The Twelve Steps were first published in 1939 in Alcoholics Anonymous, the book that would come to be called “the Big Book.” They are introduced with the words, “Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery.” While there are some in AA who say that the steps are suggested in the same spirit that it is suggested that skydivers open their parachutes after they jump out of an airplane, there are compelling reasons for offering the steps as suggestive only. Sharing “experience, strength, and hope” works a lot better than telling people what to do. There is no recipe for a sober life anyway. The main point of recovery is freedom. It’s not about replacing one form of compulsion for another. The form and content of the steps represent a particular worldview and are replete with cultural baggage. Insisting on the adoption of the steps exactly as they are worded smacks of moral imperialism. The steps’ implied requirement that there be a belief in a higher power is an unnecessary barrier to many.
I’m not an advocate of replacing the steps, at least not immediately. Any conceivable process that would lead to the steps actually being changed is not currently within reach. Besides, what we would end up with would not necessarily be an improvement. No matter how respectful of diversity we are, there are always going to be some who will feel alienated, excluded, out of sync, or ignored. Rewriting the steps might be helpful to many who can’t relate to them in their current form, but there are at least as many who like them just the way they are. A better solution is to acknowledge the limitations of language and invite individuals to look beyond the exclusivity, the presumptuousness, and the heavy-handedness of the steps as they are written. There is even value in preserving the original, historical version of the steps, if for no other reason, so that the archaic language can continue to remind us that the particular form that recovery takes is culturally contingent. There is no universal formula that can guide everyone.
So we’re back to the steps as suggestions. That they are suggestions means two things. First, they are quite optional. It is possible to stay sober without them. Many people do it every day. And second, each of us has considerable warrant to be flexible and creative, to be openly questioning in how we interpret their meaning and intent, to zero in on core principles that we infer from them, to personally tailor what we actually do to put them into practice, and even to rework their language. If it is OK to dispense with them altogether, it is surely OK for individuals to modify them. The spirit of the steps as suggestions offers each of us permission and even encouragement to adapt the steps to our own beliefs and circumstances.
In fact, the whole point of working the steps with a sponsor, a recommendation so strongly emphasized in AA, is that there is more involved in understanding and working the steps than reading the words on the page and interpreting them at face value. We need the rugged, pragmatic wisdom that is the fruit of individual experience and of being a part of a diverse community that challenges the idea that there is only one path to recovery. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to working the steps. The steps represent a text that members of a living community share in common with each other. How that text is interpreted and incorporated into real lives is informed by an ongoing conversation within the community and by each individual’s powers of honest evaluation and reasoning. Literalist or narrow interpretations eliminate the most crucial ingredient, the ineffable human sensibility that has been proven to be so valuable. The steps aren’t sacred; they are but a resource that is meant to be applied, adapted, and experimented with rather than enshrined or used as a magical talisman to ward off evil spirits.
The steps have an intuitive, somewhat familiar feel, at least to anyone who has been exposed to the religious ideas upon which they are based. There is a magical, mythological aura surrounding their reputed divine inspiration and their supposed supernatural power to transform lives that is as cherished as the image of Moses coming down off the mountain with The Ten Commandments. Whatever their limitations though, the steps do seem to offer a versatile solution. They outline a process of healing and recovery that works for a lot of people – as the Big Book puts it, “‘a design for living’ that really works” – and not just for alcoholics. The steps have famously been applied to every imaginable human problem.
How do atheists and agnostics account for the apparent effectiveness of the steps? To say that the steps depend on God would be to concede that God exists. If it is the mere act of believing that is the crucial ingredient (and the object of the belief doesn’t really matter), the steps are nothing more than a trick people play on themselves. But what is it they are tricking themselves into? Can we get there using a more straightforward methodology? Could it be that belief in God or “a Power greater than ourselves” is not so indispensible after all? Can we identify in the steps specific principles that are inherent to the recovery process and that don’t depend on belief in a higher power?
Demythologizing the steps entails understanding their genealogy, their foundational assumptions, and the context in which they evolved. They represent a blend of elements, some of which atheists and agnostics can embrace, some not so much. Four of the main factors that shaped the steps were:
- The religious legacy inherited from the Oxford Group
- Insights from psychology
- Limited understandings of the medical aspects of alcoholism
- The actual experience of early members of the fellowship that would come to be called Alcoholics Anonymous
Early AA largely stayed away from undermining its credibility by stressing too much the controversial claim that alcoholism is a disease, but AA’s model is clearly based on the idea that alcoholism is a malady that requires treatment and involves recovery rather than simply being a moral failing that requires correction. Dr William Silkworth in a prefatory section of the Big Book called “The Doctor’s Opinion” (BB pp xxv-xxxii), speculates that alcoholism is “a manifestation of an allergy.” He wrote that working with alcoholics meant conveying a message that has “depth and weight.” He says, “In nearly all cases, their ideas must be grounded in a power greater than themselves, if they are to recreate their lives.” He goes on to say, “unless this person can experience an entire psychic change there is very little hope of his recovery.”
