that sit complacent in their sins. They think the Lord will do nothing to them, either good or bad."
  • Ecclesiastes 7:8 "Finishing is better than starting. Patience is better than pride."
  • Proverbs 14:16 "The wise are cautious and avoid danger; fools plunge ahead with reckless confidence."

The apostille Paul also warned about complacency and said, " So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" – 1 Corinthians 10:12.  Paul warns us to "Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves" 2 Corinthians 13:5.  It is so important to develop a strong self-awareness so that you can examine how you may be doing things that are out of alignment with God's instructions.  Without this self-awareness, you may believe you are doing better Spiritually than you actually are.  If we start thinking that we are spiritually strong, we won't be on guard for temptations, and sin can creep in quietly.

The Science of Complacency

Complacency can occur on multiple levels, including individual, family, community, cultural, and social.  At each level, complacency is damaging as it condones behaviors without acknowledging these behaviors' long-term risks and implications.

There is no doubt that drug addiction is a plague that has taken far too many lives.  However, at a social level, drinking continues to be an acceptable and encouraged social norm.  As I am writing this article, the NBC today show just hosted an episode regarding various cocktails, and each of the reporters was so excited to participate.  While the news media is quick to capitalize and provide unending news coverage of the drug and fentanyl epidemic, they rarely, if ever, cover the alcohol epidemic.  This is an example of cultural and societal complacency. While there is no doubt that drug addiction is a horrible disease, we cannot dispute the fact that alcohol is even deadlier.  Our complacency results in a failure to adequately inform consumers of the toxic nature of alcohol, to hold producers accountable for the direct or indirect harms of alcohol, and to initiate global mechanisms of change for a drug, called alcohol, that kills at least 2.7 million people worldwide each year [3].

This cultural and societal complacency regarding alcohol sends a mixed message to individuals in recovery from addiction.  I have watched many enter addiction treatment for illicit substances and able to abstain from these drugs, but complacent regarding alcohol consumption and blind regarding the long-term risk of harm.  Remember that we deal with alcohol which is cunning, baffling, and powerful.  One of the cunning aspects of alcohol, compared to fentanyl, is that it can be slower on the devastation of your life.  A study on the long-term risk of death from regular alcohol consumption found "a linear dose-response relationship between average daily alcohol consumption and risk of dying before the age of 70 years because of alcohol consumption related causes of death" [3].

Alcohol problems can accumulate in mid to later life and are associated with risk factors of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cancer, liver cirrhosis, the onset of dementia, and other age-related cognitive defects, and contributes to depression and anxiety [4].  Alcohol use is also implicated in one-third of all suicides in the older population group [4].  While we may have vigilance regarding our illicit drug use, our complacency about alcohol allows alcohol's cunningness to baffle us about the powerful long-term risk that it creates.

For both illicit drug use or alcohol abuse, formal treatment can be a critical element in the recovery process, and "treatment interacts with the process of self-change and seems to be a time-limited event in the course of the larger self-change process" [3, p. 95].  Recovery is a long-term process of self-change in which formalized treatment plays only a partial role.  However, following formalized detox or residential treatment, many return to the settings or problems that fueled their addiction and do not follow through with aftercare plans.   We often contribute completing a phase of treatment with completing our battle with addiction.

In a critique of the use of graduation ceremonies as part of drug courts, the study found that graduating treatment, or drug court, creates a false belief sense of security, contribute to the impression that cure has occurred, implies that by graduating, you are equipped with all of the necessary tools to maintain long-term recovery and that recovery is now self-sustainable [4].  This false sense of security contributes to high relapse rates following drug court graduation or formalized treatment.

The majority (64%) of persons entering addiction treatment in the USA already have one or more prior treatment episodes, including 22% with three or four prior admissions, and 19% with five or more prior admissions" [4, p. 454].  The number of individuals who return to treatment after "completing" or "graduating" tells a somber story that these individuals have been unable to grasp that there is no finish line for recovery and that recovery remains a lifelong process of self-reflection and self-change [4].

It is easy for individuals in recovery to become complacent and preoccupied with their own non-recovery-related life [3].  As our number of days clean and sober increases, our internal sense of security and ease equally rises, which can contribute to complacency to sit in, contributing to a false sense that actions to maintain recovery are no longer necessary.  When a relapse happens, it becomes not only a shock to the person that relapses, but often the entire family system is equally shocked as they too share this false sense of security and the reality that addiction is a life-long chronic and relapsing disease [3].

