Have you ever read the AA bible, the 12 steps manual? For those at all familiar with AA’s approach to overcoming alcohol addiction (a STRONG habit) there is one crucial element that appears repeatedly. It turns many off, but those who are the most successful with AA often site it as the thing that empowers them to succeed in overcoming their drinking problems. These people make “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand him.”
AA was started by a one time agnostic who, while in the hospital being treated for alcoholism was given large doses of the psychedelic belladonna. He had visions and wrote ‘the book’ very quickly afterwards. This book mentions God in 7 out of the 12 steps. A belief in a higher power is not recommended for AA, it is required. For many, a lack of this type of faith is enough to turn them off form AA altogether. For years people have debated whether or not a belief in god is crucial to recovery. I suggest that it is not god, but the belief itself that is transformative. Faith is the key. A higher power is the thing that inspires such unwavering faith, but it is the belief itself that inspires and transforms.
Two weeks ago I introduced you to the habit cycle as described in “The Power of Habits” by Charles Duhigg. Last week I introduced the technique known as Habit Reversal Training that can be used to help change any habit. I also mentioned that there is one crucial element that can make any habit change either bulletproof or susceptible to failure at a crucial moment. This element is belief. More specifically, it appears to be belief in something bigger than oneself.
A study conducted by the NIH, UC Berkeley and Brown University looked for correlations between religious belief and how long people stayed sober. What they found was what that while yes, habit replacement works, it also fails at critical, stressful moments. A woman may get sober for two years, but when circumstances arise, when strong enough cues are present, she may well go back to drinking UNLESS there is a strong enough belief in place that empowers her to maintain her course. In AA this belief is that a higher power has entered ones life. People who succeed genuinely believe that things are going to get better. Faith is not a simple, black and white happening, but it may not be all that mysterious either.
In AA God is the name given to this faith. When it comes to habit change in general it might be more helpful to think of this faith as not in god, but in the process itself. AA inspires this in a few ways as well. First, AA provides you with proof. When you sit in an AA meeting you are surrounded by those for whom this process has worked. It is hard for even the biggest skeptic to maintain disbelief the entire time. Reality is telling you that this has worked before. You would be a fool not to believe. The second thing AA provides is the experience of something greater than yourself. You are part of a group and you are offered opportunities to serve that group. Whether setting up chairs, offering encouragement or becoming a sponsor for someone earlier along the path there is the continuous experience of being part of something that is bigger than the individual. The process itself is something bigger than any one individual that you must surrender to for it to work. It may feel like a stretch to call this god, but the AA book does ask you to define God however you choose. For many the need to have a specific definition is trumped by the direct experience of being a part of process that they can not fully understand. The key for many, if not to fully believe, is to at least suspend disbelief for long enough to let grace in.
One other key to belief that AA provides is community. Whether or not you have a supportive group of people around you can make all the difference in whether or not you believe that change is possible. remember, community can be as small as one other person.
What habit do you have that can not be addressed by applying this process of Habit Reversal Training coupled with a healthy dose of faith? Almost no matter what you are struggling with, you know that others have succeeded before you. You likely know that you yourself have succeeded at times. The key is to remove judgement, apply a healthy dose of logic via a proven process, all while letting go and having a bit of faith, in yourself, in the future and in the fact that you are a part of something far bigger than yourself that will carry you when you allow it.
You may have noticed that changing some habits seems impossible while other, really simple habits are easy to change. What is really amazing is that if you find just the right simple, easily changed habit it can create a cascade effect that leads to effortless change in the rest of your life. Duggins refers to these as keystone habits. I wrote about something quite similar a while back. I call them TrimTabs.
What habit would you most like to change?