The primary objective of the 12-steps is not to rid people of their drinking addictions. Drinking abstinence is simply a consequence of an an overall character change. This is not a surprise to those of us familiar with the AA program, and even those who work the steps and happily profess the virtues of AA will say the same thing. AAs believe that alcoholism is a result of a spiritual weakness, which is a result of character flaws, which are largely the result of ego and self absorption – and working the steps will rid us of these character weaknesses, one of which is alcoholism.

The only way of achieving sobriety through AA is for a person to admit his or her powerlessness over alcohol. It is the first step, after all, and any AA – even those who don’t work all of the steps – will say that the first step is essential. Powerlessness of the individual is the cornerstone on which AA and the 12-step program is built, and it achieves this belief among its members in a number of ways.

The first, and most important way, is by working the steps themselves. Steps one through three serve as the foundation by the admission of powerlessness, and the idea that only God can restore a person’s well being. Steps four through eleven are used to help reinforce this by breaking down a person’s ego. Secondly, various tactics are used to breakdown individual thought, deflate a person’s ego, and force acquiescence to the group. Open confession to the group, the use of thought stopping slogans such as – EGO = Edging God Out, resentment lists, encouraging members not to think for themselves, and equating a questioning of the program or the group tactics with anger; are among them.

It is interesting that AA uses steps to change a person incrementally, as that is how our psychological growth as human beings develops naturally. Most of us studied Erik Erikson in college, whose theories on psychosocial development are the most widely studied and accepted. He wrote of the eight stages of healthy ego development, with each stage, beginning at infancy, being the resolution of two opposing conflicts. With the resolution of each conflict, the advancement to the next level of emotional development occurs:

· Trust vs. Mistrust
· Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
· Initiative vs. Guilt
· Industry vs. Inferiority
· Identity vs. Role Confusion
· Intimacy vs. Isolation
· Generativity vs. Stagnation
· Ego Integrity vs. Despair

An adult who has gone through a proper psychosocial development also has a healthy ego. An ego is not a bad thing, and is in fact, essential for normal societal function. Any improper resolution of any of the above conflicts can have negative consequences to an individual, and may contribute to such things as narcissism or sociopathy. Also, what is important to understand, is that these resolutions come about from both nature and nurture; and, just as they can be learned, they can be unlearned.

What do the steps do to normal social development? Let’s take a look at each stage, and how each is addressed through AA and the 12-steps:

Trust vs. Mistrust
For this, I thought I that I would bring up codependency – alcoholism’s tricky pal. From The Skeptic’s Dictionary:

“Codependency is a term used to describe a kind of addiction, a relationship addiction. A person is said to be suffering from codependency when they exhibit caring for a loved one who is suffering from a real addiction to drugs or alcohol. The behavior of the caring individual is said to hinder recovery of the real addict by enabling the addict to continue the addiction. Codependency makes it seem as if all caring for addicts is pathological.”

Codependency is an old psychological term that was re-coined by Melodie Beattie in her book, Codependent No More. Hazelden published the book, and created a cottage industry out of codependency, which is not recognized by the DSM, and is nothing more than a creation by the treatment industry (where it is alive and well). Not so ironically, twelve-step is the only treatment for codependency. Look around any AA table, and the chances are probable that many around you are self diagnosed codependents. Caring and trust of others is a basic human need, and codependency erodes that trust.
Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
In AA, the individual is subservient to the group. This is exhibited in their traditions, and in how individuality is suppressed within the group. AA is built around the concept of original sin, and that we, as humans are inherently bad, and as alcoholics are inherently worse. Creating individual shame is one of the consequences of working steps four and five, and reinforced with steps six through ten. The ego is broken, and rather than being addressed and fixed by the individual, the group and person’s higher power™ steps in as the saviour.

Initiative vs. Guilt
A person with a healthy ego is able to take control over a situation, and exert self will to help solve a problem. When individual initiative is discouraged, a person develops a sense of guilt at taking charge, and they become followers with no initiative.

AA discourages individual initiative, and those who show individual thoughts or initiative are told they are “too smart for the program”, or that they got there in the first place doing their own thing. Any objection will be met with accusations of their anger, and a thought stopping slogan such as “take the cotton out of your ears, and put it in your mouth”. AAs are constantly reminded they they are not in control.

Industry vs. Inferiority
Those who show a strong initiative feel confident in achieving a goal. Those who don’t, have a feeling of inferiority. AA develops the latter with such things as moral inventories and resentment lists.

Identity vs. Role Confusion
A proper self identity is essential in a strong ego. In AA, group identity is the important thing. Read around the internet and see the reaction of AAs who meet a criticism of AA as a personal insult. Never will one see criticism of any other disease treatment met with such vitriol, insults and ad hominem attacks. Imagine someone commenting on the ineffectiveness of the drug zyban, only to have a former smoker come at the person pointing out that statistical fact with “you are just angry, bitter, self absorbed, too smart”. It doesn’t happen, and the reason it doesn’t is because the person taking zyban has some self identity, and they understand that is not a personal insult. AAs are a different story, and they see any criticism of AA as a personal insult, because they are so self identified with AA. Never, and I mean never, have I seen an AA say “I quit drinking, and I owe it all (or mostly) to myself”. It just doesn’t happen.

Intimacy vs. Isolation
Avoiding commitments or intimacy or relationships leads to isolation, depression, loneliness, despair. AAs are discouraged from having relationships in their first year, and are encouraged to avoid others who are deemed harmful to their recovery. Often, those people are the very ones who supported the alkie while they were drinking, and possibly the ones who talked them into seeking addiction recovery in the first place.

How does AA solve this conundrum? They step in as the new friend, and the people who truly care about the person. Then, of course, there is the 13th stepping of the newly recovering. For so many within AA, the fellowship becomes their social circle.

Generativity vs. Stagnation
Giving back to others is important in maintaining a healthy ego. Regardless of how selfless ones motives, giving back makes a person feel good about themselves. For many who live in the insular world of AA, their form of giving back is recruiting other alcoholics back into the group, so they can experience the spiritual awakening from the steps, as well. Prison visits, hospital rehab visits, and other forms practicing the 12th-step, is AA’s version of altruism.

Ego Integrity vs. Despair
This stage of ego development is developed in old age. As we look back on lives and our accomplishments, we are either satisfied with what we have accomplished, or regretful that we have accomplished little. Living a life of drunkalogs and confession of what tool you were while you were drinking, can play negatively on a person. The term “alcoholic” in AA is a pejorative. AAs are continually stereotyping themselves as less than normal people, and every share is begun with “My name is________, and I’m an alcoholic”.


Judith Herman, M.D. wrote the book Trauma and Recovery, in which she wrote “psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless”. The powerlessness that AA instills in people creates that psychological trauma in many, many people – and does so by taking normally developed people, and dissolving the psychological foundation that is healthy, and that a person spends a lifetime achieving – and replacing it with unhealthy cult religion.