New Age Recovery

New Age Recovery

The twelve-step program, like us all, is contaminated by the culture in which it exists. A big part of recovery is the process of seeing that this contamination is true, and detaching ourselves, and what is important to us, from that culture.

For some of us who have been around twelve-step programs for a long time, we have seen some significant unnamed, probably unnoticed changes, which have affected the twelve-step program.

Although there probably have been many such changes over the years, the particular influence I want to focus on in this writing is that of psychology and New Age psychology in particular.

The Influence of Psychology

When I look back on my early experience in the twelve-step program, I have little or no memory of the mention of psychotherapy being necessary for recovery. Indeed, there was a strong feeling that if people really wanted recovery and were willing to “do the work,” recovery was possible with the exception of people who were “constitutionally incapable of honesty.” Given this promise and the assurance that the twelve-step program was free and available to any who wanted sobriety, there was never any mention of needing psychotherapy to recover. One just worked with a number of other professional “amateurs,” all who were suffering from the same disease and – – got better.

Having a Ph.D. in psychology, I believe I have an idea when things began to change. It was in the early ‘80’s and is part of my professional “story.” Back then I was happily bopping along with a booming practice as a psychotherapist and becoming more and more involved in women’s issues and women’s healing. As a result of my research, I discovered that, like medicine, most of the theories in psychology were developed by men, about men from studying mostly men, and often did not fit for women. I spent many years focusing on women. I came to know more and more about what we thought and felt and who we were as women and clearly came to see that women were very different from men and in the world of psychology no one seemed to care much – and I did. I have written about my years of researching who and what we are as women and what we need to heal starting with my first book, Women’s RealityAn Emerging Female System in a White Male Society. Clearly, women were not only different from men, they/we needed new ways to heal from our own issues, from our cultural conditioning and from the culture. During that time, I was living in a household of women and our children.

At one point, we/I discovered that one of our housemates was an alcoholic. Since I was a psychologist, I assumed that I knew something about alcoholism. After all, I was “trained and a professional.” I quietly learned that in my three hours of instruction on alcoholism in my Ph.D. program, I had learned nothing and knew nothing. So, I got busy – reading everything I could get my hands on – studying everything I could find – asking everyone I met, professional and non-professional, what they knew about alcoholism and addiction. I was eager and willing to learn and as I gathered more and more data, it seemed like those who knew the most were those in AA. My family and I went to treatment. I started going to twelve-step meetings to learn. I went with my yellow tablets. In those meetings, I quickly learned one of the most important lessons of my life. I COULD NOT LEARN the twelve-step program BY OBSERVING and THINKING, which was the way I was taught to learn in psychology. If I wanted to know how the twelve-step program worked, I had to participate. I had to do it!

This was a completely different paradigm than the one I was using in my doctoral, educational work. And, it was of immense importance not only in my beginning to “get” what addictions and recovery were about, it was also necessary if I was really going to get my hands on what I was about. I came to see that real healing doesn’t start with the head. It starts and ends with participation.

Psychology believes that healing begins and ends with abstracts – concepts – ideas – thinking.

The twelve-step program teaches us that our thinking can be our biggest problems (along with self-centeredness, dishonesty, the illusion of control and a few others).

The more I learned, the more I saw that the scientific paradigm out of which psychology comes was not only not helpful, it was part of the problem and could not be or become the solution.

It was around that time that I decided to drop my membership in the American Psychological Association (because I could no longer support its beliefs and principles even though I had many friends there). That was a painful and very important move for me.

Another part of my leaving the APA was that about that time in their journal there was a lead article that, in essence, stated that addictions were becoming big, there was a lot of money to be made and psychologists needed to convince addicts that they needed “professionals” to help them heal and psychologists needed to “get on the addictions bandwagon.”

I was embarrassed and sickened that “my” professional organization would print such a thing in its leading journal and it made my leaving easier.

By that time, I was firmly convinced that the best and most effective healing place for addicts was in the twelve-step program and that fellow addicts know much more about the “disease” than any “professional” could or would.

And, at that point, I had little or no experience of how the influence of psychology would and could change AA. Now I do. Here are some of the important differences between the two:

  1. Psychology prides itself on being “scientific” with all that implies.

  2. The twelve-step program is based on spiritual principles and the need for spiritual healing.

  1. Psychology believes in objectivity, detachment and manipulation.

  2. The twelve-step program is a participatory program.

  • Psychology believes in objectivity, concepts, thinking and understanding.

  1. The twelve-step program knows that when we are an addict we cannot trust our thinking and our thinking often leads us astray – i.e. alcoholic thinking. Addicts know that we will never heal from “understanding” and addictions are not “understandable.”

  1. Psychology believes that people necessarily must have “experts” to heal.

  2. The twelve-step program believes that healing takes place between a person and that person’s higher power and is an act of grace.

  1. Psychology believes in the value of control – internal and external.

  2. The twelve-step program believes that control is an illusion and part of the disease.

These are only a few of the differences between the premises of psychology which make it easier to see the possibility of the incompatibility of the paradigms. They even open the possibility to see how psychology, as we know it, could even be a cultural contamination for the twelve-step program.


New Age Psychology

Now, I would like to turn my attention to what I believe is a secondary factor of this psychological contamination of the twelve-step program.

That contamination is the influence of New Age Psychology. As with the contamination of the twelve-step program with modern psychology, I believe that New Age Psychology has had its own particular negative influence.

This contamination goes something like this and I believe, is very much related to the “me” generation. My experience is that it not-so-subtly feeds one of the basic pillars of the addictive process, self-centeredness, and actively interferes with recovery.

When I first started participating in twelve-step groups, I did not see it and I now see it as a prevalent tactic that sponsors take with their sponsees.

This phenomenon usually takes the character of –

“What do you need?”

“Remember, you need to take care of yourself.”

“You have to learn to put yourself first.”

“Start with what you need.”

“You deserve to have a personal (self-centered) life.”
“Make sure you take care of #1.”

Are you getting the picture?

I can’t tell you how often I have heard sponsors urging them to “take care of themselves” when they are speaking to people who are literally dying of their self-centeredness. The old, old-timers suggested being of service. The “New Age sponsors” advise taking care of yourselves first and then wonder why their sponsees seem perpetually depressed, restless, angry and discontented. They say or imply – “Who will take care of you if you don’t?” and thus encourage people not to trust their higher power, to be controlling, and be self-centered – all in the supposed service of recovery.

Let’s face it, New Age Psychology has not been that good for psychology and it has been deadly for recovery.

I would suggest that each of us attempt to shake off the influence of a dysfunctional society (and the ideas and behaviors that have made it dysfunctional). And, for those who want to recover, let us get back to being of service, throwing away our illusion of control and try to trust our life process for a change. Also, we need to return to seeing self-centeredness for what it is – something that is destroying our very souls and part of the disease, not something that will facilitate our recovery.

It’s wonderful to have lived this long to be able to see trends, phases, and even phases repeating themselves.

Most of all, it is great to have experienced that none of these phases or trends is “reality.” All are made by humans and hence limited and time-limited and usually, “part of the problem.”


Love to you all,

Anne Wilson Schaef, Ph.D.

3 thoughts on “New Age Recovery

  1. Thanks for this and all your posts. I eagerly read each one as it arrives in my mailbox.

    I love how you see the big picture here, of how the twelve step program has been damaged. Let’s pray and work actively to rebuild the original principle of service. I hope this post gets shared lots in 12 step circles. Heather

  2. Dear Ann,

    Wow, this is so right on!! Thank you for bringing such clarity to this difficulty.

    Love and Good Karma,
    Louise Gangelhoff

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