12-Step Recovery Programs first appeared with the inception of “Alcoholics Anonymous,” a spiritual fellowship and structured path to healing, which later took on myriad forms that could address other addictions or maladies. This tradition proved to be sustainable, especially because it could be adapted and used by different groups.
My own adaptation, “Thoughts Anonymous,” is offered in similar fashion – addressing a group of sufferers who feel powerless over thoughts.
Thoughts, as the subject of concern, always show up in psychological literature – that appears obvious enough. But recovery from thought? That hasn’t been so easy for science to address. Just as the 12-Steps proliferated over time, behavioral science branched out as well. New orientations emerged – introducing values, acceptance, compassion, and mindfulness — practices more spiritual in nature. Over time, the branches of Psychology touched the branches of Spirituality, and when they grew high enough, looked almost indistinguishable.
My conception of Thoughts Anonymous came from the union of these complementary frameworks.
What is Thoughts Anonymous?
“Thoughts Anonymous” is a philosophical movement that is both psychological and spiritual, emerging from the simultaneous principles of evidence-based Psychology and 12 Step Recovery Programs.1
Like alcohol (AA); food (OA); and people (CoDa), thoughts are prevalent and something we must navigate around. Are thoughts, therefore, to be regarded as a substance? Perhaps. Just as the addict can’t completely “control” their addiction, the thinker can’t completely “control” their thoughts. And when thoughts yield more influence than our hopes or intentions, our lives become unmanageable. For those who have experienced difficulty with our thoughts, we turned to the guiding principles of Thoughts Anonymous. We admitted we were powerless over thoughts, and that our minds had become unmanageable. We then came to choose Reality as a power greater than our thoughts – a power that could restore us to sanity.
Thoughts have the ability to elevate humanity — preceding hope, empathy, creativity, productivity, and civilization. Our world, with all its advancements and beauty, first came from thought. But thoughts also seem to create debilitating symptoms, destructive behaviors, and biases of all kinds. Thoughts get away from us, trampling over our minds like a wild herd.
Thoughts don’t ask our permission when they appear, and they won’t leave us alone — at least when we want them to. They show up with their own agenda, often interrupting us or changing the subject. Thoughts even derail us, showing total disregard for the direction we were heading. They aren’t fast enough or slow enough, they aren’t smart enough or sensible enough, they won’t stay quiet and they won’t wait their turn. Thoughts – the self-governing events that run around unsupervised – come and go with so much autonomy that it would be foolish to think we have control over them. In this regard, we can say we are powerless over thoughts.
Thoughts can certainly inspire or shape events, but they hold no ultimate sway. Not only do humans overestimate the power we have over thoughts, we overestimate what thoughts can do. Our intuition tells us we should be able to control our thoughts, but can we? “Pop-psychology,” including the self-help and metaphysical genres, promotes mental acts like positive thinking, visualizations, or affirmations. But there are significant limitations to these practices. Any shortcomings as to their efficacy – such as the intrusion of persistent thoughts or unwanted outcomes – are usually attributed to the thinker. And this sense of “failure” can result in frustration, shame, and low self-worth. While those who practice positive thinking insist that we can control our thoughts (and Reality along with it), science does not support this claim.2
Psychology and 12 Step Programs: Two Sides of the Same Coin.
In parallel fashion, both Psychology and 12 Step Recovery explore problematic styles of thinking. Presented in a deeply psychological manner, 12 Step literature points to “character defects” and a degree of overconfidence that hints at narcissistic traits and a particular short-sightedness. Prior to embracing recovery, addicts often demonstrate an inflated sense of entitlement and/or a misguided belief of having everything under control.
Psychology discusses these things in more detail, noting different “personality disorders” and the types of emotional injuries and attachment styles that can create them. In addition, psychoanalytic theory explains how the subconscious mind can shield us from truth, even to the point of masking Reality. Strangely, the mind can alter our perceptions in efforts to protect us – keeping us from admitting things we are too fragile to comprehend. Such is the function of “defense mechanisms,” the automatic process that protects us from emotional injury. Denial, projection, repression – these are just some of the defenses that appear when we are unable to accept what is true about our lives.
