Twelve Empowering Steps

With AA’s suggested Twelve Steps, as with everything else in AA, we can take what we like and leave the rest, but what if removing what we feel we need to remove is like pulling on a single thread that causes the whole tapestry to become unraveled? Religiosity, ethnocentric bias, and patriarchal attitudes aren’t peripheral features. They are woven into the integral character of the Steps. Even more problematic though is that the Steps are fear-driven and disempowering. 

Revising the Steps needs to go beyond tweaking. Doing the job adequately entails nothing less than radically rethinking their rationale from the ground up. The first three Steps are especially problematic. While being convinced something needs to change is not a bad starting place, the crucial question is not whether I feel wretched enough to trade in what dignity I have left for a servile relationship with an overly possessive god; what matters instead is whether I can translate moments of truth into motivation and whether I’m ready, willing, and able to revise my thinking and seriously consider sound reality-based guidance.

Being at rock bottom and having nowhere else to turn are not prerequisites for sobriety, and even for the most desperate low-bottom drunks, a process that suggests that they submissively relinquish their own self-determination hardly provides a stable foundation for a life that is supposed to be about freedom and responsibility and that ought to be about building up self-confidence rather than tearing it down. I don’t need to be convinced that I’m incapable of managing my own life. What I need is to be empowered to make sensible choices in the pursuit of an immediately applicable, down-to-earth strategy.

In my Step 1, I take responsibility for my own recovery as a positive choice I make under my own power, based on my best understanding. I can’t know in advance everything that will be required, but I can know in a general way what I am getting into and be entrusted with ground-level reconnaissance by which I can navigate my own recovery. The cumulative experience and collective wisdom of those who have negotiated commonly encountered forks in the road and know the landmarks can provide something of a road map. Recovery is existentially challenging, but it’s not rocket science. 

What I need to be looking for is a plan of action by which I can:

  • loosen the grip of addiction
  • catch a vision of an imminently available life that promises rewards palpably more attractive than the short term, perceived benefits of using
  • prevent relapse
  • convert adversity into growth and wisdom
  • put together a robustly healthy and sustainable life

The long-term future might be sketchy, thus the AA slogans, “one day at a time” and “do the next right thing.” Being available for the demands of the present moment involves keeping my eyes open and my brain engaged. If I show up and put my whole heart into it, I can count on recovery being a riveting adventure, replete with unpredictable twists and turns, and bridges that I won’t know how to cross until I get to them.  

Envisioning new possibilities creates a tiny crack in the status quo and loosens addiction’s grip, but the prospect of change, even if it promises to be positive, can trigger fear and lead to resistance and/or retreat. So, in my Step 2, I build connections with people whom I can relate to and can count on to be truthful and supportive. Whatever my burdens might be, whatever my challenges might be, I need not be alone as I move forward.

Upon entering a well-lit social space, I find that adult equivalents of spectral monsters hiding under the bed can’t survive being exposed to the light of day. I might feel buoyed by a sense of relief, as addiction’s grim spell is broken—an experience known as the pink cloud. Being on a pink cloud often involves clinging to the expectation that “working a good program” guarantees an uninterrupted, straight-line, upward trajectory, and sometimes involves being judgmental of others who are struggling (they obviously aren’t working a good program). Early sobriety is typically fraught with insecurity. It’s not surprising that many of us would compensate for our precarious perch with blustery overconfidence.

While there’s nothing wrong with riding the wave and taking advantage of the influx of inspiration, renewed hope, and boosted self-confidence, I need to be prepared for inevitable disappointments along the way, which can be especially dangerous if my commitment to recovery is conditional upon my expectations being met. Optimism and a desire for forward movement are quite valuable and perhaps even necessary, but they need to be tempered by realism and patience.

In my Step 3, I gather my wits about me, cultivate a balanced, even-tempered state of mind, and set my sights on a duly-scrutinized, solidly-grounded course by which I can make steadily-paced progress while being attentive and responsive to realities on the ground and open to serendipitous developments.

