By Allen Berger, PhD
The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous have been heralded as the most important spiritual development of the past 100 years. It is my opinion that they should also be considered one of the most innovative psychological interventions of the past century. As evidence, consider the fact that the Twelve Steps have had more success in treating a wide variety of addiction problems than all other medical or psychological intervention or treatment programs combined.
What are the therapeutic forces that enable the Twelve Steps to help so many people who are struggling to reclaim their lives? My conclusion is that the Twelve Steps help us recover our lost true-self. They provide a framework that helps us work out a new understanding of ourselves and that teaches us a design for living that encourages authenticity and responsibility. This new design for living honors our basic nature. Working the Twelve Steps creates a powerful personal transformation that leads to a deep sense of well-being, serenity, and peace of mind.
A main source of much of our psychological distress stems from the belief that we need to be something we aren’t — that is, attempting to live by the unreasonable demands of our false-self. We have alienated ourselves from our true-self in favor of an idealized version of who we should be. We’ve lost sight of the importance of character, people-centered values, keeping our integrity, authenticity and honesty, and honoring our true-self. We’ve made things more important than people.
This is the veer in the trajectory of our personal development that the Twelve Steps correct. The Steps help us wake up from the trance that our culture has created. They help us deconstruct our reliance on a false-self and guide us on an incredible journey of self-discovery and self-actualization. They help us clean house and make amends to those people we have hurt. They help us stay centered, grounded, and humble. They help us become authentic and present in our lives. They help us restructure our self-concept into something more positive, solid, and flexible. They help us recover our true-self.
Abraham Maslow made the following observations about the importance of a basic need like self-actualization:
- The absence of self-actualization breeds illness. (The absence of our true-self creates serious problems; it becomes a breeding ground for addictions and other forms of psychopathology.)
- The presence of our true-self prevents illness. (This is the most important protective factor against alcoholism and other drug addictions.)
- The restoration of the true-self cures illness. (This is the experience millions of us have had in recovery: our true-self is restored through working the Twelve Steps.)
The Organization of the Twelve Steps
The Twelve Steps are numbered for good reason. The optimal therapeutic benefit occurs when they are worked in order, because the Steps are interdependent. Each Step builds on the one that precedes it to create a powerful transformative experience. What happens in Step 1 creates an experience that readies a space in our psyche for what happens in Step 2. Step 2 leads to what happens in Step 3, and so on. This is how change unfolds across all Twelve Steps. The Twelve Steps create a momentum that motivates us to honestly face ourselves and others like we have never done before.
Grouping the Steps
We can cluster or group the Twelve Steps into four functional groups. Steps 1-3 form the first grouping. These Steps demolish the foundation of our self-destructive life, the one that didn’t work, and build a stronger and more resilient foundation for a new life that works under any condition whatsoever.
Steps 4-7 form the second grouping. These Steps help us develop a positive self-concept by encouraging authenticity and promoting self-awareness and personal accountability. They help us to become our best possible selves.
The third grouping, which consists of Steps 8 and 9, helps us become trustworthy by righting the wrongs we have done to others. They teach us the nature of healthy relationships and to aim at having the best possible attitude toward human relations.
The last three Steps, Steps 10-12, form the final cluster. These Steps help us maintain our new way of life. They continue to promote self-awareness, self-realization, and emotional maturation through serving others and an ongoing program of personal and spiritual growth.
The process of working the Steps is like constructing a building from the ground up. You’d work in intervals and wouldn’t move on until the previous job was completed. First, you’d demolish the old foundation because it was faulty, weak, and unable to support the new structure you hoped to build. Next, you’d dig a foundation and strengthen it with mortar and steel, and then you’d build the frame. In the meantime, you would constantly provide necessary maintenance to keep what you already built in good shape. In construction, it’s essential to use the best talent and materials available. You wouldn’t build something halfheartedly. And so it is with working the Steps. The Steps must be worked to the best of our abilities if we are to gain their full benefits.
The Steps facilitate a restructuring of the self. They help us find meaning in our lives and in our recovery by changing our emotional and spiritual values.
Reprinted by permission of the author. Excerpted from 12 Hidden Rewards of Making Amends: Finding Forgiveness and Self-Respect by Working Steps 8–10 by Allen Berger, Ph.D. Berger, a popular public speaker and nationally recognized expert on the science of recovery, is the author of 12 Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery and 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs Are Gone.