An important distinction in Thoughts Anonymous is that it is less concerned with failures in people and more concerned with failures in thought. To judge a person’s character is a fixed perspective that isn’t particularly helpful. To assert basic flaws in a person not only leads to blame or shame, it also suggests that little about the person can be changed. For this reason, Thoughts Anonymous does not focus on the “character defects” discussed in Recovery, or the “personality disorders” discussed in Psychology. Rather, we look at our “cognitive distortions” – the common thinking errors that all people share.
In this way, we can regard certain thoughts in a discerning manner – observing them as “error messages,” “identity theft,” or “spam” – before deciding what to do next. When thoughts are particularly frustrating or menacing, it can be a relief to know they could be wrong! Fortunately, being suspicious of a thought does not prevent us from taking positive action or further discovery. In fact, we can take an approach of “cultivated skepticism” while freeing ourselves to make forward movement – simultaneously living a meaningful life while detaching from overwhelming thoughts.
Both Psychology and 12 Step Recovery agree that denial is our downfall, because being at odds with Reality does not take us very far. Distortions only protect us up to a point, and eventually we must confront what is true about our lives. From a Thoughts Anonymous perspective, protection from injury is not the ultimate goal, since it is not ultimately sustainable. But if we are to become searching and fearless, we can shift our values away from denial and inch our way closer to the truth. As we approach Reality in this way, defenses give way to something more adaptive – resilience. This is a healthier mindset that asserts, “I can handle knowing what is true about my life, even if it’s hard to approach. If there’s something I can change, I’ll take responsibility. And if there’s something I can’t change, I’ll learn how to accept it. Either way, I’m going to be brave, and humble, and not hide from Reality anymore.”
As human beings, we are far too confident about what we think. We are inclined to believe all our thoughts are important, and that we tend to be “right.” Even when thoughts are random, unlikely, or irrational, we still give them too much credibility. In this manner, we tend to overvalue a thought, which is to say that we over-emphasize it – making it far more significant than it needs to be.
But each of us is susceptible to having a “blind spot” regarding whether or not our thoughts are relevant, or even sound. As cognitive experts are aware, our minds aren’t necessarily governed by logic. Rather, it is usually our feelings which take the lead, with our thoughts following closely behind.3 To use a common metaphor, this is much like an elephant leading its rider. Paradoxically, as our conviction grows, our perspective diminishes. This blind spot – including not knowing we have this blind spot – is often in opposition to Reality. For this reason, it can cause our lives to become unmanageable.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (“CBT”) – an evidence-based treatment in Psychology – regards thoughts with a healthy dose of suspicion. This skepticism not only applies to the mind’s many distortions, it also casts doubt on whether we are able to control our thoughts. As each of us has personally experienced, dominating thoughts is not so easy. Research on “thought suppression” (the act of trying to push away a thought) proves just how impossible this really is. It turns out that we cannot banish a thought without it returning with more persistence, and this problem was made evident by the “try not to think of a white bear” experiment.4
It is also quite difficult for us to delineate a sense of “self” that is apart from thought. Thoughts take place inside our heads, but so do “we,” and all this awareness feels melded together. Because thoughts proliferate and arise so seamlessly, we hardly notice when a new one sneaks in. In addition, we also experience a self-aware “I” inside us, and this feels like our identity, our consciousness – the essence of who we are. From that place, it is easy to believe it is we who originated a thought, not realizing that the thought was a separate event that showed up on its own accord.
This leads to cognitive fusion – the feeling of being fused with a thought while also regarding it as if it were literally true. Conversely, cognitive defusion would allow us to separate from the thought – to see thoughts from a healthy distance.5 It can be a relief to regard thoughts in this way – to feel a small “gap” between ourselves and our thoughts. By becoming more of an observer, we can enjoy a little more space from the constant stream of irrelevant content. This makes it easier not to “buy into” the thought if we choose not to. Though it may sound less alluring to the addict or controlling person, certain things need to be left alone. Anything that is experienced privately, including our own thoughts, may simply require our observation or skepticism — perhaps even self-compassion. Because thoughts have a transitory nature, we can learn to watch them enter into awareness and then move on — without “managing” them with forced interference.
It can sometimes feel as if we are trying to overcome certain malfunctions in the brain, and in many instances, we probably are. Our brains never received their updated software, in a sense, and still direct us to behave much like our ancestors who risked their lives on a regular basis. We still operate from same genetic blueprint, focusing on way too many problems and seeing “threats” in our lives that don’t always exist. Our intensely reactive “fight-or-flight” response is deeply hard-wired and is frequently activated like a faulty signal. These error messages happen so quickly, we don’t have time to examine them. Delivered straight from the nervous system, these alarm messages can produce wild interpretations that can feel absolutely believable, convincing us of danger when we are actually safe.
