How to Make the 12 Steps Work for You

The 12 Steps of addiction recovery are a guideline that a participant follows on a journey to sobriety. In a similar fashion to walking on a road or a moving up a set of stairs, each step brings a person a little closer to his or her goal. They are meant to be “worked,” and the key to getting the most from this type of program is active participation.

No two people will have exactly the same journey through these steps, but in doing the work, everyone who seeks sobriety has an opportunity to reach that goal.

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12 Step Program Facts and Statistics

The following facts and statistics were found in the Textbook of Substance Abuse Treatment by Moos and Timko:

  • The results of a study conducted on people who were dependent on alcohol found that the group who participated in 12 Step self-help programs, along with treatment, were more than twice as likely to achieve an “abstinent recovery” as those who went through a formal treatment program alone. The subjects who participated in treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous were more likely to be sober at the one-year and 16-month marks than those who only received treatment in the first year.
  • People who believe that addiction is a disease and have abstinence as their goal are more likely to identify with 12 Step programs and are less likely to drop out.
  • In a three-year study that looked at the role of religiosity in Alcoholics Anonymous, the more spiritually oriented participants reported that they attended more meetings than secular individuals. Secular and uncommitted individuals had a sharper decline in their involvement with AA than religious and spiritual individuals.

How to Make the 12 Steps Work for You: Tips and Hints

Step 1: Admit There Is a Problem

Step 1 says, “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction — that our lives had become unmanageable.” This is a difficult step for many people who come into a 12 Step program. Denial is such a big part of addiction that it’s very difficult to turn that off and just “stop doing it.” The alternative can be very intimidating.

denial in addiction recovery

To be able to say, even in your own mind, “I am an addict,” is a very brave thing to do. It’s going to mean giving up the coping mechanisms that used to work and learning some new ones. This program can provide guidance, framework and support for people to get and stay sober, but the person who starts the journey has to take a step outside of their previous comfort zone to get to that really good stuff and admit they have a problem, they need help and are willing to be held accountable for their actions.

This is a tall order. However, the alternative is to continue living a life that is spinning out of control. The first step involves changing one’s attitude, as well as deciding to start this process.

Step 2: Enlist the Help of a Higher Power

In Step 2, the text reads, “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

12 Step programs are not limited to participants who have a particular religious belief. Program participants can be agnostics or atheists and still successfully work the 12 Steps. At this point, all that’s required is to ask yourself whether you believe, or are willing to believe, in the possibility of a Power greater than yourself.

Making this type of change in your life won’t work if all you’re doing is trying to say “No” to the habit of using your drug of choice. There has to be some type of trade-off or benefit to replace it. If you can replace the benefit, albeit one that had some rather detrimental consequences, with something else, such as the promise of a better and healthier life, you have something to work with in the program.

Your goal is to be moving toward something better than the “high” you were getting from drugs. The Power greater than ourselves is what will help you stay on track by keeping your focus on what you have to gain from a sober lifestyle. As your thinking starts to shift toward valuing yourself more, you can make healthier choices about nutrition, sleep, exercise and more.

Step 3: Make an Action Plan

If the first two steps were about admitting there’s a problem with addiction and thinking about how to deal with it, Step 3 is the time for your action plan. Step 3 says, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

This step calls on you to turn toward the things in your life which are not working for you the way you would like instead of turning away from them and anesthetizing yourself with your drug of choice. Along with turning toward the things you aren’t happy with, this step challenges you to do something about it.

It seems like a simple thing to do, but many people don’t step up and confront the issues that are bothering them. Instead, they feel resentful and powerless in the situation. In the case of someone with an addiction, it can lead to alcohol or drug use.

find a new way of coping with stressors

The idea here is to find a new way of coping with stressors and finding more positive coping methods. Researchers have said that addiction is a brain disease and that the act of consuming a drug of choice is a symptom. By putting the new plan into action, you will be learning how to treat the disease and practice symptom control.

Step 4: Take an Honest Look at Ourselves

The words of Step 4 say, “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” This step is much more easily said than done. With human nature being what it is, most people would take a look at their past actions and then immediately follow up the ones that didn’t show them in the best light with a, “Yes, but…” sort of comment that would try to explain away, or downplay, the things they didn’t especially like.

