An Analysis of 12 Step Orientation

Updated on September 29, 2019
Carrie Hauck profile image

Mental health and addiction professional serving as Director of long-term addiction treatment program for women and their children.

Are you pro 12 Step?

The 12 Step orientation is a helpful and even essential tool toward recovery. I am a questioner, so I look for logic in systems, and I seek evidence that something is credible prior to supporting it. When evaluating a program like 12 Step for credibility, I consider whether the creator and founder would likely have had a high level of knowledge on the subject, and in the case of 12 Step (originating from Alcoholics Anonymous, which was founded by two alcoholics) I trust the logic behind the creation. I would trust it less had it been the brain-child of someone altogether unconnected to the issue of addiction. I may have trusted it just as highly had it been created by a non-addicted but successful psychologist or individual of a similar profession. Additionally, I observe the reports of addicted individuals to determine my level of trust in the 12 Step modality, and nearly all reports I have heard or read about have been positive regarding the program’s helpfulness. Finally, I look closely at the details of a system to research more thoroughly what pieces make up the modality. With themes such as powerlessness and unmanageability, the concept of a higher power, forgiveness, willingness and beneficence (“…except when to do so would harm them or others,” Step 9), which all align readily with my own worldview and belief in Jesus Christ, I easily relate to and recognize the value of 12 Step orientation. If I tout these themes as essential to living a fulfilled and Godly life for any human being regardless of vice, it parallels that I would apply the same philosophy to something as specific as addiction.

The strengths of 12 Step programs, as I see it, are:

  • the focus on improved character related to treating self and others better
  • healing from an enslaving condition
  • giving back to others
  • relying on something bigger than oneself
  • practicing self-improvement, self-awareness and self-knowledge
  • the amendment of wrong-doing
  • a culture of “we” and being in it together as a community of addicts
  • the emphasis on honesty, forgiveness, humility and general good character
  • the practice and encouragement of discipline, routine and commitment
  • the rejected substance or behavior is inherently replaced with something more beneficial rather than leaving a void
  • many activities promoted by 12 Step programs are aligned with evidence-based, therapeutic practices such as mindfulness, journaling, repetition, positive self-talk and more

Some weaknesses I notice are:

  • the potential to become cult-like
  • inherently unregulated through voluntary meeting chairs
  • meetings can become a literal meeting ground for active users to continue to use together, or for drugs to be sought, bought and sold
  • meetings often become a headquarters for other dangerous, unhealthy and/or illegal behaviors such as forced intimacy, gossip, power trips and even trafficking
  • the concept of a higher power or the specific reference to God makes some who struggle with religion feel turned off or alienated
  • 12 Step can become a replacement for the obsession, encouraging a new dependency on the meetings that replaces the original addiction
  • 12 Step encourages an individual to continue identifying as an addict and innately discourages the creation of a new identity outside of the addiction

There was a time not long ago that I would have stated that I would choose to change things about the 12 Step model, but after further thought and consideration, I would not choose to change anything about the model after all. The 12 Step model, while unappealing to some, is successful precisely due to the characteristics of it that are likely to turn people off. For example, if the 12 Steps were less ritualistic, they would do little to replace the mirroring compulsions inherent to addiction. The very qualities that resonate with some as "cult-like" are also the qualities that appeal most to serious addicts who are drawn and thrive within a structured, habitual existence. The unregulated nature of the meetings is what protects the model from becoming too authoritative and therefore threatening to an addict, many of whom struggle with the concept of authority due to environmental factors experienced before and during active addiction. The model provides a high level of accountability, structure and ritual without forcing regulation and participation. If the model were to err any more on the side of stipulation, it would likely fail to work for most addicts. Participation is not mandatory but meetings are commonly promoted and viewed as an exclusive club. The "rules" are referred to as "steps." Sharing is not forced, but the entire premise of the meetings is to share, so an addict is likely to feel a sense of positive pressure to eventually open up. The model as I have learned it is intelligent in it's intuitive evasion of uncomfortable force yet promotion of honesty, integrity, responsibility, willingness, accountability and leadership.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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    © 2019 Carrie Hauck

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