Question: Are the 12 Steps Really for Me?

The last question submitted to the men’s discussion group,

What are healthy
physical touching boundaries

had a lot of discussion. Thanks everyone who participated and shared their experience, strength and hope with the group.

Today’s question is a tough one – one that many of us may have had at some point in our process, or even one that some of us have today. In fact, it’s one that we’ve discussed a little bit before.

The summarized question, to me at least, is this:

Are the 12 Steps Really for Me?

Or maybe:

When am I DONE working this recovery stuff and focus on other things?

Tough questions.

Thanks to the man who was vulnerable enough to share his thoughts and fears openly. Here’s what he had to say:

It’s been a roller coaster emotionally.

My work on the steps is very half-A-ed…there are things I get hung up on with the 12 steps.

I am gradually developing an appreciation for the principles, but I struggle finding balance in the program.

Many times I feel more depressed and discouraged working the steps.

Anticipation of the impending daily reopening of the wound seems to make me more irritable. Honestly, it could be because I haven’t been doing it right, but whatever the reason, I have trust issues.

Did you ever feel that way at the beginning?

Did it take time to buy into the culture and the jargon or the rigidity of the 12 Steps & practices?

Another concern I’ve been trying to get over is we all have such similar character defects, and it sometimes feels like the blessings that come from saying “me too,” are best right at the start of healing, but then afterward, sitting in it and pulling it out time and time again, seems like it’s almost validating to my defects. It’s expected that I will struggle in those areas and also that I will never recover, it’s how I belong to this group; it’s my nature as an addict.

If I start to feel like the Lord is blessing, teaching, and healing me so I can move on to other lessons, I believe the group mentality would remind me that I’m getting over-confident because I haven’t done the steps in the same sequence as they did, and I haven’t felt the pain and that I should continue to pull out my past mistakes and feel afraid of failing.

Shouldn’t there be a point where I simply move on and think about other things because my nature has changed?

are the 12 steps really for me

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m there, I just get afraid that the structure and rigidity of the program makes some of those principles seem artificial, forced, or lose context. It makes more sense to me that all the principles would ebb and flow all day long and that they all need each other at the same time in order to work and make sense.

As you can see, this man has a few questions. I’m not really sure which is the best one to address first.

I did do a bit of research on the phrase: “do the 12 steps work” and, as you can imagine, found lots of pros and probably more cons on the topic. Ironically, the cons are mostly written by therapists who have a “better way” or a “new and improved” way of dealing with addiction in all of its forms…

What’s been your experience?

How would you answer the questions from this brother?

How have the 12 Steps worked for you? Or have they?

16 thoughts on “Question: Are the 12 Steps Really for Me?”

  1. First of all, props to this guy for being able to articulate many of the same thoughts and feelings I’ve had as I have gotten into the 12-step program, but haven’t put words to. I have even managed to make 12-step another source of shame in my life, i.e when I’m not consistent at working the steps. I’ve also found myself resenting the program or certain principles at times. I take full ownership of these thoughts and feelings and do believe it’s my addiction trying to stay alive. I will say that before I began working the program, I had no hope to ever stop acting out in my addiction and now I truly believe I can stay stopped and recover emotionally, physically and spiritually. The thought of doing this is definitely daunting, but I have to remind myself to only concern myself with the present day.

    1. Thanks Mark. I can feel that way too – shame for not doing the 12 steps, shame for not reading scriptures, shame for a variety of things. It reminds me of an article I read recently about progress and forming new habits. It said this:

      “You’d be surprised how much progress you can make with even a small amount of practice, applied regularly…Just a small amount of daily practice, or at least a few times a week. It’s powerful.

      Small doses make it easy to do daily. If you want to train for an hour a day, that is only sustainable for awhile. Eventually you’ll run out of energy, or things will get busy and you won’t have the time for your hourlong session. Maybe you’ll miss 2-3 days in a row — now you’ve lost motivation, and you’re discouraged. It’s better to do it in small doses, because it’s easier to get started when you know you’re just doing 10-15 minutes, and it’s easier to find the time and motivation for small sessions.

      “Bring the magic of small, regular practice to your life.” (source)

      I like what you said about “only concerning [yourself] with the present day” because that’s really all we have.

      Thanks again Mark!

  2. If the question is do 12-step programs work, I agree that there are varying perspectives. But, in general there is sufficient evidence that they do. See this pamphlet by SA Lifeline:

    Whether or not they will work for a given individual is a different story. I think the motto “It works when I work it” applies. 12-steps won’t work for some people, but probably because they are not working the steps.

