The Proactive Twelve Steps
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.
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.
As of August 2021 there is an “all-new 6th edition” of this book, with an updated version of the 12 steps. You can access this new book here on Amazon. And here is his updated and very contemporary version of the Steps: The Proactive Twelve Steps (6th Edition).
To listen to a podcast with Serge and John Sheldon click here: Episode 239: The Proactive Twelve Steps 6th Edition.
I’m a non-theist and a member of The Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship for well over 40 years.
Re: Step 1…
Although I applied the essence of Step 1 to my recovery, I had to alter the wording. Step 1 is poorly written, in that, alcohol is an inert substance, thus in and of itself has no power. I believe what was meant is that one can become powerless over DRINKING alcohol where they increasingly cannot drink moderately, which can be a symptom of alcoholism (alcohol addiction).
My wording for Step 1 was, “I admitted I was powerless over my life – that my alcoholism had become unmanageable”. I worded it this way, because until I could see that I was an alcoholic, I remained in denial.
Step 1 has two separate thoughts. The Em Dash (-) indicates this separation. As I became familiarized with the Steps, I realized that I had already taken the first half of Step 1 before attending AA meetings. I also realized that my drinking alcoholically was the symptom. As I began to understand the recovery process, I was able to take the second half of Step 1, which was my living problem(s) that caused my alcoholism.
The purpose of the 12 Steps is to get from Step 1 to Step 2 by taking Steps 4 through 9 by clearing away the wreckage of my past. This process is made clear in the text book Alcoholics Anonymous on page 84.
Steps 10, 11 and 12 are a self-examination continuum, as well as passing-on my example of the recovery experience.
Thanks for this, Serge.
My study of the 12 steps spans 40 years of personal recovery and professional interest. I think the big thing that Bill W and the AA pioneers discovered is that you had to have a profound personality changing experience. That could be a one-shot “wind on the mountain” spiritual experience, or a alcohol induced near death experience or any number of other life experiences that would rattle us out of the denial of addiction long enough to begin making changes. Since then others have tried other strategies, LSD therapy, insulin coma therapy etc with hopes of bringing about the change without the religiosity. What the old-timers figured out, and the reason that they didn’t stick with the Oxford Group’s Christian focus, is that you could have a William James type spiritual experience of the educational variety. The steps are essentially the curriculum of an educational process that culminates in Step 12, where having had a spiritual awakening “as a RESULT of these steps we…”
Not so sure we need a magic man in the sky to explain the power: the power is in the group our fellow classmates.
Serge Prengel is a therapist and doesn’t get it. Most therapists, especially ones not in the program, do not understand how AA works. True, it is not about god and religion, but it is about human connectivity. He seems to miss that point.
Eye-opening: As The Little Book suggests, everyone can write their own Twelve Steps. This version inspires me with new ways of thinking. Personal will is given a bad rap at times, by some. This proactive approach “de-demonizes” self will. Rank, Faber, Shapiro, James and Sartre all agreed that will, or personal responsibility, is imperative to vital breakthroughs. In my case it wasn’t willfulness so much as counter-will whereby I just reacts to being controlled (or what seemed like being controlled). It doesn’t mean I have direction or a plan of my own, I just rejected the idea of someone else telling me what to do. Very lucky for me, among those who would say, “the Twelve Steps are not open to interpretation,” there were voices of reason that said, “We all had to figure it out for ourselves, Joe. You can do the same. Let me know if you want some help.” Nice post, thoughtful feedback from one and all. Thanks,
I sure needed a different perspective today, and I’m very grateful for this refreshing view. Thank you!
Thank you Serge.
I wish I could have seen that article a couple of years ago. Then again maybe I don’t. The struggle to reach a very close approximation to your outlook was a great phase of personal growth that is ongoing. The twelve steps as presented to me in a god centred format were not acceptable but I had to get sober. I tried to fake it briefly but then just changed it so it would work for me. It was a matter of survival. I am still trying to purge the resentment I have against those who said “pray to
god as I understand him or die.” These people are killers.
Very, very good.
My only difficulty with it is the resolve to give meaning to the word “faith”, a slippery beast at the best of times.
My interpretation of faith, in this context, is “trust without the need for immediate rationalization”. On this basis, I don’t think faith really matters that much, we don’t deeply contemplate such issues when going to the doctor or car mechanic.
The point about the human spirit I think is key. The fact that we are genetically programmed to be inspired (art, science, politics, love) and to work hard for community good.
So, I would abandon the word faith, too muddy, and replace it with something meaning “inspiration to human betterment”. But in short form, which eludes me at the moment
Serge, what a necessary antidote to the dogma we hear from both sides who are mystified by the 12 steps – both the “Godly” in AA and the dogmatic skeptics (inside and outside of AA) who only see AA as a religious cult.
What you write here is key: “Don’t let the barriers of language stop you, the language of sin and redemption.” Both the “Godly” and the skeptics are unknowingly “word-aholics,” having drunk for too long from the cup of Twentieth Century positivism, and therefore obsessed with words and blind to the quite reasonable process we go through in “working the program.”
The “Godly” and the skeptics, I hope, will pay attention to your entire article but this one sentence at the beginning of your piece about Step One encapsulates it all: “Understanding that the logic of addiction is to prevent you from seeing the obvious.”
Perhaps also, your piece will speak to those who see the strength of AA only in terms of “the fellowship” and who then dismiss the other part of AA which is (for many of us) “a program” of recovery.
Your step one is, as far as I am concerned, out to lunch.
I am a non-theist, inside OA, so I know nothing. To me step one is admitting defeat, and accepting that I need help, not just with food choices but with other areas of life. This forces a teachable attitude, and humility and need to listen and understand. This is the foundation for growth, the search for knowledge, wisdom and serenity.
When I came in, I was a troubled person, deep in ignorance, distrust, self-sufficiency, greed of modern culture and without any peace. I was troubled physically and mentally. I am now at peace with the world. My belief system does not require that you believe as I do. You can believe what ever you like. Thank you for letting me vent. Keep up the good effort.
Fred, honestly, from the way you describe it, it sounds like what you have done in your recovery with step one actually lies pretty close to what Serge describes
You bring a keen mind and a generous heart to this topic, but may I suggest that in overlooking the “We” that is the actual or implied first word of each of the original Twelve Steps, your analysis omits something essential?
i knew there was something, the “We”, that was missing. thanks, Ernie.
Thanks very much for posting this!
Thank you, Serge.
I am a psychotherapist in an addictions counselling office and I will definitely be bringing these proactive 12 steps to our team meeting.