Most therapists do not realize that the 12 Steps are not merely an antidote for addiction, but are guidelines for nothing less than a total personality transformation.
Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was influenced by Carl Jung. In correspondence, Jung wrote Wilson that the cure for alcoholism would have to be a spiritual one — a power equal to the power of spiritus, or alcohol.
The 12 Steps are that spiritual remedy. They outline a spiritual process of surrender of the ego to the unconscious, or a higher power, and very much resemble the process of transformation in Jungian therapy.
The following is a description of that process. However, the fact that it is described in a linear fashion is misleading, because the Steps are experienced both simultaneously and in a circular manner. Although the same process is applicable to recovery from addiction to a substance (e.g. alcohol, drugs, food) or a compulsion, such as gambling, debting, or caretaking, the focus of this article is on alcohol and drug addiction and the family members in a codependent relationship with the alcoholic or addict.
Facing the Problem
The beginning of recovery is acknowledging that there is a problem involving drugs or alcohol, that there is help outside oneself, and the willingness to utilize it. This also represents the very beginning of trust in something beyond oneself (such as a therapist, sponsor, or the program), and the opening up of a closed family system. Invariably, it takes years to face the problem.
With growing understanding of the problem, denial further thaws. In Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives have become unmanageable.”1 The addict begins to understand she or he is powerless over the drugs or alcohol, and the codependent begins to understand that she or he cannot control the substance abuser. The struggle not to drink and the codependent’s vigilant watching the addict begin to slip away. Gradually, attention starts to shift from the substance, and, for the codependent, the substance abuser, to focus on oneself.
There are deeper levels of working the First Step. The first stage of coming out of denial is to acknowledge that there is a problem; second, that it is a life-threatening problem over which one is powerless; and third, that actually the problem lies in one’s own attitudes and behavior.
The acknowledgment of powerlessness leaves a void, which formerly was filled with mental and physical activity trying to control and manipulate the addiction or the addict. Feelings of anger, loss, emptiness, boredom, depression, and fear arise. The emptiness that was masked by the addiction is now revealed. It is an awesome realization when you acknowledge that you or your loved one has a life-threatening addiction over which you are powerless, subject only to a daily reprieve. Now, with a modicum of trust, one acquires a willingness to turn to a power beyond oneself. This is Step 2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
In the book Alcoholics Anonymous, it states: “Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power — that One is God.” (p. 59). That power can also be a sponsor, therapist, the group, the therapy process or a spiritual power. Reality itself becomes a teacher, as one is asked to continually “turn over” (to that Power) an addiction, people, and frustrating situations. The ego gradually relinquishes control, as one begins to trust that Power, the growth process, and life as well.
What has been happening up until now is an increasing awareness and observation of one’s dysfunctional behavior and addiction(s) – what is referred to as “insanity” in the Second Step. This crucial development signifies the genesis of an observing ego. Now one begins to exercise some restraint over addictive and undesirable habits, words, and deeds. The Program works behaviorally as well as spiritually.
Abstinence and forbearance from old behavior are accompanied by anxiety, anger and a sense of loss of control. New, preferable attitudes and behavior (often called “contrary action”) feel uncomfortable, and arouse other emotions, including fear and guilt. From a Jungian perspective, one’s “complexes” are being challenged:
“Every challenge to our personal habit patterns and accustomed values is felt as nothing less than the threat of death and extinction of our selves. Invariably such challenges evoke reactions of defensive anxiety.” (Whitmont, p. 24)
Group support is important in reinforcing new behavior, because the emotions triggered by these changes are very powerful and can retard and even arrest recovery. Additionally, resistance is experienced from self, family, and friends for the very same reasons. The anxiety and resistance may be so great that the addict or abuser may go back to drinking or using.
There is help in Step 3: “We…turn our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.” This is the practice of “letting go” and “turning it over.” As faith builds, so does the ability to let go and move toward more functional behavior.
Inventory and Building Self-Esteem
Now with a bit more ego awareness, self-discipline, and faith, one is ready to review one’s past in Step 4. It requires a thorough examination (an “inventory”) of one’s experiences and relationships with a view toward uncovering patterns of dysfunctional emotions and behavior, called “character defects.” Whether in therapy or with a sponsor, disclosure of the inventory in Step 5 aids development of self-esteem and an observing ego. One gains more objectivity and self-acceptance, and guilt, resentments, and paralyzing shame begin to dissolve. With it goes the false self, self-loathing and depression. For some, this process may also involve recalling childhood pain, which is the beginning of empathy for oneself and others.
Self-Acceptance and Transformation
Acknowledgment of one’s behavior patterns is not enough to change them. This will not happen until they can be replaced with healthier skills, or until the benefit derived from the old behavior is removed. Old habits become increasingly painful, and no longer work. This process is described in Step 6: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” It underscores the psychological process of personal transformation that evolves throughout recovery, and represents a further development of self-acceptance, the key to change. As long as one tries to change, and blames oneself in the process, no movement occurs – not until one gives up. Then one is “entirely ready.” Step 6 asks that one give up control and ego clinging, and look for a source beyond oneself.
Then, it’s suggested to take Step 7: “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.” There’s a parallel in Jungian therapy, where a critical point is reached:
“We then discover to our dismay that our attempts to solve (our problems) by an effort of will avails us nothing, that our good intentions, as the saying goes, merely pave the way to hell…conscious effort are indispensable but do not get us far enough in our really critical areas…A resolution of this seemingly hopeless impasse eventually occurs by virtue of the awareness that the ego’s claim of a capacity to control rests on an illusion…Then we have come to a point of acceptance that initiates a fundamental transformation of which we are the object, not the subject. Transformation of our personality occurs in us, upon us, but not by us… The point of hopelessness, the point of no return, then is the turning point.” (Whitmont, pp. 307-308)
Compassion for Others
The review of one’s shortcomings reveals one’s effect on others, and awakens empathy for those harmed. Steps 8 and 9 suggest that one make direct amends to them – a further step in building a more solid self, humility, compassion, and self-esteem.
Tools for Growth
Recovery and spiritual growth are a continual process. The 12 Steps provide daily tools.
Step 10 recommends a continual inventory and prompt amends as necessary. This builds awareness and responsibility for one’s behavior and attitudes, and maintains peace of mind.
Step 11 recommends meditation and prayer. This strengthens the Self, increases honesty and awareness, improves mood, promotes new behavior, and reduces the anxiety accompanying change. Building tolerance for the experience of emptiness supports the Self, as old behavior and ego structures fall away.
Step 12 recommends doing service and working with others, and practicing these principles in all our affairs. This Step develops compassion and lessens self-centeredness. Communicating to others what we have learned is self-reinforcing. It also reminds us that spirituality cannot be practiced in only one segment of our lives, without contamination from other areas. For example, dishonesty in any area undermines serenity and self-esteem, affecting all of one’s relationships.
Alcoholic Anonymous World Services, Inc. (1976). Alcoholics Anonymous.
Whitmont, Edward C. (1969). The Symbolic Quest. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
- Other words, such as “food,” “gambling” or “people, places and things” often are substituted for the word alcohol. [↩]