“Defects of Character,” Humanity, and Connection

by Joshua Hoe

Unbroken Brain Szalavitz

A week ago, I made some comments about Maia Szalvitz new book “Unbroken Brain” (well worth a read IMHO).


One of the comments that I made was that when 12 step programs refer to “defects of character” it was probably meant as a reference to the biblical concept of original sin.

Let me go into more detail about that.

Christianity, Feeling Defective, and 12 Steps


One of the worst kept secrets of the 12-step method is that it was created by, and is informed largely by the Christianity of its original membership.

I like that they tried to create space for religious alternatives for members who were not Christian.

But I do not like that they followed that up by often suggesting that people have to find the Christian God to recover (there are many examples of this in the 12 and 12)

I have seen 12-steps work for plenty of folks of many faiths. It is important to create real space for people of other faiths (and for people of no faith at all) to find recovery too in our meetings and our interactions with other addicts.

One example of this “program myopia” when it comes to Christianity was called-out in Ms. Szlavitz book when she talks about “defects of character” as a poor metaphor for what is happening with addicts.

In particular, she believes that it is not hard to see why people have a “punishment” mindset when it comes to addiction when even the addicts think they are “defective.”

I don’t follow 12-step orthodoxy lock stock and barrel either.

“Defects of Character” makes much more sense conceptually when you place it in its original Christian context of original sin.

Defects Of Character and Common Humanity

Common Humanity

The intent of referring to “defects of character” was not to make addicts feel flawed.

I believe the intent of calling these issues “defects of character” was to connect addicts back to a common humanity.

In Christian doctrine, this goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. The one this that unites all humans is being born into original sin.

In the throes of my acting out, I believed that I was a “unique flower” and the only person with the problems that I was experiencing. I craved a return to the “normalcy” all people (who were not me) must experience.

I felt that since I was the ONLY person suffering from these particular problems that nobody else could every understand me.

This became part of my cycle.

It was a part of why I never sought out help (they would never understand me), why I never saw myself as like anyone else (I am broken and nobody else is broken like me), and why I saw everyone else as normal (and saw myself as some secret hidden freak).

So be seeing that all humans, and all addicts, share “defects of character” it reconnects me to all other addicts. It shatters the illusion that I am the “only addict” or that I am the only person with problems.

It dispels the notion that other people are normal while I am the only person who is abnormal.

The first time I walked into a meeting, I found community in hearing that other people had many of the same “defects of character” as I had.

What unifies us is that we are NOT without sin. That what is common to us is being born into a world of sin that is (as our Buddhist brothers and sisters would say) replete with pain and suffering.

It is when people become disconnected from this truth, either by thinking they are uniquely bad or exceptionally good, that bad things start to happen.

Back To The Big Picture

I know that not all faiths believe that we are born fundamentally flawed.

This is one of the issues with addicts calling themselves “defective” in that not everyone listening is reading from the Christian playbook.

It is also problematic when other Christian’s start to see themselves as exceptional to the notion of original sin.

We can see the effects of this exceptionalism in the movement to punish virtually every area of life that is happening in this country.

However, I believe that the point of calling these things (we suffer from) “defects of character” was an attempt to create a common malady and bring us together (not isolate or separate us).

It was an attempt to unite us to something bigger than ourselves, the knowledge that we are not God.

It was an edict about humility and not about shame.

It was about acknowledging that what makes us part of the human family is that we have defects not our drive toward perfection.

What do you think of “defects of character?” Let me know, leave a comment!


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