The Four Levels of Transformation

the four levels of transformation

Few of us recognize or appreciate the true power of the human mind; it’s unusual for humans to be fully aware of its effect on our daily lives. However, the laws of cause and effect are always present during transformation.

The cause of conflict in the human mind is fear. The effect of conflict is our misconception that we are alone in this world and powerless over our thoughts and actions.

We must realize that the mind is always active, even when we are sleeping. The mind creates thoughts based on the filtered or unfiltered perceptions that we allow into our consciousness. There are no idle thoughts; each one produces some form of emotion. If our thoughts go unchecked we continually play the same loop of negative filtering, which becomes ingrained into our psyche.

Often, we mention the two basic emotions, love and fear. Fear is derived from the lack of love; the only real remedy for fear is perfect love. The reality of perfect love comes directly from the Spirit and the misconception of fear is conceived from the notion that we have little to no control over our thoughts.

As a parent, my biggest mistake was introducing fear as a basis for learning new skills. I taught my sons to be afraid of new experiences based on my perception of my failures that were not really failures at all, they were simply experiences.

We will now venture through the process of transformation with awareness that, at every juncture, love should, and eventually will override fear. We always have the choice to choose love over fear, peace over chaos, faith over doubt, and eternity over death.

There is a level beyond the God-Consciousness of a Spiritual Awakening. There is an unconscious state of competence that equates to being on autopilot in God’s world. This degree of vigilance requires a willingness to relinquish everything except God’s will; this takes a great amount of effort – until it takes no effort at all.

The word unconscious in the context of this writing, means awake, but not aware. Step 1 of the 12-Steps uses the phrase “ … – and our lives have become unmanageable.” The words competence and incompetence equate to manageability and unmanageability over one’s life.

The four psychological stages associated with learning a new skill were developed to demonstrate actual phases that occur when learning a new job, an athletic sport or any a new behavior that is not intrinsically inherent to human beings. Here we apply the same principles to the levels of transformation that take place in recovery from addiction. Not just recovery from chemical addiction, but also recovery from the self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors associated with obsessive and negative thinking.

The Four Levels of Transformation
1: Unconscious Incompetence
2: Conscious Incompetence
3: Conscious Competence
4: Unconscious Competence

Level 1: Unconscious Incompetence

Unconscious incompetence is the human state in which there is something woefully wrong with our thinking and behaviors and either, we don’t recognize it, or we believe we are not the one with the problem. This is denial in its truest form. Untreated addicts and alcoholics in the midst of chaos due to addiction, fall into this category.

Denial acts as the brain’s defense mechanism, preventing us from feeling the pain associated with reality and truth. Consequently, when asked if alcohol or drugs affect the quality of life, someone in denial will most likely answer “no,” and follow up with statements such as, ”It’s my spouse who has a problem,” or “My job sucks – that’s the real problem.”

Some forms of denial related to level 1-unconscious incompetence are:
Avoidance: There is nothing wrong
Deflection: Blame others
Reflection: Blame the accuser
Minimizing: I’m not that bad
Rationalization: If you were me…
Uniqueness: I am different

Eventually, the consequences of denial, or unconscious incompetence, become too devastating and the problem transfers into conscious awareness. (One exception may be people with personality disorders who may have a more difficult time becoming honest enough to get past this stage. This is due to their inability to clearly see the role they play in their dysfunction.)

Moments of clarity often propel people into the next level. These moments are usually preceded by events such as a spouse moving out, an accident, being fired from a job, an arrest, or the death of a loved one. They may not be ready to take action, but they are no longer oblivious to the fact that they have a problem.

Level 2: Conscious Incompetence

We now have that initial conscious awareness that some facets of life have become unmanageable. Not yet possessing true clarity, the person still behaves incompetently. It is like being lost in the woods without a clue about which direction to walk.

The negative consequences of ones behaviors start to surface here, often like a domino effect. Health issues arise and self-esteem and integrity plummet. The downward slide seems to pick up momentum once a person boards the elevator going down.