However, it is important to remember that relapse does not equal failure.  While complacency leads to a likely relapse, these relapses can produce therapeutic benefits such as an opportunity to critique addiction and aspects of recovery, repair complacency, foster awareness of relapse warning signs and the relapse cycle, cultivate continued emotional growth, develop maturity in the use of recovery tools, and provides valuable lessons to prevent future relapses [5].

Complacency jeopardizes recovery and Spirituality.  We must always be alert for the potential return of old addictive, dysfunctional, or sinful behaviors.  The AA Big Book states that "we will not regret the past, nor which to shut the door on it." For those of us in recovery, we must keep the door open on our past, to remind of our addiction and the damage that it has already caused, so that we do not become complacent and blind that the relapse is ALWAYS a possibility in our future if we do not stay in fit spiritual condition in our program of action.  Action must be applied to maintain vigilance in order to ensure that recovery is sustained, and this vigilance is maintained by remembering, being aware and careful, and seeking community [8].

Having a sponsor helps to reduce the risk of complacency, as does being of service by sponsoring others. A study on the importance of sponsorship and active 12-step meeting attendance found that sponsorship is an important tool in the process of recovery in that it helps to grasp components of sober living, offers encouragement and support, and it "may also kill any complacency" for both the sponsor and sponsee and thereby help them both sustain their self-monitoring [9].

Long-term recovery from addiction is an ongoing process that requires daily self-reflection to avoid complacency, leading to a relapse.  A study of individuals in long-term recovery, with between 17 and 48 years of continuous sobriety, found that a key ingredient is daily self-reflection, prayer, and meditation to equip these individuals in the daily battle to hold the self in check [3].  These key ingredients, combined with having a sponsor and working the twelve steps, result in personality changes, especially the need for honesty and integrity.  These long-term recovery participants saw these changes in personality as "an essential part of the phenomenon of Spirituality" [3, p. 207].

Tips to Avoid Complacency

Both recovery and Spirituality share a common finish line, which is on the other side of eternity.  It isn't about starting your recovery and spirituality journey that is important. It is about finishing this race that matters the most.  1 Corinthians 9:24 - 9:25 tells us:

"Don't you realize that in a race, everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize."

So play to win in your recovery and your Spirituality. Don't run this race as if your life depends on it because the stakes, the eternal stakes, are so much greater than just your worldly life.

Have you ever tried to keep your balance on a bicycle without peddling?  It is not easy!  However, the moment you start to peddle and gain momentum, keeping your balance suddenly becomes effortless.  This physics principle also applies to our Spiritual and Recovery life as well.  Keep peddling by taking action daily to keep the momentum going in this race that we are running.  Do not stop!  Recognize that when you stop, Spiritual physics is working against you, and it becomes easy to lose your balance and end up in the ditch once again.

Remain mindful that you are not finished with this race yet and do as Paul instructs us in Philippians 3: 30, where he states:

"No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead."

Stay vigilant and on guard.  Always remember that we are dealing with drugs and alcohol, which are "cunning, baffling, and powerful." We are also dealing with an enemy that patiently waits so that he can take advantage of opportunities, especially as it relates to our complacency, as shown in the verse below.

"Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings." 1 Peter 5:8-9

Self-examination spiritually is one of the best ways to prevent complacency, as long as the examination is honest. Do not attempt to delude yourself into thinking that a deficiency of yours is not important or non-existent.  You can fool yourself, but you cannot fool either God or Satan.   Sin is sin.  And it's bad.  Sin is like cancer that spreads like wildfire and destroys God's beautiful creation.  Do not tolerate sin in your own life.  Those "little" sins often lead to bigger ones. Letting a few things slip leads to bigger coverups.  When you recognize these things going on in your life, admit them to yourself, God, and someone you trust.  Pray and ask for forgiveness, and then repent by turning away from these behaviors.

Here are some tips that can help you avoid complacency in your Recovery and Spiritual journey:

