Step 12 and How to Work a Program

Step 12

This is two chapters from the pioneering book: The Alternative Twelve Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. It was originally written by two women, Martha Cleveland and Arlys G., and published in 1991. As valuable today as it was then, a second edition of this exceptional work was published by AA Agnostica.

Step 12

Practice the principles of these Steps in all our affairs and carry the 12-Step message to others.

Principles: Commitment, Self-discipline, Service to others

• • • • • •

Step 12 acts as an arrow, sending us right back into the entire program. As we “practice the principles of these Steps in all our affairs,” we refer back again and again to the principles we have studied.

Personal honesty
Personal integrity
Willingness to change
Personal responsibility
Service to others
Commitment to balance
Connection to spiritual resources

One Day At A Time

Each morning we wake up to a new day – a day that will be full of choices. There will be big choices that we know will have an impact on our lives. There will be small choices that reinforce us, sustain us and ultimately create us. We are learning to make the choices that express the 12-Step principles. In themselves, the Steps and their principles are only printed words lying lifeless on a piece of paper. The trick is to decide what they mean to each of us and how to breathe life into them in our real world. Here are some examples.

• • • • • •

When I’m afraid, I can ask myself, “What is the courageous thing to do?” And maybe I can share my fear with a trusted friend.

When I’m full of rage, I can ask myself how to handle my anger so I’m respectful to myself and to the person I’m mad at.

When I’ve hurt someone, I can make an immediate and unconditional amend and then go on without guilt.

When I feel tired or depressed, I can look to my own special kind of spiritual help.

• • • • • •

Bringing the 12-Step principles to life is a continual process of learning to live with personal integrity. Unfortunately, we often fall short. We lie to keep the peace. We refuse to try a new way to do something, not because it’s a bad idea but because it’s different. We continue to carry a grudge. We’re afraid to trust our friend.

These things happen, but it’s important to keep our values and goals in front of us. This is the only way life will get better. If we keep remembering where we are trying to go and take responsibility for trying to get there, eventually we will.

As we practice the principles, we don’t think of ourselves as bad people trying to become good. We’ve fought that battle for a long time and haven’t made much progress. It’s more helpful to look at the program as continual self-redemption, discovery and renewal – always hopeful, always open to another option and the spiritual resources around us. The 12 Steps can’t turn us into “better” women and men, but they can make us more emotionally honest about who we are. They teach us that our integrity is not determined by what we say we believe. Our integrity is determined by what we understand about ourselves, what we do, how we actually live.

To Walk The Talk

We carry the 12-Step message to others by the way we live our lives. We don’t have to talk about it or to proselytize. We can if we want to, but it isn’t necessary. We don’t have to be perfect in order to carry the message either. We just have to live with integrity.

When someone or something gives us a great spiritual gift, that gift can never really be repaid. There just isn’t any way. But it can be passed on. The 12 Steps have offered us a gift. We have taken it. And we can offer it to others by our living example.

Now it’s time to take ourselves – stronger, aware of what integrity means – and reach out to others. In the end this program is about reaching in and reaching out, stretching between our deepest self and the community and the natural world around us. What we need to understand is that the 12-Step program leads us into ourselves and outward to our universe. It’s a kind of continuous homecoming – inward, outward, inward, outward – it doesn’t matter. We are at home in ourselves and at home in the world. This is the promise that the Steps bring us to.

”But Dorothy, you are home,” cries the Witch of the North. “All you have to do is wake up.”

Practice the principles of these Steps in all our affairs and carry the 12—Step message to others.

Today I will select one 12-Step principle and consciously live by it as I go through my day.


How to Work a Program

The Program Is Our Personal Way Of Life

recovery sign

We create our own 12-Step program, every Step of the way. We create it piece by piece as we work our way through the Steps. Everyone’s life and interpretation of the Steps is different, so each of us custom-makes a program to fit our own attitudes, beliefs, needs and desires.

It’s important to understand that no matter how hard we work our program, it’s going to take a long time for the things we learn from it to become automatic for us. Psychologists say it takes an average of six months before newly-learned behavior becomes really integrated into our thinking, and at least twice that long before we habitually use new behavior when we face a crisis. There is simply no quick fix. There is only commitment and practice.

