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By Kristin Snowden MA, LMFT

Step 12

Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The step 12 chapter of the Alcoholics Anonymous book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, is nearly twice as long as the chapters for the previous 11 steps. It’s filled with a wealth of reminders, suggestions, cautionary tales, and guidelines on how to continue the work after “completing” the 12 steps. It reminds us that the life-changing work of the steps will allow us to feel and experience things we were unable to experience before, and that we will find clarity and purpose in a life that previously was something to endure or “get through.” The chapter also encourages us to apply the tools we learned with the first 11 steps to navigate all current and future relationships and challenges. At the same time, it cautions us to avoid complacently and to maintain a path of spiritual/personal growth to help us weather future storms of crisis, hurt, and devastation.

Most importantly, step 12 highlights a core tenet of lasting recovery and stability: Being of service to others. Countless historical figures, research studies, and books emphasize this same idea – that enduring happiness is found in giving to and helping others.

“It is better to give than to receive.”
—Acts 20:35

“No one has ever become poor by giving.”
—Anne Frank

“He or she who serves almost always benefits more than he or she who is served.”
—Gordon B. Hinckley

Amazingly, brain imagery shows altruism stimulates the same pleasure areas of the brain as food and sex. Psychologists find that being of service is at the core of connection, vulnerability, and fulfillment. It allows us to make meaning from our traumas and grief.

The creators of the 12-step model considered serving others such a significant piece of long-term sobriety that it was built into the framework of the program through the sponsor/sponsee structure. Basically, 12 step group participants who’ve completed the steps and have established lasting sobriety are encouraged to assist newcomers by “sponsoring” them, helping them stay sober with useful advice and guiding them through the 12 steps.

Sponsorship is a mentoring system that not only helps newcomers, it reminds old-timers of what a return to active addiction might look like. It also causes sponsors to re-do the steps themselves, continuing their work of recovery and healing as they help others do the same. In this way, sponsorship serves a dual purpose:

  1. Sponsorship provides hope, accountability, and guidance to newcomers.
  2. Sponsorship allows those who’ve experienced “a spiritual awakening” as a result of completing the steps to remain engaged and invested in their recovery by helping others with theirs.

Twelve-step programs acknowledge that growth is continuous while complacency can be dangerous. Addicts helping other addicts gives them meaning, purpose, and perspective but also reminds them of the harrowing stories, challenges, and defense mechanisms that they can return to if they allow complacency to set in and “stop working their program.”

Non-addicts can benefit just as much as recovering addicts from serving others and remaining vigilant about complacency. However, the benefits of such deeds will only be realized if they are done with boundaries. Boundaries are guidelines or limits that a person sets when engaging with others while also establishing appropriate responses when others pass or ignore those limits. Simply put: Boundaries are your definition of WHAT IS OK AND WHAT IS NOT OK.

Some people believe that boundaries create obstacles to loving and giving to others. However, the empathy and compassion necessary for such acts flow more freely from those with strong boundaries. One must give to others without the weight of duty, obligation, or quid pro quo. Opting out of healthy boundaries can drain emotional resources, lead one to feel like a martyr, and often contribute to resentment and passive aggression toward others. Those conditions would make it difficult to stay free of one’s character defects and bad habits. And then you’re back to step 1 and square one.

The twelfth step winds down an intense journey of personality dialysis. It provides the framework and guidance to help you continue the path of growth while maintaining honesty, accountability, joy, and stability. Completing the 12 steps will never result in the end of adversity and challenges. Life will continue to present challenges and people will continue to disappoint. However, the 12 steps provide us with the tools we need to transcend those moments with support, integrity, and purpose.