Limited by the 12 steps

December 16, 2010

It is often my experience that AA can be limiting.  AA was how I got sober.  The practice of the 12 steps also helped me order my thinking in ways that made me less anxious, depressed, and irritable.  Beyond that though, I have found most of my help in personal growth outside of AA.

Yet many people in AA discourage or minimize other approaches to personal growth, claiming that “The Program is all we need”.  I disagree.

The only contribution AA formally makes to any issue other than our alcoholism is the suggestion in step 12, “we tried to practice these principle in all of our affairs”.  This is fine, but for me and what I want from life, it is insufficient.  I want more than just sobriety.  And I am glad that AA recognizes its own finite scope.

We are free to, and it is suggested, that we strive for better things in all of our affairs.  But this is where AA must leave off.  AA history shows that any time AA tried to be more to people than a way to get sober, it failed.  This is not because AA does not care or wish for better things for us, it just appears that there is a limit to which the scope AA can be effective.

Where I find AA limiting is when members profess that AA is all we need.  Or that all roads lead to AA.  Sorry friends, I don’t see it that way.  In fact, by and large, AA’s I have known as a group do not have a very high standard for themselves when it comes to matters like relationships, health, fitness, and career development. 

How is it that so many of us are snatched from the jaws of death of alcoholism, only to continue in other jaws of death like toxic, abusive or non-functioning relationships, poor eating habits, obesity, under-employment, financial irresponsibility, lousy parenting, and the biggest mystery of all to me… SMOKING. 

I know so, so, soooo many AA members whose lives are disasters in these ways.  Yet they profess the great power of their program and “higher power”.  For me, AA was a life-preserver that God used to help save me from alcoholic destruction so that I could continue living long enough to find other solutions for growth and recovery in addition to my recovery from alcoholism.

In my experience, the AA bar is fairly low.  Divorce is as rampant in AA as anywhere else.  I am constantly hearing stories of conflict, painful breakups, problems with parenting, and unexpected pregnancies.  Standards of health and fitness are probably worse than the average sampling of people.  I am in the minority as a non-smoker. 

I know these are not official AA positions.  I guess my point is that if AA is the only process of growth in a person’s life, then one shouldn’t expect much beyond getting sober and a little more sane.

For me, I have a hard time imagining that God threw me a lifeline just for me to jump back into a different sea of destruction.  I want a lot in my life.  I want a great marriage, great relationships with my kids and family, great health, great fitness, financial prosperity, and to be a resource to anyone whose path I cross. 

To accomplish these things, I need a lot more than just AA.




  1. Wow Chaz!

    I enjoyed what said, “I want a lot in my life. I want a great marriage, great relationships with my kids and family, great health, great fitness, financial prosperity, and to be a resource to anyone whose path I cross.”

    I too want these things, and everyone else I would believe. You think?

    Chaz, great points about just relying on the 12 steps for AA. It’s almost a religious attitude gripping people in AA.

    The religious give God the credit for everything without taking responsibility for doing the things needed to change all areas of their lives. God wants to bless them, but He has to wait. It’s the free-will he gave them that makes Him wait.

    Thank you Chaz for a great post.

    • Thanks Dale. Yes, it often feels that AA is revered as a religion by some. Maybe many. I have heard this referred to a Program Worship. I don’t see that this was ever the intent.

      What baffles me is those who worship the program, yet don’t use it for anything other than staying sober thus leaving their lives to be miserable and mediocre when so much more is available.

  2. This is an excellent post and firm reminder that the priciples are to be applied in ‘our daily lives’. I know my daily life isn’t sitting in a 24 hour meeting, that I face to face life, so why not from the start.
    Excellent Post Chaz.

    • Agreed Bob. There is life outside the meetings and so much we can do with the gifts given to us. It is a shame to cut it short. Yet we are all free to do as we please.

      It was when I begain to do the “in our daily lives” thing that life started to get way better.

      In fact, one reading from NA that stands out to me is where we state that “medicine, religion, and psycology were insufficient” (paraphrased). What is often missed is that these can all have their value. But they simply have shown that they are not enough on their own for what we as addicts/alcoholics need. Yet the inverse is true for me. NA or AA is not enough for the breadth of recovery and growth I am interested in.

      Great to hear from you.



  3. Wow. Not sure what to say. What you say about AA is true of most churches (and yes, I attend church):

    “AA members whose lives are disasters in these ways. Yet they profess the great power of their program and “higher power”.”

