How Gentle is a 12 Step Program?


Being gentle and being kind, especially to oneself, are in many ways at the heart of recovery from alcoholism but often get overlooked by a more macho do-or-die culture.

Early Recovery

It is probably fair to say that most people in early recovery are quite confused. Getting sober and dealing with sobriety not only entails living without alcohol, or any other type of crutch, but also learning to live with yourself 24 hours a day.

This is often quite a scary place to be, and one of the things that gets people through it is the kindness of other people in recovery, either at meetings, coffee after meetings or simply on the phone.

Simple acts of kindness that may not seem a big deal at the time, often carry enormous weight in helping people in early recovery to feel some sense of warmth, some sense of empathy and some sense of belonging.

Kindness is one of those concepts that tends to override a lot of other beliefs and actions, not just in terms of what it does, but in terms of the effect it can have on other people.

Do or Die

The phrase do or die is sometimes used directly in recovery, and oftentimes used subliminally as a way of trying to control people’s recovery, and instil a level of fear into them as to what they should or shouldn’t do for their own recovery.

This in many ways is the opposite of an attitude of kindness or gentleness, mainly in that it is trying to force someone’s ideas onto another person, using the need for sobriety almost as a threat to adopt a certain approach to recovery, rather than letting the person find their own path.

This do-or-die approach can have an effect in terms of motivating people to do certain things which may have a short-term benefit, but in the long term is likely to do more damage than good.

AA Literature

The book Alcoholics Anonymous (and all the AA literature) was written as a body of experience of the early members of AA, so that anyone wanting to get sober could read the book, get some understanding of this experience, and then use that experience in any way that they wanted to get sober.

There are two threads to this. One is that AA is a body of experience, and the literature reflects that, and the other is that everyone who comes to AA or stays in AA has the freedom to interpret the literature and use it in any way that they find helpful.

These two threads often get blurred, but it is important to remember that they are crucial to anyone who wants to get sober, and have the freedom to be able to live with themselves with some level of peace and stability.

Carl Rogers

Many people in recovery will have heard of the psychologist Carl Rogers, whose work pretty much founded modern-day counselling and therapy. One of his core beliefs was that the nature of therapy should be about developing a relationship between two people that generates a sense of safety that allows the person to heal and change.

Rogers believed that safety was the key to people being able to change their inner world, a belief that is pretty much accepted in most types of therapeutic work today.

Self-acceptance, not Self-improvement

One of the key elements of recovery is the understanding that real change and freedom comes from self-acceptance, and the sense of safety and Inner peace that comes with it.

This in many ways is kindness or gentleness in action, where someone gets the kind of love for themselves that they often wish for other people.

Self-improvement tends to be an idea that can come with the whole world of character defects and character building, but which is more a sort of treadmill that is very difficult to get off, and can generate a real level of unnecessary stress.

Hurt people Hurt people

This is an expression or saying often used in recovery, and tends to reflect a truth about people when they get sober.

What this phrase is really saying to many, is that they want to lash out at people and hurt them, not because that is what they really want to do, but more because it is an expression of the hurt that is going on inside them.

This internal pain may well express itself by way of anger, fear or other emotional extremes, but it is important in this context to realise that it is a type of lashing out, not a real desire to hurt other people.

This goes to the core of self-acceptance, why people are the way they are, and what needs to change to get a level of inner peace.

Change Everything

There is a sort of joke in recovery that when someone gets sober they only need to change one thing, that one thing being everything.

What can get lost in this, is a realisation that recovery is a process, not an event, and giving people time to discover who they are, and why they are the way they are, is crucial to their sobriety.

The 12-step programme is often described as simple but not easy.

In many ways, it is a structure that can guide people through this process, allowing them to discover what is blocking them from loving themselves and other people, and moving towards a place where they do have a real level of self-acceptance of self-love, and can live at peace with themselves.


People in recovery often talk about the need for perfection, not as an ideal, but as something that affects their character and drives them in all sorts of directions that are really not that healthy emotionally.

These drives can act as a real block to self-acceptance and are worth putting into context.

Often when people talk about perfection, they are not talking about perfection at all, but more about some internal motivator that sees everything in terms of right or wrong, with an obsessive need to get ‘it’ right and a dread or fear of getting ‘it’ wrong.

This sense of seeing everything in terms of right or wrong is often a legacy of growing up in an alcoholic home and is the drive or motivator for people feeling the need to be in control of their own sense of safety.

This is a huge topic in terms of recovery, but an understanding of where these attitudes or drives come from can give people a context that allows them to revisit their sense of safety, and find more loving, kind and gentle ways of treating themselves and other people.