    If the question is does someone HAVE to do 12-steps to recover, I think the question is maybe no. I know SA Lifeline would say it is necessary, but, I think at least theoretically people can recover without participating in 12-step programs formally. However, for me personally, none of my alternative strategies have worked. So, for me personally I do have to work the steps. It is necessary for me to recover.

    I feel like there are three sources of evidence that 12-step programs work and are for me. First, as the document linked above suggests, there is ample scientific evidence backing 12-step programs, and considerable support by big-name people and organizations. Second, all the people I know who are examples of recovery are deeply into the 12-steps, and have a special 12-step wisdom about them. They live the program, daily, they don’t just go through the steps like a check-list, and go to meetings to say they went. Third, I truly believe the 12-step program was/is inspired. There is no other way to explain the origin and success of the program. The materials are amazing, and have been pretty much untouched since their original writing (i.e., the AA big book). Further, the program is very congruent with my religious/spiritual beliefs, and is essentially a neatly outline program for being a Christian (faith, repentance, spiritual connection to God, serving others, etc.). In that sense, it is hard to think why it wouldn’t work.

    For me personally, the issue has been how to make 12-steps a lifestyle, rather than just a program I go through. How do I practice the principles in all my affairs? That’s where the magic happens, where wisdom is gained, and lasting recovery is obtained.

    1. I agree – “it works when I work it.”

      I’m sure there are people out there who have found recovery and healing in other ways, but my guess is it was quite a costly process. I’m sure therapy is one way people have found some level of recovery and healing. But unless I have bottomless pockets and unless the therapist has an ongoing plan (many of which seem to be based off of the 12 steps in some way – at least based on the experience I’ve had with 3 different therapists), once I stop going to the therapist, I may go right back out there to my addiction.

      I don’t know anyone in recovery either that didn’t get there via the 12 steps.

      I don’t know anyone in recovery that hasn’t stayed there because of the 12 steps.

      Your last question is a great one: “How to make 12-steps a lifestyle, rather than just a program I go through…”

      I’ll make this a question for future discussion.

      Thanks Sam.

  3. I have had similar thoughts about 12 step programs. Especially when I first started attending. In my personal recovery, one thing I have learned is that recovery is different for everyone. There is no “silver bullet” that works for everyone. The best I can do is share what has worked for me…
    For me, the 12 step program has been very important. I have used it as a source of SPIRITUAL recovery. I have used other programs that focus more on EMOTIONAL recovery – that I feel dive deeper into the root of my addictions.
    The jargon, culture, and rigidity of addiction programs takes some adjusting to. It can definitely be overwhelming. I think that’s where I found it important to keep telling myself, “This is MY recovery, not my wife’s, not my therapist’s, not my 12 step group, not my sponsor’s.” I appreciate all of these people in my life and try to learn from them in all that they share with me – but sometimes it can be more of a hinderance if I try to work my recovery in a way that I feel they expect me to. I have found that if I do my best to stay close to God, then I always end up learning the principles that best help me in MY personal recovery.

    1. Thanks Manuel. I agree completely. Change is hard. Change sucks. The jargon, the culture, the “rigidity” – all this can be tough to handle, especially at first.

      One of my favorite quotes from AA is in Chapter 5 where it says, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path…” Do I have to make a person believe this? Nope. But I am trying to implement it for me.

      I read in the White Book today, in Step 10, something that really struck me:

      “Instead of looking always and only at others, we start looking at ourselves. We had always lived for ourselves; now we look at ourselves. This is a program of self-examination, which develops slowly in the process of attending meetings, making mistakes, doing wrong, learning to see and acknowledge our wrongs, and correcting those wrongs. This is why in practice, so many have incorporated daily writing as part of working the Tenth Step…Also, we sit down after an emotional scene, for example, and ask ourselves, Why am I disturbed? Where was I wrong? What did I do or fail to do that makes me feel this way? How can I correct it? This kind of writing can work wonders.” (The White Book, p. 132)

      Like you said, this is MY recovery.

      In our culture that can sound very self-centered. But, for me, instead of self-centered it’s about being self-aware. If I’m busy trying to fix everyone else or correct they way they do things, I have the tendency to become the worst version of myself.

      I’m grateful for that realization today.

      Thanks for your comment and experience.

  4. Do the 12 Steps work? Yes…ish. However, what is defined by “work?” I think the format, culture, meetings, and writings are HUGELY beneficial in getting an addict out of his/her own head and getting into a mindset that they cannot do this on their own. If that is enough to suggest that the 12 Steps “work,” then I guess they do. But, beyond that, I’m not sure how much they “work” vs hinder.