One of the precursors of AA alluded to in the Big Book (pp. 26-28) was a conversation between Dr Carl Jung and Rowland Hazard III (unnamed in the Big Book account), a friend of Bill Wilson’s friend Ebby Thacher (the “school friend” who was instrumental in Wilson’s getting sober, the account of which is found on pp. 8-15 of the Big Book). Jung declared Hazard an utterly hopeless alcoholic and said that the only chance for alcoholics like him was having “what are called vital spiritual experiences” that “appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements.”
The question of how to foster “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism” (cf. BB p 567) was critical for the founders of AA. They knew that there was a lot more about the solution that they still needed to work out, but they were convinced that recovery depended on “deep and effective spiritual experiences which have revolutionized our whole attitude toward life, toward our fellows and toward God’s universe” and that “the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous” was central (BB p 25).
An explicit goal of the steps is to produce “a spiritual awakening.” The twelfth step begins with a promise, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps.” The idea that some sort of conversion experience was necessary was directly related to the influence of the Oxford Group, but it was not a novel idea. Religion has long been associated quite particularly with the kind of personal transformation that is often a significant piece in addressing the problem of addiction.
Abraham Maslow (years after the founding of AA) wrote about what he called “peak experiences.” According to Maslow, peak experiences do not require a supernatural explanation and don’t have to be religious in nature. They are natural phenomena that can bring about an altered mental state, a renewed sense of purpose, awakened compassion, feelings of being at one with the universe, reduction of the ego’s influence, freedom from fear, emotional healing, enhanced creativity, and a radical reintegration of the self. Bill Wilson began his own sobriety with a “white light” experience. Not every recovering addict has a dramatic conversion experience, but for most, some sort of internal personal transformation is crucial, even if it is what the Big Book, quoting William James, calls spiritual experiences “of the educational variety.” (p 567) We might speculate that there is a fundamental, biological relationship between the human religious impulse and mental states induced by certain drugs. Addiction seems to be driven by a deep hunger for a sense of connection with transpersonal realities, for experiences of joy, for what would give life meaning, and for real freedom. Some of what religion is about springs from the same psychology. Some religions even use drugs to produce ecstatic states.
Presumably in order to understand his own “spiritual awakening” and to better formulate the solution, Bill Wilson read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. James writes that some people are constitutionally “sick souls” and that the only cure is to be reborn.
would come to the conclusion – based on his own experience, his observation of
other alcoholics, and his reading – that the starting point in recovery necessarily
involves a degree of willingness that can only come out of an experience of
defeat. He was convinced that the first step had to insist on the admission of
powerlessness because “few people will sincerely try to practice the A.A.
program unless they have hit bottom. For
practicing A.A.’s remaining eleven Steps means the adoption of attitudes and
actions that almost no alcoholic who is still drinking can dream of taking” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p.
The admission of powerlessness in the first step is clearly meant to prepare the way for being saved by “a Power greater than ourselves” in the second step. This formula of defeat, faith, and salvation is perhaps the key feature of the process outlined by the steps as they are written – in the words from AA folk tradition, “I can’t; He can; I think I’ll let Him.” But while most addicts have to reach a visceral state of being thoroughly done with using before they have any chance of successfully quitting, there are other ways of appropriating the experience of hitting bottom than labeling it powerlessness and believing that the only solution is to find a higher power.
It’s worth asking whether having a religious or quasi religious conversion experience is even the most important factor in sobriety. Even if some sort of emotional catharsis or shift is necessary for recovery, there is clearly more to what it takes to stay sober than a wholly internal event brought about by the invocation of God’s amazing grace. Overemphasizing the steps discounts the role other people and the experience of community play in the process. The cult of the steps (i.e. the mindset that equates “the program” with the steps) obscures other, perhaps even more vital aspects of the solution. In a chapter titled “A Vision for You,” the Big Book talks about “a fellowship in Alcoholics Anonymous” which becomes “a substitute” for the excitement and satisfactions of the drinking life and “is vastly more than that.” It promises, “There you will find release from care, boredom and worry. Your imagination will be fired. Life will mean something at last. The most satisfactory years of your life lie ahead.” (BB p 152) This parallels the language of the first tradition, “personal recovery depends on AA unity.” If there is such a thing as a fit “spiritual condition,” the maintenance of which grants “a daily reprieve” from drinking (cf. BB p 85), there is clearly more to that than getting right with God through the steps. Not only are the steps merely suggestions, they are meaningless unless they are part of a larger effort that involves doing everything it takes to build an entire lifestyle around being clean.
While many understandably find nothing in the steps that is worth salvaging, surely it doesn’t hurt to examine them critically, filter out what is not helpful, and possibly learn from the process of recovery they outline. They document the history of a search for a solution to the problem of alcoholism and the discovery of some principles that have proved to be of value to a lot of people. Those principles can be applied, not rigidly, but perhaps more or less in order, by atheists and agnostics to their own lives. There is nothing magical about the number twelve, but the already established, orderly pattern of twelve steps provides something of a template to work with. The goal is to shape our understandings of the steps in ways that meet our personal needs.
