The Myths of 12 Step Programs

12 Step Program and Addiction Recovery Blog

The myths about 12 step programs are as almost as old as the program. This blog clarifies what recovery groups are - and what they aren't so you can decide for yourself. 

These groups aren't for everyone. But, for those struggling with addiction or dysfunctional relationship behavior, they can be a lifesaver. 

Of course, I cannot speak to the quality of each group because that would be impossible. This blog will address what is the truth about 12 step programs versus what is myth. Try not to judge one meeting. Members recommend attending at least six different meetings before making a decision. Each meeting has a different format and flavor. Decide for yourself after reading this - and if you dare - try a meeting!

Myth 1 - It's a Cult

A cult is defined "as a religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false...under an authoritarian, charismatic leader." People in cults are expected to conform without question. I've heard people refer to 12 step programs as cults many times over the years and I have to laugh. Here's why.

There are no leaders. Everyone has equal input into how the groups are run. Their guiding principle is unity. You're encouraged to "take what you like and leave the rest." Basically, use what works for you and disregard what doesn't.

The group’s guidelines are suggestions only, there are no hard and fast rules or requirements. 

Myth 2 - It's a Religious Program

While there is talk of God but only as you understand him. Everyone defines - or not - their own Higher Power. For some it's nature, a universal energy, your own inner voice, or the group as a whole.

What 12 Step programs are and their myths

What 12 Step programs are and their myths

If you are atheist or have a negative concept of God, you will not be told what to believe. This freedom helps the newcomer feel more at ease. Forming your own concept of a Higher Power is encouraged but not required. 

Learning to trust in a power greater than yourself is the essence of step two of the program. The purpose is to find relief by realizing that you don’t have to change on your own.

Many atheists feel accepted because they aren't forced to believe anything. This helps them feel a part of the group and work the program at their own pace.

Some use the group as their higher power since meetings have been known for having a magical quality. People sharing honestly without fear of being judged can be a spiritual experience.

Myth 3 - You have to be a "Group Person" 

When I recommend 12 step groups, the most common response I get is:

“I don't like groups.”

This is very common, even for extroverts. Seeking support is a big step. You might think it can't work for you or you won't fit in.

Start by checking out a small meeting. If that's too much, try an online or telephone meeting. Newcomers admit that they are surprised to see people smiling and laughing despite their problems. That's the power of support!

The general suggestion is to try six meetings and if you don't like it - they'll refund your misery!  

Tips for Checking Out Meetings

  • If you need to ease into it, arrive late and leave early.

  • Attend the same meetings for a few weeks before making a decision.

  • Find a smaller or same sex meeting, these meetings can feel safer.

  • Talk to someone after the meeting and ask questions.

  • Let them know your a newcomer, they'll want to welcome you.

Myth 4 -Those People are Crazy

Let's face it, there are unbalanced people everywhere. At first, hearing people speak honestly about their pain can be a little strange. If you grew up keeping stuff private, sharing in a group might be uncomfortable. On the other hand, acting like everything is fine, no matter what, keeps you isolated. 

Sometimes, you'll hear someone share something very personal. It can be intense. Some are sicker than others. Practicing compassion helps. "There for the grace of God go I" is another 12 step saying that reminds us to avoid judgement.

Everyone is at a different place, some will be happy and laughing while others may be crying. Look for a group that makes you feel welcome. For more read Busting the Myths of 12 Step Programs.

Keep Coming Back

There can be a feeling of safety in 12 step meetings that is unexplainable. There is nothing like feeling at home and accepted - no matter where you are in your life. Being in pain impacts your ability to connect. If you're willing to keep coming back, you will learn valuable tools to create the life you want.

If you've had a bad experience in 12 step programs, maybe it's time to try again. Sometimes, the timing isn’t right or you can’t relate to the shares. When people are in enough pain they become more willing to hear the message.

The 12 steps are the foundation of the program. They are worked with a sponsor who can mentor and support you in your individual recovery.

Everything is the program is suggested only. You're not required to share. If you happen to be asked all you have to do is say "pass" and they will accept that.

Final Thoughts

12 step programs provide amazing, free support for those struggling with addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, overeating, sex, codependency and other addictions. 

When relationships are problematic, Al-Anon is a great option. It’s the 12 step program for friends and families of alcoholics and addicts. Even if you didn't grow up with addiction, Al-Anon helps to improve self-esteem and relationship skills.

You might not identify addiction in your family initially. It's not always about the drinking, but the patterns of behaviors that affect your life today.

While 12 step programs may not be for everyone, for those who want a better life it’s available for free.

Check out my community resource page for links to 12 step programs. 


I’ve created a private resource library including 20 Ways to Detach with Love and 15 Steps to Setting Healthy Boundaries and more to help you create amazing relationships. 

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