A recovering alcoholic in AA has to be vigilant or risk relapse (That makes me wonder why they use the term “recovering” at all, as “recovery” is the logical conclusion of the process, but, in AA, the word has no logical conclusion; perhaps “remission” might be more honest?), and the first sign that one is headed “out” is Stinkin’ Thinkin’ or Stinkin’ Drinkin’ Thinkin’. Nip that in the bud.

In 1985, Gayle Rosellini published a 24-page tract through Hazelden called Stinking Thinking, in which she says, “Attitudes are either a path to healthy and happy recovery or the road to relapse. It’s that simple.” And she goes on to say,

Unfortunately, those of us who are recovering from chemical dependency too often suffer from what A.A. members call stinking thinking. Stinking thinking is a bad attitude. It’s being negative, blaming, and chronically dissatisfied. And it’s sneaky. […] Stinking thinking is a major symptom of chemical dependency. We all suffer from it at one time or another and it doesn’t go away with thirty days of treatment. It can dog our heels even when we’re sober – wrecking our recovery.

Since Rosellini published her tract, the telltale signs of Stinking Thinking have evolved beyond the four types she proposed, and the definition has become both more broad and more specific and detailed. Broadly, stinking thinking is explained well in this 12-Step Workshop handout:

Without the meetings and the fellowship, I’ll begin to think that the problem is anything other than Powerless. And, I’ll forget what the solution is… the 12 Steps… and come up with all sorts of solutions of my own. In A.A., we call that “stinking thinking” and as alcoholics, we cannot afford the luxury of “stinking thinking” because stinking thinking produces “stinking results.”

This highlights the kernel of stinking thinking, which is, essentially, any deviation from the program – and, while deviation might be the result of one’s own dumdum justifications for going back to drinking, it could also generate from one’s utter dissatisfaction with the program for any number of logical and sound reasons.

And, to get more specific and detailed: “The Top Ten Types of Stinking Thinking” adapted from David D. Burns’ book, The Feeling Good Handbook, seems to have become the go-to list on many AA websites and blogs. This is a definitive list of distortions in thinking, which make a lot of sense. Because they make sense, it seems a very odd choice for the 12-Steppers – especially since their slogans and truisms and bumperstickers all fall within one type of stinking thinking or another – or a few at the same time. The primary type of stinking thinking, elaborated on by Rosellini, is “Lip Service,” which has been sort of absorbed into Burns’ list, but is still very relevant. It’s something I hear quite often, and many of the slogans address it, and exemplify it. For instance, there are a bunch of slogans for dismissing someone who expresses that they feel “fine.” I guess “fine” is dangerous, because if you’re “fine,” then you’re not a hot mess, and if you’re not a hot mess, then you might start living your “life on life’s terms,” which is not possible. “Life on life’s terms” is like the word “recovering” – you pay lip service to it, but to claim you have achieved it will earn you a knowing, indulgent, condescending snort, and perhaps a “Oh yeah, we’re all F.I.N.E.: fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.”

I have a new theory that might help the 12-Steppers get their recovery rate up beyond the infamous 5%. It might be time to ditch the bumperstickers, the “truisms,” the thought-stopping slogans that, I believe, foster and encourage stinking thinking.  Now, you AAs, don’t get all defensive and in denial, because I’m just going to (tough) lovingly demonstrate how some of the cherished sayings you have adopted contribute to stinking thinking. There are several hundreds of slogans (400?), to meet every eventuality, so I would go blind trying to categorize all of them according to their correct distortion. But, hopefully, this will give you the idea, and you can carry on with this in your free mind. You’ll find yourself frustrated by the enormous overlap among the categories, but that will be good exercise for living life on life’s terms.

I have to say that I am tempted to add a few categories to this list, like Superstitious Thinking, which I would define as: You see your life as dictated by an arbitrary force that will favor you if you perform the correct rituals meant to coerce benevolent consideration. And if things don’t go your way, you blame your inept, dishonest supplications, and try harder next time. Focusing on a power outside yourself will leave you distracted from, and thus dishonoring, the creativity and free will that is your gift as a child of God, or as an autonomous being, on this planet. Also, many of these slogans easily fall into the category of “Lip Service.” Finally, I would have included “Tough Love,” because I agree with Bufe’s definition: “An excuse domineering people use to rationalize abusing others.” But, I’m going to work with what I have here, from Burns’ Stinking Thinking list:

1. All-or-nothing thinking:

You either are or you aren’t.

Around A.A. or in A.A.?

Half measures availed us nothing.

There are 12 steps in the ladder of complete sobriety.

Are you walking towards a drink or away from one?

Without A.A., it’s Amen.

Remember that alcoholism is incurable, progressive, and fatal.

2. Overgeneralization

Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.

Death, insanity, or recovery.

Why recovery never ends: The disease is alcoholism, not alcoholWASm.

3. Mental Filter

Anger is but one letter away from danger.

Analysis is paralysis.

The person with the most sobriety at a meeting is the one who got up earliest that morning.

Don’t drink, don’t think and go to meetings.

4. Discounting the positive

I am unique, just like everybody else.

The farther I get from my last drink, the closer I get to my next drunk.

Alcoholism is the only disease that tells you you’re all right.

5. Jumping to conclusions

Try it for 90 days, and if you don’t like it, we’ll gladly refund your misery.

We are without defense against the first drink, our defense must come from a power greater than ourselves.

Death, insanity, or recovery. (Alternately: The bottle, big house, or the box.)

6. Magnification

My best thinking got me here.

Don’t go in your head alone. It’s a dangerous neighborhood.

Why recovery never ends: the disease is alcoholism, not alcoholWASm.

I want what I want when I want it.

We are only as sick as our secrets.

7. Emotional Reasoning

If you wonder if you’re an alcoholic, you probably are.

Fear alone won’t keep me sober, but for a newcomer, it’s not a bad place to start.

I came; I came to; I came to believe.

8. “Should” statements (There are too many of these.)

Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.

You have to go to these meetings until you want to. It’s easy to talk the talk, but you have to walk the walk.

Don’t work my program, or your program, work THE program.

Don’t drink, don’t think and go to meetings.

You are not required to like it; you’re only required to DO it.

9. Labeling (and too many of these.)

K.I.S.S.—Keep It Simple Stupid

When you sober up a horse thief, all you have is a sober horse thief.

F.I.N.E.=Fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.

The definition of an alcoholic: an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.

A.A. works for people who believe in God. A.A. works for people who don’t believe in God. A.A. NEVER works for people who believe they ARE God.

There are none too dumb for the A.A. program but many are too smart.

Some of us are sicker than others.

10. Personalization and Blame [This is a tricky one, because what Burns means is that one will either take responsibility for something negative that was out of his or her control, or, alternately blame others for negative events that he or she is responsible for. In the instance of AA, we have the group taking credit for positive results where the individual is responsible, and attributing blame to the individual where the group has failed. God also factors in here, and it might fall under the “superstitious thinking” category that I invented.]

If it works, don’t fix it.

Keep coming back. It works if you work it.

If you want to drink, that is your business…if you want to quit and can’t, that is A.A.’s business.

Stick with the winners.

Willingness is the key.

A.A. is not something you join; it’s a way of life.