There are a number of secular versions of the steps. Roger C gives some excellent examples in his helpful work, The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps. Most rewrites of the steps don’t go far enough though. There are more problems with AA’s Twelve Steps than their religious language. Merely removing references to God leaves big holes. While some of the steps don’t require any substantive change in what is being suggested, others are based entirely on a belief system that includes God. If we’re not counting on supernatural help, we need to ask what needs to happen in its place? What follows is my attempt to reformulate the process that is outlined by the Twelve Steps. Rather than attempting to rewrite the steps, I have tried to identify the core principle behind each step. For purposes of comparison, each principle is accompanied by the respective AA step in parentheses.
1. Face reality (“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”)
2. Trust the process (“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”)
3. Move forward (“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”)
4. Discover (“Made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.”)
5. Connect (“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”)
6. Divest (“Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”)
7. Re-form myself (“Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”)
8. Embrace responsibility (“Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.”)
9. Correct (“Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”)
10. Broaden freedom (“Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”)
11. Make sound, informed choices (“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”)
12 Build a life of joy and satisfaction (“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry the message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”)
One of the things that should stand out is that godless principles corresponding with Steps 1, 3, 6, and 7 necessarily involve actions that are fundamentally different from what is suggested by AA’s steps as they are written. The problems an atheist or agnostic will have with those particular steps go deeper than the fact that they assume the existence of God. How the acknowledgment of powerlessness (Step 1) functions in recovery and how it is framed is slippery. Experiences of powerlessness are part of life, but the ultimate goal needs to be to become empowered rather than merely surrendering to a permanent state of dependence upon a power outside ourselves.
The main problem with AA’s Twelve Steps is that much of what supposedly happens occurs in a black box as if by magic. God is expected to do all the heavy lifting, and what is required of us is often more about being passive rather than being about taking concrete action. This is especially clear in Step 3. The idea of passively turning our will and our lives over is obviously problematic. I have shifted the emphasis to a need to take action. Similarly, instead of asking God for the removal of character defects (Steps 6 & 7), I have embraced a process that involves second-order change, which includes radical disintegration of the old order and the eventual discovery of a new equilibrium.
Steps 2 and 11, as I have reworked them, represent parallel paths to the same ends as those implicit in AA’s versions. Trusting the process is not substantively different from coming to believe that some benevolent power can restore us to sanity, and making sound, informed choices has the same basic intent as seeking an understanding of God’s will. The remainder of the steps, Steps 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, and 12, have not been radically altered, but my version gives them a different tone in hopes of eliminating or at least softening what feels religious or moralistic.
Obviously there is more to the recovery process than a few terse concepts. So some commentary is in order.
1. Face reality – The problem of addiction is embodied in a conundrum. The solution is to make a conscious and free choice to quit using, but the power of choice has been impaired by the addiction. If I’m a real addict, getting clean is going to require a more radical choice than a casual resolution to not use. If I can make a simple decision to not use, I’m not an addict by definition. But AA’s notion of powerlessness is of ambiguous benefit at best. On the one hand, getting a handle on addiction involves honestly recognizing the loss of the power of choice, but on the other hand, the ultimate goal has to be somehow restoring that power. I’m not a puppet on a string. To adopt the idea that I’m powerless and that the solution is the intervention of a “power greater than myself” shifts the focus away from personal responsibility and buries the most important element of the solution – regaining the power of choice. Many sincere efforts to get sober go nowhere because of how limiting AA’s notion of powerlessness is. Making a lasting choice to not use ultimately has to come from within me, even though I don’t have a handy lever by which I can immediately and directly will that into being. The process by which I get there has to fully engage the intricate neurological and biochemical mechanisms that shape my choices at the unconscious level as well as the conscious. I have to reach a point of being done with using and to be convinced of it at the very depth of my being. Addiction is characterized by denial, which is not a conscious decision to hide from the truth but is instead an emotional and psychological impairment that compromises my ability to revise my beliefs, my perspective, my behaviors, my values, and my self-concept in light of the facts at hand. The solution is increased awareness of the thought patterns, feelings, memories, relationships, conflicts, unfulfilled aspirations, unrealistic expectations, and triggers associated with my addiction. When I bring into view the entire process by which I make the choice to use, I become free to make different choices.
- Honestly assess the consequences of addiction and ask what it would take to be “done” – Is my use of alcohol and/or other drugs creating problems? Can I control my using? Can I stop when there is reason to stop? Can I refrain from picking up? Is it possible that I am an addict? Have I had enough? There is no absolute “rock bottom” short of death. Hitting bottom simply means reaching a point at which I am completely convinced that I am no longer OK with using and with everything that comes with it. There is more to getting there than increasing my feelings of aversion. Unless I can begin eroding the numbing bliss afforded by my denial, I will lack sufficient incentive to leave the cozy fantasy world that addiction creates.
- Identify with others who struggle with addiction – A big driver of addiction and denial is shame. Shame is an insidious culprit. It causes me to want to hide. In order to gain the capacity to see my addiction for what it is, I need a context where it is safe to come out of hiding. Nothing can penetrate denial quite like the experience of hearing “my story” in someone else’s account of their own using history.