Powerlessness: Keeping Step with the 12 Steps.
Even though our brains haven’t evolved as much as we would like, Psychology has fortunately been given a “reboot.” Therapeutic approaches have definitely improved, shifting us away from thought “control” and more towards mindfulness and acceptance. While some of this update came from psychological research, other benefits likely came from spiritual practices that include mindfulness techniques, exploration of values, compassion – and, of course, the 12 Step Programs.
As a new generation of Psychology emerged, arising from the foundation of CBT, concepts were presented that have long since existed in 12 Step Programs. Slogans that help addicts cope “just for today” and “one day at a time” sound remarkably like the practice of “mindfulness” that eventually found its way into behavioral science. Concepts of “willingness” and “acceptance” presented in newer therapies also seem to echo familiar phrases in 12 Step literature. “Radical acceptance,” commonly mentioned in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT),6 resonates with language that is printed in the actual 12 steps. “Creative hopelessness” in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT),7 sounds markedly similar to the notion of “hitting bottom” — an act of surrender and genuine turning point for hope and change.
These approaches have fortunately deviated from the classic CBT model, which previously suggested that we try to control our thoughts and manage our symptoms. More recently, therapists now understand that “control strategies” (such as escaping certain triggers or avoiding certain feelings) will likely fall short in some detrimental way.
Just as 12 Step Recovery warns against numbing and denial, Psychology says the same thing – noting how “experiential avoidance” makes internal suffering so much worse and harder to overcome. Things like anxiety, pain, and depression may actually get worse when “struggle” gets involved – meaning, when we push back against these symptoms. Ironically, the more we try to “manage” our pain through escape or avoidance, the worse it can get. This epiphany of how “unmanageable” symptoms become, particularly when we try to control them, mirrors the advice in Step One which states, “We admitted we were powerless over _____ — that our lives had become unmanageable.” Psychology is now “keeping step with the 12 Steps” – confirming that control tactics inevitably fail when we try to avoid our internal suffering.
How do we address this unmanageable quality, as it pertains to our thoughts? And how does the notion of powerlessness play a role in recovery? The act of surrendering control can at first appear frightening or defeating, but it doesn’t have to be experienced this way. Creative hopelessness, powerlessness, hitting bottom – however it may be described – can be paradoxically liberating. There is a certain freedom in admitting we are powerless over thoughts, and that the struggle to control them has made our lives unmanageable. Unburdened by these shackles, we are better able to re-engage with the present moment. We are released from the defenses that keep us from knowing ourselves. We become less internally preoccupied. We are free to feel our feelings, re-commit to our values, and connect with others. We find ourselves more in tune with Reality.
Reality as “Higher Power.”
What is a truer, more influential presence than our own thoughts? Thoughts Anonymous does not refer to God or a Higher Power per sé, but instead emphasizes the formidable presence of Reality. Thoughts are often in opposition to Reality – insisting on that which we long for; opposing that which exists. Even though Reality is much higher than thought, we still try to defeat it at every turn. We resist Reality because it doesn’t conform to our wishes. We resist Reality because it has elements of surprise, and we hate to be blindsided. Absurdly, we regard Reality as if it were inferior to our thoughts. The chaos and entropy emerging from Reality often seem like “mistakes,” while perfectionistic ideals produced by the mind appear more “correct.”
But just because thoughts are preferred, ideal, or compelling, it doesn’t make them true. And just because we want Reality to succumb to our wishes, it doesn’t mean that it will. Time and time again, whenever thoughts collide with Reality, Reality always wins. The insight “that a power greater than our minds could restore us to sanity” is about making a sincere effort to acknowledge what actually exists. “A decision to turn our will and our lives over to Reality, as we are able to understand it,” means that we are ready to have Reality remove the distortions in our thinking and take its rightful place in our lives. This should not suggest that we allow ourselves to become complacent; rather, it means that we continue to make forward movement in our lives while learning to respect Reality’s ultimate sway.
Science and Spirituality.
