In working with members of Guard Your Eyes on our forums and through our Twelve Steps phone conferences, I came to see that the Twelve-Step Program addresses the root of all addictions, which is really a malady of self-centeredness. This sparked an idea to start a website, which I called, to give people a place to share support in using the Twelve-Step Program for whatever addiction they were struggling with. I asked Rabbi Twerski if he would be willing to write an article for the website on how the Twelve Steps address the self-centeredness of the addict, and he graciously agreed. Here is the essay he wrote, along with a short commentary on the first of the five steps that he sent along with it.


In 1961, to prepare myself for treating alcoholics, I began attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. I was impressed that people who followed the Twelve-Step Program were able to make radical changes in themselves. Some had been involved in psychotherapy, to no avail. Some had suffered loss of their marriage and family. Some had lost jobs. Some had been arrested and even imprisoned for drunk driving and other antisocial behavior. Some had sustained serious physical deterioration, and some had experienced all of the above. But none of these drastic consequences were enough to make them curtail their use of alcohol. Yet when they participated in the Twelve-Step Program, they were able to stop the destructive drinking. I met alcoholics who had been sober for fifty years.

One speaker at an AA meeting who was celebrating his thirty-fifth anniversary of sobriety said, “The man I once was drank, and the man I once was will drink again.” In this single sentence, he summed up the reason for the success of the Twelve-Step Program: It brings about a change in character.

It is of interest that Rambam makes the identical statement about teshuvah. “I am no longer the same person who committed the sin.” Remorse for committing the sin is not yet teshuvah. Promising never to repeat the sin, even a sincere promise, is not yet teshuvah. Teshuvah is becoming a different person from the one who committed the sin (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:4).

I found myself being very comfortable at AA meetings and with the discussions of the Twelve Steps, and I realized that the latter were essentially identical with the mussar that I had been learning for years. I wrote a book, Self-Improvement? I’m Jewish! in which I said that if I had to develop a program for recovery from alcoholism based on mussar, it would be word for word the Twelve Steps. The mystery was, how did Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, have access to the works of mussar?

But then a strange thing happened. I began to get clients for treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction who were very frum, some even Torah scholars who could quote Mesilas Yesharim verbatim. Yet their knowledge of mussar did not preclude their becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs, but when they joined AA and worked the Twelve-Step Program, they recovered. Inasmuch as the Twelve-Step Program is virtually identical to mussar, why did the program work, whereas mussar was ineffective?

I came to the conclusion that an alcoholic or drug addict does not come into recovery until they reach a crisis. They are at a point of ein bereirah — they have no choice. They are at a point that continuing to drink or use drugs will kill them. Following the Twelve Steps is a matter of life and death. They have witnessed people die who did not follow the program.

I realized then that although we say of Torah, ki heim chayeinu, that Torah is our very life, it is often unfortunately lip service. The addict knows for real that failure to follow the program is a death sentence. The student of mussar values it highly and respects its principles and teachings but generally does not feel that deviating from mussar is a death sentence. If he did, he would never again lie, speak or listen to lashon hara, or do anything else that mussar forbids.

I began to learn mussar with a different attitude. I understood what Rav Yisrael Salanter meant when he said that one must learn mussar with hispaalus, with an emotional upheaval.

Having seen how effective the Twelve-Step Program is in achieving significant character improvement, I decided to work the program as if I was an alcoholic. However, one of the requirements of the program is that one have a “sponsor,” a person with years of recovery to be one’s guide. I found it difficult to get a sponsor because I did not drink. Eventually, I was able to get a person with over thirty years of recovery to be my sponsor.

The fourth of the Twelve Steps is to “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” When I submitted my inventory to my sponsor, he returned it with the instruction to redo it and be more honest. My second submission met with the same response. The third submission was returned with the comment, “I asked for an inventory and you gave me a chimney sweep. An inventory should list both one’s liabilities and one’s assets. You listed all your character defects and the mistakes you made. You did not list any of your positives. Isn’t there anything good about you? Do it again, and this time list your personality strengths and the good things you have done.”

Strangely, this was more difficult than listing my faults.

It took me eighteen months to complete my inventory to my sponsor’s satisfaction. By this time, I had achieved a self-knowledge that was more thorough than had I been on a psychoanalyst’s couch four times a week for three years.

When I later learned Alei Shur, I found that Rav Shlomo Wolbe put great emphasis on a thorough self-awareness and dedicated an entire section in volume one (pp. 131–198) to this subject. “A person who does not know oneself cannot be at peace with oneself. When he attempts to learn Torah, his drives and traits will not allow him to learn and act wholesomely” (p. 131).

