“We admitted we were powerless over ______________ and that our lives had become unmanageable.”

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Step One in the Twelve Steps can be a tough pill to swallow. No one really likes to admit powerlessness, especially in our individualistic culture. The American way tends to value the kind of bootstrapping that looks down on defeat. To admit powerlessness is equated with admitting defeat. However, there are lots of things we are powerless over: the weather, traffic, other people. Once we shrug at this basic fact it may get easier to examine the powerlessness inherent in alcohol or another addictive substance use or behavior.

I left blank what we are powerless over in the quote because there are many twelve-step programs. Most often people think of AA, but there are Debtors Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and even Racists Anonymous. All these programs affirm that there can be powerlessness over the programming or automatic thoughts around all kinds of behaviors. Once someone has worked through the twelve steps, it can be useful to work the first step again when feeling stuck.

The first step allows us to see where we have control and where we don’t. Sometimes when we strive for control but fail, rumination or anxiety kicks into gear. This is where unmanageability arises. Most of us feel out of control when we feel excessive fear, anger, anxiety, doubt, or depression. Unmanageability may express itself in very tangible ways externally, but it can also express itself in internal discord. When we become healthier and more aligned, subtle internal discord becomes more noticeable. This is uncomfortable, but ultimately quite good. If we can catch feeling out of alignment internally, we can change course externally.

Step one is akin to the serenity prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” There is a ton of stuff we can change, and so much we can’t fortunately or unfortunately. When we are unwise to what we can’t change, it might be useful to fill in the blank in step one and get some clarity.

Recently, I had a challenging conversation with someone. To get to a resolution we had very different ways of responding. This is an example of powerlessness. I am powerless over the choice of how another person wants to resolve an issue. I can ruminate and be frustrated and try to convince the other person that my way is better, but all this creates conflict in the relationship and negative feelings in myself. Certainly, speaking up for ourselves is useful, but ultimately what people choose to do is up to them. Serenity is accepting this powerlessness without shame or bitterness. Step one in CoDA (Codependents Anonymous) reads, “We admitted we are powerless over other people…” While this fact and phrase is studied in CoDA, it is almost universally true.

What are the benefits of admitting defeat? Humility, yielding, allowing come with defeat. Yin energy is here. Defeat is not necessarily a loss. Admitting powerlessness means that we don’t have to battle ourselves or anyone else anymore. We stop fighting. To have fallibility and weakness is to be human. Knowing that we cannot solve a problem, allows resolution to occur in other ways.

When we know what we are powerless over, we can guide our actions in a different direction. When we know that we are powerless over traffic, we take a different route. When we know we are powerless over the weather, we bring a sweater. When we know we are powerless over alcohol, we don’t drink. When we know we are powerless over a compulsive behavior, we drop the behavior and shift our focus.

The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions book, or 12x12, states, “…we soon take another view of this absolute humiliation. We perceive that only through utter defeat are we able to take our first steps toward liberation and strength. Our admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be the firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives may be built.” It’s interesting to think about the foundation of a contented life being humility. It reminds me of a shift in perspective of leadership from autocratic to democratic. From being forceful and controlling to garnering input and listening. The first step allows us to step back and assess what we don’t know. There’s a whole bunch of stuff we don’t know we don’t know, and we are powerless over that.

I’ve heard people who work the twelve steps in various programs say something like, “Man, too bad you have to be an addict to work the twelve steps. These are really helpful! Everyone could benefit from it.” Working the first step can be a formal outline of examples of powerlessness and unmanageability or it can be a momentary recognition of humility. In whatever way we chose to humbly let go, we allow life to take shape and make room for new ways of thinking and being.