By Serge Prengel
Many years ago, I started re-writing the Twelve Steps in order to better understand the process they describe by “translating” the wording of the Steps into language that felt clearer to me. I’m not just talking about language that would make each individual Step clearer. I am talking about articulating the Steps in such a way as to clarify the process of change that they describe: what it is, and how it works.
I am not part of the Twelve Steps culture, nor am I in recovery, but I have long had a deep interest in the processes of change and growth, which led me to become a therapist and life coach. What interested me in the Steps is that they describe a process of transformation that is not facilitated by a therapist or a coach. It seemed to work for quite a lot people, but I couldn’t understand what made it work.
The process described by the original Steps seemed to me to have many of the trappings of religion. It’s not just that they explicitly referred to “turning our will and our lives over to the care of God.” It’s also that the Steps talked about becoming a good person in terms of rights and wrongs, and defects of character, in a tone similar to the language of sin and redemption. To oversimplify, it looked like the process they described was something like:
- You realize you’re a sinner
- You repent
- You are touched by the Grace of God and your life changes
Does this mean that the journey of the Twelve Steps is essentially a religious process? That is: Are the key ingredients faith in God, and conversion to a set of rules inspired by this faith in God? Or is there something else at work? If so, what is it that causes the healing, in terms that are not obscured by moralistic, religious or mystical connotations?
So I decided to look at the Steps with these questions in mind. And, of course, started with Step One. There’s something a bit puzzling about this step: “Admitted we were powerless” is so incredibly obvious that you’d think it may not even be necessary to say it. And yet, that’s exactly where the breakthrough is: Understanding that the logic of addiction is to prevent you from seeing the obvious. Essentially, the first step in this process is to realize that you’re not going to go anywhere until you face reality. This is what, even under other circumstances, people would call “a sober perspective”!
From this perspective, language flows easily. A down-to-earth way to express Step One is the simple realization: “I get it: What I’ve been doing is self-destructive. I need to change.”
So I decided to look into the other steps from the perspective of what I’d call a sobering look. Which means looking squarely into things, not letting reality be obscured by any kind of obfuscation. And banged right into a wall as early as Step Two. The original wording of Step Two brings us right into a mystical leap of faith: “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
OK. Let’s not get bogged down by the literal meaning of that phrase. What is it about? Something about coming to believe in a power greater than ourselves… Well, maybe it’s a way to say that there is some sort of leap of faith involved in this process. But does this mean it has to be religious faith? Blind faith into some mystical powers that dwarf us and defy understanding?
Faith is too powerful a part of the human spirit to let religious people have a monopoly on it. Just think of the phrase: “Faith moves mountains.” We’re not just talking about religious faith here. We’re talking about the power of the human spirit, the capacity to focus on something that’s really important, even if the chances of success are very small. The ability to not feel defeated by the poor odds of success, but instead to rise to the occasion. The “faith that moves mountains” is our human ability to be so motivated and energized that it increases our chances to accomplish what would be otherwise virtually impossible to do.
The sober questioning of Step Two is something like: Don’t just ask me to believe in mysterious forces. Tell me more specifically: What is the leap of faith involved in Step Two? Faith in what?
Before directly addressing the question, let’s take a little detour, and reflect on the Twelve Steps as a whole. The Steps were originally written by alcoholics, to speak to other alcoholics. It is interesting to note that the Steps are not a guide to dealing with alcoholism per se. Other than telling you to face the issue squarely (in Step One), the original Steps do not give any specifics about alcoholism. Instead, they describe a journey of profound personal transformation.
In other words, the key insight of the Twelve Steps is that the effective and sustainable way to deal with alcoholism is to counterbalance the pull to addiction by building a stronger sense of self. Now, a phrase like “stronger sense of self” may sound abstract. Concretely, this means living a more satisfying life built on a foundation of integrity.
Note that the word “integrity” may be confusing if you hear it as being righteous, or self-righteous. But, if you think about the spirit of Step One, the sobering look at reality, facing things as they are… you see that this is not just about behaving in a way that others would say you are “doing the right thing.” It is also very much about doing what feels right for you. Truly right, deeply satisfying, not just right in the sense of following your impulse of the moment for instant gratification. In fact, it is about allowing yourself to discover that you can eventually get more satisfaction out of life by resisting your compulsion. This eventually leads you to lead a life that is actually more deeply satisfying for you.
Seeing how many people this process has actually helped, it seems obvious that this process works. You need to build something powerful enough to counterbalance the pull of addiction.
