Debunking Myths About 12-Step Programs

September 3, 2012 Karl Shallowhorn, MS, CASAC

Many myths about 12-Step programs scare people into staying away from this form of addiction treatment. Most myths lie, so let's explore some 12-Step myths.

Many myths about 12-step programs have grown up since Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was founded in 1935. Since that time, numerous fellowships have patterned themselves after the humble beginnings of AA. These 12-Step programs have enjoyed success over the years; however, they have also been criticized for their practices. Many of these criticisms, I feel, are somewhat misguided and have fed into the myths about 12-Step programs. I say this from the perspective of someone who found freedom from addiction using 12-step recovery. What are the myths about 12-Step programs that keep people away?

Myths About 12-Step Programs You Can Ignore

12-Step Programs Are Cults

First, 12-Step fellowships are not cults. The truth is that members of these programs not only have the ability to come and go as they please, but there are ample opportunities for open discourse and an exchange of ideas. If anything, there is a considerable amount of freedom and latitude to practice one’s program. The one common denominator is the desire to quit (fill in the blank).

Belief in God Is Mandatory

Another myth is that 12-Step programs require that you believe in God. In reality, The 3rd Step plainly states, “(We) Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” This is the concept of a Higher Power, as long as it is loving, caring, and greater than oneself.

There have been many who have simply used the group as their Higher Power. For others, the higher power may be nature, the subconscious, or any other power you feel is greater than your conscious mind. In the end, there is no one who will tell you what you have to believe in.

12-Step Meetings Are One-Dimensional

Another misconception is perpetuated in the media. I have seen numerous movies and TV shows that depict 12-Step meetings. More often than not, they show an individual standing in front of a room at a podium telling their story. While this may be the case in some meetings, many are much more involved than that. For example, Big Book studies, Just for Today discussions, and Informational Pamphlet meetings explore the vast literature of 12-Step programs.

I acknowledge the fact that some people have difficulty getting involved with a 12-Step program. I also realize that there are other alternatives to 12-Step programs such as Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), SMART Recovery and many other secular and religious organizations designed to aid addiction recovery (Is AA the Only Way to Recover from Alcoholism?). What I need to stress is that untold thousands have been able to find a new way of life through 12-Step programs. Speaking for myself, it saved me and has helped me discover a life I once thought was impossible.

APA Reference
Shallowhorn, K. (2012, September 3). Debunking Myths About 12-Step Programs, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 23 from

Author: Karl Shallowhorn, MS, CASAC

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April, 4 2016 at 8:47 am

You have a problem? Great - I can help you. Just join my group and we'll show you how your problem is rooted in selfishness, which only a Higher Power (tm) can cure. Once you "get it", you will understand that you can never be cured, but if you stick around and make our little group the center of your life, you might get lucky and have a life-long remission. But always remember, even the smallest deviation from the group think could result in a tragic "slip" and relapse, from which another recovery may not be possible. Anger, resentment, selfishness, even thinking for yourself - any of these things can result in a tragic slip leading to "jails, institutions and death".
Who would sign up for this? Sick and vulnerable people - that's who.
I went to AA for 2 years, and then stayed sober (or "dry drunk" as AA's would call me) for 18 more years. After my divorce I drank again, and I can certainly say that this was a conscious choice on my part. 5 months later, the "fun" is over and I realize that drinking (for me) is simply not safe and I am trying to medicate underlying mental health issues with a numbing substance - alcohol.
Sober 7 days now, I will prove that - once again - a person can refrain from substance use for prolonged periods without membership and complete and lifelong dependence on a group. Also, I will prove that a slip is not a death sentence, or a reason to feel shame or be shamed by others.
I don't really care what AA book-bashers think of my way of not drinking. They even shame others with long-term sobriety, calling them "dry drunks" on "bad spiritual ground" who are doing it wrong and don't have *quality* sobriety. ("Quality Sobriety" is how AA members shame eachother when they can't use a persons track record against them).
12-Step has become an industry. Be wary of those who run big dollar 12-step recovery centers who bewail the benefits of the 12 steps.
You can stop using/drinking if you want to and you don't need a 12-step program to do it. In fact, 12-step programs inherently lack the REAL psychological testing and treatment that addresses the *underlying* causes of a persons vulnerability to substance use. My first "slip" in 20+ years has to do with the process of loss, grief, guilt, shame and isolation that resulted from my divorce. Now that I have stopped drinking I need to find a constructive way to deal with my divorce and start putting it behind me and planning the next stage of my life.
Sitting in a church basement for the rest of my life with people giving each-other the hairy-eyeball and comparing each-others "quality of sobriety"? I'd honestly rather be dead.
I'll happily be a "dry drunk" and simply quit drinking. I don't need cult membership for that or adapt this "powerlessness" (read: learned helplessness) trip.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kira Lesley
April, 14 2016 at 9:21 am

Insidious Sid, perhaps AA is not a good choice for you. Many people find it helpful. Some people find it helpful even where psychological therapy and testing has not helped (which is difficult in itself--it can take a long time to find a psychologist who is helpful and effective for you). In addition, you can certainly do both.
I think it's important to point out that Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous do not run any treatment centers. The entire treatment center industry is highly unregulated and I believe some of them are over-priced scams (while others are not). But Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous do not receive money from treatment centers, even those who advocate 12-step programs, except, perhaps from the sale of books.

