Tuesday, January 12, 2010

About 12 Step Programs, Especially Steps 8 and 9

Everyone knows about 12 step programs. Still, these programs do not get very much respect within the psychiatric or psychological establishment.

This makes some sense. The 12 steps do not set forth a medical or paramedical treatment. They involve spiritual renewal and changes in the way people conduct their lives.

Medicine does not pay too close attention because 12 step programs are not medicine and are not based on science.

Psychology, which is part science and part philosophy, has not shown very much interest either. One reason, I have suggested, might be that the 12 step program was not the brainchild of a great European philosopher.

We favor great minds. We believe that all valuable ideas come from great minds. Therefore, we are not predisposed to write learned commentaries on a 12 step program cobbled together by a couple of drunks in Akron, Ohio.

We are wrong to allow our fascination with the great thinkers cause us to ignore the lessons of 12 step programs, but that is as it is.

The final reason why medicine and psychology have tended to downplay 12 step programs is that they are difficult to monetize. AA meetings are free. They provide an effective treatment for alcoholism. No one who charges for services wants to compete against something that is free and that works.

These were my thoughts when I finished reading Elizabeth Bernstein's article about apology in today's Wall Street Journal: "Who's Sorry Now? Nearly Everyone." Link here.

Bernstein argues that the seeming pervasiveness of apology in today's culture signals the power of the therapy culture. I would argue the contrary point, that the pervasiveness of apology signals the decline of the therapy culture's influence.

According to Bernstein, apologies are busting out all over. People are using Facebook and other networking sites to get back in touch with people they knew in the past. Once they make contact they use the new communication channel to express their regret for having harmed or wronged the person years ago.

As a sophisticated writer Bernstein maintains an ironic detachment from this phenomenon. But, she is more puzzled than dismissive.

I was surprised, however, that she did not mention the source of this practice, namely in 12 step programs, especially steps 8 and 9.

To refresh your memory, they are: "8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all." And, "9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

Surely, it is easy to dismiss this practice. An adult who apologizes for something he did when he was 10 seems to have embarked on a fool's errand. We would feel strange receiving such an apology, especially if we had long since forgotten the offending incident.

It may be that too many apologies is too much of a good thing, but that does not make it a bad thing.

The important point in these steps is simple: you need not search for the causes of your alcoholism, but recognize that you are fully responsible for what you did to other people while under the influence.

And accepting responsibility means taking an action that shows it. It does not mean that you should understand what made you make the mistake. It will not be solved by self-flagellation or penance.

These two steps are two definitive steps beyond victimhood. The 12 steps do not seek out the infantile root cause of your bad behavior; they enjoin you to take responsibility for the harm you have inflicted on others and to make amends wherever possible.

To me these represent definitive steps beyond the therapy culture.

If your alcoholism caused you to squander the family fortune, mistreat your family, and make serious mistakes on the job... you can only deal with the problem by apologizing and making amends. Doing so restores your moral compass and helps you to rebuild your character.

Let's say that you are on the receiving end of a sincere apology. It might have occurred in childhood-- a parent might have abused a child-- or it might have occurred last month.

Either way, people who receive correct apologies are most often moved by them.

Receiving an apology helps you in two important things. First, it tells you that the person who offended, insulted, or abused you is promising not to do it again. An apology removes a potential threat from your life, and this is a good thing.

Second, it tells you that you need not feel responsible for the offense, insult, or abuse. You did not provoke it and did not deserve it. When someone apologizes to you he relieves you of the guilt you might have been feeling for having been harmed.

People who have been abused often blame themselves. When your abuser apologizes he relieves you of that guilt. And that is the most effective way to deal with the guilt that we sometimes feel when we do not know why we are being abused.

We see abuse as punishment, and if we have been induced to see life through a guilt narrative, we are likely to believe that we must have done something to deserve it. When our abuser apologizes he is effectively mitigating that guilt.