    The fatal flaws, if there are any, are that the 12 Steps fail to move beyond the “alcoholic/addict” label. This effectively keeps a number of people stuck in a mode of blame/shame as they struggle to see themselves as anything else and can’t see their life from any perspective other than “I’m an addict.”

    It also erroneously assigns our “character defects” to our addiction, rather than a result of mortality. This restricts us from moving beyond the program, because as we strive to improve our “character defects,” we do so from an inaccurate view of blaming, to some extent, these defects on our addiction. And, commonly, the term “addict behavior” becomes the default, go-to phrase for any less-than-desirable behavior instead of recognizing the addict (acting out) behavior as being the result of unrestrained, wounded, or broken “human” behaviors.

    Now, given, there are some people that are able to make these connections/leaps on their own. I think for the majority, however, we fail do so without the help of outside resources. Therefore, it begs the question, “do the 12 Steps work” if it’s success is dependent upon outside support? I guess it depends on how you define “work.”

    1. Thanks Phil. I appreciate your insight. We’ve talked about the “addict label” a few times and I think it can and will be an ongoing discussion.

      For me, calling myself an “addict” is a reminder that, if I don’t continue working my recovery one day at a time until I’m safely dead (and maybe beyond that), I have the likelihood to “go right back out there,” just as the White Book says.

      Do I focus on and dwell on my addiction? No. But I do recognize it’s there and use the tools necessary to work my recovery one day and moment at a time. One of the best analogies I’ve heard relates to diabetics. A diabetic will always be a diabetic; it’s a label they are ok owning. As long as they use the tools they have, the diabetes probably won’t kill them. But if they stop using the tools, the diabetes will come back with a power they can’t handle on their own. It will ultimately kill them.

      My addiction is the same. I can work recovery, attend meetings, reach out to others, work on my character defects, and use the 12 steps as tools to help me focus on my Higher Power, surrender to His will, and make progress. Or, I can try to do it on my own, say I’ve arrived and overcome the addiction and we’ll see how that works out for me. Unfortunately, I’ve seen both sides and had to go through the process of “arriving,” quit going to meetings or working 12 steps because I thought I was “good,” and then, within a few months, I was right back in the thick of my addiction and nearly lost all that was most important to me.

      Is this every addicts story? I don’t know. But it’s mine so I’ll own it and take another 24.

      I appreciate your comment.

  5. Do the steps work? Yes! I have been going to SAL groups for just over three years. I have seen many people come and go. The ones that continue coming, work the steps and get involved seem to change in lots of ways, not just being sober.

    Before coming to group I thought I was doing awesome if I went more than a couple of days sober. It took a lot of work, going to meetings, calling my sponsor and others but the sobriety has continued to increase. I have decided for me that this will be a lifetime journey. At first that was really difficult to understand and accept. Now, I believe in what the white book says, paraphrasing, we need to share this message with others if we want to keep what we have been given.

    Concerning reopening old wounds, I was able to read my disclosure to my Bishop which helped me let go of all of the wrong that I had done. Now, I only have need to repent of the things I do going forward. The past is in the past.

    Concerning character defects, I will have character defects whether I continue going to group or not. Being able to admit those defects in group reminds me that I still have a long way to go.

    I am so grateful for the 12 steps and the opportunity I have had and continue to have to work them. Even for those who aren’t addicts I believe the 12 steps are important to work. I look at working the 12 steps as working the atonement.

    1. Amen Rory. I’m glad to be your friend in recovery and hang out at meetings with you. There’s only one better place we could be – mountain biking WHILE talking about recovery 🙂

      Just like you said, for me, this is a lifelong process. It scares me to see people come and go because I’ve been that person that started thinking that I was fine, that the addiction was gone, I’d overcome it.

      How wrong I was.

      Thanks for your comment.

  6. 1. “Shouldn’t there be a point where I simply move on and think about other things…?”

    When I realized I couldn’t beat my addiction on my own, I moved on to ARP. When ARP wasn’t helpful, I moved on to books and online courses. When I learned that shame was eating me alive, I moved on to the couch of a therapist (for years). When I felt self-worth again, I moved on to SA Lifeline to stop my addiction. When I started attending SA Lifeline, and reading regularly, I moved on to realize that what I thought was my addiction was only my programmed reaction to my actual issues. Turns out I’ve got the most sobriety I’ve had in 13 years as I move on from one issue to the next. Your story will be different, but I certainly hope you do move on to think about other things as you continue your path of self-improvement

    2. “Did it take time to buy into the culture and the jargon or the rigidity of the 12 Steps & practices?”

    It’s not a shock that the guide used to direct 12-step meetings is called a ‘script’. It’s structured, formal and can certainly be uncomfortable. It did take time for me to “buy into the culture and the jargon”.

