The Four Levels Of Transformation

By Larry Smith, CAS III

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.

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 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 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. 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 – addiction is the elephant in the room
2nd Floor Down: Friends – we seek lower companionship
3rd Floor Down: Finances – Addiction is expensive
4th Floor Down: Legal – Another blow to self-esteem
5th Floor Down: Career – The threat of losing a job is many times the bottom
6th Floor Down: Jails and institutions – sober up or locked up
7th Floor Down: – Death – covered up

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.

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


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 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 addicted.

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 one’s 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 throes 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 form of maturity in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

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:

1) Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of the 12 steps
2) A profound spiritual experience such as a near-death incident
3) A massive shift in personal values
4) 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:

1) 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 well being. We are unconsciously competent about avoiding people, places and things that are not on our spiritual path.

2) 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.

3) 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.

4) 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.

5) 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:

1) Read something of a spiritual nature.
2) Meditate on the lesson received from the spiritual reading.
3) 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 may 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 listenand 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 is the founder and CEO of Get Real Recovery, Inc. He is a certified addiction counselor, lecturer, public speaker and author. He has published a goal setting and journaling book for people in recovery, Captain Larry Smith’s Daily Life Plan Journal.
When Larry is not counseling, he flies 747s for a major international commercial airline. He is a retired Air Force Fighter Pilot and has accumulated over 20,000 hours of flying time. Larry is an Airline Pilots Association Rep and volunteers with his airline’s Employee
Assistance Program. In that capacity, he works with the FAA and medical doctors to assist pilots with addiction problems through a rigorous re-certification process. Larry is also certified in EEG Neurofeedback. His presentations ‘Reclaiming Your Hijacked Brain’
and ‘Learning to Be Happy’ have been presented at state and national seminars.

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