The Sinclair Method: Accountability Instead of Judgment

Co-written by Michael J. Haas

For many people, the new year is a time for making a fresh start. We make resolutions for self-improvement with the best of intentions. For users of the Sinclair Method (TSM), New Year’s resolutions might focus on some aspect of recovery or involve the decision to participate in “Dry January” or “Dryuary”.

The new year can also be challenging. We struggle to keep our resolutions, then beat ourselves up for not sticking to them. We might even abandon positive changes and fall back on old behaviors, telling ourselves we don’t have what it takes, that we “just can’t do it.”

Engaging in this kind of judgment is counterproductive to recovery because it only undermines you. Accountability is the helpful, healthier alternative, but it’s often confused, or used interchangeably, with the concept of judgment.

So what is the difference between accountability and judgment, and how does that difference play out in the context of recovery from alcohol use disorder (AUD)? How can you hold yourself accountable but steer clear of judgment while using TSM?

Whether you’ve set New Year’s resolutions for your recovery, have decided to participate in Dry January, or simply continue to use TSM, this article offers some practical advice and tips on how being accountable – and avoiding judgment – can help you.

 

Judgment vs. Accountability

First, let’s tackle the concept of judgment and how it can be damaging to your recovery.

  • Judgment frequently leads to the formation negative opinions. It also implies there was something “suspect” that required examination in the first place, so even a positive judgment can be rooted in negativity.
  • Judgment involves making assessments about the person being judged, using an external yardstick that dictates “this is who and what that person should be.” Failure to measure up means the person is bad, immoral, unprincipled or worthless.
  • Judgment usually doesn’t provide constructive feedback the person can use to avoid the same outcome in the future – apart from “don’t do what you just did.”

In the context AUD and TSM, none of this is helpful.

Judgment became entwined with AUD because abstinence-based methods originally had (and some still have) religious, spiritual or moral overtones. Abstinence-based methods often judge people harshly when their willpower fails.

However, as we discussed in an earlier blog post, TSM requires effort, not willpower. Heaping judgment on yourself for lack of willpower, on top of the mistakes you might have made, is pointless self-sabotage.

Moral judgments are also irrelevant in light of scientific evidence about AUD: it is a chronic condition with genetic components. It is not a character flaw or the mark of an immoral person. Judgment has no bearing on the biology of your body and brain, and it can’t help you achieve your goals through pharmacological extinction.

What about accountability, then? What makes it different from judgment, and how can you tell when you’re engaging in one vs. the other?

  • Accountability means taking responsibility for your own recovery and your individual efforts, without being harsh or unforgiving of mistakes.
  • Accountability allows you to assess your positive progress as well as your mistakes, generating constructive feedback as part an ongoing recovery process.
  • Accountability involves an honest examination of your intentions, efforts and results (see below), not your character or willpower.
  • Accountability works hand in hand with resilience, allowing you to learn from and overcome your setbacks.

Ultimately, accountability means taking stock of your progress towards recovery and seeing what’s helping you get there and what’s getting in the way. It is a form of self-empowerment and self-care that meshes with TSM.

 

How to be accountable: Intentions, efforts and results

Being accountable to yourself isn’t difficult; it just requires a little time, determination and a healthy dollop of honesty. But before you can be accountable for outcomes, you have to know the outcomes you want and how you plan to achieve them. The following checklist of questions should help with that. (For all of them, write down your answers so you can refer to them later.)

The first set of questions helps set your intentions:

  • What is the goal?
  • How clearly can you define that goal?
  • When would you like to reach that goal?
  • How will you know when you’ve met the goal; what’s the measure of success?

The second set helps define the efforts needed to reach your goal:

  • What specific efforts will you make towards your goal?
  • When, where and how often will you make them?
  • Will those efforts change as you go? If so, how?
  • How often will you assess your progress?

When it’s time to assess the results, consider these questions:

  • Are you on track to meet the goal, or have you met it already?
  • If the answer is “no,” think about why this might be: Could the goal be defined differently? Was the plan unworkable or lacking somehow? Can it be adjusted accordingly? Were your efforts misplaced or not your best? If so, how can you refocus them? Did you encounter an unexpected distraction or circumstance that pulled you off track? If so, how do you avoid this going forward?
  • If the answer is “yes,” congratulate yourself for a job well done!
  • Whether the answer is “no” or “yes,” ask yourself: How does it feel to be at this stage? What seems to be the most important factor at work?

Note: this assessment focuses on a process, asking how well that process is working and where it could be changed. The assessment does not focus on your success or failure as a human being, which would be judgmental and unhelpful.

To take a concrete example, let’s say that your goal is to achieve your first alcohol-free evening.

  • Your intentions: You decide the evening begins at 5 pm, which is the time you usually take your medication. You would like to enjoy your first alcohol-free evening within a month. You will know you’ve met the goal because you won’t drink any alcohol between 5 pm and your usual bedtime of 10 pm.
  • Your plan: Each day you will take your medication 10 minutes later than the day before. At that rate, it will take about 30 days to reach your goal. You only need to make this effort once per day; and apart from the increasingly later time, that effort won’t change. You’ll take stock of your progress every two weeks.
  • Assessing the results: After two weeks of working towards an alcohol-free day, you are taking your medication at 6.30 pm, even though according to plan you’d be taking it at 7.20 or later. So you’re not on track to meet your goal. Why?

After thinking about it, you realize the plan was missing something: you had nothing to fill the time between 5 pm and taking your medication; so you took it a little earlier each evening than originally intended. But good news: this is fixable. You just need to find some distractions to take your mind off the clock, such as reading a book and sipping on water as you read.

The great news is that you have made progress: you now have 150 alcohol-free minutes each evening, and this period will continue to grow. Yes, it’s growing more slowly than you originally wanted, and it will take more than 30 days to enjoy your first alcohol-free evening. But you’re getting there and you feel good about that. The most important factor is your determination to do this; you won’t be discouraged. You’ve made some adjustments to the plan, and you’re moving forward.

Remember, failure to meet a goal or make the expected progress simply means “some part of the process didn’t work this time.” This awareness gives you the opportunity to refine the goal and/or adjust the plan so that you can get closer to the mark the next time around. TSM is an ongoing process, and any progress towards recovery is progress!

 

It’s all you

Finally, when using TSM, keep in mind that you are accountable only to yourself, not anyone else. Yes, family and friends can help you stay accountable by sharing their observations, offering advice on where you went right (or left!), and cheering you on – but only at your invitation.

No one else has the right to hold you accountable, let alone judge you, on your TSM journey because in the end, it’s your journey, not theirs.