    Well, I know a lot of people in recovery whose lives are flourishing. As they say, “It works IF you work it.”

    First off the Big Book is clear, it says “we who have become sober had made but a bare beginning.” that’s just the door way to a new life; I rarely think of recovery in terms of sobriety; I feel that Iam learning to grow up in AA and am still puzzled to this day why I grew more spiritually in AA than in all my years in church.Through AA I discovered that the core of my problems was self-centeredness, that to find meaning I needed to be outward focused and to be of service to others (anywhere not just AA). I find the 12 steps and the tools of recovery to be incredibly powerful and surprised that you have such a narrow view of AA and the 12 steps.

    • Hi Cyndi… nice to hear from you.

      My post is mainly about how I have experienced and observed how people in my community practice AA, NA, etc.

      Yes, the Big Book does suggest that this is but a start, to which I agree. So what I am saying is that many people I have known stop there the start is often indistinguishable from the destination.

      This does not mean people in other areas apply and practice the principles of AA in different and more effective ways.

      I have simply seen people do so in sadly limited ways. And it is seemily contrarty to hear of how powerful their programs then see them make foolish decisions again and again and again. Clearly to me, they are not applying the same things.

      My intent was not to criticize, but more to identify the trap I feel I am observing. Something has been bothering me in my involvement in local meetings and this is a big part of it. I do not want to step into the trap.

      I do not believe were saved from active alcoholism just to kill ourselves with other foolish and dangerous behaviours.

      And yes, many people practice their church life in similar ways. The tendancy seems to be universal.

      • I’ve thought a lot of what you are thinking so many times. I know a lot of people that are ok with just not drinking. They are truly grateful and help others recover all of the time.
        I’m not one of those. I am also not into changing some of my behaviors you mentioned like health and smoking just yet. I may get there.
        Anyway, I liked what you had to say an just wanted to comment.
        I rarely read other people’s blogs but you grabbed my attention and held it.

  4. I’ve also done counseling and didn’t have anywhere near the growth and epiphanies as I’ve had in recovery; in fact I am working on lifeskills workshops for women, alot of what I have gleaned from AA, E.G. Openess, Honesty, Willingness,Acceptance, Being Present, Act as if, expand your world (most alcoholics live in a small space)–begin to thrive not just survive, those are just a few of the gifts of the program.

    • Hi Again Cyndi…

      Well again, agreed. I have experienced similar things where a few AA meetings brought more enlightenment than months of counseling.

      So I am not nay-saying AA. In fact, I agree that practicing these principles in all of our affairs can add greatly to our other endeavors for personal growth.

      I had in fact taken an amazing program over a 5 day period years ago. It was life-changing for many. I got something out of it, but frankly I was not ready to get the most possible out of it.

      After years in 12 step, I am now applying the teaching in that program far more than I did immediately after I took it. 12 step helped me get sane enough and open enough to actually apply the teachings.

      So again, not bashing 12 step as much as I am saying 12 step alone, I find limiting and that many people I am in meetings with limit themselves in their application of 12 step.

      I just see nothing I want to aspire to in those who have lives riddled with bad decisions around health, relationships, and finances. Doesnt take away from the fact that they are sober. I just want more.



  5. I find (I’ve just celebrated 9 years last week) at this point in my recovery that I need more than meetings can provide, yet I still hit my regular meetings weekly and my home group on Tuesdays, I do a lot of reading, and I have my studies at school.

    After so many years in the program if you don’t augment sobriety with something else, you won’t get very far other than going to meetings and working the steps.

    I think, over the years that I/we (my hubby and I) have been granted the promises across the board. But there is so much more to life than meetings. I attend certain literature meetings on Sunday afternoons, we read from other texts and discuss them, that brings another angle to sobriety.

    AA gives a framework to live soberly. But you have to get out there and really LIVE and work to make things better for yourself and your sig other.

    Another good post Chaz. Thanks

    • Hi Jeremy… thanks for your reflections. Sounds like you have come to some similar conclusions.

      Like you, I just feel there is so much more in life than what AA provides.

      And a good case in point revealed itself yesterday. My wife (not a member) joined me at my home group as she sometimes does. Lo and behold, I got my car stuck on the soft shoulder of the street in front of the meeting. Likewise, an old-timer parked in front of me had his battery go dead.

      We both ended up calling the same towing company and waited. Weather was bad so wait was long. Old timer, with 30 years sober this year, calls the towing company and gives them piece of his mind for the lengthy delay. Calls the dispatcher a “bitch” and hangs up on her.

