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Spirituality And Powerlessness: Barriers To A 12 Step Program

By Aaron Tempel LGPC, 
Addictions and Mental Health Therapist
“I feel like the steps are good, but the religious thing just isn’t for me.” “I am absolutely not powerless, I just need help.” I hear statements like these quite frequently in my counseling work. And I feel frustrated about it. 12 step programs are easily the most accessible and frequent treatment/support option for those in recovery, and yet, I find resistance to it.

As a therapist, I had to stop myself and ask why. Why does this frustrate me so? For me, I believe I want my clients to get well and maintain sobriety. With effective treatment and support as a somewhat rarity, the 12 steps can provide the safety net to build supportive relationships and provide structure to assist those in addiction recovery between psychotherapy sessions and beyond. As I’ve grown as a clinician, I was surprised to find myself having the same reactions as some of my clients to 12 step programs when I first began psychotherapy.

I did not like the idea of powerlessness in addictions recovery. After all, I spent years learning and believing that a large part of my job as an addiction counselor was to empower those who felt powerless, to encourage and believe that people have it within themselves to be healthy and successful. Therefore, to read Step One was disheartening. However, upon reading the 12 steps further, and delving further into addictions recovery work, I find there is an empowering element to admitting defeat. There is power in relinquishing power. And with that new found relief, a client can find the power within themselves to manage their addiction. This isn’t giving up; it is letting go.

This struggle with powerlessness is associated with the spiritual piece of the steps: I interpret the 12 Steps to relinquish personal responsibility for one’s addiction to God, and not take ownership of your addiction recovery. This belief, along with the implied Christian belief system within 12 Steps(whether from others members or the assumption that “God” equals“Christian God” in our society) made exploring the 12 steps difficult for me. Despite this, I was surprised to find that with some open-mindedness, the higher power does not assume responsibility; it assists in the journey of addiction recovery, as a presence/conscience that is always available for perhaps someone who feels they have nothing. Additionally, by simply reframing the words “higher power” to connect to my belief system, I began to lose my hesitancy to disregard the 12 steps as a helpful tool for those who don’t identify as Christian counseling for drug addiction.

By using my own experiences and empathy for my clients in this conflict, I find that I can better navigate ambivalence and help them decide what support and treatments are best for them. nts in this conflict, I find that I can better navigate ambivalence and help them decide what support and treatment is best for them. So while I am frustrated, I try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to not lose myself in that frustration; I try to understand my client’s interpretation in order explore their thoughts and feelings about recovery to foster an environment of openness to perhaps explore unknown treatment territory.

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Inpatient Co-Occuring Addiction Treatment Center
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