12 steps to where?

I have long been weary of 12-step programs. Despite them playing a part in a fair number of positive results, there has always been this background thought that something about them is not quite right.

To their credit, most 12-step programs create a supportive network for their participants, operate in a framework based on personal contact and openness rather than an emphasis on medication, and according to the Alcoholics Anonymous website, do all of this work without any sort of financial compensation. I have tremendous respect for these very positive principles. 

On the other hand, the twelve steps that these programs are named for greatly ignore personal responsibility. This crucial notion is a key element to any human behaviour, especially when someone is taking steps to change or rid themselves of the habit they are “anonymously” attending meetings for.

For starters, 12-step programs’ first 3 steps, the first contact between participants and the structure they are about to rely on, read like this:

Step 1 – We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.

Provided that this statement is actually made in the past tense, it is factual, and a good start. But then…

Step 2 – We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity

…the belittling talk begins. You can’t restore yourself to sanity, only a “Power greater than ourselves” can. So, as you are faced with conquering your addiction, this program is quick to remind you that you won’t succeed without this capital-P “power”. I don’t like this.

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

Ohhhh! The “Power” is God. Wonderful. Are atheists allowed into these programs? Who will restore their sanity? At least the “as we understood Him” part allows for the possibility of some other conceptualization of “God”. Thinly veiled reference.

In total, 6 of the 12 steps reference “God” or a “Power greater than ourselves”. This, too, is a pattern that discourages participants from taking personal responsibility.

Ironically, some Christians believe that the 12 steps are not Christian enough! Instead of “God as we understood Him”, some make this affirmation specifically Christian by saying “God through Jesus Christ”.

Let’s solve this problem by taking “God”, however people understand him, her, it, or not at all, completely out of the equation and putting the power back in the hands of the individual. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, empower the person to help themselves!

Then, the anonymous part. I understand that society is very judgemental. I am being judgemental here. But if someone really wants to change their lives, I believe that they must acknowledge who they have been up to that point, and openly; not only to people who are in the same boat as they are. If there are consequences, then take them. Pay whatever price is charged for your past decisions. Then, when you succeed in your transformation, you can enjoy the success as full and complete. Being “anonymous” in these programs is just one more way to hide or not take full responsibility for their actions.  

The ends only partially justify the means. I would love to see these programs continue their missions but exchange the emphasis on outside help and personal helplessness to one of inner confidence and personal responsibility. If these programs can achieve positive results by telling people that they are incapable of solving their issues without “god’s” intervention, imagine what results are possible if it all began with “You can change your life. We can help.” 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “addiction” as : “a compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance”. Specifically, the “addiction” is in the needing of this substance or action after having consumed or done it before. Had someone never consumed drugs or alcohol or gambled, as a way of dealing with some thought or life situation, they would not be in the predicament they are faced with.

I don’t believe in any inherent addictive power. Someone who claims they are “addicted” to alcohol, drugs, or gambling, for example, are using the notion of “addiction” as a way to blame “addiction” for their problems rather than take responsibility for them. Any “addict” can cure themselves by staying away from the substance they claim to be “addicted” to.

I get that this “cold turkey” method will likely involve the person feeling a tremendous need for the substance being withheld, but such discomfort comes with the territory. A person who takes real responsibility for their actions also takes real responsibility for the impacts of their actions and of the outcomes that they are faced with. Consider that the short-term pain of cold turkey withdrawal, however tough it might be to deal with, is far less significant than the long-term good that can come of such drastic but necessary action.

I think we have all heard stories about people who have been helped by their participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and though I don’t agree with all of their methods, I support the overall good intentions.

However, I think we can all benefit from some awareness (and possibly a few laughs) at some of the more absurd “anonymous” programs that exist out there these days. Are these really problems that require “God’s” intervention?

  • Overexercisers Anonymous, Exercise Addicts Anonymous
  • Clutterers Anonymous
  • Workaholics Anonymous
  • Online Gamers Anonymous (this might actually be a good thing, since these folks might never have shared personal space with another human.)
  • Neurotics Anonymous, (aren’t they worried someone will find out?)
  • Smokers Anonymous (they smoke outside all the time – people know who they are!)
  • Sexaholics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (4 names for the same “problem”? Really? Just keep it in your pants.)
  • Debtors Anonymous (Okay, here I can understand why people wouldn’t want their identities to be known)
  • Underearners Anonymous (these are people who, supposedly, compulsively resist opportunities to earn more money)
  • Vulgarity Anonymous (Shit, are you fucking serious?) 
  • Procrastinators Anonymous (I’ll go to the meeting later…) or (organizers never get around to schedule the meetings)
  • Stock Traders Anonymous (wow. If people are embarrassed to be stock traders, “Prostitutes Anonymous” shouldn’t be far off.)

It’s a wonder there’s no Bloggers Anonymous. Even if the organization existed, I wouldn’t join. It’s ridiculous to say or do anything and deny responsibility for what you said or did.



  1. I have a theory about why these organizations put an emphasis on an outside power in their programs. It’s because when people take responsibility for past negative behaviours they also end up blaming themselves. It’s hard to get out of the cycle of “I am responsible for destroying my relationship with my kids… I’m a horrible person… let’s have another drink so I can forget that I’m a horrible person…” It offers some kind of reassurance to people to believe that there was an outside source responsible for their behaviours. The thing is, even if there is an outside power responsible for their addiction, the people are still the ones who did the behaviours. Just because “god” gives you the addiction, you are still the one who acted on it. I agree with you – ultimately, it is much more satisfying (and powerful) to accept personal responsibility for past and present behaviours. The skill people would benefit from practicing is letting go of the blame / guilt / shame at the same time as accepting that they are responsible. Do these organizations encourage this?