- Abstain from addictive behaviors – Using is a choice. Conversely, abstinence is a choice. Only I can make the choice to refrain from using. If addiction has robbed me of the power of choice, that doesn’t mean I’m powerless; it means that overcoming addiction is more complicated than the exercise of what is commonly called willpower. Recovering the power of choice involves more than a simple resolve, but doing what it takes is ultimately my responsibility. The vicious cycle of defeat and resignation is not a life sentence. When I get sucked back into it, I can forgive myself, start over, embrace a more mature perspective, and get on with my life.
- Feel the feelings whose avoidance drives my addiction – The biological process that results in the decision to use is not under the control of the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The pivot point has more to do with emotion than rational thought. Buried feelings are set ups for relapse. If I can face troublesome emotions and intractable conflicts, I can loosen the grip addiction has on me. No one has ever died from an overdose of feelings. By the same token, uncovering complicated emotional terrain is best done gently and patiently rather than through stiff doses of brutal honesty. We need to find a reasonable balance between comfort and truthfulness. Everyone can stand a certain amount of luxuriating in “pink cloud” obliviousness, but being unaware of emotional triggers is perilous.
- Recognize denial for what it is – The ways I set myself up for failure are obscured by denial’s obfuscations. The problem with denial is that, by its very nature, I don’t know when I have it. Discovering what it looks like and how it functions is going to require some detective work on my part. I have to be willing to actively examine where my beliefs don’t mesh with reality.
- Be accountable – One of the most significant defenses against using is the memory of having made, not only to myself but also to others with whom I am linked in mutual support, a commitment to stay clean.
2. Trust the process – Recovery may often have a specific starting point, but it’s not a single, irreversible, once-and-for-all decision. It’s a process. It usually calls for more patience than determination. The most significant changes are incremental rather than sweeping.
- Find sources of stability and health – Addiction distorts perceptions, beliefs, and values. Even choices made with the best of intentions take place as if in an echo chamber that reverberates according to addiction’s own inner logic. I need to ground myself in a social milieu and an approach to life that is outside of, larger than, and independent from my own addictive thinking. I may not be able to immediately affect a completely sound mind and healthy lifestyle, but I can at least distinguish relatively helpful starting points from which to launch.
- Set my sights on constructive change – However shaky and tentative my resolve may be, I can still listen for and trust my own best judgment. Even if all I do is let go of what hasn’t been working and awkwardly lurch into new and unknown terrain on spindly legs, a mere possibility for success is preferable to the certainty of failure. I may not have a clear idea how to make things better, but I can at least decide to not do what I know will only make things worse.
- Welcome beneficent change agents – As they say in AA, I need to “get new playmates, playpens, and playthings.” I may not be able to immediately transform my whole life, but I can exchange the people I surround myself with, the places I go, and how I spend my time. As they also say in AA, “it is easier to live your way into better thinking than think your way into better living.”
- Ask for and accept help – The help I need may not always come in the form I want, but I can be open to it, gracious in receiving it, and grateful for it being available. The goal is to actively cooperate with allies and benefactors rather than submit to the authority and direction of a higher power.
- Chill – One of the most crucial ingredients in recovery is being able to find nonchemical relief. Sometimes, it’s a matter of just practicing good mental hygiene. I need to remember AA’s acronym “H.A.L.T.” (Don’t get “too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.”) Recovery can be arduous, but sometimes I just need to lighten up. Laughing at life’s many absurdities or doing something fun might save my life when taking life too seriously becomes a black hole, as it very easily can for addicts.
3. Move forward – The emphasis in the third step as it is written is inverted. The crucial question is not to whom or to what I need to surrender my will and my life, but is instead what I need to do. What is the action that will propel me onward and without which I will slip back?
- Resolve to do whatever it takes – I don’t have to have a complete plan for the future, but as they say in Narcotics Anonymous, “more will be revealed.” If I pay attention to what’s directly in front of me and “do the next right thing,” I will move in a generally forward direction.
- Let go of whatever would hold me back – Sincere efforts to change often not only come up against obstacles but can even generate a backlash effect. Discouragement is inevitable. I will probably find myself at times in a state of emotional resistance, not wanting to do what I know intellectually would be beneficial or just not believing it will make any difference. I might become paralyzed with fears about making wrong choices. Trusting the process entails feelings of insecurity and uncertainty and demands a larger perspective.
4. Discover – The inclusion of the word “moral” in the fourth step is somewhat regrettable. While there is inevitably a moral component to self-examination, the goal is not to measure myself against some superego-driven moral standard, but is instead to promote the kind of mature awareness upon which freedom depends and to nurture psychological and emotional health and strength, which is the heart of recovery. Anamnesis, the therapeutic process of recalling what has been forgotten, reawakens parts of myself that have become inoperable and thereby releases personal resources that have been previously unavailable. There are many tools for self-discovery. I need to find what works for me personally. Some or all of the following might be helpful:
- Cultivate curiosity – Viewing myself as a multifaceted object of interest (rather than just defaulting to the comfortably familiar ideas I already have about myself) displaces oppressive thought patterns that are driven by judgment, shame, fear, neediness, and despair. If I can develop an attitude of a detached observer, freedom grows, and addiction loses its grip.
