EPISODE 4: The 12 steps are probably not working for youOct 13, 2019
Welcome to the Self-Mastery Podcast with your host, Zach Spafford, episode number four, the 12 steps are probably not working for you. Welcome to another Mastery Monday on the Self-Mastery Podcast. I'm your host, Zach Spafford. So today's topic is gonna be, the 12 steps are probably not working for you. I know that sounds like something that a lot of people are gonna be upset about.
There are a lot of people who have been successful with the 12 Step program, but today we're gonna talk a little bit about my experience with the 12 Step program, and we're gonna talk about a book called The Sober Truth by Dr. Lance dos, a retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry from Harvard Medical School.
He's someone who has spent his life in research and someone who has reviewed all of the research on the 12 step programs. Okay. Before I dive into what his book talks about, I want to give you a little bit of my story and tell you my experience with the 12 step programs because I think it's really important for men and women who are dealing with pornography use or dealing with any sort of addictive of behavior that they understand that the tools that are available to them may not be the right tools.
That was my case. I went to the 12 step programs. I worked with counselors. I worked with my bishops, which are ecclesiastical leaders. For those of you who aren't members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I started attending 12 step meetings in 2007. I first started going to the only meetings that I could find, which were meetings where you had lots of people who were there by court order.
And everything that, that, that conversation brought along with it. I also went to meetings that were sanctioned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, of which I'm a member. And those sanction, those church sanctioned meetings were full of guys who were really similar to me. No one had committed any crimes that I knew of anyway in pursuit of their sexual desires.
But really none of them seemed to be able to overcome their pornography use either. So every week for a number of years, I would sit in the meetings and I would say things like, hi, my name is Zach and I'm a porn addict. It has been 23 days since my last relapse. If you've ever been to these meetings, the people are earnest.
That's the topic is serious, and the goal is really the same for everyone. Everyone wants to get away from pornography. If you have not heard of the 12 step programs, which I would be very surprised if you hadn't. They are really. The most recognized and ubiquitous type of sobriety focused recovery systems in the country.
Often you find that judges assign people to attend them. Families swear by them. Three quarters of the treatment programs in the country use a 12 step methodology. So I went to meetings and every time I did, I felt like I was among men, brethren, people who earnestly, genuinely wanted to stop. Using pornography.
They genuinely wanted, I genuinely wanted to become free of this addictive behavior, and I found a couple of things that were rather true, right? So everyone there was very supportive. They were non-judgmental. They were just some of the nicest men that you would ever meet, all humbled by their current circumstances.
They all were afflicted, they all, none of them came in and it wasn't a cavalier atmosphere where they're like, yeah, I did this and I'm gonna be just fine. Nobody was like that. Every man in there was willing to share their story, was willing to, as we talk about in the latter day, saint culture, mourn with those who mourn and ready to support you.
Although I did find, oftentimes you had. Guys that held you at arm's length just because it takes a little bit of time to gain trust and get to know people. More often than not, these guys wanted to have a conversation with you. They were willing to share their experiences, and they were willing to, they were willing to help you as best they could.
They really wanted every man in there wanted to be your friend. By and large, I found the 12 step meetings just. Just full of good people. I also found that as I looked around the room, I rarely found anyone who was succeeding. And I can think back to some meetings that I went to in California. I. Which was the first time that I felt the meeting had been administered in a, in an appropriate way.
Because sometimes you go to these meetings and there is a facilitator who's not quote unquote an addict. There's a facilitator there who doesn't know anything really about your addictive behavior other than they've been asked by the state president or somebody to be in charge of this meeting. And I found that was unhelpful.
Partly because when someone comes in that meeting and they don't really know what goes on in your head and don't understand how it is to, it just is off-putting. It was, to me anyway, I could be, maybe some people liked that. Maybe that was better for some people, but for me it was off-putting to have somebody in there that was just like, hi, I'm the missionary in charge of this meeting and I don't really have this problem.
So going to these meetings, you would look around and you would find lots of men there, earnest men trying to stop, but. I'm thinking of one particular meeting that I attended for three straight years. In that meeting I saw on a regular basis, 15 to 20 men. Of those 15 to 20 men, there were two people out of 15 to 20 men that I could point to that, that I knew were successful, and those were the men that stuck around, right?
Because you'd see some people, they'd come and they'd go, someone would show up once and never return, or someone would show up for six months and. And never return. But over the course of that three year period, I probably saw 40 people total in aggregate come to those meetings, even if for a brief period of time, but I could point to two, maybe three, that had done the work and were successful.
And that to me was staggering. That to me. I was one of those people who wasn't successful and I was looking at these guys across the way and I was like, man, how can I be more like that guy? How can I be more like the guy across the way here and truly overcome this addictive behavior? And I found that I just wasn't succeeding.