December, 5 2013 at 4:36 pm

I am one that has to go to an AA meeting five times a week for 5 YEARS! No I didn't kill anyone and it was a one time mistake. I went into those basements with an open mind. You see I have done my homework and the "Program" is completely a cult in my humble opinion and I was a part of a similar religious cult as a child. When you specifically say that "once we planted this in the newcomer's mind and did so repeatedly" and when you "strongly suggest" that that person ALWAYS introduces themselves as "an alcoholic" and when this "Program" has protectors who will openly tell you that it's not the steps that are failing if the "Program" doesn't work then it's all on you, the defective character of a morally failing person. We wouldn't do this to any other disease process, ever. The "Program" is blocking real treatment. Someone I love is dying because she was told the "Program" is her only treatment. She is a paranoid schizophrenic. The "Program" is hurting people and with up to 40 percent at times people being legally or medically mandated to go, I am going to prove its a cult. It's hurting people, badly

Michael Regenelli
February, 8 2013 at 3:34 am

If 12 Step works for you, it works for you. If it doesn't, you have to find something else. For the people who need what a 12 Step program offers, there is nothing better, but for many people the approach just doesn't work. I agree with Karl that as one of many options available to people it serves a great purpose. One of the shortcomings of 12 Step programs that gets overlooked by people who cite their low success rates is that you have to be their voluntarily and mentally buy into it in order for it to work, which means that they are not ideal programs for people who are sent on a court order. Unfortunately, many people who are not ready to address their problems are sent against their will to 12 Step programs, which is a near guarantee for failure.

Chris Curry
January, 21 2013 at 6:36 am

Hi Karl,
Thank you for your thoughtful and kind response. I definitely agree that the more supports the better!
On this matter, however, I think we will have to agree to disagree! haha The joys of this field; everyone has a different opinion, but it is important to discuss with those who may not share your point of view.
Keep up the good work.

Chris Curry
January, 19 2013 at 12:50 pm

Karl. I've read quite a bit of your posts and they always seem to relate back to 12 Step programs. I would love to hear your thoughts on the proven fact that AA has a success rate of between 3 and 5 per cent, when the spontaneous remission rate for addiction is five per cent.
As an addictions counsellor myself, and former member of AA and NA, I see the negative impact of this approach to recovery every day. I don't think you are doing anyone any favours by constantly recommending a program that works less often than simply doing nothing at all.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

January, 20 2013 at 7:43 am

Chris - Yes, some of my posts relate to 12-Step recovery however I would say most do not. In my 25 years as a member of a 12-Step program I have seen many people come and go but I have seen many find a better way to live. Statistics vary on the success rate of AA/NA vary (see 12 Step Statistics). I aslo recommend such programs as SOS. My belief is that the more supports a person has in their recovery the better they will be able to be successful. Research has shown that the combination of traditional outpatient treatment and 12-Step attendance can be more effective than either method alone.
I do not see AA/NA as a "negative approach" to recovery. If anything I see it as a beacon of hope to the addict who still suffers. Everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion.

October, 17 2012 at 4:18 pm

"Yikes!" to how people like Julie are looking to you as an AA spokesperson. Your situation reminds me a bit of the man they talk about at the end of the Tradition 6 chapter in the 12 and 12 book.
But most of all, in my humble opinion, the use of your full name and face in this blog on this public site along with your disclosure of being an AA member is in direct conflict with the suggestions of Tradition 12:
"At this altitude (press, radio, films, television), anonymity - 100 percent anonymity - was the only possible answer. Here, principles would have to come before personalities, without exception."
I assume you have thought of these things, prayed about them, talked to your sponsor about them....or maybe not.
For the good of AA, but more so because I am a not-cured alcoholic :), I had to say something to you about this. And hopefully, I am not harassing you, because I hate making amends to people - lol.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

October, 18 2012 at 2:22 am

Actually Wil, I do not speciefically state that I am a member of any specific 12-Step program. Okay, so I may be splittnig hairs here. I am trying to respect and adhere to the traditions. I also do not see myself as a 12-Step spokesperson. My blog is simply my own personal reflction of recovery in its various forms.
And no, you're not harassing me.

Julie Fast
September, 11 2012 at 8:17 am

hi! I'm a fellow writer on Healthy Place. I'd love to get your info- I've often read that 12 step programs have a very low success rate. Do you research information on this?

September, 7 2012 at 4:55 pm

Great post, Karl.

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