A Matter of Personality

From borderline to narcissism

The 12 Steps of AA: A Translation

The 12 Steps of AA derive from Protestant proselytizing techniques

Getting all of the blame, but none of the credit

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One of the central ideas I use in trying to understand the relationships between various theories and treatment models within psychotherapy is that, within all groups of human beings, there is a constant tension (called a dialectic) going on between what Murray Bowen’s protégé Michael Kerr called the "forces of individuality" versus the "forces of togetherness" (collectivism, in politics speak). The dialectic between individual desires and group norms can be seen dramatically within the twelve steps of Alcoholic Anonymous (AA). 

Caveat: while this post may seem critical of some aspects of 12 Step Programs, I want to emphasize that, while recent studies seem to indicate a rather low “cure” rate, these groups do help a certain percentage of addicts. Being addicted to substances is usually far worse that the effects of endorsing any of the problematic aspects of the AA ideology. Until something much better comes along, AA may represent the only hope for some individuals. 

The strategy that AA uses to help alcoholics and other addicts is based on techniques used by Protestant religious denominations to convert non-believers. Those, in turn, are based on the techniques that such groups use to enforce group behavioral norms while still allowing a certain degree of individuality, as described by Erich Fromm in his classic book, Escape From Freedom. It has nothing to do with any scientific understanding of alcoholism.


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While giving some praise to the individual in a series of clever paradoxes and ambiguities, certain aspects of individuality are ritually denounced - most usually, the "dangers" of unrestricted willfulness. Willfulness, or the desire to follow our own inclinations, is equated with sin, and is seen as leading invariably to degradation and despair. 

The alcoholic and the teetotaler really believe much the same thing and need one another desperately. The teetotaler says that self-indulgence leads to ruin, and the behavior of the alcoholic proves the point. Without the example of the latter, the philosophy of the former could not be reasonably maintained. Without the warnings of the non-drinker, the alcoholic would have no one to defy. The success of AA is dependent on a continuing supply of new "sinners." 

The 12 Steps refer to the issue of the individual versus the collective both directly, when the issue of human will is discussed, and indirectly, when they speak of God or a "higher power." To show how often the denigration of individuality arises in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, I am going to list some quotations from the book. 

Admittedly, I am taking these quotes out of context. The reason that I do so is that, as I will show shortly, the context contains large numbers of contradictory statements that are not juxtaposed for comparison, as well as paradoxical statements, which mask the underlying message. Of particular note is that the entire book is written using the collective pronoun we

[Page numbers that are referred to are from the following edition:  Alcoholics Anonymous. Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1981. (Originally published 1952)]. 

…self confidence was no good whatever; in fact, it was a total liability. (p. 22) 

…the average alcoholic, self-centered in the extreme... (p. 24) 

"How he [the practicing alcoholic] does cherish the thought that man, risen so majestically from a single cell in the primordial ooze, is the spearhead of evolution and therefore the only God that his universe knows!" (p. 25) 

…those filled with self sufficiency who have cut themselves off [from God] (p. 28) 

Now we come to another problem, the intellectually self-sufficient man or woman... far too smart for own good... blow ourselves into prideful balloons... (p. 29) 

cut away the self will... (p. 34) 

The philosophy of self sufficiency is . . . a bone-crushing juggernaut whose final achievement is ruin. (p. 37) 

We want to find exactly how, when, and where our natural desires have warped us. (p. 43) 

It is not by accident that pride heads the procession [of the seven deadly sins]. (p.48) 

It is worth noting that people of very high spiritual development almost always insist on checking with friends or spiritual advisers in the guidance they feel they have received from God. (p. 60) 

It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, there is something wrong with us. If someone hurts us and we are sore, we are in the wrong also. (p. 90) 

…any success we may be having [in remaining sober] is more His [God's] success than ours. p. 92) 

…personal ambition has no place in A.A. (p. 183) 

…A.A.'s twelve traditions repeatedly ask us to give up personal desires for the common good... (p. 184) 

Moved by the spirit of Anonymity, we try to give up our natural desires for personal distinction ... p. 187) 

…a loving God as he may express Himself in our group conscience. (p. 
189) 

As I mentioned earlier, these types of statements are intermixed with paradoxes and ambiguities. On page 26, we are told that the AA group does not demand any belief or behavior — that all twelve steps are merely suggestions. Of course, on page 174, we are told that any group member that defies the "suggestions" has probably signed his own death warrant. 

We are exhorted to keep an open mind while at the same time to "resign from the debating society" (p. 26). We are told that the best way to get rid of self-will is through our willingness to do so. We are told that dependence upon a higher power is a means of gaining "true independence of the spirit" (p. 36). 

One rather frequent ambiguity in the book is that it sometimes implies that its ideas concerning over-indulgence apply primarily to the issue of alcohol, while at other times it seems to apply its concepts far more generally. Page 36 implies strongly that the twelve steps do not apply just to the issue of alcohol. 