- Write about what’s going on, what’s bothering me, and where I want to grow – Writing is a valuable tool that can clarify my understanding. There’s something about seeing my thoughts on the page that allows me to perceive them more clearly. Basic journaling or free-writing can bring to the surface buried feelings, unconscious longings, and unanticipated insights. There are other methods or formats (like making lists, constructing charts, drawing diagrams, or producing illustrations) that can also be helpful.
- Pay attention to what bubbles up from within me when I let down my guard – We know more than we know we know. We are constantly filtering what our unconscious minds would reveal. Gently becoming aware of what we automatically suppress or smooth over can provide access to valuable insight. Maintaining a receptive posture that is actively curious about the fertile darkness of the unconscious can enrich our understanding. Dreams can provide a window into what’s going on in our lives that our conscious minds can’t readily process. If we are not too intent on interpreting, assigning meaning, or viewing life through the sieve of our existing beliefs and perspectives and can just listen with a sense of relative immediacy, we can capture much helpful information.
- Recognize and scrutinize troubling feelings, concentrations of energy, and sources of discomfort – Pay special attention to guilt, fear, anger, resentments, obsessive thinking, emotional pain, sorrow, frustration, disappointment, and unfulfilled longing.
- Fearlessly and systematically illumine what I hide from myself – Ripples on the surface – beliefs that don’t make sense in the light of actual evidence, behaviors for which there is no rational explanation, occurrences that seem to come out of nowhere, repetitious patterns, troublingly contradictory commitments, inescapable inferences that dispute my direct perceptions – beg to be probed more deeply.
- Clarify my values – Are my stated values consonant with how I live my life? What do my choices say about my actual values? What values do I aspire to?
- Reflect – What does what I have unearthed mean? How do all the pieces fit together? What insights can I extract?
- Uncover motives – Why do I do what I do? Why do I believe what I believe? What am I hoping to gain?
- Identify blind spots – Just as, when I’m driving a car, I pay special attention to my blind spots to avoid unfortunate encounters with other drivers, I need to pay special attention to areas of my life from which unwelcome surprises just seem to come out of nowhere.
- Maintain a written record of my process of self-discovery so that I can review what I have learned along the way and extend my exploration – Some insights only come into view when they appear in black and white on the page in front of me.
- Discern patterns – An accurate assessment of my life is not simply a collection of isolated facts. There is an inner logic to it. For example, if event B always follows action A, there’s a good chance that A is the cause of B. If every time I am in a particular situation, I find myself always reacting in a certain way, being aware of that is helpful.
- Establish a foundation for and build habits around ongoing self-examination – Paying attention to what is going on eventually just becomes second nature.
5. Connect – AA’s Step 5 is obviously derived directly from the Christian ritual of confession. The main point of Christian confession is deliverance (via a divine act of absolution) from “a state of sinfulness.” Besides the magical thinking involved in plying God’s favor through oblation, to make reconciliation contingent upon contrition (though a common and understandable tendency) gets the process backwards. What is labeled “sinful” is actually a symptom of the primary problem, which is the loss of connection – connection with people, with life, and with oneself. Addiction begins with a longing for an elusive sense of connection, which in turn leads to a vicious cycle that exacerbates and compounds the problem. The solution is a social bond that is based on “unconditional positive regard” (cf. Carl Rogers).
- Allow myself to be vulnerable – No one is an island unto themselves. It is not weak to need healthy relationships with other people.
- Share my secrets with at least one other person – As they say in AA, “we’re as sick as our secrets.” The light of day takes away the power they have over us.
- Let go of shame – Shame not only keeps me isolated from other people, it provides fertile soil for addiction.
- Build and strengthen human ties – Human beings are social animals. To be in a state of isolation is at least as detrimental to a living human organism as inadequate nutrition. Social connections are especially crucial for addicts.
- Become generally transparent – While it is imprudent to be too public about everything, a public persona that is based on a basic “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” way of being is a lot less stressful than being duplicitous.
- Integrate – Embrace an identity that is consonant with the facts and with how others see me.
- Own “my story” – When others look to gain a sense of who I am, they are less interested in labels than they are in a fairly clean and straightforward narrative with some substance.