I was working with my bishop, I was working with my counselor, and I just continued to be discouraged. And so for me I had to take a step back. I had to say, okay, I need to figure this out. I need to put my brain into resolution mode. Look at myself directly with an eye towards solving my problem, rather than saying this is the solution that I'm supposed to use.
It's, why isn't it working? Because it wasn't working. There was a lot of heartache. There was a lot going on there. There was a lot of difficulty that made it so that I wasn't resolving my problem. The truth is there are a lot of reasons why the 12 step program is unlikely to be working in your favor.
This, by no means is a, I'm not here to just be like 12 step program's bad. It works for some people. Like I said, there's a five to 10% success ratio with the 12 step program between five and 10% of people who, who utilize the 12 step program. Those people are successful for the rest of us, which is the vast majority of people, there's a reason why it's not working.
And I can and I'm gonna go into a little bit of detail there, but for me, it didn't work. So I finally, as I took a step back, I said, okay, how am I going to resolve this? And I started to watch my brain. I had learned some principles of mindfulness and I was using those. Eventually I was able to suss out and this is how I.
Built my program is I was able to find out the brain science behind what was going on. I was able to understand why my behavior was so well entrenched. I was also able to understand my brain in such a way that if I could change my thoughts, I could change the results of what was going on in my life.
Which by the way, that is essentially the definition of repentance. And we can go into that another time. But suffice it to say the word repentance, it comes from a Greek word, me, NOA, which means to have a new mind. What is your mind if it's not your thoughts? So that was my experience with the 12 step program.
I just found that as I went to those meetings, I was discouraged, not just because of my own behavior, but because as I looked around the room of men that I was working with, that were in my group. I found that very few were having real, tangible, long-term success, and that to me just did not look like I was going to succeed.
I couldn't see how, based on the experience of others, I was gonna succeed in this. So here's what I did. I took a step back and I started to work on my brain. I looked at what was going on and I started to build a program for me that made sense and that's how I came. To become a life coach. There are, a lot of steps in there, but that's partly how I came to be a life coach.
Recently, as I've been working on my program, someone suggested to me that I read a book by Dr. Lance Dodes called The Sober Truth. And in it he goes into great detail about the success rate that the 12 Step program has with regards to Alcoholics Anonymous. Now, granted, the Sober Truth is targeted specifically to Alcoholics Anonymous.
But the 12 step program has been taken and morphed to work with narcotics, pornography, food, all kinds of addictive behaviors, right? I don't have the data for those programs. In fact I would've guessed that there's not a lot of data for those smaller programs because there's really not a lot of data for even the larger 12 step program, and I'm, I'll talk about that for a second here.
What Dr. Dodi's found was that there's really only one study. There's really only been one study published by the 12 step, what I'll call the governing board. Which was released in the nineties, and they found the same thing that he found, which was that between five and 10% of participants are able to actually overcome their addictive behaviors through implementation of the 12 steps in their lives.
So I'm, so everything that we're talk that, everything that I'm gonna talk about, In terms of 12 step programs, the statistics are based on the Alcoholics Anonymous version, but I'm gonna extrapolate that and I'm gonna, I'm gonna associate that data with any 12 step program so that may be a bias methodology or that may not have, scientific rigor.
But I think for the purposes of what we're doing here, I think it's valid enough to take what you're hearing in the one space and extrapolate it out to the other programs. For me, I worked the 12 steps as best I could in concert with my bishop and state president, and I had regular meetings with a counselor.
All of the world was pulling for me. I had friends who were on my side. They knew what was going on, and I was pulling in the direction that I thought I should go. I was, I was taking the 12 step program and running forward with a gungho, and once I had been going to meetings for a few years, I thought, I should be able to go longer than I am.
I should be able to have more sobriety than I have. I shouldn't be relapsing like this, and I really, I felt completely alone. The truth was that even though I like hundreds of thousands of, even millions of people before me had gone through the steps, worked each of them to the best of their ability, apologized, asked forgiveness, shared the program, done it all.
I was still doing what addicts call. White knuckling it. So if you're not familiar with the term white knuckling it, it's just using sheer willpower to stop doing the behavior that you're addicted to. I was living in a place where I was not succeeding to my definition of success. Maybe I wasn't using as much as I once had, but each time the urge came, I was still bearing through it with all the pain that comes from having a kidney stone, right?
I was always just on the verge of going back to pornography, back to line to my wife, back to hiding from my church leaders back to buffering my life away with my drug of choice. So you might be saying in your minds, oh, you did it wrong. Or then you really weren't sober or some other version of blaming me for not getting it right because I wasn't doing it right.
So I have no right to complain. And that is actually not an atypical response from those dealing with addiction and advocates of the 12 step program. In fact, in the book, the Sober Truth, the Dr. Dotis quotes a's big book, there's this, there's a book, they call it the Big book if you're not familiar with it.