    • Interesting, Leetal, thank you.

      Based on my understanding, the blame/guilt/shame never seems to enter the picture because the emphasis is never on personal anything. It’s always about “my life had become unmanageable” and not “I am responsible for my life being unmanageable”. Only the latter version might lead to blame/shame/guilt, since only that version even mentions the person. If my understanding is somewhat accurate, then by step 12, there is no blame/shame/guilt to let go of.

      I think your point illustrates well that any change to the “12 steps” would need to include a focus on how taking “responsibility” does not necessarily need to lead to blame, shame, and guilt – things that are often confused as being linked.

      Well put.

  2. Mark, I appreciate the questions and ideas you have raised here. However, there are a few points that I feel need to be clarified if a more complete understanding is to be had concerning the 12-step Program idea.

    About “anonymity”: Although the initial understanding is “nobody can know”, the idea behind this being an anonymous effort is to level the playing field among those who are hesitant to reach out for a different way of living. People who would not otherwise associate with each other have found deep and lasting friendships, i.e., doctors with garbage workers, secretaries with homeless persons, military officers with factory workers, etc. These friendships are based on a common malady and the anonymous nature allows for discussion which can lead to personal growth. Because each individual has unique experiences, a sharing of ideas is more likely to take place when the individuals are not concerned about “rank”. The feeling of being “less-than” is a common theme among persons who “hit bottom”.

    About “personal responsibility”: The 12 Steps include more than the first 3 steps. Steps 4 through 10 are intended to help the person knock down the denial that is in everyone and thus admit and accept responsibility for their actions — past, present & future. And in doing so, with the support and encouragement afforded through fellow members of the support group, the idea that “You can change your life. We can help.” is very much in practice. You hit the nail on the head here.

    About “God”: Suffice it to say that many people have found relief, acceptance and growth by participating in 12-Step Programs without it being necessary to accept anyone’s idea of a Higher Power. But to deny there IS a Higher Power is futile when it is clear that even the “power of the group” is greater than the power of the individual. Each is left to work the Steps in their own time and manner. Nothing is forced; only suggested.

    Over time, the 12-step recipe can bring a person to true humility, allowing one more individual to live a peaceful existence with their fellow man.

    That can’t be all bad, can it?

    • Thank you for your comment, doublewinners. (Is it ironic or highly appropriate that you are anonymous here? :))

      I really appreciate points that are counter to mine, especially if expressed the way you did. To specify, I thought that I was clear that I don’t believe 12-step programs are “all bad”, I just disagree with the focus. Your points about anonymity forging unlikely relationships is very well taken. Thank you. In all of my experience and research I had not heard that argument once, and I agree that it is a worthwhile result. I maintain, however, that the anonymity allows this result while “allowing” participants to maintain the unreal feelings that would have separated them in the first place. Consider that it may be worthwhile to openly express people’s backgrounds to shatter the anonymity and share how widespread the problem actually is; how people in every work class can be dealing with the same thing you are. Creating a safe space to express one’s problems might be a great idea at first, but maintaining it allows people to keep hold of the proverbial safety blanket that they are so used to hiding behind. I favour getting to the cause of every problem, rather than just dealing with the symptoms. Still, I am happy that I learned something I did not previously know. Thank you.

      I also agree that “steps 4 through 10 are intended to help the person knock down the denial” but disagree with your implication that, as a result of knocking down denial, they are accepting responsibility. In a literal sense, reading the exact words in the “steps”, they may be knocking down the denial, but the words maintain that the responsibility is on “God” or the “higher Power”. There is a step (or two) that require members to “admit” what they did, but there lacks the very important step, even if it were number 12, that says something to the effect of “I came to realize that only I am ultimately responsible for my thoughts and actions, past, present, and future.”

      I am happy to hear that 12-step programs can work without mention of “god” or a “higher power”, but have never seen a version of the 12 steps without such mentions. Your point about the “power of the group” is very well taken, but I think it would be disingenuous to claim that the “power of the group” is one possible intention of “god as I understand Him”. Besides, even if it did intend “group”, would it not be even more powerful to instill in people the ability to help themselves, for the rest of their lives, even if they don’t attend meetings? It is upsetting to see that the structure of groups helping people get over their addictions is, by its own design, creating a quasi-addiction to the group. As I wrote in my conclusion, I would love to see a 12-step program maintain its excellent work without the god references and with a focus on personal responsibility. Perhaps I can satisfy this curiosity by finding a meeting of Atheists Anonymous.

      Lastly, “doublewinners”, did “god” have as big a role in your life before AA and Al-Anon as it does today? I read your “My Story” on your blog. You write: “By the grace of God, I also hit 25 years in August 2010…” Consider that your personal commitment and personal responsibility (to your word, to your family, etc..) may have been the key to your success. Consider that “god” may have nothing to do with this. It is this dependence on “god”, forcing attention away from one’s self, that I see as a negative element of these programs. If you were a “religious” person prior to your participation, I can definitely see how my comments would not sit so well with your religious beliefs, which is a whole other conversation. Why can’t Anonymous programs just be about the people who are sitting there? Why involve “god” in the first place?

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