Ground Floor: Extreme lows and highs
The ego speaks first and speaks loudest. Planning the next high or cleaning up the wreckage of the last intoxicating event takes priority over living in the present.

1st Floor Down: Family
The family knows there’s a problem; it has become the proverbial elephant in the room. Upon recognizing the problem, they will usually do one of two things, and neither is correct:

They do nothing, hoping that the problem will just go away. They fear looking the elephant in the face.

They nag, making things worse. Nagging increases the addict’s stress and adds to his or hers already low self-esteem. In order to numb this pain, he or she drinks or uses, thus continuing the vicious spiral downward.

Families rarely have a clue as to how to deal with a loved one becoming insane right in front of their eyes.

2nd Floor Down: Friends
Healthy friends distance themselves from a substance abuser; unhealthy friends are attracted to the insanity of the substance abuser. On this floor, the substance abuser will typically seek lower companionship or totally isolate. Sane friends want nothing to do with the chaos and the drama created by the addicted person.

3rd Floor Down: Finances
It’s expensive being addicted. The cost of booze and drugs alone should be alarming. The cost of missed opportunities is equally damaging. Poor financial decisions due to compulsive behaviors result in financial turmoil. The costs of legal consequences rise, taking the addict or alcoholic down another floor…

4th Floor Down: Legal
Speeding tickets, stop sign violations, reckless driving, driving under the influence and accidents repeatedly place many addicted people in front of a judge. Throw in some domestic violence and trespassing, and even the previously squeaky-clean citizen finds himself making trips to the courthouse. Courtrooms, jails, prisons and mental institutions are full of druggies and boozers.

5th Floor Down: Career
This can be a major turning point for the addict who has a career or a good paying job. Addiction tends to make people really good at faking it; often, fellow workers do not recognize how sick the substance abuser is.

I was a master deceiver at work and no one ever confronted me or asked me if I had a problem. Despite having an active company Employee Assistance Program (EAP), I chose to avoid those people at all costs. After my arrest for possession and facing the loss of my aviation career, those EAP people became my confidants and teachers in recovery.

6th Floor Down: Jails and institutions
These fine facilities are full of untreated addicts and alcoholics. For some, being locked-up is simply an opportunity to dry out before the next run. For others, the loss of freedom is worse than death.

7th Floor Down: Death
I ask my clients and patients to picture themselves in a casket. I ask them to think about what will be said at their funeral.

Then, I asked them if they think they will die if they don’t accept help for their addictions. More than 80 percent say “yes.”

My personal bout with conscious incompetence brought me to believe I was hopeless and I was simply going to die an addict. My blind uniqueness told me that no rehab would work for me and that AA was for quitters. I totally relate to an addict or alcoholic who truly believes that they just can’t stop. Many die rather than move on to the next phase. A person may be stuck on this level for a long time. The choices have remained the same over time: You can be locked up, covered up or sobered up.

Level 3: Conscious Competence

Becoming aware that we have a choice to actually heal is instrumental in reaching conscious competence. We recognize the need for change; we become consciously aware that we are not alone on life’s journey. We find satisfaction in helping others. We now take responsibility for our thoughts and actions.

When we experience conscious competence we are not only aware of our addiction, we remind ourselves of it every day. People in recovery who have become honest, open-minded and willing are firmly planted in this stage.

Level 3 is represented well in The Promises of Alcoholics Anonymous:

The Promises
If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations, which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.2

These promises are integral to recognizing the actual results of our commitment to sobriety. However, there is still plenty of room for growth after the promises start coming true.

I believe strongly in the 12-step process, nevertheless one of the complaints from by mental health professionals about 12-step programs is that after achieving long-term sobriety, many 12-steppers tend to still dwell on how sick they are. This criticism has some merit. Some people in recovery may be permanently stuck in this phase of their development. And that is not a totally bad thing – it beats living chemically dependent on alcohol or drugs.