A contributory aspect of Thoughts Anonymous is to acknowledge the shared language between science and spirituality. Contemplating a higher power, taking moral inventory, making amends, giving service — these are all practices that are consistent with spiritual living, and yet, they affect us in real and tangible ways, as described below:
Practices and Principles of Thoughts Anonymous.
Some spiritual practices can transform us on a neurobiological level. Acts of compassion, including self-compassion, release beneficial chemicals in the body. Oxytocin, a naturally produced hormone, can reduce fear and anxiety, lower blood pressure, and calm inflammation. The release of oxytocin during compassionate moments makes us behave warmer and kinder. It produces feelings of trust, wellbeing, and connection to others.
Developing the capacity to observe rather than react; noticing thoughts without judging them; allowing images to emerge and remit without interference — these are all valuable states of mindfulness that can create physical changes in the brain. Such changes can even be observed through imaging techniques, and technology that records brain activity can allow us to examine higher mental states through a scientific lens. Non-judgmental, present-focused awareness can calm the glitchy amygdala, reducing false messages of threat.
With discernment, we learn to separate what we should keep versus what we should relinquish, allowing us to disconnect from cognitive bias and distortion. Self-discovery is not simply the result of accumulating correct thoughts; it is also the “ruling out” process that becomes equally important. Whereas science is willing to discard certain outdated theories as they become obsolete, we, as individuals, can do the same. But we don’t need to shame ourselves or others when thoughts turn out to be wrong. Culturally, we can appreciate the value of worn out perspectives as they give way to new or broader understandings. Individually, our own personal beliefs might eventually be rejected — even by ourselves.
Courage and Acceptance
The Serenity Prayer,8 often recited at 12 Step meetings, allows us to “accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” During the process of discovery, we realize that some elements of Reality can be changed while others cannot. As such, we recognize that the outcomes produced by our thoughts will be intermittent at best. Knowing this, we may sometimes choose to conserve our efforts – not everything is a “problem” to be solved.
Alternatively, where Reality is pliable, and calls for us to act, we may need to find courage. But courage is needed for acceptance as well – particularly when things are not clear, or not what we want. Courage is necessary because Reality is formidable. We need courage in order to meet Reality without defense or distortion, without escape or avoidance — even when we are feeling fragile.
Even when thoughts and Reality cannot easily be distinguished, we know that the difference is there. This deep sense of knowing directs the “call and response” dynamic between courage and acceptance. The dance between our thoughts and Reality changes from moment to moment, because Reality unfolds over time. When we choose Reality, Truth finds its way into thoughts. Truth – a more quiet, startling, or sacred knowing – can be revealed incrementally, or all at once. Sometimes, we have to wait for it.
Tolerance and Forgiveness
The inevitable clash in ideologies between people seems to be happening more and more over time. Yet, it becomes easier to navigate when we begin to appreciate our common humanity. All human beings suffer from the same pitfalls and thinking errors that include overvaluing, cognitive fusion, and blind spots. This insight removes the narrow and judgmental lens of “us versus them.” Through patience and understanding, we seek to become more flexible with our thinking. We learn to forgive our mistakes and the mistakes of others, appreciating the limitations of the mind and how we all are a work in progress.
We readily admit when we are over-confident, knowing this can hinder our path to insight and recovery. We acknowledge the addictive qualities of righteousness, bringing into question the perception that our thoughts are “right” while others’ are “wrong.” We strive to re-own our projections, perceiving ourselves to be equally fallible. When thoughts inflate our ego or identity, we seek to humble ourselves. Paradoxically, as we admit to knowing less, we become more knowledgeable. Through the conscious practice of becoming skeptical of our thoughts, we become humble and more self-aware.
We refrain from tracking other people’s thoughts, instead directing our efforts towards becoming creative and productive. We let go of the attempt to change other people’s minds, and instead pay closer attention to keeping ourselves accountable. Where our thoughts intrude onto others, we admit our addictive or co-dependent behaviors. We learn to let go of the belief that we know what is best for another person, admitting our powerlessness as a gesture of respect. Suspending our judgment and embracing a sense of not knowing, we can appreciate the significance of another person’s journey.
The “wisdom to know the difference” in the Serenity Prayer enables us to feel both connected and separate, and to consider what it means to have healthy boundaries. It gives us permission to diverge from others’ judgments and opinions and to consider how others’ beliefs or expectations might have become our own. When these or other perspectives no longer serve us, we find the strength to relinquish them.