6. Divest – The problem most atheists and agnostics have with AA’s sixth and seventh steps is with not only the means by which character defects are expected to be removed (i.e. by an act of God) but also with the very label “character defects.” Replacing the word “sin” with different vocabulary like “defects of character” or “shortcomings” is merely a cosmetic change. The language is different, but we’re still basically talking about sinners who need God’s grace to be saved. Unfortunately, many secularized versions of Steps six and seven, in their zeal to de-theologize the language, largely overlook the problem these two steps are meant to address, namely the problem of just how deep addiction’s roots are. It is important to not minimize what is involved. The goal here is not to become a less defective person but is instead to overcome addiction’s insidious grip on every aspect of my life. Addiction’s convoluted internal infrastructure isn’t eliminated through a simple decision to be rid of it any more than an addict can quit using on a mere whim. Creating a stable basis for a new life that is sufficiently different from the old life to foster sobriety entails “second order change.” First order change is change by means of direct intervention. It is typically only superficial change. Nothing of any real substance or import changes. Treating symptoms is an example of first order change. Even if the symptoms are successfully removed, the underlying problem is not solved. So if my efforts to eliminate undesirable behaviors have the quality of first order change, it is not unusual to find myself reverting back to the old behaviors or other behaviors that are as bad or worse. The remedy, second order change, is qualitatively different from “rearranging the deckchairs on the sinking Titanic.” There has to be a permanent disruption of the old homeostasis. While many of my behaviors and beliefs that were previously useful will have now become dysfunctional and are in the way of the new life I am creating for myself, they are probably still a source of security, comfort, and identity. Like a snake that sheds its old skin, abandoning old habits and beliefs leaves me vulnerable, but it is necessary to make room for the new. The letting go in Step six anticipates the emergence of a new way of being that will come with Step seven. While this whole process can be fraught with insecurity, fear, anxiety, discomfort, despair, and restlessness, in order to move forward, I need to loosen my grip on my:
- Attachments – What I do I believe I can’t do without? What holds me back?
- Identity – If I’m no longer the kind of person who acts the way I used to act, why do I allow myself to still be defined by the past? Do I see myself basically as a victim, a screw-up, a parasite, a social pariah, a “bad boy,” a mischief-maker, a hipster who can’t be bothered with anybody or anything that isn’t cool, an edgy romantic who is destined to die young, a loner, a loser, or a “rebel without a cause?”
- Expectations – The greatest enemies of my progress are the many plausible beliefs that are shaped by what I think I am entitled to and what seems quite reasonable.
- Security – How capable am I of living outside my comfort zone? Am I paralyzed by a fear of the unknown?
- Control – What other people do affects me. Can I accept their innate freedom, or am I threatened by it? Does feeling not in control cause me to compensate by trying to control everything and everybody around me?
7. Re-form myself – Having radically questioned everything associated with my old worldview, I have set myself up for meaningful change. Something new can now come up from out of the ashes. But there is “some assembly required.” The new doesn’t just appear ready-made and complete. And there are no instructions enclosed to guide the assembly. What is required is a meta-cognitive approach, an ability to maintain a big picture view of the process. The comprehensive construction of a perspective, an identity, and a lifestyle that are truly new can only be guided by some general parameters rather than by a specific understanding of what the end result will actually look like. Any attempts to precisely predict or carefully control the actual outcome would necessarily be conditioned by existing understandings and thus not really be different from the old. A viable re-formation of the self in the midst of the complexities of real life is emergent rather than being the product of simple, direct, and discernable causation.
- Reframe – In the light of new information and a new set of life experiences, I need new understandings around questions relating to identity, values, ethics, responsibility, goals, work, lifestyle choices, relationships, social affiliations, and family.
- Revise – A lot of change will just come naturally, but I also need to consciously modify my behaviors, my thinking, and the default settings that guide my decisions.
- Replace – Nature abhors a vacuum. Where my old identity, behaviors, and beliefs used to be is now empty. I need to fill the void with concrete alternatives.
- Rebuild – The emergence of a new self is about healing and getting stronger which involves forethought and effort.
- Grow – Immaturity is often simultaneously a contributing factor to and a consequence of addiction. Much of what recovery is about involves doubling back and making up for what was missed along the way in the naturally unfolding developmental process involved in coming to fruition as a healthy human being.
- Renew – Keeping recovery fresh involves the cultivation of what Buddhists call “a beginner’s mind,” an attitude that is open to new experiences and insights.
8. Embrace responsibility – Being responsible is inseparable from the kind of maturity and personal empowerment upon which long term sobriety depends. I need to be thorough in my assessment of problem areas. I am responsible for unintended as well as intended consequences of my actions. By the same token, it is easy to err on the side of assigning blame where there is none. Not every complicated situation is my fault or even anybody else’s for that matter. I need sort out actual culpability from phantom guilt. Sometimes pangs of conscience are merely an outgrowth of unmet, unrealistic expectations others have of me or I have of myself. And sometimes stuff just happens.
- Identify sources of interpersonal difficulties – What is my part? What are the patterns and common denominators?
- Become willing to repair what is broken – Building a stable basis for sobriety entails overcoming childish avoidance of responsibility. Avoiding responsibility for the harm I have done undermines any version of the kind of life I would want sobriety to lead to, a life that is characterized by integrity, freedom, general good will, inherent dignity, trustworthiness, relative harmony, fundamental fairness, and basic good sense. Expecting others to bear the costs of my actions is stealing from them as much as if I robbed them with a gun to their head.
- Be the change – The obligations involved in being a member of the global human community are larger and more complicated than can be satisfied through legalistic adherence. The benefits and liabilities that redound to us through the collective reality that we call society are the aggregate product of countless individual choices made by the billions of human beings on the planet now. My tiny part in that huge, anonymous process might seem insignificant and imperceptible, but if everybody’s attitude was that our actions don’t matter, the situation we would end up with would be catastrophic. What kind of social reality do my choices contribute to? Am I generating or depleting social capital? Being a good citizen means taking responsibility for my part and proactively seeking social justice.
