Step 2 of the 12 Step Programme - A higher power or power within?
In my career as a coach and in my own personal development training and supervision, I have done lots of work with belief systems. I have seen how empowering it can be to shift unhelpful and limiting beliefs into empowering and positive ones that help transform people’s lives.
I have a memory of one day that stands out particularly strongly in my mind: I was attending an NLP training event and I had identified one of my own limiting beliefs: “I’m not good enough”. I kicked that old belief out the window because it was holding me back and I replaced it with a new one: “I’m more than enough.” I remember starting to practise the technique we were being taught with a degree of scepticism and I still remember vividly the goosebumps and tears of relief and liberation as I realised that it worked, and that I had the power and resources within me to choose whatever belief systems worked for me. And, I could get rid of any that were no longer serving me well. I travelled home that day buoyant with energy and joy. There were so many ways in which shifting that old belief and replacing it with a shiny new one transformed my life for the better.
I know that believing something to be true creates the reality of that truth. So, when I wanted to get sober, I started to believe that I was a non-drinker. It was like a switch, a lever I pulled somewhere in my mind from “problem-drinker” to “non-drinker”. I also trained myself to believe this was possible.
So, believing that you CAN live life happily sober is a prerequisite for actually doing it.
I’m interested in exploring Step 2 of the 12 Step Programme (the 12 Step Programme is what Alcoholics Anonymous and some other addiction programmes use) as this is all about belief.
I’m interested in exploring the 12 steps and offering alternative approaches to them when they seem to be problematic and even counterproductive. But I’m also interested in what can be learnt from the 12 steps – what could be useful and might be helpful to people who want to get sober.
So, when I discussed Step 1, I suggested that using phrases like “powerless over alcohol” could be problematic in that it plants the seed of powerlessness into the unconscious part of the mind. And this, right at a time when the person who wants to stop drinking needs every ounce of self-belief and strength that they can draw on. I believe that helping people to understand that they do have choice and power is really important to enabling them to take control.
However, if we translate “admitting you’re powerless over alcohol” into something like “acknowledging you have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol”, the language starts to become more palatable and helpful. You can change a relationship. You can work on it. You can ditch it. I guess the underlying point to the first step is that, in order to make a change, one first has to acknowledge and accept that a change needs to be made and that’s really what Step 1 is about.
And, likewise with Step Two, once we change the language that’s used, it starts to make more sense. Step Two as it’s traditionally written, states that you have to: “believe that a Power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity”.
Again, it’s the language that can be problematic for some of us. Although it’s now commonly understood that this doesn’t have to be about a god or a deity (it can be about turning to others outside of you for help) the language can be off-putting and, at worst, damaging. It might work well for people who are religious or spiritual or are happy to surrender their will and self-power to someone/something outside of themselves, but not everyone approaches life from this perspective.
People who have developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol often have an unhealthy relationship with themselves. They might have low self-esteem or self-confidence. They’re often lacking in self-belief. It’s much more helpful to build up self-esteem, to give power and control to the individual and to help them recognise that they do have the power within themselves to make choices that will be healthy for them. Building up emotional resilience is important at a time when people can be feeling vulnerable and have let go of a crutch or medicine that they have been using for years. Suggesting that someone can only be helped by something outside of them suggests an inherent weakness when, in fact, people who have struggled with alcohol for many years have significant stores of strength and willpower – they might just need some help to recognise this. It can also be damaging to someone’s sense of self, when they are already vulnerable, to suggest they don’t have the tools and skills themselves to make this change in their lives. So, helping them to nurture some self-belief and helping them to believe they can do this is vital to future success.
However, for some people who do have religious or spiritual faiths and beliefs, the concept of someone or something outside of themselves can be helpful and reassuring. It’s very important to use language and approaches that work best for you and your beliefs. That’s why we need to offer a variety of approaches that can work for different people with different beliefs and lifestyles. It’s also perfectly possible to hold deeply religious views and to want to hold your own power and autonomy, or to want a balance of power between something outside of you and something within you.
Again, I feel like this step needs some translation in order to make sense and to become easier to digest. If it’s saying that there’s hope, that it is possible to change but that it’s easier with some support, guidance and a community behind you, then this is helpful.
But in its current phrasing, at best it alienates some people from the healing process of getting sober and at worst, it can damage an already vulnerable relationship with self.
I find the word “sanity” problematic. Even if we logically and consciously understand that this step might not be suggesting we have been “insane” and is simply about restoring us to a healthy and fulfilling life, our unconscious mind will be processing this word at a level we’re completely unaware of. Does this step suggest that only with a higher power outside of ourselves we can rid ourselves of any insanity or madness?
As ever, I’m interested in your thoughts on this, so let me know what perspective you’re coming from (whether religious, spiritual, atheistic, etc) and how you respond to both Step 2 and my thoughts on it.
Do you find it more helpful to believe a higher power can rescue you from yourself or that you have the power within to live the life you want?
(There are no rights and wrongs here – we all have a different map of the world and what works well for one of us might not work so well for another. These are my thoughts and questions and you’re free to hold different thoughts and questions 😊 and still expect respect and support from the Go Get Sober community).