In the course of a week approximately 15 million Americans will attend some kind of self-help group. Why is this happening? Because people have discovered that talking and listening to their fellow sufferers has a soothing effect on the psyche, sometimes more so than doing the same thing in the presence of a therapist. Support groups--a rather high-falutin name for what's usually nothing more than loosely structured gab sessions--salve psychological wounds, help destroy addictions and even extend the lives of people suffering from cancer and other physical afflictions" (Newsweek, Feb, 90).

In 1935 Bob Smith and Bill Wilson started Alcoholics Anonymous because one alcoholic talking to another had a therapeutic effect. If the meeting between those two alcoholics had not taken place there's no telling what kind of world we'd be living in today. In Transpersonal Psychology's stages of comprehension, we have the reactive stage, the physical stage, and the mental stage--the reactive stage being the one that all people would be in if they weren't seeking help for their respective compulsions; therefore, consider how this world might be if all these people were placing the blame outwards for everything that happens to them, coping on just survival skills, continually talking about "me", thinking of themselves as nothing, being controlled by the outside environment, plus the countless other things that would be restricting their recovery. How many of those people would ever become self-actualized, or reach the mental stage of comprehension?

Having attended thousands of 12-step meetings, and I am a staunch supporter of 12-step programs, or any self-help group for that matter. However, while keeping in mind the many self-help groups and 12-step programs, my focus will be on Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous since they were the first. People helping people without professional intervention has proven beyond a doubt, regardless of skepticism, that the professional community has indeed been awarded with help, because they couldn't handle it by themselves--this is an unadulterated and indisputable fact. The title of James Hillman and Michael Ventura's (1992) dialogue, We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, is a point worth considering.

I believe the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation apply here. "INTRINSIC MOTIVATION occurs when there is no obvious external reward or ulterior motive behind your actions. (An ulterior motive is one which is over and above the apparent motive...for example an under the table payment for a charitable act.) The activity which is INTRINSICALLY motivated is mainly an end in itself. An action that is ALTRUISTIC is one which shows an unselfish concern for others, obviously with no material or monetary rewarded. Motivation is inner directed. EXTRINSIC MOTIVATION stems from obvious external factors such as pay, grades in school, rewards, obligations, or approval. Most "work" is Extrinsically rewarded. However, it was found that large rewards for tasks done, often caused the person to lose interestin the task, according to research. When youngsters for example, were given large rewards for playing with marker pens, they soon lost interest in playing with them, compared to others who were not! Similar research proved out with college students." (Making Life Meaningful, p. 5).

We see people coming into 12-step programs who are obviously extrinsically motivated to be there. The court system has sent them, they're trying to salvage a marriage or a relationship, the doctor tells them "do or die," and the list goes on. For the most part, these extrinsically motivated people will probably not recover. It is the people that are intrinsically motivated that recover, because the desire to recover comes from within; they're sick and tired of being sick and tired. Such as myself; I didn't want to spend anymore time in institutions, I didn't want to suffer from anymore hangovers, I didn't want to associate with people I couldn't trust anymore, nor did I want to chase the bag anymore; therefore, I found the only viable alternative-- recovery. During my addiction, I found things outside of myself to be at fault--never within me; for example, I was a bartender in a local biker bar where a lot of drug trafficking took place. On my night off I was there partying, dancing, etc. Two men came in that I had gotten to know over the previous couple of weeks or so, who established themselves as regular customers--we were on first name basis, and they ask me if I could get them some drugs.

