12-Step Series: Reducing Stigmas Surrounding the 12-Step Philosophy

Table of Contents

The 12-Step philosophy, as practiced by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-Step programs, has become the dominant approach to addressing all sorts of addictions and compulsions. The language of the Twelve Steps is so pervasive that you don’t have to be in a program to recognize phrases such as “One Day at a Time” or “Let Go and Let God.”

The 12-Step model spread far because it works. An estimated 2.1 million people worldwide have regularly attended AA along. Today, these groups provide an excellent recovery resource. Regardless of its history of helping millions of people recover from addiction, many stigmas surround the 12-Step philosophy.  

Some have objected to its spiritual underpinnings, while others critique the exploitative nature of some group members. The media, including TV shows and movies, often portray 12-Step meetings as depressing places populated by people in a sad state of affairs. In reality, it’s quite the opposite — the rooms bream with hope and laughter. For instance, on any given day or night, you’ll find people from all walks of life who have turned their lives around and continue to work on staying sober one day at a time. 

The worst of it is the stigma attached to being dependent on anything, even if it’s only for emotional support or guidance. These individuals believe it’s weak to rely on anyone else for help. We must reduce these stigmas surrounding the 12-Step model because it can be an effective way for people with addiction to recover from their disease and lead more fulfilling lives. 

What Is the 12-Step Philosophy?   

The Twelve Steps employ principles to guide members through a course of action for recovery from addiction, compulsion, or other behavioral problems. Originating from AA in the 1930s, the Twelve Steps were adopted by many different self-help and addiction recovery groups over subsequent decades, including 12-Step programs like Narcotics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous. 

The Twelve Steps are not religious but rather a practical method for dealing with life’s problems. The basic premise of the Twelve Steps is that people can help one another achieve and maintain abstinence from the substances or behaviors to which they are addicted to. The process incorporates the spiritual principle of acknowledgment of a Higher Power – however, each individual chooses to define that Higher Power – self-examination, confession of personal shortcomings, making amends for wrongdoings done to others, learning to live a new life with a unique code of behavior, helping others who suffer from the same addictions or compulsions, and many other similar ideas involving morality and   

The Importance of Reducing the Stigma Surrounding the 12-Step Philosophy

Historically, critics have placed certain stigmas against the 12-Step philosophy. For instance, some have considered it as just a “glorified support group.” Stigma is detrimental on multiple levels. When people are not open to the idea of AA or other 12-Step programs, they may not seek out the help they need.

For the following reasons, it is essential to reduce stigmas surrounding the 12-Step philosophy:

An Answer to an Incurable Condition

Even scientific research proves addiction to be a chronic disease. In the same way that diabetes or hypertension have no cure, alcoholism and addiction are chronic disorders. Hence, like any other chronic condition, substance use disorder (SUD) calls for lifelong treatment. 

12-Step programs are set up to serve individuals for lifelong recovery, unlike many different treatment options. Essentially, 12-Step programs help people manage the symptoms of their disease and stay committed to sobriety. If a person with any chronic condition stops their treatment, they risk relapsing into the symptoms of their condition. Ultimately, if these people cease attending meetings and working the Twelve Steps, they may relapse. Hence, the media and others should refrain from stigmatizing 12-step programs as they provide lifelong treatment access to people with SUD.

Alcoholics Anonymous Is a Worldwide Organization

The fellowship of AA started in 1935 in Akron, Ohio; now, there are meetings worldwide. AA meetings exist throughout the United States and Canada; there are also meetings in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and South America. These meetings take place in churches and community centers, and private homes. The AA website offers details of where to find local meetings and online meetings. It hurts to see so many people unable to access these easily accessible meetings as part of their treatment, especially because many go without treatment. 

Stigma Is a Barrier to Treatment and Recovery 

We wouldn’t think twice about recommending that someone with cancer or diabetes seek medical treatment. However, because of the stigma surrounding addiction, many people are ashamed to admit they have a problem and therefore don’t seek help until it’s too late. When we hold on to stigma, we encourage people to suffer in silence rather than reach out for help. If more people understood how the Twelve Steps work and how 12-Step programs are run, they might be more open to giving them a try.