The success of AA led to the development of a number of Twelve-Step Programs, among them NA (Narcotics Anonymous), GA (Gamblers Anonymous), OA (Overeaters Anonymous), and SA (for lust addiction). Most of these programs have a companion program for the family members of the addict, such as Al-Anon family groups.

During my more than forty years of psychiatric practice, I dealt with a variety of problems in addition to addiction. There were some mood disorders that were of physiologic causation and were treated with medication. There were many cases of emotional difficulties that I found were due to a faulty self-awareness, with unwarranted feeling of inferiority resulting in low self-esteem.

I believe that many psychological problems are due to “selfism,” to a person seeing oneself as being the center of the universe, that one has not received all that is due him/her. Many marriage problems, family problems, social problems and simply dissatisfaction with one’s life are due to the frustration resulting from selfism. Indeed, when Moshe said, “I stood between Hashem and you” (Devarim 5:5), the commentaries say that this means that the “I,” the ego, is the barrier between man and Hashem. All the works of mussar and Chassidus stress the importance of bittul, of self-effacement. The latter cannot be achieved in absence of an accurate self-knowledge. Indeed, Rabbeinu Yonah says that gaavah is a defense against feelings of inferiority (Rabbeinu Yonah Al HaTorah, p. 156).

Selfism is a destructive attitude. Rav Chaim Vital says that one should be more meticulous about middos than even the positive and negative commandments (Shaar HaKedushah 2). Selfism is a most destructive character trait.

The society we live in is “selfist.” People are overwhelmingly motivated by pleasure-seeking, as though pleasure can provide happiness. In such an environment, overcoming selfism is a major challenge.

The Twelve-Step Program has been proven to be effective in overcoming some very difficult attitudes and behaviors. The Twelve-Step Program can be applied to overcome selfism, which would eliminate many psychological problems and enable people to achieve a true, enduring happiness.

Step One

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.

There is much significance in the very first word of Step One: “We.” It is “We admitted,” not “I admitted.” The very first step is eliminating the “I,” effacing and humbling oneself. That is the beginning of recovery. Bill Wilson said that “alcoholism is self-will run riot.” Recovery must begin with the willingness to set the “self” aside.

It is well known that if an alcoholic stops drinking because of liver disease or fear of any other consequences, he is referred to as a “dry drunk.” While cessation of drinking is, of course, important, the personality has not undergone any change, and the alcoholic’s behavior may be just as intolerable as when he was drinking. The “self-will,” which was manifest during the active drinking, continues to dominate his behavior, to everyone’s chagrin.

Clancy, a recovering alcoholic with fifty years of sobriety, stated it succinctly. “My problem wasn’t alcohol. It was alcohol-ism, and when the alcohol was gone, the ‘ism’ remained.”

The “ism” is the self-will. Unless the alcoholic is willing to relinquish the centrality of the “I,” admission of powerlessness and unmanageability is not feasible. This is why beginning recovery must be with “we” rather than “I.”

A neurosurgeon came to the physician’s recovery group, very angry. He had been ordered into treatment because he showed up in the emergency room under the influence of alcohol. This was in December. “There are parties all over the place. Why can’t I have a drink to celebrate the holiday? I can control my drinking.”

A physician with several years of recovery remarked, “When I realized that I couldn’t control alcohol, it was a great relief. I had tried all kinds of ways to control my drinking, but none of them worked. Now I am a free person. I don’t have to fight a losing battle anymore.”

Admitting powerlessness is a victory, not a defeat.

Step Two

We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

At an AA meeting in Jerusalem, one man said, “When I first came to this meeting and heard something about God, I walked out. I’m an atheist and I don’t want anything to do with a God program.

“I came back a year later because I needed help. I told the group, ‘I’ll do anything you say, but just don’t push God on me.’ The group agreed, and told me that I had to get a sponsor.

“When the sponsor said that I have to pray every day, I told him that the group agreed not to push God on me. The sponsor said, ‘Okay, don’t pray to God. Just pray.’ That made no sense. What do you mean, ‘Don’t pray to God, just pray?’ The sponsor said, ‘Look, do you want to get sober, or do you want to stay drunk? If you want to get sober, you have to pray.’

“I am now seven years sober. I don’t believe in God. I pray every day, because when I pray, it reminds me that I am not God.” The selfist alcoholic cannot accept God because he believes himself to be God, omniscient and omnipotent. When he accepts powerlessness, he admits that he is not God.

Step Three

We made a decision to turn our will and our lives to the care of God as we understood Him.

