Why the 12 Steps Work – A Therapeutic Explanation

Why the 12 Steps Work  and Why They are a Valuable Adjunct to Therapeutically Working With  Recovering People    – 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 latter. 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: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Without coming to the realization that “my best thinking does little more than produce lousy results” one isn’t ready to even attempt 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: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

It is a useful visualization to have a 3rd party, a force, that somehow is karmically providing strength and cover when needed. This is a Step 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 life just might be easier to cope with if one can embrace the assumption that that Universe could be tapped into for moral assistance at difficult times. Broadly speaking, many folks have found that the 12 Step fellowship can become a viable temporary substitute for God until one of their understanding can be developed and embraced. Although nice if one can adopt some concept here, it is not an essential part of the effectiveness of the rest of the Steps. It is quite OK to doubt this one and move on.

Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

I view this step as a two-part one, I do the footwork in front of me, and I turn overall 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.

Step 4 “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” & Step 5: “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

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. This two-step process does a more effective job of clearing out years of accumulated emotional garbage than most of the formal therapeutic processes. Once these steps are completed, the risk of relapse is drastically reduced. Until these steps are completed, a newly recovering person’s good feelings are mainly a combination of the honeymoon effect and hitchhiking on the good feelings of those with long-term recovery. Most people who slip in their first year of being substance-free do so because they have not completed their 5th step and internally they still have that historical emotional pain and start to think that since there is no improvement they ought to go and do what they know will bring instant relief.

Step 6: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”  & Step 7: “Humbly asked Him to remove all these defects of character.”

These Steps address changing old non-functional and irresponsible habits and limiting beliefs. The 6th Step is the preparatory one that involves making a list of all the things one would want to change and become willing to forgo the secondary benefits and payoffs associated with them. The 7th Step is actually making the changes.

Step 8: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.” & Step 9: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

Again the 8th Step is the preparatory one where the person makes a list of all those people that have been wronged including oneself and, again, becoming willing to follow through with making amends. The 9th Step is actually making amends in a responsible and thoughtful way. This set of Steps addresses head-on, the resolution of guilt and shame. After doing these Steps and the 4th and 5th ones, most accumulated bad feelings are resolved and for the first time for many, there is a feeling of comfort and joy. There will usually be a noticeable change in emotion and guilt-driven behavior and thinking with a corresponding shift in outlook and perspectives.

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 Master, 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?”

So I hope the reader can understand from this brief tour, these Steps are a fairly good prescription for clearing out the emotional baggage of the past and a guide to address new feelings and behavior as they occur to maintain an emotionally positive life.

Twelve Step programs offer a lot more than just the above Steps, which of themselves are supremely beneficial. These programs offer two additional features that make them of even greater value to recovering folks. They offer a fellowship of ultra-supportive people all of whom are walking the same path and are motivated to be supportive by the Twelfth Step. A very important sub-part of this fellowship is the concept of sponsorship. A sponsor is someone with years of experience with doing the 12 Steps who serves as a teacher, mentor, and coach for the newly recovering person. Once the Steps have been taught and done, the sponsor becomes a trusted advisor who can be called on to assist in applying the Steps to daily life and life’s foibles.

One of the problems I experienced working therapeutically with recovering people before I was introduced to these programs was that if the client left the area or even in between therapeutic  session there was little or no outside, ongoing support. Also, without a positive support group, even those who remained in the area after their therapy was complete would be going back to and associating with the same people and in the same environment that they formally use in. The Environment almost Always Wins, so those who go back to a using environment and using buddies will, most likely, eventually succumb. The 12 Step programs are the only programs that I know of, which offer a supportive, positive,  cost-free environment virtually 24/7 and worldwide. For this feature alone, getting your clients involved will greatly assure that your good therapeutic work that you did with them will survive and continue to grow long after your work is done.

The other important feature of these programs is an emphasis on Service. There are many opportunities in every meeting for members of be of service, from being a greeter at the door to being the meeting secretary who is responsible for the meetings’ smooth operation. Plus there are speakers at most meetings who are members with more experience. All these opportunities assist the members to build both self-esteem and self-confidence. Building a strong sense of self-esteem/love is one of the best relapse prevention practices.

If you are a therapist or a counseling professional, I hope this brief survey of the feature of 12 Step programs from a therapeutic point of view will assist your understanding of how getting your clients/patients involved in these programs would be a valuable adjunct to your therapeutic efforts. With program I design, therapy plays a critically important role along with teaching and coaching the skills of living life successfully after drugs and alcohol, as well as, introducing new clients to the 12 Steps and the meeting/sponsor structure. Encouraging client involvement in 12 Step programs both allows the therapist to address issues that are uncovered through the working of the Steps and the resocialization issues as they integrate into those groups and most importantly, provides a continually supportive environment that allows the therapy and life-skills training to flourish.

©2015, rev. 2019, 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 jason@stage2recovery.com or 213-804-4408