It takes real courage and no small amount to maturity to sit back and take inventory without commenting or judging at all. Some people may find it helpful to think of past events like viewing a film. They can’t be changed or influenced (no matter how badly we may want to). Instead, the only option available is to view them as objectively as we can.

Another type of strategy that can work is to look at the past events in the same manner as a scientist gathering evidence. The object of this step is to look at one’s self without getting caught up in the circle of laying blame and guilt, then going into a tailspin about how much of the negativity is your fault.

Once those thoughts start, they go in one of two directions: You either get defensive and start justifying your actions, or you decide that everything was your fault. Neither one is productive for this portion of the 12 Step program.

Being clean and sober gives you the chance to really look at yourself. If you catch yourself judging, stop and remind yourself that this is not the intention of this step. Refocus your intention, slow down and do whatever you need to do in order to get back on track.

Step 5: Take Responsibility

The wording of Step 5 is simple and very powerful: “Admitted to our Higher Power, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” This step is not about confession, nor is it about blaming anyone else for our actions.

Part of the disease of addiction involves blaming others, circumstances, family history or whatever else you can think of for the addiction and any actions that result from it. This step in the 12 Step program stops that cycle and asks you to admit to yourself that you have done some things that were wrong and that you’re now claiming responsibility for your actions.

This step is not about trying to hurt or humiliate a member of a 12 Step program into admitting all of the times they acted inappropriately or fell short in some way. If the other person you confide in is your sponsor or a group member who has been working the steps as well, you don’t need to worry about being judged.

take control of your addiction

Once you realize that you have control over your actions, you are in a place where your addiction is no longer controlling you. You are the one making decisions, even though you may not always be happy with the results you get — at first. It takes time to learn a new set of skills for dealing with situations as they come up in your life, but over time it will become easier to get more of the things you want.

Step 6. Become Willing to Let Go of Defenses

Step 6 reads, “We’re entirely ready to have our Higher Power remove all these defects of character.” Everyone has character defects that are part of our makeup. People use them when they feel threatened. It’s something that comes down automatically, like a type of psychological drawbridge.

This step asks you to get ready to let go of these defenses, which you likely have had in place for a number of years. You probably felt they worked well for you — otherwise, you would have changed them already.

During this part of the 12 Step program, you are being asked to look at the types of things that make you feel afraid. Learning to simply sit with those uncomfortable feelings without automatically having some type of knee-jerk reaction to them will take a lot of practice. Over time, though, it’s possible to become less governed by one’s fears and to become a person who is more at peace with him or herself.

The energy you were used to expending in putting up defenses can be put to better use listening, evaluating and understanding what’s going on around you. You’ll find that you’re better able to deal with the stresses that are part of everyday life, as well as major life changes when they occur.

Step 7: Humbly Ask to Have Shortcomings Removed

At first glance, the words to Step 7, “Humbly asked our Higher Power to remove our shortcomings,” could almost be interpreted as a request to be magically transformed or delivered from our shortcomings. This is not the case. The Higher Power is not some type of wizard with a magic wand who can perform a miracle and wipe an addict clean of his or her flaws.

The change that comes with working Step 7 comes slowly, and with time. As you start to learn to recognize when you’re in danger of making choices based on fear, as opposed to looking at a situation in a calm and rational manner, you will start to shift the way you think to a more positive place. This is how your Higher Power works within you to help you remove your shortcomings.

embrace the 12 steps of recovery

To make this change work, you will be challenged to be open and vulnerable, which is exactly the opposite state you were in when you were actively using your drug of choice. Letting go and allowing yourself to be in this state is not easy. It involves admitting that you are not in control, and humans like to think they can control most of what happens in their small part of the Universe.

Step 8: A Time to Forgive

Step 8 reads, “Made a list of all the people we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” The first part of the step asks you to look back and consider everyone you have effected in a negative way from your addiction. When considering these people, some of the memories may bring up feelings of sadness or regret.