In Step One we admitted that we had lost control over our lives. Our “self-will run riot” resulted in wholesale destruction — marriage, family, job, friends, social status. We could no longer run our lives, because our compass had gone crazy and would lead us only to further disaster.

At one AA meeting, the speaker was an accomplished psycho-analyst who said, “All my psychological knowledge and treatment did not prevent alcohol from ruining my life. In desperation, I called AA. I was sitting in my kitchen, slumped over a cup of coffee, when this huge woman appeared in the doorway.

“‘Did you call for help?’ she said.
“I said, ‘Yes. Can you help me?’
“She said, ‘I will, if you’ll listen.’
“At that point, I, a training analyst, turned my life over to a fifth-grade dropout, who became my savior. After a brief talk, she said, ‘Go to the phone and cancel all your patients. You’re crazy!’ I did just that.

“I became totally dependent on her. I called her several times a day, asking what I should do. After two weeks, she told me she was going to Memphis to a niece’s wedding, and I panicked.

“‘What can I do if I can’t reach you? How will I know what to do?’

“She said, ‘Go out and ask someone on the street. Their judgment is going to be better than yours.’

“She was right. Alcohol had totally warped my judgment. Anyone’s judgment would be better than mine.”

Coming to the realization of how unreliable our thinking is, we realized that only a power greater than us could lead us out of this mess. If you’re religious, that Power could be God. If you don’t believe in God, then let someone else decide for you until your mind returns to normal.

Steps Four and Five

We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

The concept “Know thyself” has been attributed to a number of the ancient Greek philosophers. In Alei Shur, Rav Shlomo Wolbe contends that the Torah requirement for self-knowledge antedated Greek philosophy.

The importance of valid self-knowledge should be immediately evident. If a person has an erroneous perception of reality, one cannot make an optimal adjustment to reality. It makes little difference what the nature of the error is. A poverty-stricken person who has the delusion that he is a multibillionaire or the psychotic who cannot be budged from his conviction that he is president of the World Bank cannot live a normal, healthy life. This is equally true of a bright, handsome, gifted, personable person who thinks himself to be dull, ugly, and devoid of any skills or talents. A person who thinks himself to be inferior believes that everyone who looks at him sees him as the worthless person he thinks himself to be. One who functions under this delusion cannot make an optimal adjustment to life.

Earlier, I related how doing the fourth step enabled me to achieve correct self-awareness. I pointed out that my sponsor was not satisfied with my first attempts at an inventory, because I only listed my character defects and the mistakes I had made. He instructed me to describe my character strengths and the good things I had done, but that I found this difficult.

We then went over the mistakes I had made. My sponsor said, “If that situation occurred today, what would you do?”

I said, “I certainly would not act as I did then.”

He said, “Oh, then it was a learning experience. A learning experience is a positive, not a negative.” Eventually, all my inventory was positive.

Why should a person have trouble being aware of one’s strengths? Perhaps it is because if you are aware of your potential, you may feel obligated to live up to it, and if you do not actualize your potential, you may feel guilty. It may be more comfortable to be unaware of your skills, talents, and strengths. A person may justify his indolence by thinking that he is not capable of doing what he should.

Rebbe Zusia of Anipoli was hurrying along his way when a man shouted to him, “Hey, come here and help me set this wagon up straight.”
Rebbe Zusia said, “I’m not able to.”
The man said, “Sure, you are able to. You just don’t want to.”
Rebbe Zusia said that this was like a message from Heaven.
Whenever you think you cannot do something, think again. It may be that you just don’t want to do it.

It is well known that the hallmark of addiction is denial. This refers not only to the denial of the addictive behavior, but also to the denial of who one is in reality.

In my book The Thin You Within You, I said that the person whom one really is will not overeat. However, if one imagines oneself to be something else, this imaginary person is insatiable. No matter how much food this imaginary person is given, it is never enough. This applies to all addictions. The real person does not have an endless desire. It is because one believes oneself to be something other than one is in reality that the person is like a bottomless pit that can never be satisfied.

One recovering addict said, “I never had a desire for drugs. My body wanted drugs , but not me.”

This is a wise statement. If all we are is a body, or as science says, homo sapiens, a baboon with intellect, we are at risk of becoming addicted. If we recognize who the “real me” is, we are less likely to become addicted.

The problem with selfism is that we have no idea who the real self is. The bogus “self” that we think ourselves to be may be insatiable in many ways.

After our having made a searching and fearless moral inventory, the program requires that we admit it to Hashem and to another human being. Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk says that when you verbalize the wrongs that you’ve done, it breaks their hold on you. Furthermore, if you know that you will eventually have to reveal your actions to someone, that may restrain you from doing something wrong.