It's essentially the guide for AA, for you to go through the 12 step program. And it says, rarely have we seen a person fail. Who has thoroughly followed our path, those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program. Dr. Dores concluded as I think anyone might after reading that the program quote, the program doesn't fail you, you fail.
So how could anyone who's gone through the 12 step program ever step forward and say Hey guys, sorry this didn't work for me. Because the way that the program reads and the way that the program talks to you, it teaches you that it's your fault when you fail. It couldn't possibly be that the tools are inadequate or that failure is really honestly a pretty normal situation.
With this program. It essentially says you just didn't work this hard enough, and so that's your problem. And what that ends up creating is a self-selection bias within the program that says the people who are succeeding, they're the ones who are trumpeting their success, and the ones that aren't succeeding are the ones that are leaving.
Without saying anything, they're just. Shutting their mouths and off they go. So the good news here is that failure's pretty normal when it comes to the 12 step program. One in 10 at the max, one in 20 at the minimum, succeed with the 12 step program. That means nine out of 10 people, or 19 out of 20 people do not get better.
Through the 12 step program. In fact, the truth is that you have as much chance of succeeding with a 12 step program as you do spontaneously quitting your addictive behavior. So I want everyone out there who's ever been to a 12 Step program who's listening to this right now, to know that you are not alone.
You are in fact, the majority of people you are in. The majority of people who've gone through 12 step programs. And some of you out there are saying that's small comfort because I still have this problem. But hopefully you recognize that The reality is that there's other options. There's more than just the 12 step program, which seems to have been the only option throughout the country for the better part of a century.
So for me, it took some time to step back and start figuring out what is going on in my own brain. In fact, step back is exactly. What I did, I stopped going to meetings. I took that time that I was using to go to meetings to step back and observe my behavior. I began to observe my thoughts. I began to observe my urges.
I began looking at my mind the same way I looked at any difficulty that I had dealt with successfully before. Now I observed. I hypothesized. I created strategies that I tested. I failed. I failed a lot. I revamped those strategies and I tested them again I got into my own head and I started to see how it was working.
That's actually what I do as a coach now, is I help people get into their own minds. I help them see how their brains are working, what their thoughts are doing, and how their thoughts are creating their results. When I work with a client, I help them see how their brain is working and how they can make minor adjustments to improve their performance.
I was self-coaching long before I even knew what a life coach really was. So now fast forward just a little bit instead of white knuckling through every temptation and every urge and every bikini at the beach. We lived in California at the time. I had learned something completely different. I had learned how to be completely unaffected by the pathways in my brain that used to light up like a Christmas tree every time I was triggered for the next hit.
By recognizing my feelings and seeing the urges and letting them all just pass by without action, I no longer felt compelled by what would've driven me to seek out pornography. Previously, I no longer had the desire. I had gone through the formal 12 step rep program with the church. I had repented, and then I had actually changed my own mind.
That's really where my ability to no longer look at pornography came out, and that was the result that was extraordinary to me. Now, years later, my wife was listening to a podcast called Better Than Happy, created by my friend Jody Moore. As she would listen, she would hear Jodi teach something and come to me and say, Hey, you know how you used to say that when you were dealing with your porn problem, you would do X.
Jodi just taught me that on the podcast. I was a little bit surprised, I'll be honest, and I thought I was the only one that had just figured it out. But as it turns out, Jodi was teaching the principles that I knew worked with a vocabulary I had never known existed. Coaching. Through the model outlined by Brooke Castillo was a perfect match for what I had been doing for years to kick the pornography out of my head.
I had stopped saying and thinking things like, hi, my name is Zach and I'm a porn addict. I had stopped saying and thinking, I can't overcome this. I had stopped saying and thinking, I'm powerless against my addiction. I had started choosing to believe that I was not an addict and my brain. Doing what brains always do, looked for proof and started to prove me right.
I started choosing to know that I was going to overcome my pornography use and my brain started to look for proof and began acting accordingly. I started choosing to understand and take back my agency to choose to no longer engage in addictive buffering my brain liked what I was asking it to do, and it helped me move in the direction that made both of us feel better.
The atonement. Or the healing power of Jesus Christ became real in my life. When I stopped telling myself that I was broken beyond fixing, it came when I chose to take a step into the darkness, believing that there was a solid ground before I knew it was there. As Jodi put it recently in one of her emails, faith is tolerating the not knowing of something because it can't be proven and deciding to put your trust in it.
Anyway. I couldn't prove that I was ever going to stop using pornography, but I trusted that there was a way forward. The 12 Steps work for some people. The program the church has put together is a masterfully built discussion on the gospel principles of faith, hope, repentance, and the Atonement. What it lacks is a detailed, individualized look inside your own mind at your urges and the pathways that you have created to respond to them.