9. Correct – If I want to live with my head held high, the fruit my ethical choices needs to be consonant with my core values. The larger purpose of willingly making amends where they are needed goes beyond overcoming and uprooting negatives; it’s about doing what it takes to be pointed in a positive direction. I don’t have to overtly be at fault to recognize that there is room for improvement.
- Make amends – Amends are not about eliciting a particular response from others. The primary goals are: to do what I can to claim a reasonable degree of freedom from the burden associated with unresolved conflicts, to promote wholeness in my interpersonal life and within myself, to develop a healthy perspective on a necessarily sociable existence, and to find peace even in face of inevitable irreconcilable differences. Success is not contingent upon anyone’s consent or cooperation.
- Get to the root of the problem – Use the information provided by an honest assessment of experience to identify recurring patterns and underlying causation. Change what needs to be changed. Try something different from what has been producing the unfortunate results.
10. Broaden freedom – Having made significant strides toward cleaning up the wreckage of the past, I will probably feel less encumbered by guilt, shame, fear, intangible and tangible debt, emotional baggage, and interpersonal friction. Steps ten, eleven, and twelve are often called “the maintenance steps,” but there is more to sustaining sobriety than achieving a plateau. These three final steps are more aptly called “growth steps.” The question now becomes how to continue enlarging my new freedom. If I’m not moving forward, I’m in danger of sliding backward. The more opportunities and satisfactions life offers, the more complicated and tricky keeping up with the twists and turns can get. Most of what is involved in living a truly virtuous life is not about right and wrong; it’s about what is the most beneficial and what most enhances real freedom. Freedom is an appealing idea in the abstract, but it’s not always welcome in reality. Living a full life requires agility and attention to detail. I need to pay special attention to any tendency I might have toward self-sabotage as a way of avoiding the demands of a rich and interesting life. I need to be free to break away from anything that would impair my progress, even when I’m not particularly at fault.
- Practice ongoing self-examination – Doing what it takes to maintain a reasonably clear conscience and to offload emotional baggage sets me up for success. By this point in the step work, I’ve already identified my points of vulnerability, historical danger zones, my emotional hot spots, telltale warning signs of impending trouble, my internal barriers, my shame responses, and my patterns of self-deception. Simply being aware of my thinking process and my emotional tendencies increases freedom.
- Don’t let pride and stubbornness get in the way of seeing alternatives – Having to be right all the time is a crushing burden. Having to get my way denies me of other more fruitful opportunities.
- Execute timely course corrections – A simple apology can go a long way toward clearing up a mess I’ve created, even if I am not entirely at fault. And sometimes, the need to make adjustments is not even about being wrong; it can just be about things not working out like I expected them to. I don’t have to throw good money after bad after I recognize I’ve invested valuable time and energy on a well-meaning but ultimately ineffective strategy. I don’t have to be wed to doing things a certain way if a better way comes into view.
- Create – The supposed safety that comes with compliance and conformity is overrated and is often even quite illusory. If I instead employ an intelligent, constructivist approach, I can assemble a life that is characterized by the kind of strength, health, resourcefulness, and agility that will enable me to successfully respond to challenges that would otherwise defeat me.
- Stay interested – Our brains are very responsive to new stimuli. Neural circuitry and chemistry are physically and enduringly altered when we change our environment, our behaviors, our attitudes, our assumptions, our perspective, and our means of acquiring information. It’s a slow process, but the good news is that it enables us to actually get a handle on troublesome, seemingly intractable personality traits. Habitual ways of thinking and behaving are a function of physiological programming in our brains. Our emotional matrix is the cumulative result of years of conditioning. Viewing our own thought processes with compassionate curiosity, genuine interest, and benign neutrality (rather than allowing our awareness to be completely immersed in the reality our thoughts generate) grants us a measure of freedom.
11. Make sound, informed choices – The assumptions behind a conventional understanding of the eleventh step are: there is a loving god whose perfect will somehow wisely guides everything toward the ultimate benefit of each of us; our lives will only go the way they are supposed to go if we are in harmony with the will of that loving, yet somewhat jealous and possessive god; any other path is “self-will” and puts our sobriety at risk; what we need to do is to seek an understanding of what God’s will for us is and the ability to shape our lives around it; how we do that is to achieve, through prayer and meditation, something of a brain-meld with the all-knowing mind of God. Anyone with humanist leanings will question at least some of these assumptions. A central tenet in humanism is the belief that we cannot afford to neglect the innate talent of human beings to solve problems through an honest and well-reasoned consideration of the available facts. While human decision-making is always impeded by imperfect information and human foibles, being as intelligent and as attentive to detail as we can be is our best chance at producing good outcomes. If we are not ultimately responsible for our own choices and the details of our own lives, who or what is? The fond hope that, even if there is no god, there is still a grand cosmic plan and “an invisible hand” that knows what’s best can be a hard dream to let go of, but there are good, scientifically-informed philosophical reasons to be skeptical about it. The deeper principle underlying the eleventh step is that the chances for staying sober are improved by avoiding messes that bad choices create, by being empowered to make good choices, by taking responsibility for those choices, and by freedom from learned helplessness. I am not a victim. I may not have total control over every detail of my life, but having a stake in my own success promotes strength, health, and soundness of mind. Being a responsible steward of my own life gets me out of the blame game. Being more interested in thriving than I am in being right (or in having a good excuse to fall back on if and when failure occurs) provides a solid basis for lasting sobriety.
