Life lessons from twelve-step programmes, post 1 of many

April 30, 2008

I work a twelve-step programme.

I’m not going to be writing about this in detail, because the twelfth tradition is important. But I will probably refer to it a lot, because I think that everyone should work a twelve-step programme, and When I Am In Charge it will be taught in schools. It’s not just useful in recovery from addiction. It’s useful in all aspects of life, including the workplace.

The The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous has this to say: It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us. That’s where yesterday’s post comes from.

It’s easy to say, and hard to get to grips with. Most people, including me, find it very counter-intuitive and resist it fiercely. What about all those people who have done terrible things to me? Are you saying that’s my fault? It’s particularly difficult if I think about things that happened when I was a child. How can I possibly be held responsible for that?

The answer is, of course no-one’s saying that’s my fault. But what I choose to do about it now is my responsibility. I can play victim and let it blight my life, or I can make different choices, choices that set me free of my past. I’ve done the former for most of my life, and now I’m slowly learning to do the latter.

It’s complicated. And in a different context, I’d be playing for the other team here. If someone suggested that SJ’s workplace problems are down to her, I’d be at their throat in an instant, because that’s a mindset that enshrines privilege rather than challenging it. But for me, I’ve learned that the person who can change my experience is me. Nobody else, just me.

I’d love it if someone rang me up and said, ‘create your own job, name your salary, we think you’re so wonderful you can do what you want’. At least, I think I’d love it. I probably wouldn’t, though. I’d probably feel exactly the same way I’ve felt in all my previous jobs, because I’m still me. As I change, I’m starting to see all those jobs differently and to see what I did to contribute to them going wrong. Similarly with relationships and friendships and other circumstances. I’m not saying I could have fixed everything that happened to me by responding to it differently, but I think I could have fixed a great deal. Most importantly, I think I could have changed the way I felt about things, so that I minded much less and was therefore able to get on with a great deal more.

When I feel disturbed now, no matter what the cause, I assume that there’s something wrong with me. (And this happens a lot. Several times a day, at least. I’m learning here but I have a long way to go.) It’s proving to be a great way to fix the disturbance, every single time, because I can’t change other people but I can change me. That doesn’t mean that everything that other people choose to do is okay, but it does mean that I feel a whole lot better about it.


9 Responses to “Life lessons from twelve-step programmes, post 1 of many”

  1. Sarah Jane Says:

    This makes more sense. I completely agree that the only person who can solve my problems is me. I also agree that I have a responsibility for them, although I think that there are two sides to every story and the responsibility has to be shared; it’s entirely possible that no-one who isn’t me would have the problems I have in my workplace, because those problems stem from who I am and how I react, and someone different might not have a problem with the same things at all, but that still doesn’t mean that the culture is right and I’m wrong. OTOH, it’s far easier to change the way I behave, or to remove myself from the situation, than it is to try to change the organisation.

  2. Francesca Says:

    that still doesn’t mean that the culture is right and I’m wrong

    No, and I hope very much that I haven’t said that. If I have, I’m not communicating very well.

    I don’t think it’s a matter of right and wrong. Organisational cultures are what they are, and sometimes it’s best to fight it and sometimes it’s best to accept it and sometimes it’s best to walk away from it.

    But the organisation isn’t responsible for what I do or how I feel or how I respond. I am.

  3. Calluna V. Says:


    There’s a lot of stuff in this, which means I’m going to be long and a bit disorganized in responding.

    One thing is that it seems to me like this is one way among many to shake people out of a blaming mode and into a problem-solving mode. I feel like there are a lot of ways of doing this, and it’s important, but I don’t know that this is the one I’d pick for myself.

    I guess we all have habitual patterns of thought which have negative impacts on our lives. (We also, of course, have patterns of thought which have positive impacts, and it might be worth thinking about those sometime.) The trick is being aware of them, and then both using tools which don’t push us into them, and being aware of when we have fallen into them. For instance, I very rarely – for all the venting I do about work – fall into a “Poor me, the world is against me, it’s not fair,” mindset. Some people do. I’m much more likely to start doubting myself, to the point of doubting whether I have hands, even while I’m typing with them. I’m reluctant to claim to know even the things that I truly do know. That’s not useful or good or helpful in my life. And I think this particular “I’m the problem” approach is one which would lead me toward those pitfalls easily and regularly.

