Why High Class Problems matter

There is a tendency nowadays by some people to avoid using the word problem and to use the word challenge instead. This has been a trend for a number of years, and has a very definite rationale behind it.

It stems from a belief that the word problem is slightly negative, and using the word challenge puts a more positive spin on it.

This is really important because it goes to the heart of people’s freedom to use language to express their life as they see it, and not as other people see it and think it should be seen !

High Class Problems

People often refer to high class problems, normally when sharing at an AA meeting or when in group therapy in rehab.

The implication in the phrase is that the person shouldn’t really see it as a problem because, whatever it is, it is not as great a problem as they have had in the past, or a  particular problem that some other people might have.

This is a real distortion of what a problem actually is, and doesn’t allow the individual to own the fact that they see a problem as a problem.

It’s really a form of denial, and can only be damaging to the person in recovery who is trying to take some sort of ownership of their life and deal with whatever problems there are, big, small or imaginary.

If someone sees a problem as a problem then to them it is, irrespective of how other people might see it, or how it relates to previous problems of their own or other peoples.

Twelve and Twelve

The essays in the book the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions focus on each individual step and tradition, and reflect Bill Wilson’s interpretation of what each means, some 15 years after he had written the original programme in the book Alcoholics Anonymous.

He concludes the essay on step 12 with a conclusion about AA being problem people. He writes ‘ for it is only by accepting and solving our problems that we can begin to get right with ourselves and with the world about us’ (p.129)

Use of Language

People’s use of language matters. It is a basic sense of how people express what is going on inside them without consciously thinking about the words they are using.

This means that there is a naturalness to the language that can let them know what they are saying to themselves.

This is a really important freedom. Once you start consciously changing the language for whatever reason, then you lose your sense of authenticity, and believe you should be thinking things differently to how you do think.

Positive / Negative Thinking

Ever since Norman Vincent Peale popularised the idea of positive thinking, there has been a sense that people think either in positive or negative ways about anything. Positive thinking is good and negative thinking is bad.

This is a basic prescription of most self help books and programmes, and has also found a home in most 12 step fellowships, and can be a guiding principle for many people in recovery.

Glass Half Full

The question is often asked of people – do you see a glass as half full or half empty?

This is trying to get people to evaluate whether they see things in a positive or negative light. In fact the real truth is that in all instances the glass is both – it is half full and half empty !

Protective Thinking

Whilst it can be dangerous, with a small d, to try and characterise people’s thinking or the way people think, it is probably fair to say that in 12 step recovery people’s thinking tends to be protective rather than positive or negative.

This is certainly true of most people’s character and behaviour in active alcoholism, where they seek to protect alcohol as being the one thing that is holding them together, and will protect it at all costs, irrespective of the consequences.

This is the root of most people’s denial, and needs to be really understood in order for anyone to be able to progress in their sobriety.

Protective thinking is also about keeping the person safe. This often starts in childhood, where many alcoholics grow up in an alcoholic or dysfunctional home, where there is either little or no safety at all.

In families like this, children inevitably take on responsibility for feeling they have to create their own sense of safety, which is normally an illusion, but better than the alternative.

This belief of the need to be in control of life in order to feel safe is a core element of many alcoholics development as people, and is well described in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, in the section relating to Step 3 where it talks about the actor and the stage.

Freedom of Expression

To thine own self be true is a phrase often used in recovery, and for many people goes to the heart of their journey in sobriety.

It is really about a desire to be authentic, to be natural. This sense of a need to be natural often stems from the results of what is referred to above as protective thinking.

This type of thinking often results in a very rigid sense of the worldview of the alcoholic, both internally and externally, and this rigidity blocks the person’s sense of being authentic, of being natural.

It is therefore a huge part of recovery that people have the freedom to discover for themselves what they think and how their language expresses that thinking.


Not really a parable, but there is a story often told in medical and nursing circles, of an elderly woman being admitted to hospital for a fairly major operation. She has no family and a limited circle of friends.

The people in the hospital who are looking after her are trying to work out how best to manage her care, including post-operative supervision, and how best for her to be looked after when she gets home.

She seems highly anxious a lot of the time. Most of the nursing staff assume that she is scared about the operation and spend a lot of time trying to calm her down. It is only after some careful questioning that the staff discover the actual reason for her anxiety.

She has two cats at home, and no one to feed them while she is in hospital !

The story doesn’t conclude how the cats get fed, but is simply meant to make the point that people’s problems are very real for themselves, and their perception of them is what matters, not other people’s interpretation or assumptions of what their needs are.

Character Building

People have many different ideas about the virtues of character building and what it means, but it is probably fair to say that having the freedom to deal with certain problems does normally make people stronger in certain ways.

It challenges their abilities, their sense for self-sufficiency, the ability to seek help or not and undoubtedly increases their sense of self worth, whatever the outcome.