In other instances, you may still feel angry or hurt about past events and wish you could have done more to harm someone from your past. The desire to get back at someone who has hurt us is very human. However, carrying around anger and resentment against someone else doesn’t affect the other person one bit. They have no idea that there is some issue festering away at us, and it only serves to put us in the position of being a victim again. When we focus on what someone else said or did to us to that extent, we only give up our power. Forgiving the person doesn’t mean what they did was okay, but it does relieve us of the burden of carrying it around.

Continuing to fight with people, and keeping the hurt going, can also be a way to try to feel powerful if you don’t feel that you have any power within your own self. It takes real inner strength to stop that kind of behavior and decide that whatever type of game is being played, you will not be drawn into it anymore.

Step 9: Apologize to Those You Have Hurt

Step 9 asks you to “Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” It’s not easy to approach someone to offer up a sincere apology for your actions.

Admitting you’re wrong leaves you feeling open and vulnerable to the other person. You have no guarantee that the other person will behave in a gracious or accepting manner. They always have the option of deciding to accept your apology or to reject it. If they decide to reject it, you may get laughed at or subjected to some type of nasty or even cruel words.

No matter how your apology is received, it’s important to understand that the apology is about you making amends to those you have hurt. If someone else chooses to behave badly, you can survive the situation.

How do you know when you may be moving into territory where apologizing may injure the other person or someone else? You have to review who you are going to contact on a case-by-case basis. If reaching out to someone to apologize to them for past events would disrupt their life in a negative manner, then it may be best to leave it alone.

If you find your ego is getting in the way at all, and you’re feeling smug about contacting someone to show them you’re now clean and sober and doing really well, it may not be a good idea to reach out. This type of attitude defeats the purpose of Step 9. You want to make amends — not engage in one-upmanship.

Step 10: Pay Attention to the Reasons for Your Behavior

Step 10 asks the participants in a 12 Step program to continue the process of being aware of the motivations behind their own behavior. It reads, “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”

consider your words before speaking

It challenges you to think before you speak, to weigh your words and consider the consequences of your actions carefully before you decide to go ahead. In the past, it may have been easy to say and do things without having much regard for the consequences, or whether you hurt someone else. Step 10 reminds you that you need to be accountable in all things.

In the event that you get off course, you take responsibility and admit it. You apologize, and then hopefully both of you will be able to continue in your relationship. These incidents should not have to turn into issues that end your relationships, especially if you catch them early and deal with them. Continue to work the Steps and use the skills you’re developing to deal with situations as they come up.

Step 11: Remain Calm and Continue Seeking Answers

This step encourages you to stay in a calm and reflective state. The words say, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with our Higher Power as we understood our Higher Power, praying only for knowledge of our Higher Power’s will for us and the power to carry that out.”

The knowledge you seek will come to you, if you can clear your mind and be still long enough to pay attention. Prayer and meditation can be used as tools to reach this state, and the benefits will stay with you as you go about your everyday activities. The goal is not to try to make changes happen through the power of will, but instead to take the time to absorb what’s happening around you.

Step 12: Share the Message With Others

One of the most important principles of a 12 Step program is to share the message with other addicts. The original wording reads, “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to others (alcoholics, codependents, people who feel stuck) and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

The phrase “spiritual awakening” is a very powerful one, and indicates that someone who has worked all the Steps to this point has undergone a significant change in the way they see life and themselves. The process transforms people from powerless victims to those who have more of a sense of peace.

It doesn’t mean you won’t experience times of uncertainty or even fear, but the 12 Steps provide a guide to deal with those feelings instead of reaching for a bottle, a pill, a joint or a syringe. Rather than getting stuck, the Steps provide a toolbox that can be used to focus on coping skills. The more often they are practiced, the better you will get at using them.

sharing your recovery with others

Sharing with others is a way to give your self-esteem a boost, but it’s not meant to involve the ego, as in: “I have discovered the secret to staying sober and I need to share it with those who have not (yet) beaten addiction.” Recovery is still a journey, not a destination, and you will always be working on your own sobriety. Reaching out to others is meant to be done in your words and how you live your life in sobriety so that you can demonstrate that the 12 Steps work.

If you or a loved one needs help with addiction, contact us for a personal and confidential consultation. We are available any time you’re ready to make a change.

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