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Mindful Recovery: A context for the 12 steps

Why do the 12 steps talk so much about life change and so little about habits that need to change? The following video provides a context for the 12 steps: It is important to realize that your life as a whole supports the bad habits you're trying to change. This is why the focus is on changing your life.

The following video is a draft of the answer to this FAQ. Please help improve it by sharing your comments.

See written transcript immediately below the video player.

Transcript of the video: A context for the Twelve Steps

Advice that is frequently given to people who want to make a change is to avoid the people, places and things that trigger you into going into the bad habit that you want to change. So, for instance, if you want to go on a diet, it's probably not a good idea to go to a restaurant where the kinds of food that are bad for you tend to be the only food that there is to eat... Or where the sight and smell of these foods is going to make it very, very hard for you to resist that... If you want to stop drinking or control your drinking, it obviously makes sense to not socialize with people whose only form of socializing is to drink... And so on and so forth... So it's pretty obvious. But I want to actually go a little deeper into this idea... to go beyond the trigger... Because when we think in terms of trigger, we assume that, outside of the triggers, your life as a whole is pretty OK in terms of dealing with that difficult habit you want to change... That only the triggers are a problem. Actually, what I want to focus on is a sense of life as a whole being essentially something that supports the bad habits you're trying to change.

And so, think of it in terms of an ecosystem. That is: Ecosystem means that various things come together, work together as a whole to support each other. You will have, for instance, the way that bees and flowers work together. It takes the flowers to feed the bees, but it takes the bees to pollinate the flowers. OK? To think in terms of ecosystem means to think that our lives are not made of independent particles, but there is a connection, an interconnection, of all kinds of things that work together. And [video shows hands intertwined] these things are so connected with each other, like the visual of my hands here... Intertwined. So, as the fingers are intertwined, it's harder to separate them. Think about the expression "something is deeply rooted". It makes you think of roots going all over... and that makes a plant or a tree that much harder to uproot.

So our habits, our way of life, a lots of things work together... As things are interconnected, there's layer upon layer [video shows hand gestures of hand covering other hand]... So, just imagine a stone upon stone upon stone. And so it's hard to remove a stone at the bottom because there's the weight of all the others. Not just the weight, but. again, the interconnection. So, in lots of way, what I'm saying is: It's harder, much harder to change a habit that's ingrained than you think... And so it might feel discouraging, because it would be nice to say: "Oh, it's just a question of willpower. If I want to really get the right attitude, then I can change that behavior." What makes it hard to change is that it's interconnected with a lot of other things. It's part and parcel of life as a whole. So, essentially, to change a well ingrained habit, a destructive habit, is to actually change your life as a whole.

So, you're listening to me, and you say: "Well, I have a hard enough time changing a habit, and this guy is talking about changing my life as a whole. Ain't gonna work!" Well, it is more difficult, but at the same time there's something good about that in the sense that:
(1) it gives you a realistic view of the situation instead of the unrealistic expectation that just sheer willpower to just resist something that's an ingrained habit will actually make it to go away. So it's a more realistic perspective.
(2) While it is difficult (and of course it is difficult), having that template actually gives you the possibility of making changes. Whereas otherwise you're setting yourself up for constant failure and for a sense of dissatisfaction with yourself, which in turn probably feeds the destructive habit that you want to get rid of... Because, essentially, the cycle of destructive habit is... The destructive habit is something that comes as default mode, especially in moments of stress or in moments where you're feeling not that good. So, the more pressure you put on yourself to do something that you cannot achieve, chances are you're going to actually increase the occurrence of the bad behavior that you want to get rid of. What we're talking about is not to put yourself in a place where you increase the self blame, you increase the pressure, you increase a sense of shame about not being able to achieve that change... But you're actually having a realistic perspective that, in order to remove the destructive habit... it's actually a whole-life change... so that your whole life is actually in support of living a life that is happy without the habit. In lots of ways, this is what the path of the 12 steps is about. Again, you notice, that the 12 steps is about how you change your life as a whole, as opposed to simply "don't do this or don't do that". OK?

So of course, as you hear me, I totally understand the idea of [video shows frantic body language and tone of voice]: "What is this? It's hard enough... Why...How can I do it?" OK. So it's really good to see that this is a reaction that has to do with intensity [video shows frantic body language and tone of voice]... that sense of: "If I don't do it now... Oh my God, what's happening?" OK? Pressure. Intensity. So, from a place of pressure and intensity, you actually cannot make lasting changes. You're going to react to stress, be reactive [video shows frantic body language and tone of voice]: "Do something! Oh, my God, it's not working!"

The number one priority from this place is to stabilize the situation. From here... to here... [video shows shift from frantic body language to centered posture]. OK? From the place of feeling that stressed out intensity, you cannot make the changes you need. And so the first priority from that place is actually to come to a place of stabilization. 

Of course,  if your habits are destructive, you need to stop, you need to reduce, to find support, you need to do something about it... But you understand that what you're doing there is not solving the long-term problem, but actually creating the stabilization without which you cannot solve the long-term problem. So you're in a phase of stabilization as opposed to solving the long-term problem. Some degree of willpower, help from others, group support, all kinds of things, are going to help you to maybe stop the destructive habit. But keep in mind: What you are in the middle of doing there is finding a place of relative calm and relative safety from which you can do the long-term work of changing what it is that creates that intertwined, deeply rooted way in which the habit itself is so ingrained in your life that it's difficult to change.

So, for instance, you have somebody who says: "I go to the bar every day after work and I drink with my friends." OK? And so the question of drinking becomes not just about drinking. Maybe: Part of it does the work is stressful. Part of it is your background, your culture goes into socializing with people at the bar... The friends you have tend to want to do that... And so all of these things are mutually supportive. And simply trying very hard to say: "I'm not going to do that" might work short term - - and is actually something you need to do short term in order to give yourself a foundation from which to do the long-term work. But, in the long term, the change is going to happen by... little by little, making changes in your life... So that you develop friendships that are around something else than drinking... You have activities which are going to give you the relaxation you need... Your activities that are going to give you pleasure,  enjoyment of life other than drinking... You might actually discover that the job is too much stress for you, and you need to change jobs.

So, all of these things are not easy to do, But these are the building blocks of what creates an ecosystem in which you can live a life that is happy... where it is easier to not need the self destructive behaviors that are your coping mechanism for now. In a nutshell:
- One point is to see how any habits you have are probably intertwined in the fabric of your life. You know, any habit that's difficult to eradicate is intertwined in the fabric of your life.
- Two: It takes time and it takes a rebuilding to change that.
- Three: Making it stop through willpower is not a long-term solution. It's necessary, it's the way in which you get to a place of feeling a little bit more stabilized instead of getting into the increasing chain of  being caught in the, in the habit...,It's necessary but not sufficient for long-term change. It's simply a way that you get stabilized in order to allow yourself to rebuild your life in such a way that you can be who you want to be.

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