What Are 12 Step Programs: Myth Vs. Truth

By Michelle Farris, psychotherapist and codependency expert.

Even though 12-step programs have been around for almost 90 years, they are still largely misunderstood. You may think you know what 12-step groups are but unless you’ve attended them, you might be surprised to learn what is true and what is myth regarding these programs.

In this article you will learn what 12-step recovery programs really are and the myths that continue to spread false misinformation. 

What are 12-step programs?

12-step programs provide free peer support that helps people learn how to recover from various addictions and dysfunctional behaviors. 

The first program, Alcoholics Anonymous, was started in 1939 and became widely popular because of their unique 12 step approach. Additional programs such as Al-Anon, Gamblers Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous soon followed. Currently, there are over 35 12 step programs offering support for various mental health issues.

These groups aren’t for everyone. 

However, for those who can’t afford therapy, these groups can provide valuable tools and much needed hope. Of course, this article cannot speak to the quality of each individual group because that would be impossible. This article will focus on what is truth versus what is myth regarding 12 step programs.

The Myths Surrounding 12 Step Programs:

Over the last 30 years, I’ve heard them all. Sadly, so many of these myths are based on false assumptions or one bad experience at a meeting. Newcomers are encouraged when starting a 12-step program to try at least 6 different meetings to get a sense of which meetings feel comfortable for them.

While these programs are far from perfect, healthy meetings follow the 12 traditions that give each person an equal voice. Some myths have developed over the years and have dissuaded many people who are in need of help from seeing their value. 

Here you will learn what the myths are and what is the truth so you can decide for yourself. 

1. 12-step programs are cults.

According to the dictionary, a cult is “a religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false…under an authoritarian, charismatic leader.” 

When you participate in a cult, you are expected to conform to their beliefs without question. They will go to great lengths to thwart any opinions that are against their primary purpose. 

Here’s what’s actually true.

In every 12-step program there are no leaders. Each person has an equal vote in how the groups are run. Their guidelines focus on preserving unity for the group not the individual. 

Each member is encouraged to “take what you like and leave the rest” which means you can take what you like and leave what you don’t like. It’s that simple. Their guidelines are suggestions only, with no hard and fast rules or requirements. 

2. 12-Step programs are religious programs.

In truth, there is talk of God in the meetings but they encourage each person to find a concept of a Higher Power as you understand him. Everyone defines or does not define their own Higher Power according to what works for them.

Examples of a Higher Power:

  •  Nature
  •  The universe
  •  Your own inner voice 
  •  The 12-step group as a whole
  •  An energy that feels comforting or soothing
  •  A Higher Being or God
  •  A loved one that has passed away

What if you are an atheist or have a negative concept of God? 

While this may vary from person to person, pressuring a new member to believe in a Higher Power is not considered part of 12-step recovery. 

You should not be told what to believe. This freedom helps the newcomer feel more accepted. Forming your own concept of a Higher Power will be encouraged but not required. 

When transforming dysfunctional behaviors, relying on self-will alone is difficult. Learning to trust in a power greater than yourself can be a welcome relief and comfort – when the new person is ready. 

Many people who consider themselves atheists or agnostics feel accepted in 12-step meetings because they were allowed to take the time they needed to make their own choice. 

3. In 12-Step Programs, you have to be a “Group Person.”

Not being accepted is a common fear associated with attending 12-step programs. To be fair, most people aren’t ecstatic to join a support group even during a crisis. Assuming that they won’t fit in or be accepted by other members of the group creates a sense of resistance that’s difficult to overcome. 

While many people say they are not a group person, not everyone can afford individual psychotherapy. 

In 12 step programs they offer this simple suggestion: try six different meetings before making your final decision. They also say that if you don’t like it – they’ll refund your misery!

But for people who are in desperate need of support, these 12-step programs can be a lifesaver.

Some helpful suggestions for newcomers include:

  • If you need to ease into it, arrive late and leave early.
  • Attend the same meetings for a few weeks to make connections.
  • Find a special focus meeting based on your personal interests.
  • Talk to someone after the meeting and ask questions.

4. People in 12 Step Programs Are Crazy

There are unbalanced people everywhere. Hearing people share candidly about their personal problems can be a little shocking at first. If you were taught to keep feelings private, sharing at group level might be very uncomfortable. This is a normal part of the recovery process. At meetings, you will likely hear someone share something very personal. Someone may be crying or very frustrated with their situation. While many people in 12 step meetings are fully functional, some are sicker than others. 

Practicing compassion helps. “There but for the grace of God go I” is a common reference to avoid judging others in the program.

Every 12-step meeting follows the same guidelines but each one has its own unique flavor. Some meetings will be more intimate while others can be crowded and boisterous. It’s important to keep in mind that everyone is in a different place emotionally. At most meetings you will likely see people laughing, crying and everywhere in between.

A healthy meeting is one that makes you feel warm and welcomed by others.

Keep Coming Back – The Value of 12-Step Programs: 

In 12-step meetings, there is an unexplainable feeling that drives people to come back. The powerful group energy offers hope, serenity and self-acceptance. People in the program are willing to help total strangers because “you have to give it away to keep it”- a popular 12 step saying – that encourages mentorship. 

If you disagree with certain principles, you can take what you like and leave the rest. You can work some or all of the program as you see fit. Of course, any results will depend on your level of commitment. 

If you’ve had a bad experience, remember that not all meetings are created equal. For those who are willing to keep coming back, it’s a place to learn how to create the life you want – for free!

Michelle Farris, Licensed Psychotherapist Get her FREE Journal Prompts for Healing Codependency https://counselingrecovery.lpages.co/codependency-council/

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