A recovery community can be an oasis that provides a sense of stability and a safe space where calm, rational lucidity can emerge and illuminate the hidden, dark recesses where addiction thrives. Paranoiac phantasms and deliria run for cover like cockroaches, but as with cockroaches, just because my destructive fear-driven tendencies are not showing themselves doesn’t mean they aren’t still there. Shadowy aspects of myself lie in wait. Being blindsided by what I don’t want to acknowledge can sabotage my best intentions, possibly leading to relapse. Thus, it is important that I move fairly quickly to Step 4.

My Step 4 is less about moral cleansing than it is about the strictly practical benefits of paying attention. Of particular interest is how I make choices that set me up for failure, how my fear of not getting what I need can lead to self-destructive acts, how I place my faith in vain pursuits that amount to chasing mirages and lead to chronic dissatisfaction, and how my patterns of self-deception create blind spots. In my Step 4, I develop habits of self-examination and endeavor to translate hindsight into insight and foresight.

The divestment from and deflation of the protective cushioning with which I insulate myself from reality will likely leave me feeling exposed and vulnerable, to which I might respond by spinning off, so it is important to stay close to carefully selected, trustworthy others who can provide balance and stability. And I need to invite other eyes into the process of identifying gaps in my perception of reality.

In my Step 5, I deepen my social connection and become embedded in human relationships that foster circumspect objectivity and disarm defense mechanisms with compassionate understanding.

While Steps 4 and 5 help me sort out the vast inner network of beliefs, values, habits, desires, fears, attitudes, feelings, and underlying motives that perpetuate addiction and the environmental factors that nurture that inner network, the ultimate goal is not to tear down, but is instead to become free of the warped perspective generated by fear and shame and discover my inherent dignity and worth without which there is no basis for respect for others or openness to other points of view.

There is a tendency to underestimate or completely gloss over Step 6. It barely gets a single paragraph in the Big Book. On its face, it looks like an unremarkable prelude to having negative personal traits magically disappear. Becoming “entirely ready” to have “defects of character” removed almost seems perfunctory, that is, until I begin to recognize the deeply rooted ferocity of that within me which fights change, and it becomes clear that being motivated by painful memories and fear is insufficient, and even gets in the way.

Far from being perfunctory, what needs to happen in Step 6 ‒ teasing out the fears and false beliefs that are the root of my dysfunctional behaviors, distorted thinking, and unhealthy attachments ‒ is arguably the crux of the matter at the heart of the Steps as a whole. The chapter on Step 6 in AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions begins, “’ This is the Step that separates the men from the boys.’” If we can overlook the implied sexist stereotype of “real men” as the epitome of toughness, courage, and strength, we can perhaps glean a deeper meaning: What it takes to be a true grownup is hard.

Step 6 might involve growing up in public, which means showing up, not hiding, persevering in the face of adversity, letting go of rationalizations and excuses, and since it doesn’t happen overnight, trusting the process. Leaving the cozy cocoon of self-deception that has enabled me to avoid experiences that lead to growth is like living by the slogan, “Let go and let God”, without the comforting yet dubious assurance of the God part.

In my Step 6, acknowledging the absurdity of my fearful, shortsighted attempts to control circumstances; I lighten up, emerge from the boxed-in familiarity of self-fulfilling prophecies open to possibilities for alternative interpretations, and allow the ensuing exhilarating uncertainty to disrupt my complacency and the too-small expectations of who I can be.

AA’s Step 7 suggests that we bid farewell to our so-called shortcomings, which sounds simple, but since my maladaptive default settings are interwoven with my core identity and with survival skills and coping mechanisms upon which I rely to maintain my sanity, initiating meaningful change will require me to face head-on my fear of vulnerability. Getting to the other side of the chasm that separates me from establishing a stable basis upon which to build a new life is a huge leap of faith, but not huge enough to separate me from “my old self” and “my old behaviors”.

Fortunately, there’s more to Step 7 than having character flaws painfully excised like they were bad teeth. More importantly, it’s about discovering and developing character strengths. My most problematic tendencies are transformed, find their proper function, and become assets when they are viewed in the broader context of who I am as a whole person and allowed to become integrated with other aspects of myself that have heretofore been repressed.

In my Step 7, I summon the courage to show up for my life with my whole self, holding nothing back.

My Steps 8 and 9 go beyond amends, which are too often merely charades whose sole purpose is to enable the amends makers to feel better about themselves. The goal needs instead to be envisioning and embodying the self I know in my heart of hearts to be the fullest and most real me I can be.