    On the other hand, it’s not that hard for me to cut to the chase and say, “The history of this is one thing. It’s important, and there’s some bad stuff in it, and it’s worth my spending time on. However, I also need to decide what I want to be/do going forward.”

    And for me, that’s key. I have a hard time getting angry about things that warrant anger. I do not think anger is always to be avoided. I think there are abominations in the world to which anger is a healthy, useful, and appropriate response. It just needs to be an anger that leads forward, not an anger that burns inward and destroys the person feeling it.

    A lot of people survive abuse or other kinds of trauma by minimizing it, and by believing they have control over things they do not control. That’s good, because surviving is good. Once the trauma is over, in order to recover, those people have to face up to the unbearable facts that A: No, it really was that bad, and B: No, it wasn’t deserved or otherwise controlled. And – as you know – that’s the framework from which I perceive a lot of things. So when I run into this, “When I am disturbed it’s because I am wrong” idea, it sets off alarm bells for me of potentially lending itself to continued unrealistic self-blame and minimization. From my point of view, sometimes the hardest task for a person is to recognize that there was nothing they could do – not change other people, nor behave in exactly the right way – and it really was bad. You can spend years on those, and still keep shying away from them.

    But if I’m reading you right, then the important thing about this mindset for you is that it’s a key way which works for you to help shake yourself out of a blaming or powerless mindset, and into a problem-solving mentality where your focus is on what you can change, and what you can’t. Is that right? Because I think that’s absolutely vital, it’s just that this isn’t the method I would use to get there.

    See? Long and scattered. Hopefully it at least makes sense.

  4. Francesca Says:

    Yes, that’s exactly right. There might be clues in it that would be useful for other people, but that’s up to them and not me.

    Twelve-step programmes work for hundreds of thousands of people, but they work for people whose current way of life has completely broken down. This work is hard, and I and others do it because we are absolutely desperate for recovery and we will do anything to get it. And even then, people take different routes. This one is hard core.

    I was serious when I said that a lot of this should be taught in schools, but not the way it’s taught in the fellowship.

  5. Calluna V. Says:

    I have enormous respect for 12-step programs, though I have seen them mis-used. I’ve also seen a lot of people alive and able to function with other people because of them. There aren’t many single things with that kind of history of efficacy.

  6. Sarah Jane Says:

    I kind of think I’m starting to get this, but I’m also still not. And perhaps I’m speaking from a position of privilege here, because while my life has not exactly been an easy ride (at least in the ways we’re interested in here – in many others it has been insanely easy) it’s never come close to completely breaking down. It’s the surrendering control thing, I think, which is a huge trigger for me as the one thing absolutely guaranteed to send me into a tailspin is feeling that I can’t control my own life.

    I’ll post about this soon, I think.

  7. Francesca Says:

    One of the abominable-but-also-glorious things about addiction is that you can’t get it until you are absolutely up against the wall. Twelve-step programmes make people unimaginably happy, but you have to be totally and utterly desperate to be willing to do it.

    I could have done what I’m doing now two years ago. I could have – I knew all about it. And I didn’t, because I wasn’t desperate enough. So I kept on with my addictive behaviour, and therefore my life broke down completely. And then it got so bad that I had to admit it to myself, and now I’m doing the work.

    I wish I could have found a short cut. I’d have saved myself and others a world of pain. But I think going through it is part of the process. Addicts call it ‘hitting rock bottom’.

  8. dan Says:

    You and I have talked before about this, mostly in context of this post (God, I miss you. But that’s neither here nor there. But I do.) about rage and disability.

    Maybe it’s that I haven’t hitten rock bottom yet (I have been close, on occasion, though for reasons not having to do with addiction per se), but I still find some of the anger powerful: yes, there is a problem with me, but I don’t think it’s inappropriate to rail at the evil of the structure that creates it.

    But as with Calluna above, I am grateful that this problem-solving works for you. 🙂

  9. […] I am evangelical about the following: Being stylish*. Having some kind of a spiritual life**. Twelve-step programmes.. Aloe vera, both to drink and to put on your skin. Mindfulness meditation. I’m sure there are […]

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