I said no, that I wasn't aware of where there was any. A couple hours later they asked me again, and again I couldn't help them. About an hour before closing time they ask me again, and this time I was able to get them some. I didn't even have to leave the bar. These two men were undercover agents. They didn't bust me on the spot because they didn't want to blow their cover, but when I came in to work the following Monday, there they were, flashing their badges and asking me if I remembered them. The point I'm making here is my attitude. I felt that I was entrapped; in fact, I fought the case and lost with that as my defense. "It wasn't my fault, they tricked and badgered me into it." Furthermore, since I wasn't actually selling drugs for profit, why should I be convicted for sales? I thought the judicial system really screwed me. It didn't occur to me that if I had not have sold drugs to undercover cops, I wouldn't have gone to prison for selling drugs. It now seems so obvious. A clear case of the Pythias Circle. "In the PHYSICAL STAGE (in transpersonal psychology) we mainly are operating under the rules of Classic or Operant Conditioning. We have a vague understanding of the Self, but it is not at all clear. If I am a victim, can do nothing, and I am always frustrated in what I do, why would I think I am a person who can do something? I don't. If I attempt to bring about change and change does not happen and this frustration is caused by person, place or thing OUTSIDE OF MY CONTROL, why would I feel anything but limited? I don't. The reason for this, is that my conditioning, which creates habit patterns that repeat "...with monotonous regularity" has no way of changing. The only way to get out of the trap is the motivation to move into the Mental Stage" (Making Sense of Learning and Information Processing, p. 1).

I remember clearly at what point my recovery started, and I subsequently moved into the mental stage of development. After viewing a series of motivational tapes when I was in prison (Breaking Barriers, I began to understand how I was actually responsible for being in prison. I began to understand that literally everything I did, I did voluntarily, and that I had to be accountable for all of my actions. I had to monitor and discipline my thoughts, because I learned that "what we think, we are;" therefore, I didn't think about the California Country Bar where I used to work, I didn't think about the people I use to drink and use with, I didn't think about the alcohol and drugs, and when I did unconsciously start thinking about those things, I would rid myself of them and start thinking of places and people that I did want to be around when I was released. "In the MENTAL STAGE all this can begin to change. When I am REFLECTIVE of my own Behavior, I can SELF-REFLECT as to what is going on. Only when I "Look Inward" and examine my own processes of thinking, believing or behaving is there any possibility for me to DO ANYTHING ABOUT what I am thinking, believing, or my behavior. This is why we call it "THE BIRTH OF THE PERSON." Previous to this ability to Self-Reflect, we are constantly pointing our fingers at the outside as being the CAUSE or BLAME for all our problems or our difficulties or frustrations. If this is what I do, then by what logic or reasoning do I figure I HAVE ANYTHING WHATEVER TO DO WITH THE SITUATION? If I blame or say something OUTSIDE of myself is the cause or blame, then I have NOTHING TO DO with the outcome, change, difference, one way or another. When I Self-Reflect, USING MY INTELLECTUAL, LEFT BRAIN, MENTAL POWERS OF REASONING then and then alone is there a way out of the trap" (Making Sense of Learning and Information Processing, P. 1).

"Fran Dory, previous executive director of the California Self-Help Center, recalls that when she was organizing groups in New York, a bunch of senior citizens trudged through a swirling blizzard and then, when an elevator failed to function, climbed 14 flights of stairs rather than miss their weekly meeting (Newsweek, p. 54). There's nothing irrational about this kind of devotion. I know, because when I got out of prison I made three meetings a day. Two months later when I entered the local community college, I still made two meetings a day, and continued to do so for two years.

I believe it has to do with "how we see" the self-help phenomenon: "Of primary importance in the study of any and all ideas is the role of the and I doing the study. Unless and until we have determined the means by which we comprehend reality, of whatever sort, there is a risk that we omit virtually the most important element of all, in any study of consciousness" (How We See).

Here is an excellent definition of recovery:

The recovery process is developmental. This means that recovery is a process of growth and development that progresses from basic to complex recovery tasks. This progression is from abstinence (learning how to stop using alcohol and/or drugs), to sobriety (learning how to cope with life without alcohol and/or drugs), to comfortable living (learning how to live comfortably while abstinent), to productive living (learning how to build a meaningful sober lifestyle) (Staying Sober, p. 84).

To appropriately explain the self-help process, I'll start with the twelve steps of recovery:

"Step one--we admitted we were powerless over our addiction- -that our lives had become unmanageable." The recovery process cannot start until we admit we have a problem and that our lives have indeed become unmanageable. Alcoholism and drug addiction, to many, is a disease that tells us we don't have a disease. One of the outstanding symptoms is "denial," so as long as we deny that we have a problem the recovery process is deadlocked. Who cares to admit complete defeat? Practically no one, of course. Every natural instinct cries out against the idea of being powerless. This is an awful thing to have to admit to; therefore, our admission of personal powerlessness finally turns out to be a firm bedrock upon which we can lead happy and purposeful lives.

