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By Kristin Snowden MA, LMFT

Step 3 of the 12 Steps reads as follows:

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God.

In my previous post to this site, I presented information about Step 3 and the Serenity Prayer, noting that turning our will and our life over to the care of God means turning over all of our will and life, not just the parts that we’re perfectly happy to relinquish. In other words, we need to get out of the driver’s seat and let our Higher Power take over. Through our attempts at control, we are making ourselves miserable, whether we’re trying to manage emotions by using an escapist substance or behavior, or to manage others and the world through manipulation, people-pleasing, and the like. And the only way out is to surrender control to our Higher Power.

Our Need to Surrender Remains Elusive Until We’re in Crisis

Before my own personal crisis shook me awake, I would have asserted to all that I was entirely “enough” and that I wasn’t a control freak. I would have told you I had zero issues in the confidence department, and shame had no presence in my daily thought process. I would definitely have said that I did not need any help from a Higher Power. I would have said, “I’m intelligent. I’m attractive. I’m a great parent. I have a happy marriage. I’m good.”

But when push came to shove and those areas of my life became shaky, I realized my confidence and grounded-ness was an illusion. I realized I only felt smart and accomplished when bosses or friends validated me, so I would bust my ass to the point of exhaustion with hopes of getting that recognition. I felt attractive only when the weight scale told me I weighed a certain number of pounds, so I would restrict what I ate and relentlessly work out so I could look (and therefore feel) a certain way. And I definitely only felt like a good parent when I gave the impression that I was a calm, cool, collected mom who tirelessly and selflessly put her kids’ needs first (which was not the reality).

My ego was so fragile that I couldn’t hear “opportunity for growth” from anyone without getting highly defensive. I gave the outward perception that I was confident and stable, but all of my confidence and stability was built on fleeting and flawed worldly measurements that ebbed and flowed in life. Without a Higher Power, I had nothing to ground me, and that lack of self-worth manifested in my struggling mental health and relationships.

For better or worse, we often realize how stable or unstable our identities, value, and worth are only when they’re taken from us or placed in a questionable light. Metaphorically speaking, we can use all the controlling, helpful, evidence-based formulas and tools at our disposal to construct a building that will withstand a moderate earthquake. But when the Big One hits, the strength and reliability of our building will be fully tested and likely found inadequate – often because it’s built on an insecure foundation.

Humans in crisis are the same. We try to control, manipulate, and do whatever else we can to develop safety and stability in our lives. (As discussed in part one of this post, we use defense mechanisms, addictions, people-pleasing, isolating, etc., to control our feelings and the world around us. And that can work until a major life crisis hits and our seemingly well-constructed psyches crumble. Starting with Step 3, we begin the brutal but liberating process of rebuilding our selves – this time on a stronger, more reliable foundation.

Why Does it Have to Be a Higher Power?

Step 3 asks us to turn our will over to a Higher Power, with an unspoken understanding that this Higher Power will be a source of love, forgiveness, and grace.

It’s my personal opinion that you should never turn your will and life over to anything other than a source like that. If your relationship with a Higher Power only creates more shame, judgment, punishment, and arbitrary rules to follow, you should find another Higher Power. I do not believe that a judgmental, punishing God is the kind of source that will provide you with liberation from the insanity of worldly control. Love has to be love. It cannot be filled with duty, obligation, requirement, or martyrdom. That’s just another form of control and manipulation.

Implementing the Surrender of Step 3

There are many complicated and counterintuitive concepts in Step 3, and they are all important to explore. In this blog and its predecessor, I have primarily explored what I believe to be the most important of those concepts: relinquishing our need to control others and the world. Only when we surrender this need will we truly be free.

Overcoming life’s problems is not about willpower; it’s about the power we can gain when we let go of our will. We must accept what is, what was, what will be, ourselves (exactly as we are), and others (exactly as they are).

That said, surrendering to a Higher Power does not mean we lose our voice, our soul, or our existence. Our walk through life still includes healthy boundaries with others and healthy personal growth. That is how we become vulnerable in a healthy way, where we relinquish unhealthy attempts at control and welcome the support (and occasional hurt) provided by other people.

That’s the vulnerability part of Step 3 – the exposure to hurt due to the whims of the world and other’s choices. The answer, for better or worse, is not to armor up and avoid connection. The answer is to turn the behavior of other people and the world at large over to a Higher Power and focus on the one thing we can control – ourselves. We are in charge of our own thoughts and behaviors; our Higher Power is in charge of the rest. And when we trust that our Higher Power is a loving, caring, forgiving entity, this task of “turning it over” is much easier. It may even be a relief.