How ‘The Four Agreements’ Fit With Your Addiction Recovery

Don Miguel Ruiz, Author

You’ve come a long way in your quest to live clean and sober. You know — because you’ve learned — many ways to cope with difficult situations, deal with recurring cravings and triggers, manage tough emotions and find a way to navigate and streamline your life so that stress doesn’t do you in. Still, having many tools at your disposal, keeping “The Four Agreements” in mind and using them to aid in your recovery will make life in sobriety a lot more enjoyable.

As a refresher, The Four Agreements is a program of recovery based on a book of the same name by Don Miguel Ruiz. The book distills the principles, adapted from the traditional beliefs of the Toltec people, into four main and very clear directives:

  • Be impeccable with your word
  • Don’t take anything personally
  • Don’t make assumptions
  • Always do your best

But what do these directives mean with respect to living a life in sobriety? How can they fit with your personal addiction recovery? Here we’ll look at three common situations in early recovery and try to see where these directives can help.

Feeling Overwhelmed With Choices — and Worried You Won’t Get Them Right

One of the most common experiences newly recovered individuals face is the feeling of being overwhelmed by choices. Right on the heels of this powerful and often devastating emotion is the worry that the choices you make won’t be the right ones. Here’s how The Four Agreements can help you navigate this tough time.

While you might not believe you have the right answers, take care to say what you truly mean — and only that. This is being impeccable with your word. You’re not promising what you can’t deliver if you say you need time to think things through. You’re being honest — and showing integrity with your words.

Sometimes what you say and do will elicit criticism from others, however well-meaning their comments might be. The key here is to not take anything someone else says personally. You are the one who makes the decision to act and who takes action. No one else does this for you. They cannot know what’s in your mind or heart, only what’s in their own. By not internalizing what they say and feeling bad about it, you’re allowing your own thoughts and beliefs to govern your actions — and pave the way for personal progress in recovery.

Assuming that you will fail (or succeed) is a little like putting the cart before the horse. You’re going to get there soon enough, but making assumptions isn’t the best way to move forward. Taking action is. And to do this you need a sound plan, one that you spend time crafting and revise as often as needed. This is solid advice, not based on assumptions, but facts. Don’t make assumptions. Make a plan instead.

So what if your first (or second, third or whichever) decision turns out other than you wanted? If you put in your best effort and learn from the result, you’ve made progress. Always doing your best is the only way you’ll realize that what you do matters, and how you do it matters less than the fact that you give it everything you’ve got. This, by the way, is the true definition of success: always do your best.

Been There, Done That — but There’s Always More to Learn

While it may not seem very likely for some time, there will be the occasion when you feel like you’ve done it all, that there’s nothing left for you to do, that you can sit back and coast. What you fail to recognize here is that there’s always more to learn — if you remain open to it.

Deciding to be lazy for a short period isn’t the worst thing you could do, but is it being impeccable with your word? If you’ve pledged to work diligently at your recovery and now you’ve put a halt to some of your everyday recovery-oriented goals and tasks, what does this say about living life in integrity? Are you lying to yourself, thinking you’re better than someone else, or that you’ve learned everything and are completely self-sufficient? As many have discovered before, this is the quickest way to relapse.

Others may remark that you seem to have it all and want to learn from you. While this may indeed be an honor that you’re tempted to congratulate yourself for, don’t take it too personally. They want what you have, but if you get a big head about it, this will only further cement your mistaken reasoning that you can let things slide for now. Like the little girl who doodled while the teacher instructed the class in long division, you’re going to come up short all too soon. The best in class got a big head and wound up being last to learn. Don’t let this happen to you. Don’t take anything too personally.

What about the directive to always do your best? If you’ve reached a plateau, maybe try something new. That will stimulate and excite and get your desire to take action going again. Even if it’s something small, some endeavor or pursuit that doesn’t seem all that momentous, if you’re interested in it and have an inkling that you might enjoy it, go for it. As with anything you decide to do, give it your all. This way you’ll enjoy even more the rewards that go along with the actual experience.

When It Comes Time to Lead, Do It 

One of the principles of lasting recovery is to give back and be of service to others. While you might feel like you’re a long way from that right now, you’re going to get there eventually. The important thing to remember about this is that your own recovery benefits immensely from helping others in their quest to live a productive and fulfilling life in sobriety. So how can The Four Agreements help in this regard?

Others will turn to you for guidance and look forward to your words. Make sure that you are true in every respect to what you say, striving always to act and speak with integrity and conviction. However, don’t presume that you have all the answers. Be willing to listen and learn, for wisdom often arrives from unexpected places.

Those you seek to assist may lash out at times, becoming resentful or angry or dismissing your efforts as unhelpful or annoying. It depends on the situation, of course, but you cannot take what others say personally — especially if they are expressing painful emotions that erupt in unkind words. Resist the temptation to take comments to heart. Be above the petty and stay true to yourself.

Making assumptions about another person’s readiness or willingness to move forward in recovery is a dangerous game that you don’t want to play. Meet them where and when they are ready. This is the secret to being of good service to those who seek your guidance. You can gently instruct and offer suggestions on how to proceed, but give the other person the latitude and freedom to make his or her own choices. Don’t assume you know best — even though you’ve had a great deal of experience. Let them draw their own conclusions and act accordingly.

Sometimes the best you can do is allow others to find their own way. This is not to say that you wipe your hands and give up on them. What it does mean is that you offer the best you have and give them the freedom and encouragement to adapt and revise various solutions and approaches to make them their own. In this way you are doing your best — and helping them find their own best at the same time.

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