"Step two--came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." Some of us won't believe in God, others can't, and still others who do believe that God exists have no faith whatever that He will perform this miracle. A perfect example is myself. I considered myself an atheist, then my A.A. sponsor ask me if I believed there was some kind of force in the universe other than ourselves. I could accept that there was. I had no idea what it was, but I then started to construct my higher power; thus, it was possible for me to accept help in restoring my sanity from something outside of myself. Some people make the A.A. group their higher power, some people may have to use a light bulb or a tree. The point is, that most people have to recover with something other than self will; however, there are those who recover through spontaneous remission--basically, self will.

"Step three--made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him." This step is one of willingness. Like all the remaining steps, this one calls for action, for it is only by action that we can cut away the self- will which has always blocked us from bringing a higher power into our lives. After accepting step three we can finally say: "God, (Universe, The Allness, Allah, The Tao, or whatever), grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference" (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 10).

"Step four--made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." When a store clerk takes an inventory of merchandise, everything is added up, accounted for, and the damaged and/or expired goods are gotten rid of and the remaining goods are organized and stored. The same goes for a personal inventory. We need to find out who we are now that chemical substances is gone from our lives, so we add up the pluses and minuses. Coming to terms and acknowledging the things we've done in the past is no easy task; in fact, step four is one that requires continuous work, but we can continue with setting our mind at ease by accepting the good, as well as the bad, about ourselves. We also need to find exactly how, when, and where our natural desires have warped us. We need to look squarely at the unhappiness this has caused others and ourselves. By discovering what our emotional deformities are, we can move toward their correction. Without a searching and fearless moral inventory, most of us have found that the faith which really works in daily living is still out of reach. You see, 12-step programs aren't just a road to abstinence; it's more of a guide to happy and productive living. Therefore, thoroughness ought to be the key when taking inventory. It is wise to write out questions and answers. It will be an aid to clear thinking and honest appraisal. It will be the first tangible evidence of our complete willingness to move forward.

"Step five--admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." The forth and fifth steps are the biggies because in the forth we had to list everything, but in the fifth we have to share it with another human being, whether it be our sponsor, clergyman, or just a friend. I heard a person at a meeting share once that he knew of a person that went to skid row with a bottle of wine and gave it to one of the wino's, then sat with him and poured his guts out. After he was finished, he thanked the wino for listening to him and left. A.A. has taught us that we cannot live alone with our problems, secrets, and the character defects which cause or aggravate them. This feeling of being at one with the universe, this emerging from isolation through the open and honest sharing of our burdens of guilt, brings us to a place where we may prepare ourselves for the following steps and a full and meaningful sobriety.

"Step six--were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character." It has been said that this is the step that separates the men from the boys. Any person capable of enough willingness and honesty to try repeatedly step six on all his faults--without any reservations whatever--has indeed come a long way spiritually. "Sure, I was beaten, absolutely licked. My own willpower just wouldn't work on alcohol. Change of scene, the best efforts of family, friends, doctors, and clergymen got no place with my alcoholism. I simply couldn't stop drinking, and no human being could seem to do the job for me. But when I became willing to clean house and then asked a Higher Power, God as I understood Him, to give me release, my obsession to drink vanished. It was lifted right out of me" (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 63). The moment we say, "No, never!" our minds close against a higher power. Delay is dangerous, and rebellion may be fatal, so this is the point at which we abandon limited objectives, and allow our higher power (whatever that may be) to help.

"Step seven--humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings." This step specifically concerns itself with humility, for without it we can't remain abstinent. The seventh step is where we make the change in our attitude which permits us, with humility as our guide, to move out from ourselves toward others and the oneness of the universe. It is really saying to us that we now ought to be willing to try humility in seeking the removal of our other shortcomings just as we did when we admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, and came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. If that degree of humility could enable us to find the universal spirit by which such a deadly obsession could be banished, then there must be hope of the same result respecting any other problem we could possibly have.