Stigma Hurts Relationships

Your addiction affects everyone around you and can create barriers to healthy family relationships. If you’re suffering from an addiction and not seeking help, your family and friends are likely hurting.

Stigma May Cause People to Quit Early

Even if a person musters up the courage to attend a 12-Step meeting, they may stop due to the misconceptions surrounding these groups. So many people go into a 12-Step fellowship and start working the program but then drop out after a few weeks or even months. To maintain sobriety, one must make a serious commitment to attend meetings and work through the steps in the program. Plugging into a network with like-minded individuals — people trying to remain sober— will serve most people in early recovery well. 

Stigma Makes Recovery More Difficult for Those Who Do Seek Help

Most people who have experienced addiction find that recovery is a lifelong process that requires hard work and dedication. Those who can recover from addiction must battle their internal demons and the external stigmas associated with the disease of addiction.

Stigma Promotes Discrimination

The stigma surrounding 12-Step programs promotes discrimination against those choosing to include the 12-Step philosophy in their treatment program. In other words, because these new methods have become so popular and are often seen as more relevant than 12-Step programs, people are beginning to look down upon anyone who uses this method to recover. As a result, those who use it find themselves judged harshly by others in their lives — and more importantly, by themselves. 

Stigma May Cause People to Hide Their Substance Abuse

An individual’s fear of being stigmatized may cause them to hide their substance abuse from loved ones. As a result, they can have lower self-esteem and perpetuate unhealthy behaviors, further isolating themselves. However, when individuals feel safe talking openly about addiction without fear of being stigmatized, they are more likely to share their disease with their loved ones. Studies show the effectiveness of a supportive network in someone’s recovery. 

Stigmatizing 12-Step Programs Hurts Community-Building

Commonly, people with SUD struggle to create strong social bonds with other people because they feel shame and stigma for struggling with addiction. Thus, attaching any stigma to recovery methods like 12-Step programs worsens the situation for these individuals. 

Those who maintain sobriety through community support often find success through the extensive resource of 12-Step support groups, which provide strong networks of nonjudgmental friendships and much-needed emotional and practical support for staying sober. The sense of community is a powerful tool in building self-esteem and confidence in one’s ability to live without alcohol or drugs.

Sobriety is possible for anyone, but only if they are eager to ask for help, which is more likely if they don’t feel ashamed. As a result, we must take steps to eliminate the public stigma associated with addiction if we are to encourage more people living and struggling with addiction — especially those in denial — to seek help. 

11 Ways to Reduce the Stigma Surrounding the 12-Step Philosophy

Reducing stigma can empower people to take control of their lives. Addressing this stigmatization can also help improve access to care for those who need it. The 12-Step philosophy has been a significant part of the recovery communities for decades. However, many people don’t understand the 12-Step process and the language used by those who have adopted it. 

To help reduce the stigma surrounding the 12-Step philosophy and make these meetings more accessible to everyone, it would be wise if we all took the time to educate ourselves on how they work, what they mean, and how they can be beneficial. If you’re new to sobriety or know someone struggling with addiction, here are some ways that all of us can help reduce the stigma surrounding the 12-Step philosophy:

#1. Check Your Own Biases

We live in a culture that doesn’t understand addiction, and our society doesn’t like people with problems. As a result, we have a tendency to judge others based on inaccurate and unfair stereotypes. If you catch yourself judging yourself or someone struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, take a moment to reflect on your thoughts and behavior patterns. Be honest with yourself and ask whether you would apply the exact expectations to people with other health problems, such as diabetes or cancer.

#2. Educate Yourself About the Twelve Steps 

Part of reducing stigma requires learning about the Twelve Steps, why they are so effective, and how they work, not just for addiction but also for compulsive behavior. You’ll be able to inform others about what the 12-Step philosophy is, what it isn’t, and its merits and limitations.

