Why the 12 Steps Work – A Therapeutic Explanation
I am often asked why I believe the 12 Steps work: There are two ways to arrive at a belief. The first is through dogma, “I’ve been instructed, therefore I believe.” The second is through doubt, “I question it and still, after doing them, I get good results.” For me, it was the later. I got clean and sober because I started a residential therapeutic community (TC) for drug addicts while I still was in grad school at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. It was an abstinent program so I became abstinent. My original motivation for starting it was as a do-gooder being of service. As time went on, I realized I probably ought to have been in it rather than running it, so I paid good attention. TCs did not teach the 12 Steps, so I was unaware of them. Also, at the time, Alcoholics Anonymous was unwelcoming to those with drug problems, so I never explored it.
Many years later, in Los Angeles and working with street kids, I had one of them with whom I couldn’t get to stop drinking and my best counseling stuff wasn’t working. Because he was a pure alcoholic who had never used drugs, in desperation, I offered to take him to AA. He said OK.
Because I had never been to an AA meeting I decided to familiarize myself so I could be a good guide for him. I went to a meeting to scope it out. To my relief, most people were calling themselves addicts and alcoholics, so I decided AA had come of age and I paid attention. When I looked up on the wall, there were the 12 Steps. I realized that I had been doing them already but I didn’t know they had an order. It seems that the model for the program I started in Ithaca was originally developed by guys who left AA when they felt not welcomed as addicts and started Synonon in Venice, CA. Obviously, they took the 12 Steps with them and incorporated them into the program they developed.
The kid, for whom I scoped out AA, took another 6 months to get there, but I stayed because I thought it was a good support group for me. To make sure I got it down well, even with 8 years sober, I went to 365 meetings in as many days, got a sponsor and worked through the Steps. 40+ years later, I guess that was a good investment.
As a therapist, abet an unconventional one, I can explain why the Steps are useful for good mental health:
Step 1: Without coming to the realization that “my best thinking does little more than produce lousy results” one isn’t ready to even try new ideas. Only after accepting the reality of an inability to conjure up a workable solution to a problem, will one become teachable.
Step 2: It is a useful visualization to have a 3rd party, a force, that somehow is karmically providing strength and cover when needed. This is one that usually starts out with doubtful acceptance and, with experience, becomes an accepted belief. For those who don’t buy the God stuff, recognizing that the universe seems to be pretty well organized and that one fits into that scheme might just work. Although nice if one can adopt some concept here, it is not an essential part of the effectiveness of the Steps. It is quite OK to doubt this one and move on.
Step 3: I view this step as a two-part one, I do the footwork in front of me, and I turn over all responsibility for the results of my footwork to the Universe (God, or whatever, as long as it isn’t me). This is basically a recognition of reality. Once I have done all the footwork I can do, it is a waste of energy to continue, kvetching, worrying and speculating about the results. When I get the results (aka, feedback) I then and only then, know what my next footwork ought to be. Until then, it is none of my business so I go on to other footwork I need to do. Since I have accepted this concept, I have lived a 98% anxiety-free life, since anxiety is just fear of future results.
Steps 4 through 9: The inner mind (sometimes called the unconscious mind) does not know pasts and futures. It only knows and operates in the present. It does know complete from incomplete. These steps allow the inner mind to view the past as completed action, so emotions from the past stop clouding the creative process. When this happens, new and useful thought and action have a chance of taking root. Only then can the mind produce constructive and life-fulfilling action.
Step 10: This is a tool to make sure that steps 3 through 9 are continually practiced which will keep the emotional gut from accumulating new crap.
Step 11: Meditation, in whatever its form has been scientifically shown to be highly beneficial when practiced daily. I did Thai Chi for many years. William Glasser, MD in his book, “Positive Addiction” surveyed many successful people and found that the one thing they all had in common was they all did some mindless activity (jogging without music or conversation, chanting, Thai Chi, yoga, swimming, etc.) for at least a half an hour. He speculated that this was useful in that it gave the inner mind a time when it didn’t need to watch out for and control the body and could just free-associate and be creative.
Step 12: One of the most effective ways of keeping a practice is to pass it on to and teach it to others. My Thai Chi teacher, after I had been doing the art for over 10 years suggested that I start teaching. I didn’t and eventually, I stopped remembering the forms and stopped doing it. When I am teaching the Steps to newcomers, there is a little voice that sits by my right ear that occasionally whispers to me, “That was nice what you just told him, are you doing that in your life?”
©2015, rev. 2018, Jason Wittman, MPS, CATC-IV, ILAADC
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*About The Author*
Jason Wittman, MPS, LAADC, CATC-IV (aka Successful People’s Secret Weapon) is the former Executive Director of Los Angeles Youth Supportive Services, Inc. ( http://www.la-youth.org ) and has had a private practice as a Counselor and Coach for over 40 years. His practice, http://Stage2Recovery.com focuses on coaching and advising business and professional clients, who are recovering from alcoholism and addictions, to work and live at their exquisite best. He is an expert on teaching and coaching the “getting-on-living,” self-esteem building and spirituality parts of recovery. He has his master’s degree from Cornell University in counseling-psychology and is certified as a drug & alcohol counselor, a clinical hypnotherapist and a practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or