      Then corners my wife and I and monologues for 20 minutes about how he was a director of the recovery club, and had been a millionaire, and knows so and so and so and so (name-drops), and makes some lewd, inappropriate disclosures to us. This is the first time he ever met my wife so seemed to feel he had to tell all about himself. Seemingly to impress.

      I happen to know that he has been divorced twice including just recently.

      Other than the 30 years of sobriety, there was nothing else about this guy’s life that I wanted to aspire to. I heard no humility, no compassion, no ability to maintain a relationship, no politeness, and didnt even have the patience to handle a long wait for a tow truck on a stormy night.

      Yet it is not the role of AA to address these issues. At least it is not in our primary purpose. The primary purpose was fulfilled in this guy. He achieved sobriety. But I didnt observe much else after 30 years. This is the type of example that motivated my post.

      So as you state, “if you don’t augment sobriety with something else, you won’t get very far…”. Well put and agreed.

      And congrats on your 9 years! Thats marvelous.



  6. Hi RichHillenJr… thanks for your reply.

    Yah, didnt mean to lay a heavy on anyone with the health and smoking thing. Just sharing some observations. We can’t do everything at once and some priorities may never be ourse.

    I suppose I am just a little discouraged by the degree to which AAs in my community seem to seek other areas of growth other than just sobriety. yet this is entirely their choice to make and frankly none of my business, other than to speak in love and concern to those who I am friends with or responsible to.

    I simply hope that more AA’s, NA’s, etc can see the magnificent power that is so close at hand for us, and use it for other areas of their lives like the 12 step suggests.

    Glad you are finding what you need. Stop by any time.



  7. Great topic! This is exactly, precisely where I’m at right now. Working step 9 (new post up sometime today), and it is life beyond the 12 steps that is beginning to truly open up for me. I feel like I owe the fact I’m alive to the program, but if I were to remain inside that “bubble” I’d never be able to LIVE in sobriety vs. just being sober. When we’re just sober it opens the path for all of the other pitfalls you mention….I know some seriously angry dry drunks who are in the program with years and years of sobriety….but it’s learning to reshape your entire life and relationships outside of the meetings that promotes real growth. It may be a cliche, but “taking action” is something I have to make a big part of my program in order to feel like I’m making progress. When I stop, all of the other little addictive elements begin to creep in…everything from food to anger….but the busier, more available I am to other alcoholics and to those whom I’ve wronged in the past, the faster the minor annoyances and habits begin to fade into the background. It would be easy to be one of the cliff-dwelling AA fundamentalists and remain sober…but to me that would be the opposite of what it is intended to do for us.

    Take care man, hope you are having a manageable holiday season! Thanks again for the post, it’s what I needed to give me that extra nudge to finish one of my behemoth write-ups….


    • Heyyyy Jerry… always a pleasure to hear from you.

      A “bubble”. Thats what I am trying to avoid. The insular world of 12 step culture. And also as you say, not that it was ever intended that way. Nor does it necessarily exist that way in all 12 step circles. It is simply evident in my circles and sounds like in others too.

      Is this not what our church experience have been too?

      Look forward to your next behemoth. Try paragraphs! 😉

      See ya bro!


  8. Very interesting. I’ve heard similar sentiments, and shared them to an extent, myself. When one gets more emotional sobriety and then observes how rare emotional sobriety sometimes is, it can be pretty disillusioning. I think that’s where the service work of continuing to show up and be a good example comes in. And of course it’s important to have humility because when I hit a bump and my life isn’t going so well, my emotional sobriety may falter, and I’ll appreciate the tolerance and understanding of others. My first sponsor used to say, “thank goodness we’re not all crazy on the same day.” Indeed.

    • So & So… thanks. Yes, good words from your sponsor. One of the strengths of fellowship of any kind is that we will all phase at different periods (hopefully). What a perfect storm it would be if we all phased downward simultaneosly. But very unlikely to happen.

      And jumping into service work is virtually always a good thing. I shared recently to newcomers at a meeting my take on service, “When in doubt, do”. And the definition of “do” is whatever is close at hand immediately.

      Good to hear from you.



  9. Such an interesting post! I’m in a fellowship called Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, and part of our meeting format suggests “finding a sponsor who has what you want, and asking how it was achieved.” What I like about that suggestion is that it recognizes that not everybody is going to want what I have. There are lots of people in the program I don’t like, or whose recovery I don’t want for myself, but that’s okay, because there are plenty of people whose recovery I do respect, and those are the people I look up to.

