The Three Delusions: The Big Book’s Breakdown Of Step One

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What Are The Three Delusions of Alcoholics Anonymous?

Alcoholics Anonymous is famous for its play-by-play breakdown of the Big Book, which is the organization’s basic text – a damn near Holy Book! 

If you have experience with ‘the rooms’ you’re likely familiar with the prayers, the promises, the musts, the bedevilments, and the like.

However, there is a critical component of Step One that I noticed is often overlooked and forgotten. 

They are aptly called the ‘three delusions.’

A Break Down Of The Three Delusions

Technically there are only two delusions and one illusion – this is how they are specifically written in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

At any rate, the delusions wrestle with the two components of the first step, powerlessness and unmanageability. 

An understanding of the delusions can enrich one’s understanding of the first step and therefore enable one to effectively work the remaining steps.

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I like to think of it as: Psychotic Wishful Thinking

The First Delusion:

The first delusion is in the chapter entitled “More About Alcoholism.”

“The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death.” 

For the real alcoholic (or addict) this illusion can completely block all attempts at recovery. 


Because recovery requires a drastic transformation of attitude and conduct.

Something that is unlikely to occur if one believes it isn’t necessary.

Makes sense. 

The craving for alcohol will completely override any positive intentions one may have for recovery. 

In The Doctor’s Opinion we read: 

We believe . . . that the action of alcohol on . . . chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy; that the phenomenon of craving is limited to this class and never occurs in the average temperate drinker. These allergic types can never safely use alcohol in any form at all, and once having formed the habit and found they cannot break it, once having lost their self-confidence, their reliance upon things human, their problems pile up on them and become astonishingly difficult to solve.”

A true alcoholic or addict “can never safely use alcohol in any form at all.” 

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The Second Delusion:

The second delusion is also in “More About Alcoholism.” 

“We learned that we had to concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery. The delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed.” 

There is an old saying in A.A. that once a cucumber becomes a pickle it can never become a cucumber again. 

This is illustrated by the story of the man who quit drinking at age thirty, only to retire and commence drinking again at age fifty.

Within two months of doing so he was promptly hospitalized for alcoholism.

His story illustrates how the physical allergy never goes away and, so it seems, in our experience the untreated obsession for alcohol only grows worse with time and never better.

This is the first delusion on steroids.

  1. The first states that many fall prey to super irrational thinking.
  2. The second states that if you do and do not change it, you will fall into the “gates of insanity and death” category. 
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This delusion also emphasizes the unmanageability in our lives.

The very fact it needs to be stated implies how many of us fall victim to this damn delusion. 

The following passage form the Big Book pointedly demonstrates the folly of our internal dialogue. 

The first requirement is that you see that any life run on self-will can hardly be a success. 

On that basis we are almost always in collission~ with something or somebody, even though our motives may be good. 

Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show: is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. 

If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wishes, the show would be great. 

Everybody, including himself, would be pleased. 

Life would be wonderful. In trying to make these arrangements our actor may sometimes be quite virtuous. He may be kind, considerate, patient, generous; even modest and self-sacrificing. 

On the other hand, he may be mean, egotistical, selfish and dishonest. But, as with most humans, he is more likely to have varied traits.

What usually happens? The show doesn’t come off very well. He begins to think life doesn’t treat him right. He decides to exert himself some more. 

He becomes, on the next occasion, still more demanding or gracious, as the case may be. Still the play does not suit him. 

Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self-pitying. 

What is his basic trouble? 

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Is he not really a self-seeker even when trying to be kind? Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if he only manages well? 

Is it not evident to all the rest of the players that these are the things he wants? And do not his actions make each of them wish to retaliate, snatching all they can get out of the show? Is he not, even in his best moments, a producer of confusion rather than harmony?

Our actor is self-centered – ego-centric, as people like to call it nowadays. 

He is like the retired business man who lolls in the Florida sunshine in the winter complaining of the sad state of the nation; the preacher who sighs over the sins of the twentieth century; politicians and reformers who are sure all would be Utopia if the rest of the world would only behave; the outlaw safecracker who thinks society has wronged him; and the alcoholic who has lost all and is locked up. 

Whatever their protestations, are not these people mostly concerned with themselves, their resentments, or their self-pity?

Selfishness – self-centeredness! 

That, we think, is the root of our troubles. 

Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. 

Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly, without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self, which later placed us in a position to be hurt.

So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is almost the most extreme example that could be found of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so. 

Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us! 

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The Drama Of The Delusions

I believe that regarding Step One the “drama” of unmanageability is being stressed here, and it’s not necessarily just as the concluding factor regarding the “powerlessness” component.

Let me explain…

Inner unmanageability demands inner manageability. 

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It will find it one way or another…

For example, if loneliness is a form of inner unmanageability, then that loneliness will register as an unmet need and the brain will do whatever it can to satisfy that need, even if the warm embrace of companionship comes from heroin or a few too many pints at the pub, it cannot tell the difference between the artificial and authentic, it merely observes results.

Sure, the usual suspects of unemployment, inability to sustain a relationship, constant incarceration, and riding the institutional circuit may appear as unmanageability – and it is, but only inasmuch as it reflects or is indicative of inner unmanageability  

The Big Book at least implicitly states that the drink is a vehicle for producing inner manageability, or inner peace and quiet.

In other words, alcohol (or whatever addiction) ‘creates’ inner manageability aka “sanity,” through whatever substance/act pulls off the deed.

It creates the feeling that one can finally come out and play.

Some addicts have aptly described it as a spiritual experience and I suppose that is an unbelievably fitting description.

Oddly enough, this is precisely the same language offered in Step Two, only in this dimension, God is this “restorer of sanity” – pretty incredible, right.

In other words, in this particular context, the second delusion distorts alcohol into Higher Power of sorts.

The Third Delusion:

The ‘third delusion’ was actually already stated. I’ll note it again just in case you missed it: 

“What is his basic trouble? Is he not really a self-seeker even when trying to be kind? Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of the world if only he manages well?” 

Let’s be real. 

Life appears inherently unmanageable. It seems predetermined, and we are just a dog tied to a cart along for the ride.

  • We can’t change our circumstances or conditions when they befall us. 
  • We can’t modify our genetic constitution.
  • We can turn back time on our cultural conditioning.

Can we really shape how other people act and react to our circumstances?


The bottom line is that alcoholics are stuck in an assumption that the uncontrollable must be controlled in order to find even a modicum of happiness. 

The truth is we cannot find happiness by managing our conditions. This eventually breaks us all because we can only change ourselves to meet conditions. 

Until this insight is understood, turning our will and our lives over to God, which is an internal job, will never occur. 


Because we have been focusing all our energy on external jobs!

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Let’s do a quick recap:

  • Unless we see through the ‘first delusion’ we cannot stay sober. 
  • Unless we smash the ‘second delusion’ we may stay sober, but we will remain trapped within the insanity of our old ways of thinking. 
  • Once we accept and see through all ‘three delusions’ we can – and will – find God producing within us a blossoming inner manageability.