    However, I find that working the twelve steps to be breath-ably flexible! To me, practicing the 12-steps is completely contingent on what’s going on in my life that day, or that hour. Sometimes I need reminders that my life is unmanageable and that I need to rely on my higher power (1). Other days I’m asking God to remove my shortcomings (7) or am making amends at work for overreacting (9) or even swallowing my pride at home to my wife and admitting when I’m wrong (10). Airplane wings are rigid, but they allow the plane to fly. I find that a program that has helped hundreds of thousands of people of diverse backgrounds, genders, races, and cultures to also be incredibly flexible.

    For me, the 12-step program has very little to do with my sexual addiction. When I listen during the meeting, what I hear are courageous men acting contrary to their compulsions (with varying success) so that they can deal with their emotions in non-sexual ways. I know many men that would benefit from such a program, addict or not. I don’t come to know how to stop looking at porn, I come to learn how to be a better man. An incredible, miraculous bi-product is that I’m also racking up months of sobriety!

  7. In regards to physical touch, I think that totally depends on where I am in recovery and what my wife is comfortable with. As for whether or not the steps work? As it’s already been stated, “it works when I work them”. I draw strength from working the steps, they’ve have shown me how look through my life and see where and how my character defects have effected my life and those around me. I will continue to work the steps because I have seen the benefit from working them.

  8. I very much appreciate this discussion, and I realize I’m a little late to the party but I wanted to throw out a few of my own thoughts as well. I’m grateful to this brother for being willing to ask questions that challenge the validity of the program. I think that’s how we actually find answers for ourselves. Unless this program becomes a personal belief, I don’t believe that it will be a useful tool for us. At least not long term. For me I started coming to these meetings at the encouragement of others. I started working the steps because I saw them working in others. This was enough to get me started, and it’s often stated that we need to engage first and then the feelings will follow. Much like my thoughts on religion, I think that at some point relying on the words and success of others, will only get us so far. At some point it’s important, and necessary, to ask challenging questions and seek answers for ourselves. This process I believe is very individual. There are those that are going to challenge the program with the goal to prove it wrong. And they will probably be successful. There are those that are going to challenge to the program with the goal to sincerely find out if it’s for them. And they will probably be successful as well. This is a constant process for me. I’m continuing to challenge it, and prove it for myself. For me, it has worked. When i’m engaged, I’m in recovery. When i’m not engaged, I’m not in recovery. And this is a process that is in constant flux. It ebbs and flows.

  9. Are the 12 steps for me? They are absolutely for me, but I can’t say that they are for everyone. I believe there are other ways to recover, however I think the principles and actions would be quite similar to 12-Step programs.

    The last paragraph of page 2 of the White Book states regarding recovery from sexual addiction… “We have a solution. We don’t claim that it’s for everybody, but for us, it works. If you identify with us and think that you may share our problem, we’d like to share our solution with you.”

    Also from Page 2 of the white book, “As the men and women of Alcoholic’s Anonymous learned over fifty years ago, ‘half-measures availed us nothing!’”

    When my step work or dedication to overcoming my addiction is “half-A-ed” it avails me nothing! It works when I work it. However, saying all of that, I too struggle with balance and working the steps in the manner that I want to and should. It’s an excellent place for shame to creep in. I remind myself that this is a journey and some days will be better than others. I just keep pushing forward.

    When I was first starting the program working the steps, reaching out, surrendering, and other principles of twelve step programs was very hard and absolutely exhausting. I attribute that to it being a totally different lifestyle than I was used to living. And I have had to learn to do all of those things. They most definitely didn’t come naturally.

    Hard is good.

    As I attempted to overcome my addiction in the past I always chose the easier path. Well, that always ended up for me back into my addiction and hiding it from everyone. I have had to work the steps one at a time and still do. But at the same time as I live in recovery those steps are implemented all the time as I find weaknesses and things that I can do better.

    This has been a journey for me. And it can be easy to get caught up in what others are doing and where they “are at” in their recovery. I always find support and encouragement from my fellow brothers in recovery.

    Thank you to the brother that was vulnerable in his concerns and fears. I have had so many of the same.

    1. Thanks Judd.

      “SA is not for everyone who needs it; SA is for those who want it.” (p. 6, Step Into Action)

      “When we admitted our powerlessness to others and they to us, something special happened. By admitting the truth about ourselves, the power the secret had over is somehow lessened.”

      I believe this stuff.

      Without this direction in my life, it would be over for me.

      I’m so grateful for the 12 Steps and for how they’ve helped me connect with God and others in real, authentic ways.

      Thanks for your insights.

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