#3. Research Other Treatment Methods

Conduct research on other recovery models and see if you find anything better. You may find something you like more, which is excellent! Or you may discover that most other approaches have severe limitations or are not nearly as effective as 12-Step programs at helping people achieve and maintain long-term sobriety.

#4. Be Open About Your Participation in a 12-Step Program

Many people are ashamed of their involvement in AA or another 12-Step program or wish to remain anonymous (as written in the name of various 12-Step fellowships). However, keeping it secret can make you complicit in the stigma. If you’re comfortable breaking your anonymity, talk openly about your involvement with a 12-Step group — especially with young people who might be struggling with substance abuse issues. You can help others see 12-Step programs as an accessible and supportive option if they need it in the future.

#5. Break Free of the Label

Break free of the label. Many people in early recovery struggle with the idea of joining a group where they will have to admit that they are powerless over alcohol and drugs. However, being able to admit to yourself and others that you have lost control over your addiction is a step toward healing, not a label that has to stick for life. Once you admit this, you can take back control over your life by working through the Twelve Steps.

#6. Explore Different 12-Step Meetings

The most common myth is that all 12-Step meetings are the same. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most cities have hundreds of meetings per week, and even within a specific fellowing like AA, there are different styles of meetings. There are open discussion meetings, speaker meetings, literature meetings, gender-specific meetings, and more. Start by attending a few different kinds of meetings in your area to find the right fit for you. If one meeting doesn’t work, try another. You may have to attend several meetings of different types before you find a group that you see as a good fit for you.

#7. Join Forces With Others

Create a committee of others who want to reduce stigma and work together to host an event. For instance, one can host a meeting or presentation on SUD and the Twelve Steps at your place of worship, a doctor’s office, school, or other community location to discuss addiction and recovery in an open forum. During the meeting, present the benefits of the 12-Step philosophy and the deadly effects of SUD. The Twelve Steps of 12-Step programs encourage members to reach back out to their community to help other sick and suffering people. 

#8. Don’t Judge 12-Step Programs Based on Their Relapse Rate

Many individuals who have used the Twelve Steps in their recovery journey have struggled with relapse or have never made it into sobriety. This has led to a stigma that says the Twelve Steps are outdated, ineffective, and do not work. The problem is: this is not true. The relapse rate for those using 12-Step methods matches or falls under the rate of those using other ways to reach long-term sobriety. 

#9. Understand That Society Has It Wrong

To reduce the stigma surrounding 12-Step programs, you need to understand why society negatively believes them. Many people get their information from movies, TV shows, and the media, which often portray addiction recovery as something that involves lots of yelling and screaming in group therapy sessions. This portrayal isn’t accurate because most recovery programs are very calm and peaceful environments where everyone is welcoming and supportive.

#10. Be Aware of Your Judgmental Thoughts

If you have ever been in a 12-Step meeting, you may have been shocked at some of what you heard. You may have thought to yourself, “This isn’t right,” or “That person doesn’t belong here.” However, everybody has their own story, and everybody deserves to get better.

#11. Stop Worrying About Whether or Not People Will Judge You

You can worry all day long if other people will judge you or not. Still, it doesn’t matter because they’re not going to change anything about how successful your life is or how happy you feel when living a life of recovery. Don’t let others’ opinions be a factor in your recovery. 

Stigma is powerful, destructive, and pervasive. Many people will avoid seeking help until they absolutely have to because they’re afraid of being judged or labeled as weak or damaged goods. As the stigma surrounding addiction and treatment methods like 12-Step programs diminishes, more people will get the help they need sooner, which means better chances of long-term recovery. We hope that the information we provide here will inspire you to try the 12-Step philosophy for yourself to see how it can help you overcome your addiction. Though the stigma surrounding 12 Step programs runs rampant, at White House Recovery and Detox, we uphold the tenets of the 12-Step philosophy. Our treatment program focuses on abstinence, recovery, and wellness to beat addiction. We are proud to serve the people of Los Angeles and beyond who suffer from addiction. To learn more about our comprehensive treatment program, contact us today at (800) 510-5393.