In the beginning many of us approach the program in a deliberate and formal way. Some of us carry small cards with the Steps printed on them. We take them out and use them as reminders whenever and wherever we need to. We do lots of ritual reading of Step literature. We talk to other people who are involved with the program. We think about what it means for us to “work a program” and our commitment deepens. Reading the Steps, thinking about them and consciously applying them, we gradually begin to take on the 12-Step way of life.

As time passes we get looser and more flexible in how we use the Steps. We start to realize that, although the cards, literature and other people can give us suggestions, only we can sift through all that material. Only we can mold it into our own wonderful, perfectly adapted program for living. Finally the 12 Steps and the principles behind them become our way of life, working deep into our belief system.

If we are truly committed to living within the framework of the Steps, if we do our very best to understand and use them, whatever we do in working our program will turn out to be exactly right for us. Even though we make what seem like mistakes, we learn from the experience and do better. Our mistakes actually become stepping stones. We learn that making a blunder isn’t a catastrophe, it’s a challenge – and out of that challenge we can jump ahead. In the past, mistakes were a reason for self-loathing. The Steps teach us that they can become a reason for growth and self-trust.

We Work A Selfish Program

”Selfish” is a really dirty word. Most people, particularly women, are brought up to “share,” to “think of the other person first,” to “not be selfish.” So it’s very hard to accept that in working a successful 12-Step program we must put ourselves first. It’s an exercise in self-love. We must learn to take care of ourselves instead of taking care of other adults. (Children, of course, need parenting.)

We must learn to take care of ourselves instead of expecting or letting others take care of us. The 12-Step way teaches us self-love, self-trust and self-respect. Our selfish program turns into a sharing one. In the past we haven’t had the things the program teaches us, so we couldn’t share them with anyone else. Our selfish program taught us to practice on ourselves. We did and now we can share loving, trusting and respectful relationships with people around us. Selfish becomes beautiful.

We Work A Practical Program

Our personal program must be realistic and concrete. An effective program is not a pie-in-the-sky scheme, nor is it set apart from our real daily lives. We don’t try to live up to a mythical model, we bring the program down into our daily muddles and irritations. This is the only way to make change.

Our program is a bag of practical tools we carry with us. The tools include the Steps, principles, slogans, affirmations and anything else that helps. Every time we face a difficulty, we take out our bag and pull out what we need. Every time, every day. As beginners we’ll probably be clumsy. Whatever tools we use, we’ll strain too hard or not hard enough. Then we’ll begin to get the feel of it and use our tools with ease and mastery. Finally we don’t even have to reach for them, they simply become an integral part of the way we are in the world.

We Work A Focused Program

Unfortunately, we can’t change all at once. We keep our program manageable by focusing on a few thoughts, feelings or behaviors at a time. We think about what we can do today. Long-term goals are invaluable. We have to have them to help set our direction and act as beacons that guide us and hold us on course. But it’s our short-term goals that move us along. Short-term goals, successfully accomplished, add up to big progress – they are the way our program lives.

So we focus on short periods of time. One goal after another, one day, one hour, one minute at a time. If we concentrate only on the big picture, we feel frustrated and helpless, but we learn we can do almost anything for just a little while. For just a little while we can accomplish what we can’t even imagine doing for a lifetime. Of course we plan ahead, but the program teaches us we can’t control tomorrow and living well today is the very best preparation for the future.

Every day we ask ourselves, “What am I working on today?” Then we have our daily assignment. For example, today we may focus on our tendency to “help” our teenage daughter by pointing out her errors and telling her how to correct them. Our assignment is to notice when we get the urge to do this and to stop. Just for today.

Just for today we will give up our role as overbearing teacher/perfectionist/parent. When she makes a mistake or is about to make one, we will practice a loving detached silence or friendly neutral banter or upbeat encouragement. If we can’t do this for a whole day, maybe we can do it for an hour – if an hour seems like an eternity, 15 minutes is progress.