The last important message of Thoughts Anonymous is to be compassionate – to not reject the value of the Self as we take a position of becoming skeptical of our thoughts. We become gentle with ourselves, forgiving our own misguided thinking. While we realize that the mind is quite limited, we can still hold the possibility that our hearts have no bounds. As separate from thought, we can discover an inner presence that plays, desires, creates, and loves. This dignifies and allows us to feel worthy as human beings – despite our flaws and the defects in our thinking. Through compassion, we come to recognize and honor the beauty in all of us that is perfect with all of its imperfections.
“Reality, show me the difference between what I long for and what is actually here. Keep me on the path towards seeing things as they really are. Help me to become more tolerant of this moment, and to be more present. Teach me the simultaneous practice of becoming compassionate with my feelings, but skeptical of my thoughts. Help me to be compassionate towards others and to myself — forgiving the limitations and distortions of our thinking. Help me to see the sameness in all people, that we all suffer from similar blind spots as well as overconfidence. Help me to move forward and be productive, to use my thoughts in the best possible way. Allow me to meet ambiguity with courage. Help me to take risks, to trust, and to create — even in the absence of certainty. Help me to feel something inside of myself that is a separate Presence — something greater than my thoughts.”
- 12 Step Programs, beginning with Alcoholics Anonymous, offer a spiritual approach to personal recovery for all types of people as well as a variety of struggles. The 12 Steps are principles and guidelines that offer a stepwise progression toward healing. Members “work the steps” at their own pace, either alone or with a sponsor. 12 Step Programs also offer leaderless but structured meetings that allow members to share in a non-judgmental and confidential environment. Many members of 12 Step recovery programs have found that these steps are not merely a way to stop “using,” they also become a model for approaching a more meaningful life.
- Burkeman, Oliver. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Great Britain: Canongate Books, 2012.
- Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., 2012.
- Wegner, Daniel M. White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control. New York: The Guilford Press, 1994.
- Hayes, Steven C. Act in Action: Cognitive Defusion. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2007.
- Linehan, Marsha. DBT Skills Training Manual, Second Edition. New York: The Guilford Press, 2015.
- Hayes, Steven C. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2005.
- “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” The Serenity Prayer, adapted and recited at 12 Step Meetings; original prayer cited in religious publications.
©2020 Heather Stone, Ph.D.
- We admitted we were powerless over our thoughts and that our minds had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a power greater than our thoughts could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to Reality, as we are able to understand it.
- Made a searching and fearless inventory of our errors in thinking.
- Admitted to ourselves and to others the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have Reality replace these defects in thinking.
- Humbly allowed Reality to remove our short-sightedness.
- Made a list of all the thoughts that have caused harm, and became willing to amend them all.
- Made direct amends to our lives wherever possible, except when to do so would injure ourselves or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer or meditation to improve our conscious contact with Reality, as we understand it, asking only for its presence and the courage to accept it.
- Having had a perceptual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
©2020 Heather Stone, Ph.D.
6 readers shared their feedback on this article.
(LMFT; Author: New Harbinger Publications)
Wow Heather, this is really terrific. It is a great, useful and unique angle. You could write a book proposal with this!! I will link it to my website.
(Psychologist; Addictions Specialist)
Your 12 steps are SOOOOOO BEAUTIFUL and HELPFUL!!! You’re so gifted! Can I share them to my patients????
Chaplain, OCD Spokesperson/Liason
I deeply connected with the philosophy of thoughts anonymous! I love the connection, remain inspired by your creativity, and am thankful for all you bring to the world!!!
(LMFT; Addictions Specialist)
That is a really cool application of the 12-steps. You do such great work.
Heather, Your article is amazing. Thank you for sharing it with me. Your thoughts and reflections will serve as a resource when working with clients and designing their treatment. It is a work of art and you should be so proud. Your thoughts are clear and insightful. As your colleague, I deeply appreciate your ability to create new perspectives from principles that so many can relate to and have come to rely upon in their lives. I am inspired by your compassion, intelligence and determination. The world needs you. Thank you for this important contribution.
Thank you, Heather. This is brilliant. I like that the Higher Power is Reality. While I believe in God, I always felt that it didn’t quite belong in the 12 steps, and that it made it cheaper somehow. Thinking of Reality as a Higher Power seems so much better!
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