Why a Higher Power Isn’t Enough to Stay Sober
By Jeffrey Munn
The author of Staying Sober Without God
So, you’ve decided you don’t really believe in a “god” per se, but you’d like to choose one of our sleek, modern Higher Powers™ instead. Great! This vaguely-defined entity comes with all the bells and whistles. You can turn your life over to it, pray to it, let it take care of the uncontrollable, seek its comfort and forgiveness, and even ask to remove your pain and discomfort! I know, I know, it sounds a lot like a god, but it totally isn’t, it’s a Higher Power™. It’s your way of kind of believing in God while still being able to say you don’t. It may seem a little contradictory, but that’s a price you’ll need to pay, because you absolutely must have a Higher Power™ in order to stay clean, sober, or abstinent.
But do you? Is there really one thing out there that isn’t God, but can also serve all the necessary functions of a higher power? To start, let’s look at all the boxes a “higher power” tends to check in an individual’s life when it comes to maintaining sobriety.
- It’s something one can surrender the uncontrollable to.
- It’s something one can seek guidance from.
- It’s something that is always available whenever you need it.
- It’s something that is capable of taking away negative thoughts, cravings, and negative character traits (steps 6 and 7).
- It’s something that has a “will” for you, meaning it knows what’s best for you.
- It’s something that can give you a sense of meaning and purpose.
- It’s something that you can ask for forgiveness.
The more I look at this list, the more it looks to me like a list of important components of a recovery lifestyle rather than one single entity. I understand the impulse to lump all of these things into one category and call it a higher power; it makes it a little less overwhelming. If a newcomer were to get to a meeting and be given a list of all the practices they needed to incorporate in their life, they might perceive it as an insurmountable task and run away screaming. It’s much simpler to tell them “don’t worry, you just need to define your higher power.” It sounds simpler and more exciting. My issue with this is that it oversimplifies something that we could really benefit from understanding better. Why not teach newcomers how to really understand the recovery process rather than pretending it’s being driven by some vague entity?
In my experience, I benefit more from understanding the impact of social support than I do from calling a group of people my “higher power.” I get much more from consciously practicing the mental exercise of radical acceptance than I do pretending that I’m turning my worries over to an imaginary force. I grow much more when I learn to develop and trust my intuition than I do by “asking a higher power for guidance.” These are all separate skills and practices that are necessary in order to build a stable and consistent recovery lifestyle. If you still want to refer to your group of recovery skills as your “higher power,” nobody’s stopping you, but when I started to really understand the essential components of my recovery, reducing them down to a singular “higher power” concept seemed to cheapen them.
Rather than choosing a single higher power, this is how I currently get the needs met that I listed above (this list is not exhaustive):
- It’s something one can surrender the uncontrollable to – Radical acceptance and mindfulness.
- It’s something one can seek guidance from – My support network, therapist, literature, and other experts.
- It’s something that is always available whenever you need it – My coping skills, relaxation, exercise, meditation.
- It’s something that is capable of taking away negative thoughts, cravings, and negative character traits – My practice of engaging in positive behaviors and reality-based thinking.
- It’s something that has a “will” for you, meaning it knows what’s best for you – Advice from others, my intuition, my thought process (when my emotions are regulated).
- It’s something that can give you a sense of meaning and purpose – My work, my relationships, contemplating nature and the universe, my hobbies and interests.
- It’s something that you can ask for forgiveness – Myself, or the person I wronged.
Today, I don’t have a higher power, I have higher powers. I just don’t call them that. I have an arsenal of tools, resources, people, and psychological/emotional practices such as meditation and compassion that improve my life dramatically and therefore reduce or eliminate my desire to engage in addictive behaviors to escape. Your higher power can be a lot of things, it just can’t be one thing, because no single thing keeps us sober, a multi-faceted recovery lifestyle does.
So find your Higher Powers™ today!
Jeffrey Munn was born in Southern California where he still resides with his wife and daughter. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has been working in the field of mental health since 2010.
Jeffrey works as a therapist in private practice and specializes in addiction, OCD, and anxiety disorders. In addition to his master’s degree in clinical psychology, Jeffrey earned a degree specialty in co-occurring disorders.
Click here to access the book on Amazon: Staying Sober Without God.
To visit Jeffrey’s website, click here: Practically Sane.
For a PDF of this article, click here: Why A Higher Power Isn’t Enough To Stay Sober.