"Step eight--made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all." In order to live a happy life of sobriety we need to clear our conscience. We look backward and try to discover where we have been at fault, then make a vigorous attempt to repair the damage we have done. This is a big order. It is a task which we may perform with increasing skill, but never really finish; in fact, it is suggested that we work these steps for the rest of our lives. When I committed myself to a clean and sober life and entered, and started attending 12-step meetings, the process began.

"Step nine--Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others." Making amends is not saying "I'm sorry" or apologizing. It's much more than that. If I were to approach someone I had done wrong to in the past, and ask him or her if there was anything I could do to right that wrong, and that person suddenly went off on me, told me where to stick my amends, etc., then I would leave and mark another amends off my list, because it isn't my job to see to it that my amends are accepted--I fulfilled my personal obligation to make an amends, and what that person does with it is their business. Above all, we should try to be absolutely sure that we are not procrastinating because of fear. For the readiness to take the full consequences of our past acts, and to take responsibility for the well-being of others at the same time, is what step nine is all about.

"Step ten--continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it." Taking inventories is a continual process--a life-long one, in fact. It's a good thing, too, because it really helps to figure things out when one writes it down and analyzes it. To just think about it usually isn't enough. We "constructively criticized" someone who needed it, when our real motive was to win a useless argument. We sometimes hurt those we love because they need to be "taught a lesson," when we really want to punish them. Learning daily to spot, admit, and correct these flaws is the essence of character- building and good living.

"Step eleven--sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out." Personally, I don't recognize the word "God." I don't pray either; however, I believe I have a conscious contact with a universal spirit, which could be interpreted as "God" as I understand him. What this step is saying, is "Thy will, not mine, be done." It is also suggesting prayer and meditation for those who are open to those mediums.

"Step twelve--having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts and/or alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs." There is a saying around 12-step programs: "We can't keep it unless we give it away." Here we experience the kind of giving that asks no rewards. When a practicing addict or alcoholic is down and out, drunk, hungry, broke, and destitute, and he reaches his or her hand out for help, it's our duty to help them; not enable, but help. We'll talk with them--not give them money, offer them food if they're hungry, offer them our experience, strength, and hope, and try to help them to recover. This is called twelve-step work, and as recovering addicts and alcoholics, we're obligated to do this any time we are called on to, whether it be in the middle of the night or the middle of the day--within reason of course. There are probably as many definitions of spiritual awakenings as there are people who have them, so there's really no specific way to define it accept that one has now become able to do, feel, and believe that which he could not do before on his resources alone.

"According to Gestalt theory, learning is a cognitive phenomenon. In the learning process, there is a perceptual reorganization of the field. After learning has occurred, one sees the situation in a new light" (Theories and Systems of Psychology, p. 246). Obviously, the 12-step experience has been a learning process for me. It's also obvious that 12-step groups of other types, and other types of self-help groups are a learning experience for many people. I think it's wonderful that so many people are finally able to get out of the physical stage of development and enter into the mental stage with the help of this self-help movement.


Gorski, Terence T. and Miller, Merlene. (1986). Staying Sober. Independence, MO: Herald House/Independent Press.

Hillman, James and Ventura, Michael. (1993). We've Had a Hundred Years of Psycotherapy and the world's Getting Worse. San Francisco, Harper.

Lundin, Robert W. (1991). Theories and systems of psychology. Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath.

Nitti, Louis. Transpersonal Psychology. (Unpublished paper).

Nitti, Louis. Making Sense of Learning and Information Processing. (Unpublished paper).

Nitti, Louis. Making Life Meaningful.(Unpublished paper).

Wilson, Bill and Smith, Bob. (1976). Alcoholics Anonymous. New York City: A.A. World Services.

Wilson, Bill and Smith, Bob. (1991). Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York City: A.A. World Services.

Author's Bio: 

After 40 arrests, five formal probations, four country jail sentences, and a prison term (as a result of chemical dependency), I turned my life around. I was released from prison in Dec 1989, and have been clean and sober since. I started at Barstow College in Feb 1990. Received my AA degree in '92 from Barstow College in Barstow, CA; BA in '94 from Chapman University in Orange CA; MHS in 98 from National University in San Diego CA, and finished with a Ph.D. from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA in Feb 2004. I have taught as an adjunct instructor for Park University and Barstow College. I can be contacted through my website