But this is far from obvious when you’re in the thick of it. If you’re in the midst of dealing with addiction, it’s not obvious at all that making the kinds of deep changes described in the Steps will help you. In fact, it may even seem crazy, like a luxury you can’t really afford to deal with until after the addiction is dealt with. Not to mention that these changes feel quite daunting. So why would you undertake them at all? It takes a leap of faith to do so.
Faith, yes, but not necessarily faith in God. It takes faith that the solution lies in dealing with the underlying causes of what keeps your addiction going. As long as you keep behaving in a short-term, reactive way, you stay in the vicious cycle of addiction. You need to take a proactive stance, change the pattern. You need to realize that you are more likely to fall prey to the pull of addiction to the extent that you don’t have a solid sense of self, and a solid life, to anchor you.
What the original Steps describe in moralistic terms (e.g. defects of character) are the side effects of living in a reactive mode driven by fear, pressure and shame. You experience life in a fog, with a sense of fear and confusion. The journey is how you get from that place of fear and confusion, to a sense of safety and integrity. From being scared, defensive and reactive, to feeling more grounded and able to be proactive.
And, now, Step Two becomes clearer. It is about seeing the big picture, the need to address the underlying causes, in order to make a profound and lasting change. Hence: “I see the big picture: The way to stop relapsing into self-destructive behaviors is to build a healthier sense of self.”
And so it goes. Each of the Proactive Twelve Steps is based on taking a look at the original Steps from the sobering perspective of facing reality, and talking about it in a down-to-earth manner.
The Proactive Twelve Steps
I get it. What I’ve been doing is self-destructive. I need to change.
I see the big picture: The way to stop relapsing into self-destructive behaviors is to build a healthier sense of self.
I have an action plan: From now on, I am squarely facing everything that is in the way of feeling satisfied with my life.
I honestly look at the effects of my actions on others and myself.
I take responsibility for my actions.
I see that my knee-jerk reactions have to do with being in the grip of more or less conscious fears.
I strive to find my motivation in a deeper sense of who I really am, rather than fear and defensiveness.
I stop blaming and feeling blamed, with a willingness to heal the wounds.
I swallow my pride, and sincerely apologize to people I’ve hurt, except when this would be counterproductive.
I live mindfully, paying attention to the motives and effects of my actions.
I stay in touch with a broader sense of who I really am, and a deeper sense of what I really want.
A growing sense of wholeness and contentment motivates me to keep at it, and to share this process with others who are struggling.
Over time, as you go through these Proactive Steps, you get more and more of a felt sense of what this big picture is about: Under stress, you experience a sense of intense, visceral certainty that you’re lost unless you stick to your old coping mechanisms. In actuality, these coping mechanisms are bad for you. But these are just meaningless words to you at the moment when you experience intense stress. You need something to “keep the faith” moment by moment, in order to avoid relapsing into self-destructive behaviors.
Over time, the Proactive Twelve Steps help you get progressively stronger in your ability to overcome these challenging moments, much in the way that exercising regularly makes you physically stronger. They guide you on a healing journey to progressively develop a healthier sense of self. As your life becomes more and more satisfying, the old coping mechanisms lose their compulsive attraction.
Of course, just reading a book (including The Proactive Twelve Steps) is not enough to make profound changes in your life. It is possible that you may need professional help. But, in any case, you owe it to yourself to look into joining a support group, such as a Twelve Steps group. Don’t let the barriers of language stop you, the language of sin and redemption. Keep in mind the Proactive Steps as a way to translate this religious language into realities that are more meaningful to you, so that you can find a way to relate to the experiences that others share without needing to buy into a belief system that challenges your integrity.
In a group, the “leap of faith” in the possibility of changing your life becomes easier, because it is not just an abstract possibility. You are in the midst of people who have enough faith in the possibility of success that they keep at it. As you share your struggles with others, and learn from their sharing their struggles, you experience the power of the human spirit at work. And this helps you get more faith in your ability to harness the power of the human spirit to grow and change.
You can download a free PDF of the book here: The Proactive Twelve Steps For Mindful Recovery.
Serge Prengel is a therapist and life coach in private practice in New York City. He sees change as a creative process, driven by the depth and immediacy of felt-sense experience. He is the editor of Somatic Perspectives on Psychotherapy. He wrote several books, including Scissors: A Whimsical Fable About Empowerment. All his books are also available as free PDF downloads from his website, Proactive Change.