An example of being stuck in this phase is when a person with more than 20 years of sobriety states that he or she is still powerless over alcohol. They are comfortable living in the problem. There is a tendency to place too much emphasis on drunk-a-logs and on how pitifully sick they are, as opposed to how well we can become by living in the solution.

On the other hand, others continue to move forward in their recovery. They are able to gain self-esteem and still maintain humility. These people rarely use negative self-talk when sharing their experience, strength and hope. They have what I want.

When personal growth slows down in level 3 conscious competence, recovery becomes more like work. By being satisfied with ones personal growth, a recovering person will tend to move backward. Instead of an awareness of personal recovery, some believe they are still living in the throws of step 1. Some may argue that the first step implies that we never recover from being powerless. I address this issue when I discuss the first step.

Maintaining one’s powerlessness is a defensive tactic. At this point in recovery, I prefer to be on the offense. I also choose to accept and experience all the grace that comes my way.

At this phase of development, I suggest you hold your head high and aspire to live on a higher plane than people who have never sunk to the depth of addiction.
There are many great teachers in 12-step programs, however I am not drawn to those who claim they know the truths and all the answers. They tend to sit in meetings repeating the same stories over and over, and continually preach to the newcomers. They are content to remain consciously competent.

Instead, I am drawn to those who continue to seek knowledge and truth. The truth-seekers tend to read, learn, pray, meditate and journal. Whether they know it or not, they aspire to become unconsciously competent.

Level 4: Unconscious Competence

Every person achieving unconscious competence spent a great deal of time in the conscious competence phase. We can only find ourselves in level 4 by experiencing the repetition required in level 3 to maintain sobriety. Like miracles, unconscious competence comes to us – we don’t go to it. The level of competence equates to being self-actualized, the highest level of existence in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

As stated earlier: There is an unconscious state of competence that means we are on autopilot in God’s world. This degree of vigilance requires a willingness to relinquish everything except God’s will: This takes a great amount of effort – until it takes no effort at all.

When we live our lives in the flow of doing what is right without consciously thinking about it, we experience unconscious competence. At this level prayer, meditation and being of service are part of daily life. The reward is in the service. While living in level 4, we do not to take things personally, nor do we cave in under the weight of the ego. This is spiritual recovery in the highest form.

Living life on this level may be the result of any of the following:
Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of the 12 steps
A profound spiritual experience such as a near-death incident
A massive shift in personal values
Spontaneous remission from a terminal disease

When we have thoroughly experienced the 12 steps and have had the spiritual awakening referred to in step 12, we will most likely agree with these premises:
Today alcohol and drugs have no power in our lives. In fact, we rarely think about drinking or using. We have a God of our understanding, the fellowship of a 12-step program, and we work daily on the maintenance of our spiritual wellbeing. We are unconsciously competent about avoiding people, places and things that are not on our spiritual path.

We no longer allow our egos to successful challenge God’s will for us. We do this by utilizing only the quiet voice of the Spirit when making decisions.

We recognize that these steps are simplified ways for humans to digest God’s will slowly. God’s accomplishments are not gradual, nor do they ever change. With God, time is meaningless because God is eternal.
As half-measures avail us nothing when it comes to recovery from addiction, half-measures also avail us nothing when it comes to willingness to accepting God’s will.

Intuitively knowing how to handle situations that used to baffle us directly correlates to our state of unconscious competence.

Here are some suggestions for maintaining unconscious competence. Upon awakening:
Read something of a spiritual nature.
Meditate on the lesson received from the spiritual reading.
Journal on the experience of the meditation. (Journalizing authentic feelings are easier after meditation)

The time allotted for each step may vary each day. At times, I may only read one paragraph and other times I made read a chapter.

Upon experiencing level 4 unconscious competence, our minds are free of the fear and anxiety created by our egos. It is at these times that we are fully in touch with our higher selves. We listen and follow the quiet voice of the spirit. We become oblivious to the chaos of the world and we accept that everything is exactly as it is supposed to be.

Larry Smith LAADC bio