alternative 12 steps
The Proactive 12 Steps alternative 12 steps

Step 1, Alternative Twelve Steps

There is a big difference between who I want to be and what I do. I am stuck in what I do.

Original wording (AA): We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable.

The following audio is a commentary on Step One. There is a written transcript immediately below the audio player.

If you see this text instead of the image of a sound player, click on the link below to play the file from your computer.



There are many forms of denial: “It’s no big deal” or “I don’t really have a problem” or “I can handle it” or “I could stop anytime I want” or…

What happens, essentially, is that you don’t see what is now blindingly obvious to everybody else: That you have a problem, that things are not working out, that things are out of control.

Why have you been in denial? Well, you didn’t intend to. Denial is a mechanism that is in all of us. It is a coping mechanism that allows us to function under extremely difficult circumstances.

For instance: We are all mortal. It is an inescapable truth that we are all eventually going to die. It is scary and sad. But, if we kept thinking about our death every moment of our existence, and feeling scared and sad about that, what kind of life would we have?

So denial, in and of itself, is not bad. It can be a very useful mechanism that helps us disengage from problems we cannot solve, and focus on living in the moment.

And so, you ask: How do I know when it’s good for me to be in denial, and when it’s not? The test is how it affects your life. If it prevents you from facing realities you could actually deal with, if it prevents you from taking action you could actually take, then it is not good for you.

In this way, the discussion of Step One introduces us to a major theme of this proactive program: Personal development is a learning process. We don’t just assume we know it all, we don’t just take it for granted that somebody else has all the answers. We get information, we experiment (with caution), and we learn by trial and error. This is the meaning of the quest for serenity, courage and wisdom (a.k.a. “the Serenity Prayer”).


It’s important to keep in mind that denial is a powerful protective strategy that has deep biological foundations. There is a mechanism in our nervous system that is triggered when we are faced with insurmountable problems—very much the way it works on animals in the wild.

When animals are faced with a threat, they have two basic strategies: Either fight, or flight. Neither is inherently good, or bad. For instance, if you’re an antelope and you’re being hunted by a lion, it really makes no sense to show some resolve and fight! You better run away.

When the threat is overwhelming, the animal’s nervous system simply can’t handle it. It just doesn’t compute. This is the “deer in the headlights” phenomenon: The deer is paralyzed.

Denial, in this case, is not useful. It is not allowing the animal to go on happily with its life. It would be much more effective to take action (in the case of the deer in the headlights, to run away). But it can’t, because its nervous system is in short-circuit mode.

So, think of denial as some sort of short-circuit mechanism that gets triggered when there is an overwhelming threat. When the animal is in that “short-circuit” freeze mode, it cannot override the freeze.

What we’re encountering here is another strand that will be pursued throughout this program—the role of fear. Once you’re in the grip of fear, your nervous system has its own logic, so to speak. It’s the logic of fear, the logic of panic, which has nothing to do with the outlook on the world you have when you feel safe.

Feeling safe

The key part of the journey that is outlined here is to find safety. Without safety, it’s going to be very difficult to give up your old habits. They are ways of coping that you have developed over time.

“Coping” is too mild a word. To your nervous system, the old habits feel like time-tested protections. They may not work well, but they are the only protections you know, and you would feel unbearably vulnerable without them. Imagine a baby crying as an unfeeling adult tries to pull away his safety blanket… and multiply that baby’s fear exponentially: This is the terror of having to live without the protections you have grown accustomed to in the course of a lifetime.

The healing process of the Proactive Twelve Steps works by building a very real sense of safety. From that solid, really safe place, it will be possible to replace old “protections” that don’t really work, with new ones that work.

A new beginning

Somebody once said: If the only tool you have is a hammer, you try to solve everything by hammering. Well, if the hammer is not solving the problem, it may very well be time to try something else.

The problem is, you may feel that the hammer really should be working… that it will actually work if you just try a little longer…

There’s nothing wrong with persistence. But Step One introduces another consideration: Accountability.

It’s not enough to just say: I believe it will work one day if I just keep trying. You need to set goals and deadlines. Not for the sake of putting pressure on yourself… but in order to face the reality of what is happening.

Step One is about looking squarely at reality. If what you’re doing is not working, you acknowledge that. When you do, you are left with a feeling of emptiness – you don’t know what to do, or even whether there is a solution. It can be really scary. However, it is this emptiness that allows you to make room for new, unexpected ideas.

Seeing the possibility of change

It is a tradition in Twelve Steps programs to "own" the problem, make it part of your identity: "I'm Joe, and I'm an alcoholic." The idea is that owning it prevents denial, by making you aware of how easily you could relapse.

With this formulation of Step One, you can "own" the problem, but you also have an extra tool for fine-tuning.

Step One is here expressed in terms of the difference between what you want to be, and what you do. This is an incentive to not just get away with a blanket statement about who you are, but also pay attention to how acute the situation is at the present moment. So you can acknowledge that you have a predisposition, but also feel good about making progress (when there is less of a difference between the two).

The spirit of the first step

The first step is about facing the reality of your situation. It makes no sense to keep trying to solve problems with "solutions" that can't work. Whenever you realize this, throughout the process, you need to look for a different approach.

In other words, the first step is not just the beginning of this process. It is an attitude. It is about staying grounded in reality as you keep track of your progress.

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