Twelve Step Recovery – A Holistic Approach to Healing

By Steve K.

The literature of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) suggests that alcoholism is an illness of the mind, body and soul; and that by healing spiritually the alcoholic will heal mentally and bodily as well.

I would also like to suggest that the alcoholic heals emotionally, and contentiously, morally, as part of the recovery process. If, as AA suggests, alcoholism is an illness and not a moral issue, why do I add morality into this mix?

For me, as someone who views spirituality from a mainly naturalistic viewpoint, moral growth and spiritual growth are more or less synonymous; they are at the very least closely related to each other.

In terms of alcoholism being an illness – it’s one that damages, distorts and corrupts a person physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, morally and spiritually. I believe that by participating in Twelve Step recovery the alcoholic/addict can heal in all these areas of life.

BPSS image

According to the holistic view of the person and life, if we change in one of these areas, either negatively or positively, we change in the other aspects of our being too. In my view, both the Fellowship and Program of AA can bring about positive changes in all the above mentioned areas.

The fellowship aspect of Twelve Step recovery utilizes our social instinct to connect with others positively, by facilitating social interaction and recovery promoting relationships. We are social animals by nature, and require supportive relationships in order to function at our best physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Recovery fellowship is a vital antidote to the isolating nature of addiction.

The Fellowship of AA is based upon positive moral, ethical and spiritual values, and in this respect serves to promote positive change in these areas.

The Twelve Step program of AA encourages the practice of moral and spiritual principles in all aspects of one’s life, and in my experience, over time, brings about positive changes in mental outlook and attitude, behaviour (which quite often includes physical health improvements beyond those from just abstinence eg., changes in diet and exercise), emotional awareness and wellbeing, and in relation to moral and spiritual values.

Recovery practices, particularly in terms of taking regular moral inventory, develop awareness of unhealthy or destructive attitudes, emotional tendencies and behaviour. Employing recovery principles then enable us to change for the better, particularly in our social relationships.

AA literature suggests that the alcoholic’s problems stem from self-centred fear, in relation to their natural instincts for emotional and material security, self-esteem and social approval, and their needs for sex.

The alcoholic/addict is presumed to be excessively fearful, insecure, and needy in these areas of human nature. In my experience I would say that this presumption is generally true, and is often caused by historical and unresolved unmet needs for love and security.

The addict often feels hungry or deprived in relation to their needs for love and security, and therefore craves excessively or inappropriately in this respect. Recovery involves learning to meet one’s needs in a healthy and appropriate way. We learn to respect our own and others’ physical, mental, emotional, moral and spiritual boundaries.


Hopefully, as we get better at meeting our needs in recovery and therefore feel less empty and deprived, we start to make better choices in life. However, particularly in early recovery (but often in longer term recovery as well) our needs can feel great, and we may fall victim to powerful instinctual and emotional drives to fix ourselves.

For me, this common vulnerability is why recovery principles and practices are essential, as they help to guard against the psychological defences of denial, rationalization and self-justification; which we tend to use in order to get, or have, what we want or believe we need.

The greater the need, the stronger the tendency is to self-justify, and this is where an experienced friend or sponsor can be of help in making our recovery decisions. However, sponsors and friends beware in offering unsolicited advice, take heed in this respect to these insightful sentences from the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:

“This perverse soul sickness is not pleasant to look upon. Instincts on rampage balk at investigation. The minute we make a serious attempt to probe them, we are liable to suffer severe reactions.”

Step Four, p.46.

This tendency to strongly, quite often aggressively, defend our instinctual needs and related emotions, is why the alcoholic/addict is best left to take their own moral inventory, unless they request feedback from a sponsor or experienced friend. I think that the more self-aware and reflective we become, though, the greater our understanding of the need to check our thinking and motivations with trusted others.

Honest self-examination, disclosure, and accurate feedback is essential in terms of my self-awareness and development in recovery; and is an ongoing practice in my attempts to grow mentally, emotionally, morally and spiritually. It’s a practice passed down by the ancient wisdom traditions, and helps to make Twelve Step recovery a holistic approach to healing in my view and experience.

The Twelve Step program and fellowships are not the only path to recovery and healing from addiction; but a method I would recommend that addresses the whole person in becoming a better functioning human being.

I am not saying that Twelve Step recovery solves all problems, but that it helps to manage the core areas of our nature. We heal enough to go out into the world and meet our needs in a healthy and more wholesome way; using any other resources that we feel may help us.

Social and Emotional in Nature

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy, which is a humanistic model, after our basic physical survival needs, the bulk of human needs are social and emotional in nature. In order to develop our cognitive, creative and spiritual capacities healthily we require loving and supportive social relationships. They are an important aspect of long-term recovery. Social and emotional needs should be met first and foremost, as we are primarily social and emotional creatures. We fundamentally need to be cared about, valued and respected, listened to and be heard. These instincts have to be addressed before trying to engage with our higher cognitive and spiritual needs, if we are to be truly happy.


The 12 Step holistic view suggests that if we focus upon our spiritual needs first, we will then heal mentally, emotionally, socially and physically. Paradoxically, I think that there is truth in both of these philosophies; if our spiritual practices focus upon connection with others. As a result we tend to deal with our social and emotional deficiencies in a healthy and healing way.

Spirituality in isolation won’t fulfil our needs on its own. We need to connect with others in order to experience our spirituality’s full healing power. This is why I like the saying, “God is love”, as it expresses the idea that spirituality works in and through ordinary people.

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