Can Everyone Benefit from the 12 Steps?

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By Kristin Snowden, LMFT

When I began working as a therapist at a treatment center for mental health disorders and addiction, I was dealing with my own struggles. Though I was not an addict myself, I had been exposed to the 12 steps at various phases of my training and career. And my personal pain at that time led me to become more intrigued by and invested in learning about the treatment center’s 12-step curriculum. I wondered, Can this simple list of steps truly help people find relief from a devastating and mind-boggling disease like addiction? And if addicts are able to entirely transform their lives using this program, can non-addicts who are struggling in life (as I was at that time) also benefit?

Prior to that time, for the most part, I’d been skeptical of and mystified by the simplicity of the 12 steps. And with reason. A family friend had attended Alcoholics Anonymous off and on for years without much sobriety or improvement. Another friend was court-ordered to attend the same meetings and loathed them, viewing them as a form of punishment. At the same time, however, I knew several individuals who swore by the 12 steps, staying sober and living exemplary (and happy!) lives. So, as I say, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more.

As I got deeper into my work with addicts and my study of the 12 steps, I found myself absorbing and implementing the steps in my own life. Before I knew it, my commitment to study and understand the 12-step community and concepts led me into a lasting process of personal and professional growth that profoundly altered the way I live, love, think, and behave. So even though I am not an addict, I have benefitted greatly from the 12 steps.

Russell Brand, a British actor who’s been outspoken about his use of the 12 steps to recover from drug abuse and sex addiction, explains that we are all working some kind of “program” as we live our daily lives. These “programs” may be a 12-step program, a religious construct, a set of cultural filters and biases, or behaviors and choices based on our childhood wounds. Whatever they are, they are programs we use to live our lives.

Similarly, spiritualist Richard Rohr asserts, “We are all addicts.” In his book Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, Rohr writes, “Human beings are addictive by nature… We’re addicted to our own habitual way of doing anything, our own defenses, and most especially, our patterned way of thinking, or how we process reality.”

People who struggle with substances abuse, gambling, or sex addiction only display the most visible of addictions. Most other people find ways to creatively disguise their addictions with cultural norms such as unhealthy relationships with other humans, food, money, religion, obsessions with performance or appearance, etc. These “addicts in disguise” reside under the radar, so to speak.  They aren’t struggling with obvious drug/gambling/sex addiction, or obviously abusive relationships, or obviously deep depression/paralyzing anxiety. Their lives may look fine on the surface. However, similar to an addict, they continually seek out external sources to fill a void that can only be filled internally.

In retrospect, I realize I was completely blind to the fact that I, too, lived my life in my own pattern of “isms” and behaviors. The false and counterproductive beliefs that drove my life were imbued in me by my upbringing and environment, and they kept me in an unhappy state. It is only with a greater perspective, many years after the 12 steps began to work in me, that I realize my former belief systems and false programs for fulfillment and happiness were making me miserable and had just flat-out stopped working for me. (This is similar to the way an addict, usually in hindsight, realizes that addictive substances and behaviors no longer work and a new program for living is needed.)

Addicts or not, we all seek external sources to validate us, to help us escape from discomfort and pain, and to help us feel like we’re good enough. The problem is that these external sources of value, worth, and intensity are fleeting. They are false shelters from the storm of shame that constantly whispers, Are you sure you’re good enough for love and belonging?

And when any of our go-to external coping skills are removed (i.e., our relationship ends, our looks fade, the money is gone, the drugs don’t work anymore, etc.), we find ourselves exposed to the full force and harshness of our lives. Our reality surfaces, and we find ourselves drowning in shame.

Many of us then manifest the addict’s definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. We do this with our diet, our jobs, parenting, in love and relationships, with money, etc. We engage in the same defense mechanisms we’ve always used to feel good enough, to survive, and to make it through the day, even though these mechanisms are not working anymore.

Ironically, the counterintuitive answer to this is buried in the layers of the 12 steps:

  • Own that things aren’t working for you anymore.
  • Realize you can’t do this alone because your best thinking got you here.
  • Surrender to a Higher Power.
  • Do some serious personality analysis and shame resilience work.
  • Connect with others and reconnect with yourself.

I think the most important thing I learned from my study of the 12 steps is that we are supposed to be imperfect. We are supposed to be flawed and make mistakes. When we own and accept our shortcomings, harms, and pain, it creates a deeper level of complexity and compassion within us. We grow from the humility it creates.

This is actually a bit of a human design flaw that we have to overcome, because we initially experience shame as a “pain,” which ignites a desire to run away and avoid. But our soul only grows and prospers in that flawed, humbled state. The more we’re invested in escape, the more shame-filled and miserable we are. We need to feel and work through our shame and pain to grow as people.

In my opinion, this is true for everyone. Thus, the non-addict can find as much transformation and enlightenment in the 12 steps as the addict does. The 12 steps, for every person, are timeless concepts that are worth exploring and pondering at any phase of life.

This is the first of several blogs I’ll be writing on my interpretation and journey into the 12 steps. I hope all you non-addicts (and also the addicts) will join me on this journey with an open heart and mind.