    I also think that people sometimes forget about the second part of Step One–“our lives had become unmanageable.” If all you do is put down your drug, and you don’t enlarge your spiritual life or seek continued personal growth through the Steps or some other method, then of course your life is going to continue to be unmanageable. If you’ve got a sponsor who lets you get away with that, you need to find a new sponsor.

    • Hi Heather… thanks for your reply.

      I agree that people choosing your sponsor as someone you want to emulate in some way is wise.

      My experience with 12-step culture overall is limiting. Certainly, there are exceptions. I just find that many if not most, only do 12-step affiliated endeavors. I find there is just so much more to life and growth outside of the steps. Yet it does not negate the value of a good 12-step program. Nor does it compete with 12-step.

      Just by and large, 12 step culture as I have experienced doesn’t strive for a lot of what I want out of life.



      • I certainly hear what you’re saying. I know that for myself, I was very focused on the program alone for the first few years because that was all I could handle. The more recovery I have, the more space I find to pursue other areas of interest and avenues of growth. Glad you’re finding your own path for getting what you want out of life!

  10. Chaz, as usual, you come up with such insightful topics. I pretty much came to the same conclusion regarding MOST of the 12 step communities years ago. They were the perfect place for me to begin my recovery, however, as I got a better handle on life and began to be able to look around and see that more was going on than just me and my recovery, it felt like I was speaking Greek when I tried to explain the new things that were happening in my life to my 12 step recovery friends… They would politely listen, but it was obvious by the blank or confused looks that I saw around the table, that we just weren’t connecting like we had in the past when my focus was their focus, namely, the 12 step recovery world.

    It was kinda painful to walk away from the tables and, while wishing them all the best, knowing that I was taking a different fork in the path… One that presented many more experiences to fill my life with. As a result, I have had some pretty interesting times since walking away from the tables. There are times when I have wished I could go back to that very comfortable cocoon, and there have been times when I have actually gone back for a meeting or two. Sadly, what I find is that I have moved farther away from them than ever and there is no way that I can go back for more than a very brief visit.

    BUT! having said all of the above, I am so very grateful that the program was there when I needed it and walked through the doors… If they hadn’t been there, I don’t know what would have become of me.

    Best always in your new ventures! Explore life, be committed to your recovery AND to whatever wonderful things life brings your way!


    • Hi Lexxie….

      My apology for being so long in replying. I have begun a new blog and had not checked this one in a while.

      Thank you for sharing this experience. I truly believe based on what I have seen and experienced that for some, perhaps you, twelve-step as is it is practiced in most current fellowships is only a temporary thing. Again, I stress “for some”. I would not want anyone to use this fact as an excuse to leave the support of a fellowship before they are ready and potentially relapse and/or get in some form of trouble.

      An old-time at a meeting a while back said that his wife was of this type. She attended AA for about 10 years but stopped going. She is now sober 15 or 20 years and functioning well in life. Yet this same old timer said he is not of this type and needs to maintain participation in AA to stay sane and sober. This guy had balls to be state this in a meeting and culture where it is widely professed that we all need AA forever.

      My days may be drawing to an end with AA. I honestly dont know. I may be one of the type that only needs it for a certian number of years. I do, however, do a lot of self-improvement work in many ways regularly. And I do have a deep belief in God and maintain a constant contact as best possible.

      My original point is that I see many people crystalize in AA. It becomes their whole life. Which I suppose is fine for them… none of my business really.

      But I find the bar set fairly low in my AA community. Many are content to sober up, hang around the recovery club up to daily, smoke, eat poorly, get fat and unfit, have mediocre relationships and mediocre jobs, and crystalize into narrow-minded old-timers who have swapped their active-alcoholic ego for know-it-all AA old-timer egos.

      Few old-timers in my AA community share about having sponsors anymore. Why? Have they arrived such that it is no longer necessary? Do we eventually end up being our own sponsors after x number of years?

      Oh ya, and all the AA logo crap. Rings, ear-rings, pins, shirts, hats. It is just so not for me.

      What is for me? Fabulous marriage, fabulous relationships, fabulous health, continual growth in every area of my life, great career, and continual pursuit of God and his ways. Unfortunatley, I just don’t see too many role models for this in AA, so how do we maintain our enthusiasm when many of those who have gone before us are examples of what we hope never to become?

      Am sure you understand.

      Thanks again for replying… always nice to hear from you.



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