The 12 steps are a potent recipe for transformation that have saved the lives of millions since their creation in Akron, Ohio in 1935. But you don’t have to be an addict to use them.
Here are a few key pieces of wisdom from 12 step fellowships, and how you might apply them to improve your life.
1. One day at a time
This is the most famous adage from 12 step recovery. The great thing about it is that it applies to everything, not just shooting heroin or knocking back vodka.
Struggling in your new job? Just focus on today. Not sure if you can forgive your partner for her infidelity but don’t want to leave her either? Just try and do your best to get through today. Not sure you can live without your husband? Just try and make it through this one day.
Some of life’s decisions need time. Many human problems are complex and require more information than you have access to right now.
No matter what it is you are trying to work out, the best thing you can do for your future self is get through this one day to the best of your ability.
Sometimes that means you achieve a lot. Sometimes it simply means you survive.
All you ever have to tackle is one day.
2. The next right thing
Whether you are embarking on fixing the mess you made during your last relapse or beginning your first day as a new parent, life can be overwhelming. The trick is to break it into manageable portions (see above).
In 12 step recovery, ex-drinkers help each other to tackle overwhelm by asking this simple question: what’s the next right thing?
You do what is right because it is the right thing. Even if it isn’t what makes you look or feel best. This is how you build your self-esteem and earn the respect of those around you. Life simplifies as a result.
You do this for long enough, and the path narrows. There are fewer options you can take and maintain your integrity.
3. Accept that you are powerless
Covid-19 helps me to understand powerlessness. Most health conditions do. You cannot think or plot or scheme your way out of poor health.
Most of our troubles come from attempts to control things that we have no right to control. Mostly other people, but also places and things. We drive ourselves and the people around us crazy by telling them how they should act or trying to force them to modify their behavior to better suit us.
You might believe you have control, but it’s an illusion. Look at the world right now.
And when you do wield your power over those around you, how well does it work? Maybe people make some effort to follow your rules but keep secrets because they fear displeasing you.
Or they avoid you because you’re too judgmental.
Or they smile and obey, but they secretly fucking hate you.
4. Keep your side of the street clean
When you make a mistake admit it. When you realize you were wrong, apologize. And apologize properly. Own your mistake. Imagine how it felt for the other person and then speak to that.
Ask if there is anything you can do to make it up, and be prepared to do what the person says. This is how you prove you are truly sorry.
Ask how the person felt, and if there’s anything they want to say to you. Let them know they can think about it and come back to you later.
Don’t try to explain yourself.
Don’t try to justify what you did.
Don’t make excuses.
And then work to make sure you don’t make the same mistake again. Make a commitment that this is the last time. Make this improved behavior a living amends to the person that you wronged.
5. Give back to your community
In 12 step fellowships they say that you have to give it away to keep it. They are talking about sobriety, but the subtext is peace of mind. The aim of recovery is to make a person so content and untroubled that they don’t need to get high or escape their life.
Sponsors share their experience of learning the steps with sponsees, and whether or not the newcomer takes a drink, the sponsor, generally, stays sober. That’s the idea. That’s how you give it away to keep it.
You can apply this to normal life too. If you’re a writer, help those coming through behind you. If you’re in a leadership position, offer mentorship to those who aspire to lead.
If you’re a father, help out on school trips. If you’re a talented runner, offer to teach your sister’s new beau how to run. Share what you have been given, even (especially) when you don’t feel like it, and see your life improve.
6. Accept reality as it is
Another way we send ourselves doolally is by insisting that things be different to how they are. We want our diva mother to suddenly have the listening skills of our first therapist. We want our distant sibling to remember our birthday and send a thoughtful present.
In spite of years of observing patterns of behavior, we refuse to accept them as reality, and we get annoyed, angry and hurt, afresh, when people simply continue to act in the way they have always acted.
This is a tough pill to swallow. And naturally, you get to choose who you keep in your life. But if there are people close to you, who disappoint you, but who you can’t let go of, then practice radical acceptance.
Stop judging them for what they lack and pay attention to what they have. Your diva mum might not be very good at listening, but she sure does know how to have a good time. Your sibling doesn’t remember your birthday but she does remember the time you both closed your eyes and jumped headfirst down the stairs.
Let people be good at the things they’re good at, and stop blaming them for the ways that they fall short. When you accept other people, they begin to accept you, and it’s beautiful.
The 12 steps are a universal recipe for change that you can make your own.
If you begin to implement these strategies on a daily basis you will see your life change. You will become a more authentic version of yourself and you will find yourself faced with less conflict. You will feel more peaceful.
When you focus only on what you can control, life becomes so much simpler. Try it and see.