Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD, LMHC

Psychotherapy, Sex Therapy, Couple's Counseling, Addictions Counseling, Psychological & Psychosexual Assessment and Polygraph Testing


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Addiction to Twelve-Step Programs?

by Patrick B. McGinnis, Ph. D.


“Everyman should know that since creation no other man was ever like him.  Had there been such another, there would be no need for him to be.¼ Each is called to perfect his unique qualities.¼” The Torah (Genesis)



Addiction can be defined as having a pathological relationship with a substance or behavior that the individual is unable to limit or stop despite suffering consequences related to the activity. Repetition (as in addiction) creates trance, not conscious deliberate living.


Even after many years of solid recovery and abstinence, many members of 12-Step programs feel compelled to attend meetings (often at the same frequency as during the beginning of their recovery. Their lives appear to revolve around attending meetings, and daily contact that is restricted to other recovering addicts.


Total emersion in the 12-Step environment may be crucial for many people who are new to recovery. In fact, we often recommend 90 meetings in 90 days and other strategies to indoctrinate new people into the program. We encourage them to rely on people in the recovery community as important influences for recovery.


It can be argued that the program becomes the replacement addiction – and for many a new religion. After literally years of daily (sometimes multiple daily meetings) it becomes apparent that primary relationships suffer. If the individual has not developed a more balanced life, might we not be concerned that an addiction to attending meetings has replaced the original addiction?


Some members attend religiously, but never fully work the steps. These souls become stuck and often relapse. The steps must first be worked and eventually be lived. Growth through incorporating the essence of the principles must become a way of life.


One of the few research studies of Alcoholics Anonymous indicated that many abstinent alcoholics with long-lasting sobriety experienced stagnation in their personal growth. This resulted in resentment and generalized unhappiness even though they had achieved long-term sobriety. Of these, 54 percent reported feeling disturbed and 24 percent considered themselves to be living their lives inadequately. Twelve percent of those termed “AA successes” (not included in the preceding category) had achieved little or no social life or identity, apart from Alcoholics Anonymous. The remaining ten percent reported that they were achieving a state of self respecting independence, personal growth, and/or self-actualization. These ten percent reported feeling more alive and were actively pursuing personal interests. These successful ten percent of recovering members did not exhibit the resentment and aggression that were often noticeable in the other groups.


Thus, it appears that abstinence from an addiction may be only a beginning. Each person has a unique potential that can be actualized. The recovering addict who stops with abstinence is selling him/herself short if he/she believes that they are only an addict and that sobriety is all that they can achieve.


Addiction as a pathological relationship equals non-growth, attachment, and postponement of personal growth.  For some who appear stuck in their recovery, there may be an unspoken fear in operation. Fear can easily hold someone back from moving forward. The fear may be of relapsing if they stop attending meetings. The fear may be based on a sense of being too inadequate to move more fully into the world and actually living the principles and tools learned in the program. The fear may be of self-actualizing (of becoming who they could be, and fearing the unknowing of who the person is that they could become). The fear could be of going through the growing pains of the growth process. Or perhaps fear is not the problem, the block may simply be ignorance there is more work to be done.


The 12-Steps can be explained by defining the transformative process behind them that leads to self-actualization. Surrender is the primary and first stage of any path of self-actualization. Purification involves right thinking and openness to change and acceptance; it instills personal responsibility and the recognition that good can come out of any experience perceived correctly. Right relationships based on responsibility and integrity are established. The individual’s process up through this stage has included self-analysis, emotional releasing, and correcting thinking errors. The next stage brings the individual into an awareness of living life in the moment as a conscious experience. This calls for the development of what has been termed “the observer self” (that part of us which is objective and can guide us in healthy ways no matter what the external circumstance). Comprehension and wise living and loving are the final two stages in the transformative process.  Comprehension brings us serenity and understanding of the process and laws of living.  Living and loving wisely occurs as the individual fully surrenders to wisdom of the Higher-Self. The inner-voice of the Authentic-Self dominates the individual’s actions and there is an urge toward service to others (love). 


Thus the 12-Steps can be paraphrased as:


1. The addict experiences ego deflation and begins to become open. A desire for survival and serenity develop.


2. Hope develops that a power greater than the ego-self can restore serenity and happiness; surrender opens the addict to receiving help from others.


3. Having made a conscious decision to surrender to a greater power, the addict can begin to follow guidance from others who have made a similar journey and to seek inner-guidance. This becomes a conscious, moment by moment process of awareness. This step marks the end of isolation and the beginning of active spiritual recovery.


These first three steps basically state that the ego-self was in charge of the addict’s past life, but this created chaos and unsanity. The addict begins to hope (have faith) that there is a more integrated Higher-Self inside him/her that can be relied on to restore peace. The paradox of surrender is that in giving up control they are actually identifying with their true essence (Higher-Self), this ultimately results in the acceptance of the power that comes from actualizing the Higher-Self. 


4. Taking a complete moral inventory requires introspection and self-objectivity (the basis for honesty and integrity). The process of self-examination forces the individual to redefine past actions toward others and self. This process will bring up blocked emotions that (hopefully) will begin to be released and reframed so that progress can continue to be made. Forgiveness of oneself and others begins. This marks the beginning of the purification stage.


5. Taking full responsibility for mistakes through verbal admission is healing because it clarifies the recovering person’s thinking errors and the exact nature of hurtful behavior. This is a humbling experience (ego deflation) but it also causes the person to end emotional isolation. 


6. In consciously choosing transcendence the recovering person continues the process of actively transforming defective thinking, feeling, and behaving.


7. Asking the Higher-Self to remove shortcomings takes courage and an ultimate surrender of control. The cleansing and transformation can be very painful. The individual is asking for help in claiming and integrating the shadow and ego dominated self. This can be a lengthy process and requires an ongoing conscious decision.


8. This step begins the process of developing right relationships. The recovering person redefines and transforms how he/she relates to others in this step. Learning healthy communication skills and commitment to others occurs. The individual is preparing to transcend isolation through healthy relationships with others (often outside the 12-Step community) by taking this step.


9. Carrying out this step requires discrimination that must be developed and refined to avoid inflicting further harm. Amends making is a self-forgiving process that releases the individual from old emotions.


10. This step involves living in the here and now moment and continuous self-awareness, self-examination, experiencing feelings, surrender to Higher-Self, and creating right relationships with self, as well as with others.


11. The individual experiences continued transcendence. The person has learned that everything happens for a reason, and that happiness comes from within as a result of spiritual unfoldment. Through being led by intuition and objective observation the individual has begun to master life. Patience and loving detachment are developed.


12. The recovering person is becoming an authentic, self-actualized, being. Consciously living the principles of recovery daily (moment by moment) is the key.


The 12-Step Program of Alcohol Anonymous is one of the universal paths that we may all follow when we move from personal egoistic living, through completed relationships and on into a world of serving others. When we demonstrate our growth to others through our being-ness we become a model that encourages others to grow.


Seen as a program of self-transcendence and self-actualization the 12-Steps can feel overwhelming. Either fear of moving forward, or being stuck, can be overcome through working the program with a self-actualizing sponsor or experienced psychotherapist.


Credit is given to the various published works of Jacquelyn Small, MSW, and Charles Whitfield, MD, on which this article is largely based.


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Copyright © 2002 Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD. All rights reserved.
Revised: 01/09/09.

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