This isn’t your typical book review: summary, analysis, critique.
Instead, I’m summarizing a book I recently enjoyed, connecting its principles to a life in recovery, and recommending it to anyone interested in seeking a healthier, more authentic life.
Don Miguel Ruiz studied to be a neurosurgeon before a near-fatal accident led him to apprentice with a healer and shaman in Mexico. Now, he teaches what he has learned to others. The Four Agreements, one of his many books, is a slim, easy-to-read volume that lays out four practical ways we can ensure a life of happiness and freedom from fear.
Ruiz defines an “agreement” as a code for understanding and communication. For example, language is an agreement. Those who speak English agree that the word “cat” refers to the small, furry mammal with the long tail and the attitude. Just as we didn’t have a choice in using the word “cat,” we also don’t have much choice in the other agreements that have been passed down to us by our culture or family.
Here’s another example: for centuries, we have passed on the agreement that suffering is inevitable (or even worse–“life sucks, then you die”). The agreement to believe in suffering is so much a part of our consciousness that we don’t even question it. All of the agreements, conscious and unconscious, that we have inherited form our belief system. Our belief system controls our life. Ruiz argues that if we want to change our life, we have to change our agreements.
To that end, Ruiz lays out four new agreements that, if adopted, will change our entire outlook and transform what might feel like personal hell into serenity and freedom.
The Four Agreements:
- Be impeccable with your word.
Words are powerful. Words create. Words convince, manipulate, persuade, scorn, uplift, judge, empower, hurt, heal. To be impeccable, or free from blame, with your words means to speak with integrity about yourself and others. Think of a simple but powerful example: the word “addict.” Those in recovery have traditionally been encouraged to define themselves as addicts for the rest of their lives. Does the word “addict” create belief in yourself?
Being impeccable means to not engage in gossip about others and to stop lying to, judging, and being hateful toward yourself (e.g., “I should be better at sobriety,” “I’m such a failure,” “I can’t seem to get healthy,” etc.). When we are impeccable with our selves, the words of others won’t be able to bring us down. This leads us to the second agreement…
- Don’t take anything personally.
When others say hurtful or ignorant things to us, they are trying to “send us poison,” says Ruiz. If we agree with their statements, we are agreeing to ingest that poison and make it ours. “Nothing other people do is because of you,” Ruiz insists, even when they tell us how wonderful we are (48). Everyone lives in their own mind, acting out their own unconscious agreements and beliefs.
As someone in recovery, you might face a lot of misunderstanding and negative comments about substance use disorder by those who live and work around you. A joke to someone else might be a trigger for you. So it’s especially important to remember that any comments you hear—even the ones directed at you—are not about you; they’re never about you. They’re about the person who made them. Don’t spread emotional poison by agreeing to take it.
- Don’t make assumptions.
Because we each live in our own world, made up of our own beliefs and feelings, we can never assume that we know what someone else is thinking or feeling. When we assume others know what we want, we will be disappointed or angry when they fail to deliver.
When we assume that everyone acts and feels the way we do, we fear being ourselves around others “because we think everyone will judge us, victimize us, abuse us, and blame us as we do ourselves” (69). We can also make assumptions about our own abilities or tolerance levels, only to be disappointed in ourselves when we don’t live up to our expectations.
If you’re in recovery, you may find it frustrating when people seem to make assumptions about you—about how good an employee you’ll be, about what kind of social event you’ll prefer, about how you will relate to them. To get even more convoluted, you might find yourself making assumptions about what people will assume about you—amid all of the silent assumptions, communication and connection get lost. Say what you want. Ask others what they want.
- Always do your best.
Your best is different from day to day. Doing more than your best will drain you. Doing less than your best will leave you feeling frustrated and unfulfilled. Do things because you want to do them, not for some reward. Be impeccable with your word; this means not beating yourself up if you slip up and say something harsh, take something personally, or make an assumption that leads to misunderstanding. Just pick yourself up and keep going, staying positive. If you do less than your best sometimes, forgive yourself.
Committing to these four agreements will be the hardest thing we have ever done. As Ruiz warns, “almost all of our personal power is invested in keeping the agreements we have with ourselves. That’s because our agreements are actually like a strong addiction. We are addicted to being the way we are. We are addicted to anger, jealously, and self-pity” (110). But if work hard, practice regularly, and continually focus on love and forgiveness, we will transform into our true selves: powerful, loving, free.