By Steve K.
I have recently encountered a common criticism from the feminist perspective against Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and its 12 Step program of recovery from addiction. The criticism suggests that AA’s emphasis upon ego-deflation and the practice of humility as a cure for a spiritual malady is damaging to those groups within society that have been historically disempowered, oppressed, and discriminated against within a patriarchal culture.
Step One of AA’s 12 Steps encourages the need to admit being powerless in respect of alcohol – and that life has become unmanageable. AA’s assertion that the alcoholic lacks the power to control their drinking is supported by modern scientific theory and its medical model of addiction. Brain imaging shows that the addict’s rational choice and decision-making faculties become impaired due to the effect of repeated alcohol use upon the individual’s neurobiology and brain function. (1)
This lack of control in relation to alcohol is somehow interpreted as admitting being powerless in general by some feminist commentators. The following example of this attitude is the title of an article that was published in The New York Times:
This feminist author goes on to state.. “I worry that any program that tells us to renounce power that we have never had [meaning disempowered because of patriarchal oppression] poses the threat of making us sicker.”
The New York Times. Dec 27th 2019.
Whitaker and other feminist critics of AA philosophy suggest that the diagnosis of an over-sized ego and self-centredness as a core problem of addiction doesn’t apply to women and others (e.g., ethnic minorities) who have been disempowered and oppressed by privileged, egotistical white men – the type that founded the AA fellowship and program. Feminist thinking reasons that people who have been historically disempowered and oppressed by those with power, and who consequently suffer with feelings of powerlessness, shame, self-hatred, and trauma are further abused by a program that suggests relying upon a male-centric concept of God.
In relation to the ego deflation philosophy of AA not being helpful for women, I have mixed feelings as it’s more complex than is often presented by some feminist writers. Many in 12 Step fellowships have low self-esteem, a poor self-concept, are traumatised, and feel disempowered, including many white males. Admittedly, some of the language used in AA literature isn’t always helpful in this respect and is no doubt triggering for some people in the rooms. However, shame, low self-worth, anxiety, and depression are about being consumed in self negatively and are partly caused by and result in self-obsession. They are maladies of self-absorption (an over attachment to ego) according to clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Leon F Seltzer Ph.D. (2)
Bill Wilson (co-founder of AA), in many of his writings, admits to having difficulties with an over-sized ego, arrogance, and self-centred pride. However, it is also well documented that he suffered with crippling depression throughout much of his life. His difficulties with depression and insecurity began in adolescence and were related to family breakup and neglectful, self-involved parents who abandoned him. He also experienced the traumatic loss of his first girlfriend, Bertha Bamford, just before his seventeenth birthday. Her death triggered a lengthy period of depression for Bill, and significantly affected his ability to complete his high school education. In reading Susan Cheever’s biography about Wilson (2004), it’s clear that he was emotionally insecure and suffered from low self-worth. According to addiction expert Dr Gabor Mate, Wilson was a traumatised individual. Mate’s definition of trauma is not based on any specific external event that happens to a person, but how they respond inwardly to such an event.
The ‘Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions’ (p.46) does describe both personality traits.. the arrogant egotist and the insecure depressive and correctly suggests that they are both distortions of ego and are ultimately self-centred. Humility is about developing a realistic, grounded, and healthy sense of self, being ‘right sized’, and is in essence what 12-Step philosophy encourages through its Steps and Traditions. Speaking personally, I must learn to love and accept myself in recovery whichever way my personality manifests.. arrogance or low self-worth. Arrogance and narcissism within me are often a defense mechanism against shame and insecurity, and both manifestations of character are related to a lack of self-love and acceptance.
The 12 Steps are ultimately a means of reconnection with myself, the power or essential human spirit that resides within me. They also connect those of us who’ve suffered addiction and isolation to each other. Through the humility of Step One, I connect to a power which transcends addiction – the power within me and the collective power of the group. I surrender to win. In doing so, I am empowered to live life more fully and realise my potential as a human being, whatever my class, race, or gender.
Despite its male-centric language, AA and other 12 Step groups have been shown by current research to be as equally effective for women as they are for men, if not more so, as women tend to be better at supporting one another in recovery. (2)
Psychologist Leon F Seltzer, Ph.D. (3), and other mental health professionals (4) would suggest that there is truth in AA’s assertion that self-centred fear, or in other words, a separate and anxious awareness of oneself, lies at the root cause of addiction for many in the meeting rooms of AA. When I listen carefully enough to men and women describing their history of addiction and the experiences that have led to it, l often hear them share feelings of ego-isolation or aloneness, and a sense of separation and not feeling whole. These feelings are inevitably accompanied by an undercurrent of anxiety, self-absorption, insecurity, and shame.