In my Step 8, I cultivate empathy, and I translate feelings of remorse into an ongoing effort to dismantle, as best I can, barriers that impede my connection with others and to put my relationships on solid footing. In my Step 9, I ground my experience of freedom by being grateful for healthy relationships upon which I depend and by becoming a reciprocally dependable participant in an interdependent community.

In AA, Steps 10, 11, and 12 are sometimes referred to as maintenance steps, as though all the heavy lifting has already been done, but they are more aptly called the growth steps because most growth happens by way of persevering through thick and thin.

In my Step 10, recognizing that I reap what I sow, I foster a hospitable environment for a sober life by making good-faith choices, paying attention to the real-world consequences of my actions, my inaction, my words, and my silence, and accepting ultimate responsibility for my choices. In my Step 11, I cultivate meditative detachment, take stock of what I care about, seek courage and strength to step up and live up to my loftiest values and ideals, endeavor to identify what’s worth striving for and to recognize where I need humility to be able to negotiate disputes and wisdom to know when to compromise.

According to AA’s Step 12, the result of the Steps is supposed to be a mysterious occurrence called a spiritual awakening. A more down to earth label for the personal transformation that is the intended result of strategic and diligent application of recovery principles is “paradigm shift”. Being unafraid to get to the bottom of what is going on, reframing problems in the light of honest foresight that comes with not ignoring inconvenient truth, presciently anticipating rough spots and looking for leverage points and opportunities for early intervention empowers me to achieve what is known as second-order change. Unlike first-order change, which is limited to measures within existing understandings and is sometimes like rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic, second-order change breaks out of the equilibrium that determines what feels “normal”, addresses root causes, and changes the very way I think about change.

Having tasted true freedom and put together a sustainable lifestyle, I secure sustenance for the ongoing journey by practicing my Step 12: Remembering all the help I have benefited from along the way, I perpetuate a virtuous cycle of goodwill and abundance by offering a hand up to others in need and freely sharing what I have received.

About the Author

As a theist in early sobriety, JHG’s experience brought into sharp focus the contrast between the hollowness of the promise of supernatural intervention and the immediate, substantive benefits of in-depth identification and being guided by sound principles like honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness, which contributed to his eventually becoming an atheist. 

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Peryy J
Peryy J
1 year ago

I appreciate this approach. I don’t like traditional AA starting off by telling us how screwed up and defective we are. Empowerment is a much better platform to work with. And the instance that a god is necessary to for recovery. I have 32 godless years that counters that insistence.

Lisa M
Lisa M
1 year ago

I liked this essay very much. I could relate to this so much more than the 12×12 even though I clung to those step meetings, big book meetings ,speaker and tradition and discussion meetings for my first 2 years ( out of 4.5) of AA . I love reading every AABB take on steps, meetings and sobriety. Thanks ever so much. I consider you and commentators and posters “ my group “ and am grateful.

1 year ago

Thanks for a well-thought-out way to live the “steps”. The wording is so meaningful for this alcoholic .

John M.
John M.
1 year ago

JHG, Excellent! Just as Steve K. reminded us last week —“use your imagination to relate to the AA program in a way that is meaningful to you.” —you too have superbly deconstructed and then reconstituted the 12 Steps to fit your own imagination and understanding. The literary critic Northrop Frye once wrote that an extraordinary event or action or a change in personal behaviour occurs when “an imaginative effort meets with an imaginative response.” Recognizing the 12 Steps themselves as an original imaginative effort (though flawed like anything) and then applying your own imaginative interpretive schema to them (though incomplete… Read more »

Pat N.
Pat N.
1 year ago

Thanks, JHG. That’s one of the better “alternative 12 Steps” I’ve seen. I don’t think we need to get hung up on the magic number 12. I’ve never heard why Bill W. wound up with that number. Being a recent convert to Oxford Group Christianity, he may have been fascinated by the 12 tribes of Israel or the 12 apostles-I dunno. So of course we have to have 12 Traditions, 12 Promises, etc. I think Women For Sobriety has 18, which I presume works for them. My personal set of principles (not steps) is about 14, and may be rewritten… Read more »