Twelve Steps for Non-Addicts: Can We All Benefit from This Model?

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By Kristin Snowden

Is life not working for you? The twelve steps can help you through your mess.

As I wrote in a previous blog, although I do not identify as a typical addict, I feel that my life has been transformed by researching, processing, and exploring the twelve steps. My years of treating those struggling with mental health issues have led me to believe that we all struggle with addiction in some form or another. We’re just on different levels of the spectrum with intensity and acuity. Therefore, we can all benefit from working the steps.

For instance, step one of the twelve steps states: We admit that we are powerless over our addiction and that our lives have become unmanageable. While I do not believe I’ve ever shown a powerlessness over substance use or a specifically identified addictive behavior like sex or gambling, I have done many things in my life despite knowing the negative consequences I might experience. (I did these things in spite of my better judgment – the same as addicts do.)

Stated differently, I’ve made many choices and engaged in many behaviors that have absolutely caused my life to become unmanageable. And I do not believe I’m in the minority with that. Most people have experienced powerlessness with something or someone that has led to unmanageability at some point in life. That initial admission—according to step one—is the only “requirement” to begin the journey of self-exploration and growth that can be experienced through the twelve-step model.

The Obvious First Step: Determine the Problem

Step One’s process of admitting that we are powerless over our addiction (or food, work, self-image, spending, sex, romance, an unhealthy relationship to another person, or any other aspect of life) is the rational first step to change. In the most basic terms this is saying: Just own that you have a problem, that you’re imperfect, and things aren’t going well. Ask yourself what’s not working for you anymore. If the answer comes to you quickly and easily, it’s probably not the correct answer (or the complete answer), and you’ll need to dig a little deeper.

This is the first of many difficult, complex, and often subconscious truths that you’ll need to uncover; usually, this is best accomplished with the help of a psychotherapeutic professional or twelve-step recovery community.

In my own life, I at first only stopped and thought about what was no longer working in my life long enough to acknowledge the surface issues because I thought I was struggling and hurting too badly to look deeper. But there’s nothing like ongoing hurt, pain, and suffering to trigger a desperate and deeper search for change. And that helped me see that my best thinking and planning had created my mess – even though part of my problem was due to being betrayed and lied to by a trusted loved one.

On the surface, I thought my problems were caused by someone else. But when I looked more closely at my life, I found that my own thinking and behaviors were the real issue. As I began to study the twelve steps as part of my training as a therapist, I saw that step one was extremely applicable to me because I’d lost control over something (the ways I thought and felt about someone) and as a result of that my life had become unmanageable.

Probing the Pain to Find the Problem

One of the most mind-blowing (and frustrating) truths I’ve uncovered during my years in the helping profession is that humans—all the way down to a cellular level—only tend to change and grow when faced with intense discomfort, pain, or adversity. If I ever get a chance to talk to my higher power, I want to ask why humans were created with this deeply confusing, counterintuitive design. Why do we only seem to really learn and grow when we are struggling and challenged?

About this conundrum, Richard Rohr hypothesizes in his book Breathing Under Water, “Until you bottom out and come to the limits of your own fuel supply, there is no reason for you to switch to a higher octane of fuel… You will not learn to actively draw upon a Larger Source until your usual resources are depleted. … In fact, you will not even know there is a Larger Source until your own sources and resources fail you.”

Our psyches have amazing coping skills and defense mechanisms that distract us from our daily discomfort. We can easily drink the pain away, blame it on others, or seek temporary relief and escape with sex, relationships, spending, eating, or performing/achieving. Which is exactly why step one is paramount to growth and change. Can we sit with the pain long enough to identify what is no longer working so we can then take purposeful steps to try to change it? If we can, we have a chance to eliminate our pain instead of temporarily escaping it.

Why Owning Our “Powerlessness” Creates Strength

Our ego and pride often get in the way of step one because our instinct is to avoid change, even if the current situation isn’t working. Instead of changing, we continue to do what doesn’t work, thinking that the next time will be different.

It’s in these moments of unmanageability that we need to find a new manager. In Breathing Under Water Rohr asserts, “Addicts develop a love and trust relationship with a substance or compulsion of some kind, [and this] becomes their primary emotional relationship with life itself. This is a god who cannot save. It is momentary intensity passing for the intimacy they really want, and it is always quickly over.”

Addicts or not, we behave in this way. We seek out external sources to validate us, to help us escape from pain or discomfort, and to help us feel like we’re “good enough.” The temporary relief mechanisms we use inevitably lead us to what is sometimes referred to as the addict’s definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. The obvious (but scary) path to freedom from the insanity cycle is to admit that what you’re doing is no longer working, that your best thinking got you here, and you need to make some significant life changes.

In my life, once I was able to acknowledge that my semi-intelligent, determined, controlling, and prideful self still ended up broken-hearted, miserable, scared, and floundering, I was able to surrender and accept a new system for change—a new manager. And with that help, I began to find answers that I, alone, could not find.

Unsurprisingly, step one leads directly to step two. That will be the topic of my next post.