And the key strategies and tactics that you need to actually kick the habit. You can be honest without being able to let an urge pass without acting on it. You can have hope without the willingness or ability to move into the darkness. You can trust in God and make an inventory without understanding how to see that your thoughts might be keeping you going down the same path.
You've always gone down to the same disappointing results. So let's talk about the 12 Step Program. Dr. Dodi's book called The Sober Truth indicates that there is a five to 10% success rate. That is also the same success rate that you find with people who have spontaneous remission, meaning they overcome the problem by themselves without attending any meetings.
Three quarters of the current residential programs within the United States use a 12 step program when people do well. So one of the, one of the problems with the 12 step program is that it has an evangelistic component, meaning that when people do well, they actually go out and they evangelize the topic.
And this is entrenched in one of their, in, in the 12th step actually. So in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints version, it says, having had a spiritual awakening as a result of the atonement of Jesus Christ. Share this message about the step program and practice these principles in all you do.
And then the AA version says, having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message of the 12 steps to alcoholics and to practice these principles in our affairs. So essentially, those that are successful, they tell their stories and they are loud and proud about it.
But those who don't succeed, they tend to be the silent majority. And they tend to be very silent because they are made to feel as though it is their own fault for not having succeeded. It's not the program that failed you, it's you that failed the program. You just didn't do it hard enough. You weren't strong enough.
You weren't good enough to finish this program. That's essentially the message that you get from the 12 step program and from the big book, right? So in 2006, a group called the Cochrane Collaboration reported that they can't find any evidence of any effect of AA meaning. So we talked. So I just said, there's essentially a spontaneous remission rate, and then there's the rate of remission when you are in the 12 step programs.
The fact that there's no distinguishable statistical difference between spontaneous remission and the remission that is triggered through the 12 step group and participation in 12 step groups means that there is no statistical difference between the two. Meaning essentially, it's exactly the same effect.
And this is from a group of scientists who what they do is they vet science, so they look at science programs and they say, Is this research done in a, in an appropriately scientific way? Does you know, and I'm not a scientist, so you know, you may know more about this than I do. And the book, the Sober Truth, took 50 years worth of valid research as vetted by the Cochrane Group, and looked at its statistical relevance, looked at the studies behind it, made sure that they were academically rigorous, and then came to the conclusion.
That there is little to no difference between someone who just stops and someone who goes to one of the 12 step groups. So all of that to say, I'm not saying that you shouldn't go to the 12 step group. It is, it's an extraordinarily wonderful place to meet people so that you know that you're not alone, that you are not the only one dealing with this problem.
What I will say is that I would not put. All of my eggs in that basket, I wouldn't use that as your sole source of recovery material. I would not bet on the 12 step program becoming the program that helps you succeed at stopping your pornography use, and here's why. You can't say the things that you say in a 12 step program I can't overcome this.
Or, I'm a porn addict, or I'm powerless against my addiction. And have your brain be in the right frame of mind to find evidence contrary to it. In fact, your brain will find evidence to prove that thought. That's what our brains do. We believe something and then our brain goes out and finds proof of the thought.
That's you'll know that's true. If you've ever argued with your, crazy Uncle Bob about politics. Or you've had a conversation with someone who fervently believes for or against vaccines. Our brains find evidence of the things that we already think. The question then becomes, how do I put myself in a position to think something different?
How do I choose different thoughts? How do I find a way to help my brain help me succeed? That's what I do as a coach. I help you find a way to change your mind, to change your thought, to change what you believe about you. The truth of the matter is that our thoughts determine our belief. The truth of the matter is that our thoughts determine our results.
They determine how we feel. They determine what we do, that determine the results, proving the thoughts that we think, and I want you to know that you can overcome this. You just need to learn how to think differently, and I can help you. Really, almost any coach could help you if they have the right tools.
Guys, thanks for listening. Feel free to reach out to me on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. Also, if you have an addictive behavior that you're working to overcome, whether it's overeating or video games or pornography, or even just I look at my phone too much, I wanna invite you to set up a free mini session with me.
I would love to have a one-on-one conversation with you about your addictive behavior and how you can begin the process of overcoming it. And please take a moment and review the podcast on Google Play or on iTunes or Spotify or wherever you are hearing us from. I love what you guys are doing. I love that you're choosing to get out there and become the master of self.
I can't wait for the next episode next week. Talk to you then. Hey, thanks for listening to the Self-Mastery Podcast. Every day I get requests from people who are looking to change something in their life. If that is you, if you need help overcoming your addictive behavior like pornography use, sign up for a free mini session at Z spafford.com/workwithme.
That's zachspafford.com/workwithme. I'll put a link in show notes for you to follow. Also, it would mean the world to me if you were to leave a review for us. Wherever you get your podcast, it'll go a long way to helping others find us. Thanks again.
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