It’s discouraging to have the landscape littered with dozens of unfinished assignments lying around. So at first it’s best to focus on only one or two goals. When we are new at this, we need plenty of time to prepare a plan and carry it out. Then we give ourselves lots of congratulations when we succeed, or we regroup and replan when we fail. Later when the Steps have become our way of living, we can include many more goals. But the short-term focus still holds. We live one minute, one hour, one day at a time. For the rest of our lives we may look toward the future, but today is when we live.

We Work A Steady Program

Desire produces commitment, commitment produces practice, practice produces consistency. The longer we work our program, the more it takes on a consistent steadiness. Steadiness shows in the consistency of effort, not necessarily in smoothness or outcome. A successful program lives and a living program changes.

When we work with the Steps, we change. Our interpretations, attitudes, beliefs, needs, focus and approach change and keep on changing. Change is renewal. We keep moving forward with steadiness – creating new goals, meeting them, failing, trying again and succeeding.

How Does A Group Fit In?

Some people work a program without attending meetings. Some people attend meetings and don’t work a program. Most of us integrate group meetings into our programs, and attending them usually helps. Weekly meetings can have a very special place in our recovery. They can support us and keep us focused on the Steps. They can remind us to be selfish, practical and steady. A group also reminds us to have sponsors. Some sponsors help us for a short time, others serve us for years. Mainly they teach by example, but we talk to them, too. They are more experienced with the Steps than we are, they are farther along in their journey and they are invaluable for leading, helping or shoving us over the humps in our own program.

The Only Way To Make It Work Is To Work It

The only way we make ourselves and our lives better is to take action and to do the work. We can’t just think a program, we have to act it. An overweight, overwrought doctor can explain the benefits of good food and exercise to us in perfect detail and with expert understanding. But all we have to do is look at him to know he doesn’t experience what he is talking about. This doctor is a good role model for how not to work a 12-Step program. The details of our program may not be perfect, and we certainly aren’t experts at understanding it. But we consistently study the Steps, think about them and act. The doctor can talk and talk and stay overweight and overstressed, but we act and act and become spiritually lean and serene.

Alternative 12 Steps Cover 300x450

The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery is available as a second edition at Amazon.

It is also available via Amazon in Canada and the United Kingdom and Europe.

EBook versions of The Alternative 12 Steps are available online in all formats. Click here for Kindle, Kobo or Nook. An iBook version for the Mac or iPad is available at iTunes.

Chapters of the book have been posted on AA Agnostica and can be accessed here:

8 Responses

  1. Tommy H says:

    I have been able to string together some sobriety w/o resorting to the supernatural as I don’t relate spirituality to it. My take on it is spirituality is a psychic phenomenon that manifests itself in right living.

    The Foreword to the 12&12 describes The Steps as principles:

    This book deals with the “Twelve Steps” and the “Twelve Traditions” of Alcoholics Anonymous. It presents an explicit view of the principles by which A.A. members recover and by which their Society functions.
    A.A.’s Twelve Steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and useful whole.

    I do not see a god in this.

  2. Roger says:

    There are many paths to “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism”. The 12 Step program is one of them. And as long as it remains the “suggested” program of Alcoholics Anonymous, we are pleased at AA Agnostica to provide a secular version of that program.

  3. Ron H says:

    Well said, John. I think you are right; religious people are actually damaging the program by introducing religious principals into it. The actual essence of the program is simple, if not easy: Don’t drink, go to meetings, seek the advice and follow the practices of people who have succeeded, share your own experience, strength and hope with others.
    I also was at the meeting in Santa Monica. There, hundreds of people tried to make sense of the concept of spirituality in AA. They found themselves talking of a tremendous variety of things and no coalescence of opinion of even the nature of spirituality was evident. Many ideas or concepts of spirituality were promoted, far too many. The only conclusion I could come to was that people seem to need spirituality although they cannot agree on what it is. So I take it that different people need different things.
    That’s not a problem. The problem is that people are being told they need something called spirituality when there isn’t even a common definition of it. This distracts and discourages people from adopting essential and useful beliefs and practices in regard to their addiction and the means to address it. People who are aware that there is no generally recognized definition of spirituality are likely to dismiss the opinions of those who say it is an essential part of the program, although much of the advice of such people may be good.
    I think it is safe to say we would do better without spirituality as a required part of AA. Yes, I know it isn’t a required part of AA officially, but many people think it is and effectively make it so for some folks who would be better off without the distraction. Addiction is a powerful thing and people should be empowered to focus on the elements critical to success.

