12 Steps for the rest of us

While I am not a member of a 12-step program, I find the 12 steps are useful for anyone struggling with an addiction. In reality, most of us have some kind of addictive or compulsive behavior that interferes with our happiness.

In his book “Spirituality and the Twelve Steps”, Richard Rohr writes “There are shared and agreed-upon addictions in every culture and institution. They may not look like addictions because we have all agreed to be compulsive about the same things. There is the American addiction to oil, war and power; the white person’s addiction to superiority; the wealthy person’s addiction to entitlement."

No matter who we are, we are all addicted to something, and the 12 steps can be useful for us all. Here is my interpretation of the first six of the12 steps:

Step 1: Powerlessness. We cannot control our lives, no matter how much we try. Whether you believe in a Higher Power or not, this step is about realizing that it’s not all about you, and never will be. This is wonderful news for perfectionists. As long as you cling tightly to YOUR way as the RIGHT way, you are doomed to unhappiness. Since so much of life won’t go your way: can you be at peace with this or will you fight it every inch of the way?

Step 2: Your Mind Cannot Take You There. The Buddhists talk about “monkey mind”: your mind is a thought-generating machine and won’t ever take you to a place of peace. Your mind will tell you anything. For example, your mind says, “I’m a good-looking, kind person”. Then, a few minutes later, it tells you, “I’m an ugly, mean person.” This is left brain stuff. If you want peace, focus on right-brain activities like music, art, dancing, nature, being with animals, loving relationships and life-affirming sexuality.

Step 3: Accepting What Is. We have an endless capacity for self-loathing. Instead of accepting our flawed selves, we fight the truth, get aggressive with ourselves and others, try to power through our day and wonder why we’re too exhausted after work to have any fun. Surrender has become a dirty word, associated with failure and losers. Ironically, it’s actually the path to peace.

Step 4: Take A Good Look at Yourself. Knowledge can come from reading a book, but wisdom comes from looking at yourself. We all have a shadow self that we don’t want to see, but that others see quite clearly. I like the saying, “The truth will set you free” and would add:, “but first it’s gonna piss you off.” See yourself clearly and notice what you’re doing that brings you unhappiness. (Gradually) stop doing it. This is what psychotherapy is about: you stop blaming other people and see that YOU are the problem.

Step 5: Tell The Truth. In a world that encourages addictions to shopping, food, unrealistic body images, workaholism and emotionless sex, it’s hard to know the truth about who you really are. A 12-stepper told me: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Shame comes from hiding things. You think you’re so bad or messed up, that no one else is like you. Telling the truth is freeing; keeping secrets is bad for your mental health; plus, it takes a lot of energy to remember who you told what lie to.

Step 6: Am I Willing to Change? We all have defects of character, but are we willing to change? Change is scary. As one of my clients told me, “Who am I going to be when I come out of this?” We don’t know. We are leaping into the unknown. And yet, without being willing, change rarely happens. In my experience, we don’t need to know HOW to change, we need only be WILLING. And that willingness is enough; the Universe/God/whomever can work with that and send us just what we need to get the change process going.

Step 7: Asking for help. Why can’t we fix ourselves? Why can’t we use our willpower and push through our obstacles? Unfortunately, none of us can do it all on our own. The original 12 steps invoke the help of a Higher Power, but if that doesn’t work for you, why not use other forms of assistance like good friends, wise elders, psychotherapy, insightful books, workshops or all of the above? This step is about admitting that we need help to change and, for some of us, that ain’t so easy.

Step 8: Who have you harmed? This step makes sense to almost everyone, here’s the original wording: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” I doubt that any of us get through life without harming a shitload of people. We get scared, act badly, want revenge, and enjoy feeling superior because it hides our inferiority. We manipulate people because we’re afraid to confront them directly. It’s EASY to harm people, but not so easy to own up to it.

Step 9: Making amends. This is the action part of step 8. Once you realize who you’ve messed with, lied to, hurt or deceived, now you get to own it and apologize.
For most of us, this is really hard. It is incredibly humbling…and yet, incredibly freeing to make amends. You are wiping the slate clean.
This doesn’t mean that the person you’re apologizing to is going to forgive you, or even want to speak with you. A happy ending is optional. The joy comes from your internal freedom at cleaning up your old messes.

Step 10: Continue to take a personal inventory and admit when you are wrong. If the world operated on this level of self-awareness and honesty, it would be quite a wonderful place. To me, a personal inventory means being self-aware: watching myself, questioning my motivation for doing things, being cognizant of my thoughts, choosing to create peace over war, and consciously choosing to forgive when it’s much easier to judge and punish myself and others.

Step 11: Thinking differently. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to go out and buy a new mind or update it like you do your smartphone? In a way, you can.
This step is about updating your cognitive “software” through a spiritual revolution. The original step focuses on prayer to God and meditation, but even atheists can be quiet, listen to their intuitive self and meditate. It’s about being still and listening, not talking or taking action. It’s about quiet time, time spent in nature or around animals, reading something that makes you think, and allowing other people to inspire you.

Step 12: Giving back. When you learn something new, don’t you want to share it with people you love?
As a farm boy in Ohio, I remember one of my grandma’s friends saying, “You can’t get to heaven on your own; you got to take someone with you.”
As a community, we grow and move together. We’re all connected: when you prosper, it paves the way for me to do the same. When you have a wonderful relationship, it shows the rest of us that we can have one too.The 12 steps have, historically, been helpful to millions of 12-step members all over the globe. Many people have gotten hung up on the “Higher Power” part.


Take the essence of the steps and put them to use in your own life. The steps offer a simple and effective system of personal growth and change.
And don’t feel you need to have some big dramatic “addiction” for them to be useful. Whether you notice unhelpful behavior relating to sex or shopping, eating too much or spending too many hours at your job, give the steps a try and see what happens.


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