Throughout the entire volume, debatable statements about self-indulgence are mixed up with statements concerning over-indulgence that only a fool would debate. Page 44 sensibly discusses instincts running wild, and, on page 65, we are even told, paradoxically, that God does not expect us to fully eliminate all of our natural drives. 

The book's discussion of pride also presents us with a mix of statements that confuse one type of pride — unwarranted pride — with all types of pride. It is also fascinating that, shortly after discussing the alcoholic's generic pride, the book goes on to discuss the alcoholic's generic feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. Are we to assume that alcoholics are both truly proud and ashamed of themselves simultaneously? 

Allow me to translate the 12 Steps from the collectivism vs. individualism perspective. In step one, addicts admit their powerlessness over their own impulses. The way to stop behaving self-destructively, says step two, is to turn to a power greater than ourselves. Step three defines exactly what it is that we are supposed to do in relation to that power. We are supposed to turn our will over to it. We must not trust our own instincts, but only some power greater than ourselves - the collective, of course. The group even clearly tells members that if they do not believe in God, they can use the group as their “higher power.”

In step four, we make a moral inventory, in order to discover our liabilities. The type of "defects" under consideration here are spelled out quite dearly. They are the old familiar seven deadly sins. Notice that the issues of the harm that we have done to others and making amends to those others do not come up until steps eight and nine — after this moral inventory. We must deal with our own intrinsic evil before we can address the evil that we have inflicted upon others. 

In step five, we are to admit the exact nature of the wrongs discovered in step four to ourselves, God, and another person. We cannot be honest with only ourselves and God; after all, we may be deluding ourselves about God's will. We must confess our sins to others. We must let them know that we were not in control of our impulses. 

The AA book clearly compares this step with the confession of sins in organized religion. In the group meetings, members announce their names and add, "and I am an alcoholic." They say there is no shame in this, but clearly members are ritualistically humiliating themselves in front of the group. 

They may say that they are doing this in order to overcome the denial characteristic of the alcoholic. However, if alcoholism truly is a manifestation of willfulness, then, when practicing alcoholics insist that they can control their drinking whenever they want to, they are telling the truth. The real denial comes when they "admit" that they were not deliberately choosing to drink all along, but were responding to their "disease." 

Steps six and seven involve asking the higher power to remove our shortcomings; again this is to be done before we even consider the harm that we have done to others. The concept of humility and our own powerlessness over our impulses is stressed. 

If we do well in the future, the credit goes to the higher power who has removed our shortcomings. If we screw up?  Well, that's just our own shortcomings.

After we deal with the harm we have done to others in steps eight and nine, step ten involves continuing the process of self-criticism that had begun in step four. The priority goal of this process is self-restraint and the avoidance of pride. This is accomplished by attributing any sobriety we have achieved not to ourselves, but to God. Kindness and love to others arises from our devotion to God, not from our own selfish instincts or will. 

Step 11 involves the personal relationship to God. We are to meditate. and pray to God "as we understand him." On what this understanding is supposed to be based is never specified exactly. In fact, the book takes a religious stance by adopting the notion that the Lord works in mysterious ways which no mere mortal can understand. 

It is clear that what happens in the world is not supposed to happen according to our own notions of right and wrong or our own will. We are to pray for what God wants, not for what we want; we are to ask only for knowledge about God's will for us and His power to carry it out. 

This knowledge does not involve specific answers to behavioral dilemmas, but only knowledge about how we might best forget ourselves and serve the collective. Only then will love, forgiveness, truth, and harmony come about, and we will be rewarded by a sense of belonging to the group. In the twelfth and final step, we are encouraged to spread the gospel, and to apply it to all of our affairs. 

Why are the anonymous groups so powerful when it comes to stopping compulsive behavior? (At the risk of offending the devout, I am going to discount the possibility of divine intervention). I submit that the answer to the question lies in the fact mentioned above —that both the practicing and the recovering AA alcoholic prove the point that individual will power is a bad thing: Many of the families of addicts are grappling with problems created by the increasing value placed on the individual by society at large, and how the newer prevailing philosophies conflict with the need for their families to function according to an old set of rules. 

Practicing alcoholics appear to be rebelling against collectivist tendencies by indulging themselves with no concern for the health and safety of loved ones or anyone else. They often lie, put others in double binds, defeat expressions of caring and concern, and drive while intoxicated. 

Many individuals and family members directly involved with the problem of alcoholism argue that this behavior results primarily from the influence of the drug, but the 12 Steps argue more convincingly than I ever could that they really do not believe it. The behavior of the alcoholic is clearly attributed to a self-centered attitude. 

The alcoholic's willfulness, pseudo-selfishness (they are really self-destructive), and lack of concern for others, however, does not work. Alcoholics end up depressed, humiliated, and often physically ill. Their rebellion has failed. Willfulness has failed. The only way to happiness is to return to conformity. When they stop drinking and join AA, their lives improve. 

This proves beyond a doubt that conformity is superior to willfulness. By providing such proof, they help to reinforce the role functioning of other family members who are themselves experiencing internal pressures to express selfish impulses at the expense of old established family rules.

David M. Allen, M.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee and author of the book How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders.

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