  4. John S says:

    I like this book. I purchased it months ago in the Kindle version but have only recently started reading it. I’ve used excerpts from the book at our meetings and it’s a great way to stimulate conversation about the steps without the religious dressing.

    I’m an atheist, but I practice the steps and I find them useful for my daily life. I understand the principles were borrowed from religion and I’m okay with that. I am not anti-religion and I don’t mind using anything from any religion that I may find useful.

    I have no problem interpreting the steps in secular language which is what this book does. That doesn’t mean that I take a dogmatic view that everyone must practice the steps in a particular way. In fact, I don’t think anyone needs to practice the steps if they don’t find them useful.

    The steps provide me with a road map for emotional growth. They aren’t the only road map, but it’s the map I’m most familiar with. There’s nothing supernatural about them in my opinion and I see no reason to reject them simply because I don’t believe in god.

    It’s great that AA Agnostica is posting chapters from the book on this site to give more exposure to it and the idea that the steps don’t have to be magical, mystical or supernatural.

  5. John H. says:

    Happy New Year! As an active member of AA for nearly 28 years (sobriety date January 3, 1987 with successful continuous sobriety who, as a lifelong militant Atheist has never had occasion to take the steps, other than step one, step ten and 50% of step twelve seriously) as well as being a founding member of one of the oldest Agnostic/Atheist AA groups in the US (Washington, DC We Agnostics 26 years and counting) my reaction to this piece (as well as to similar things I heard in Santa Monica in November that I was rather vocal about) was “What is this “Stuff”?”
    It really seems counter intuitive for a forum such as this (as opposed to the Grapevine or other more general interest AA publication) to be so focused on the adaptation of the illogical and irrational to the daily life of people who so clearly have rejected the patently religious tenants as presented in most of the “Steps” as written. It’s, at root, a brand of fundamentalist Christianity at its most prescriptive directly adapted from the Oxford Group by Bill Wilson in the 1930’s. This is a widely held view here on the “hard left” Atheist side of this issue. Most of the so called “Steps” just do do not pass any sort of test in terms of rational thinking. Further, there are many people in Atheist/Agnostic AA who I have encountered over the years who categorically reject such notions as “spiritually”, contrition, confession, self-abnegation, “personality changes” as opposed to behavior modification, sack cloth and ashes, bright white lights filling the room, etc…
    While fully acknowledging that step one saved my life and as someone who cherishes long term friendships with conventional “believing” Christian AA members I still cannot and will not sit back, roll over and play dead for those that imply that we universally need these so called rules and regulations in order to achieve and maintain long term sobriety and live a reasonable and fruitful life.
    In short, this piece makes very little sense to the likes of me and I would greatly like to see more articles here focused on the more practical aspects of recovery, relapse prevention and sober living.
    The other overriding concern I have is that many of our still suffering Atheist/Agnostic brothers and sisters recoil from the Christian bromides (even when watered down as presented here) represented in the so-called “Steps” and sail out to die of our condition without ever having had the chance at recovery so many of us here enjoy today. I feel compelled to speak for them and to clearly indicate that long term, successful sobriety is possible without adherence to some outdated, fundamentalist “to do” list as long as we are able to to the following:

    Make a decision about your drinking.
    Go to meetings and share.
    Help another alcoholic when you can.

    That’s it my friends! These other “complications” can kill some of us.

    In love and service,
    John H.

  6. Tim C. says:

    A whole lot of what is written about the AA steps strikes me as thinly disguised religion. I continue to think talking about religious best practices is not helpful in recovery.

  7. Tommy H says:

    Thanks for posting this.

  8. JHG says:

    One of the things I love about this WAAFT AA subculture is the freedom. It’s not just that we can consider alternative versions of the Steps; we can rewrite them ourselves. And it is the latter that offers the greatest benefit. I find inspiration and challenge in what others do with the Steps, but finally, it is what I do with them that matters.

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