This sense of ego-isolation and its resulting anxiety and depression seem to be the common, if not universal, psychic anatomy of those that suffer serious problems with addiction. Alcoholics often begin drinking alcohol and misusing other drugs to escape this internal sense of separateness and spiritual ‘dis-ease’. This is the ‘spiritual malady’ that AA describes in its literature and it’s not just a problem for those suffering with addiction – it’s a human existential problem. It is just that addicts often destroy themselves as a symptom of it.
‘The Bedevilments’, p.52, of ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ (BB) describe the ‘emotional unmanageability’ often associated with the ‘spiritual malady’ underlying addiction.
“We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures, we were a prey to misery and depression, we couldn’t make a living, we had a feeling of uselessness, we were full of fear, we were unhappy, we couldn’t seem to be of real help to other people.”
The 12 Steps suggest a spiritual solution for this internal unmanageability and fear through connection to a power greater than oneself. The feminist complaint against AA’s suggestion of relying upon a patriarchal concept of God, in Steps 2, 3,5,6,7 and 11 is only partially valid. Steps 3 and 11 clearly suggest a God of one’s own understanding. If there is any confusion about this suggestion it is clarified in chapter 2 (Step 2) of the ‘Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions’…“AA does not demand you believe anything. All of its Twelve Steps are but suggestions.” (p.26).. And chapter 4 of ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ (BB) allows for the freedom to relate to whatever power is meaningful to you spiritually. (p.47). Chapter 4 (BB) also gives various examples of what God can mean e.g., “Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things.” (p.46) In appendix 2, pp. 569-570 (BB), there is the suggestion of an “unsuspected inner resource” as a higher power.
The separate and isolated sense of self, related fear, and emotional unmanageability result in the alcoholic’s delusional attempt to control people, places, and things beyond reasonable human limitations. AA’s ‘serenity prayer’, which brilliantly summarizes the core principles of Stoic philosophy, inspires the inner search for the wisdom to discern that which I have power over in life, and the things that I am powerless to change. The reality is that I do have some power and influence, in relation to some things, some of the time. However, there is much in life that I have no control over, and acceptance is the key to this realisation and the serenity it then brings.
It’s not arrogance and a sense of entitlement that leads to my unhealthy controlling behaviour, but underlying inadequacy and fear that compels it. Recovery principles help me develop a healthy relationship to my innate power, rather than chasing the external materialistic power I’ve been conditioned to worship in a capitalist culture.
Bill Wilson once said it was important that AA listen to and learn from its critics. I wholeheartedly agree, it should consider constructive criticism based upon a thorough understanding of 12 Step philosophy and fellowship. The problem is that much of the criticism aimed at AA and other 12 Step groups is often based on a limited and superficial understanding, and biased anecdotal reports. However, the feminist perspective does make some valid criticisms that AA should listen to and learn from in my opinion.
The male-centric language used in AA literature should be changed to more inclusive terminology. The patriarchal concept of God that is prevalent throughout the Big Book (BB) should be taken out and replaced with inclusive spiritual and humanistic concepts in relation to accessing a power greater than oneself.
Recovery coach Veronica Valli (5) makes an important distinction between the AA ‘fellowship’ and its 12 Step ‘program’. As a feminist who supports women suffering from addiction the former therapist believes that the program of AA is a set of empowering principles for women in recovery. She acknowledges the problem of male-centred language, however, she feels that the program allows room for women to reinterpret this terminology – to more fitting language and concepts (I would suggest that they really shouldn’t have to). She also acknowledges that the AA ‘fellowship’ is imperfect and that some meetings (very few in my experience) are not always the safest places for women to meet due to unethical predatory men. She suggests more women only meetings are the ideal solution to this issue. I agree, although better safeguarding practices within mixed groups are also worth developing as I feel that healthy, appropriate relationships between men and women are growth promoting and healing. I witness these beneficial and positive relationships all the time in 12 Step recovery groups.
Finally, I would also like to see AA literature evolve to include up to date current scientific knowledge and research in relation to addiction and recovery. This would help to support some of the ideas within 12 Step philosophy that are helpful to both men and women in recovery, including its spiritual ethos. It would also encourage AA to move on from the less helpful aspects of its out-of-date literature.
I am aware that this blog post would probably be better received by feminist readers if it had been written by a woman in recovery. I hope that my views are considered valid despite my gender and supported by both men and women.
- A scientific Understanding of Addiction. By Prof D. Nutt.
- Are 12 Steps Programs Good for Women?
- Self-Absorption – The Root of All Psychological Evil. By Leon F Seltzer, Ph.D.
- Self-Centeredness. By Dr Michael McGee.
- The Misinformation About Alcoholics Anonymous and Sobriety. By Veronica Valli.