- Be reality-based – Denial and cognitive dissonance prevent me from seeing situations as they are. Superstition, magical thinking, clinging to fantasies, and avoidant behaviors create a cozy alternate reality that unfortunately is at odds with the facts. Keeping my eyes wide open to the truth requires discipline and courage.
- Cultivate wisdom – If I am willing to learn from my experience and critically examine my values, my worldview, and my ways of doing things, I can improve on my decision-making abilities. Disciplined reflection on the philosophical and ethical dimensions of my life can yield valuable insights.
- Develop perspective – Consciously working on seeing the big picture and adopting an independent point of reference counters the natural and inevitable solipsism that comes with being human. The common tendency, especially when immaturity is an issue, to view everything through the lens of self-centeredness and self-absorption distorts perceptions, proportionality, and valuation.
- Infer – Young children have trouble with object permanence, the implicit understanding that what is there doesn’t lose its existence just because they can’t see it. Even adults often fail to recognize that there is much they haven’t seen with their own eyes but that is nonetheless very real. Decision-making that does not take into account information that cannot be acquired through direct means and can thus only be inferred is leads to unfortunate outcomes.
- Maintain objectivity – Personal biases, likes and dislikes, attraction and repulsion, wishful thinking, emotionalism, and willful distortions insidiously corrupt sound judgment.
- Take other people and the common welfare into account – One of the attributes of God’s will would presumably be that it is generally beneficial, in other words, that it is concerned with the greater good and is guided by an impartial love for all of creation. There are ways that doing the right thing strengthens sobriety besides believing that being in God’s favor is going to keep me sober. Having a reasonably clear conscience removes the burden of guilt and simplifies my life. My actions can be a vote for a society that embodies the greatest good for the greatest number. And even from the point of view of my own self-interest, playing fair is a good long term strategy. Win-win approaches provide a stable base of operation and generally yield the best results.
- Take chances – . . . and then let it go. I can look back and learn from my experience after the fact, but second guessing or hedging my bets at a fork-in-the-road moment when I have to commit to one direction or another only creates confusion and robs me of the resoluteness I need. The key to a life without regrets is not to avoid failure but is instead to seize each moment and wring every bit of wonder and opportunity out of it I can. If my roll of the dice doesn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, that doesn’t mean my gamble was reckless. Even options with ninety-nine percent favorable odds fail to produce the desired results one percent of the time.
- Accept – Life is full of ambiguity and disappointing results. I need to know how to cut my losses and move on.
12 Build a life of joy and satisfaction – Maintaining a sustainable basis for sobriety involves building an attractive life, a life that is clearly preferable to using.
- Acknowledge progress – It is as important to recognize what’s working as it is to get rid of what’s not.
- Celebrate gains – Having a sense of reward is crucial. The experience of joy increases dopamine and endorphin levels in the brain, thus reducing the dysphoria that can contribute to the danger of relapse.
- Adopt a confident stance – I don’t have to be perfect to make a constructive contribution. Creating solid ground to stand on and a sense of stability in my life strengthens my resolve to stay sober.
- Share – The twelfth step says, “we tried to carry this message.” There is more to that than preaching, lecturing, or imposing my beliefs on others. Unless my efforts to carry the message are inspired by a spirit of generosity rather than being based on a need to feel superior or laudable, no one benefits, especially not me. There are tangible benefits that come with giving. It gets me out of my self, produces a general sense of wellbeing, reduces the feelings of uselessness and self-pity that are the frequent residual of addiction, and boosts self-esteem. With regard to the particular act of passing on the message of recovery to other addicts, the teacher almost always learns more than the pupil.
- Be ethical – It’s not entirely clear what principles are being referred to when the twelfth step says “to practice these principles in all our affairs.” The implication seems to be that certain principles can be inferred from the preceding eleven and two thirds steps, but surely that doesn’t mean we need to limit our focus to the ethical principles that are communicated through the steps. In general, a principled life is a life well lived. Greek philosophers talked about what they called “eudemonia,” a way of life that is based on the idea that practicing sound ethics is good for the individual because it is productive of goodwill, positive outcomes, a general sense of peace, and a stable state of happiness and wellbeing.
- Pursue what brings real satisfaction – The chronic restlessness and free-floating feelings of discontent that addicts frequently experience can be a vicious circle. They all too often lead to choices that exacerbate the problem which in turn increases the likelihood of still more bad choices.
- Enjoy life – If we don’t make conscious choices to pursue activities and involvements that bring joy into our lives and to find delight in the living of our lives, our brains will override our best intentions and set us on a course of seeking experiences of immediate gratification that may not be good for us in the long run.