  • Realize Spirituality and Recovery from addiction is a race that we will run until the day that we die. Run to win!
  • Have a spiritual and sobriety routine….And stick to it daily. Take daily positive action!
  • Start each morning with prayer and meditation.
  • Include a Spiritual reading and a recovery-related reading before you start your busy day.
  • Know God's word and maximize God's grace in your life by putting faith in action by living out God's word in the way that you live your life.
  • Make sure that you include attending church and 12-step meetings as part of your routine, and don't make them optional.
  • Join a small group at your Chruch, and make connections with others
  • Keep a recovery and Spiritual journal.
  • Have a sponsor that keeps you in check! Consider having a sobriety sponsor and a Spiritual sponsor.
  • Pick up the phone EVERYDAY…Watch for isolation behaviors.
  • Do a nightly inventory….Every night! Keep score with your battle with the Away team, the enemy.
  • Constantly examine yourself and when you are wrong, promptly admit it, and make the necessary corrections.
  • Constantly be on guard for dysfunctional thoughts, those lies the devil whispers into our ear "Noone will ever know," "Just this once won't hurt," "It's really not that big of a deal." Take captive every thought, and toss out all of the thoughts that are not true.
  • Watch for and recognize you are becoming complacent and plug back in when you see it.
  • Sponsor someone. Being of service to others helps to keep us engaged in our own recovery.

Suit Up and Show Up Every Day

I grew up in a big baseball family.  One of my favorite quotes that I apply to my recovery and Spiritual life comes from Babe Ruth, where he once said, "Yesterday's home runs don't win today's game." This little quote reminds me of several things.

First, it reminds me to tally the score at the end of the day.  I like to do my nightly inventory, imagining a scoreboard with the Away-Team being self-will and sin that happened in my life today, and the Home-Team being God's Will that I put into action today.  For example, if I lied today, then one run goes up on the away team.  If I confessed that I lied, corrected my mistake, and asked for forgiveness, three runs go up on the Home-Team.

I mentally replay the day's events, then tally the score to see how I did today.  I find it difficult to manage my spiritual and recovery life if I don't take the time to examine how I am doing by keeping and tallying the score.

Second, this quote reminds me that no matter how I did in yesterday's game, each morning when I wake up, the scoreboard still reads 0-0.  If I got skunked in yesterday's spiritual warfare game and lost 7-0, when I wake this morning, that scoreboard reads 0-0.  However, by God's grace, I may have pitched a shutout, and we won yesterday's Spiritual warfare game 10-0, but this morning it shows 0-0.  Yesterday is gone, and that game is already in the books.  Sure, I need to look at the game film and the end of the day to see what went right and what could be improved.  However, once I have learned everything that I can, there is zero value in constantly focusing on yesterday.  I need to stay focused on the present and prepared to play the best game of Spiritual warfare that I can today.

The last thing that this quote reminds me of is that I need to suit up and show up each morning. An All-Star baseball team becomes the underdog if they show up for the game but forgot to bring along their equipment, baseball gloves, bats, cleats.  However, when we suit up for a game of Spiritual warfare, our equipment looks a bit different, as seen in the verse below.

"A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.  Put on all of God's armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil.  For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

Therefore, put on every piece of God's armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle, you will still be standing firm.  Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God's righteousness.  For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere." Ephesians 6:10-18


[1] A. Anonymous, The Story of How Many Thoughts of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism, New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous Work Services, Inc. , 2001.
[2] C. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress: An allegorical apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism, 6th ed., Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1981.
[3] P. Anderson, "U-turn our complacency in dealing with the potency of alcohol," Substance Use & Misuse, vol. 50, pp. 1178-1181, 2015.
[4] C. Gaighton, G. Wilson, J. Ling, K. McCabe, A. Crosland, and E. Kaner, "A qualitative study of service provision for alcohol-related health issues in mid to later life," PLOS One, pp. 1-17, 2016.
[5] C. DiClemente, "Natural change and the troublesome use of substances: A life course perspective. In W.R. Miller & K.M. Carroll (Eds.)," in Rethinking substance abuse: What the science shows, and what we should do about it, New York, NY, Guilford Press, 2006.
[6] I. Williams, "Drug treatment graduation ceremonies: It's time to put this long-cherished tradition to rest," Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, vol. 32, pp. 445-457, 2014.
[7] C. O'Grady and W. Skinner, "Journey as destination: A recovery model for families affected by concurrent disorders," Qualitative Health Research, vol. 22, no. 8, pp. 1047-1062, 2012.
[8] P. Gubi and H. Marsden-Hughes, "Exploring the processes involved in long-term recovery from chronic alcohol addiction within and abstinence-based model: Implications for practice," Counseling and Psychotherapy Research, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 201-209, 2013.
[9] K. Lay and S. Larimer, "Vigilance: The lived experience of women in recovery," Qualitative Social Work, vol. 17, no. 5, pp. 624-638, 2018.
[10] M. Bog, T. Filges, L. Brannstrom, A. Jorgensen and M. Fredriksson, "12-Step programs for reducint illicit drug use: A systematic review," Campbell Systematic Reviews, vol. 2, pp. 1-153, 2017.




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