I’ll admit my bias upfront.
The principles of 12 step programs have given me a life I never thought I could have had. They taught me how to build healthy relationships from the inside out. These groups provide the handbook for living that no one gets in childhood. However, it’s also an organization that is largely misunderstood.
Some criticisms of 12 step programs have merit, but it’s important to consider their value. With so many people struggling to find help, it’s a solution worth considering because not everyone can afford therapy. All I ask is that you keep an open mind, and decide for yourself…
What are 12 Step Programs?
There are approximately 35 different 12 Step programs mostly revolving around addictive behaviors. Membership is worldwide and provides a safe, free place to get support. They teach valuable tools for coping with life without using substances or compulsive behaviors.
While groups such as AA and NA are the most popular, other groups focus on healing compulsive behaviors and dysfunctional relationships.
For instance, their primary purpose is to help people in;
- Alcoholics Anonymous to obtain sobriety
- Overeaters Anonymous to abstain from compulsive food behaviors
- Al-Anon to heal from the effects of living with addiction (or a dysfunctional childhood )
- Sex Addicts Anonymous to abstain from addictive sexual behavior
- Gamblers Anonymous to stop compulsive betting
Let’s start with the misconceptions because some of them are just plain wrong. I’m not saying that everyone should attend 12 step programs – nor do they need to – but I want you to make an informed decision. Or at least dispel some of the myths and understand their true purpose.
Myth 1. 12 Step Programs are a cult
This one makes me laugh because there are no leaders in the program. Everyone has equal say in how the meetings run. Their guiding principle is unity. When you hear something you don’t like, you’re encouraged to “take what you like and leave the rest.” They strive to be inclusive to everyone.
Myth 2. It’s a religious program
Okay, there IS talk of God but you get to choose your own concept that works. Each person defines their Higher Power as they wish; whether it’s nature, a universal energy, your intuition, or a God of their choosing. Some utilize the group as a power greater than themselves in the beginning.
Some people come into the program as an atheist or agnostic. No one is forced or made to feel guilty for their individual beliefs. You can work aspects of the program without believing in a Higher Power.
Myth 3. You have to be a group person
You can go to your first meeting, sit in the back and leave before it’s over. No worries, the members get it. You’re there because you’re in crisis and likely view the program as a last resort. Someone may offer you a hug or their phone number because they care – but you can duck out early. If you prefer a more quiet setting, check out smaller meetings.
One reason people resist 12 step groups is that they may anticipate feeling left out. This is a very common experience for most newcomers. If you can “keep coming back” to meetings you’ll be surprised at how much support is there for you. Many members consider meetings as the only place they feel completely loved and accepted. But they had to get over that hurdle of not feeling a part of first.
Myth 4. They’re all crazy
Okay this one is partly true 🙂 No one goes to a 12 step meeting unless they’re really hurting. There’s a saying that “we’re not all crazy on the same day.” Meetings are a mix of happy, sad and grateful folks. These rooms are a safe place to go when life gets too difficult to manage alone. On rare occasions there are mentally disturbed folks who are welcome as long as they don’t disrupt the meeting.
How It Works
The program has the following common features:
- The 12 steps that are done in order with a sponsor
- The 12 traditions that govern the group as a whole
- Sponsorship which provides one on one mentorship
- Meetings where you hear the experience, strength and hope of other members
People all over the world have learned how to cope and live a sober (or healthy) life. Here’s what it looks like.
Meetings are how a “newcomer” experiences the program first. Each meeting has a similar format. The most common is the speaker/sharing that starts with the serenity prayer (non-religious) and is run by a secretary who reads from a script. A speaker shares his/her personal story then each member can share for a few minutes. Pass if you like. There is no feedback or direct advice giving during the meeting. Questions are encouraged after the meeting ends.
A Sponsor is a personal mentor and support person to guide you through the program.
Slogans are little sayings like:
- Keep It Simple
- Easy Does it
- One Day at a Time
These slogans reinforce living in the now rather than using substances or self-defeating behaviors that create more pain.
12 Steps and 12 Traditions are the foundations of The Program. The purpose of the steps is to provide a method to heal the addiction and self-defeating behaviors.
The traditions govern the group since there are no leaders, only volunteers. People do service and rotate different positions like Speaker Seeker, Secretary, Speaker and Refreshments Person.
What Not to Do
Many people try a few meetings and leave. These people want to tell everyone that these groups don’t work. While some might have a negative experience, if they give it a chance, their concerns will be heard. Everyone is supported no matter what they’re dealing with. Be careful not to let these partial truths be your guide.
It’s suggested to try at least six different meetings before making a decision. Another saying is “Keep coming back, it works if you work it.” No other groups offer reliable and free support quite like 12 step programs.
Now let’s talk about the benefits!
Unbelievable Crisis Support
Everyone experiences a crisis at some point. A relationship ends unexpectedly, a parent dies or, for a variety of reasons, there is not enough support.
Family and friends are great but sometimes you need more privacy. Maybe you’re struggling in your relationship and don’t want to talk with mutual friends. Because 12 step programs offer anonymity, everything said in meetings is held in strict confidence. Members are encouraged to call each other –especially when a crisis hits.
Typically, direct advice is discouraged. For example, no one advises you to leave your partner or kick your teenager out. The program gives you the dignity to figure things out for yourself – when you are ready.
Building Your Support Tribe
Building a strong support system is the most significant benefit found in 12 step programs. When you’re hurting, it’s tempting to isolate. Finding like-minded people who have the same struggle makes you feel more connected and life becomes more manageable!
A sponsor can provide unbelievable support. The program suggests that you pick someone who “has what you want” – whether it’s a great attitude, improved relationships, or a loving, gentle way that makes you feel safe. They might look happy, or have relationships that finally work. By sharing their recovery, you’re actually helping them too!
Get the Rule Book for Life
People come to 12 step programs because they’re struggling with their own behavior or someone else’s. The program teaches acceptance and how to detach from what is going on outside and focus more on you.
12 step principles can help any situation. For instance, admitting powerlessness reminds us that we don’t have complete control. Other principles like acceptance and surrender support positive change. Learning how to love yourself through addiction or childhood trauma takes time. By getting the support of other members, you eventually learn how to love yourself and heal the parts of yourself that you dislike.
Growth doesn’t mean being happy all the time. Sometimes life hurts and we have to just get through it. You can find ways to love yourself and let go of the past. You can learn how to recover from addiction and dysfunctional relationships. You can learn to accept what happened to you as a child and use those scars – to be grateful for your new life because without that pain, no one seeks growth. 12 Step Programs offer hope to those who no longer wish to hide the pain but to heal from it.
Michelle Farris is a marriage and family therapist in San Jose California. She works with individuals, couples and offers online courses. She specializes in anger management and healing codependent relationships. She’s a therapist who “walks her talk” and supports others in transforming habits that hurt. She writes a blog on how to build self-esteem, set healthy boundaries and build relationships without sacrificing yourself. It’s the power of accountability and unconditional support that helps you move forward, let go of the past and truly heal. Visit her website to get her free 5 Day Email Course “Catching Your Anger Before It Hurts”.