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  • Robert Schwebel, Ph.D.

The One Belief That Keeps People Addicted

Updated: May 1

Posted November 2, 2020 on

This is how to counter the myth that brings addicted individuals to their knees.

If you ask people with a serious addiction problem whether they feel they could quit using drugs, they’ll probably say, “No.” They don’t believe they have the power to stop. Their desire for alcohol and other drugs is stronger than their sense of self-control.

They feel driven by a brain that wants drugs. They want, want, want. It’s not surprising, therefore, that they are often labeled as weak-willed or morally deficient and begin to see themselves as such.

What makes this so interesting is that despite a sense of powerlessness, millions of people have actually overcome addictions, even extreme addictions. Apparently, people do have the power to set limits and even quit.

Somewhere within the minds of individuals who tell themselves that they don’t have control of their drug use is another part of their brain that says, “Yes, you do.” When this part is activated, they can see that they are not driven by some flaw or character defect. They can recognize that, ultimately, they are the ones who decide whether to use drugs or refrain. They have the power to put drugs into their bodies or not.

If you want to support people with drug problems, then help them tap into the part of their brain (the cerebral cortex) that allows them to rise above their own feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness. How can you help them gain access to that part?

The answer begins with delivering a very clear, unmitigated four-word message, stated with conviction: You can do it. That’s a good starting point, but it only states the potential—that it can be done: i.e., that the task ahead is not insurmountable. To take hold, this affirmation must be followed by a realistic explanation:

“It will be hard work—maybe the hardest thing you have ever done. But, if you set your mind to it and invest the enormous effort that will be required, you can do it. Millions of people have overcome addictions. You may have been told that you are powerless, and you may feel powerless, but you are not.”

Ideally, this would be followed with support: “You don’t have to do it alone. I will back you up.”

A meek delivery of this empowering message will fail because it will encounter a mountain of resistance, some of it external, and much of it internalized as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The belief in powerlessness thoroughly permeates our collective consciousness. It is the prevailing belief in the general population, strongly reinforced by what has been the dominant approach to treating alcohol and other drug problems since the middle of the 20th century: the 12 Steps.

In the 1930s, the 12-Step founders devised a clever workaround to feelings of powerlessness. Their doctrine says:

Yes, you feel powerless and are powerless, but you can use a “higher power” to save you.

This strategy of attributing success to God (or an alternative higher power) works well for a small percentage of believers—approximately 10 percent (though estimates vary). That small percentage of the huge number of people who have tried (or steered clear of) the program means that many individuals have benefitted. That’s great for them. However, the 12th and final step of the program implores participants to spread the message to others.

Proselytizing by zealous and vocal believers has had an enormous impact on our culture. Unfortunately, one of the primary messages has been that 12 Steps is the only way to overcome an addiction (not true). This now widely accepted belief leaves the other 90 percent of the population who have drug problems with no alternative. Also, 12-Step ideology strongly reinforces the belief that because of character flaws, people are powerless over drugs, which is also widely accepted but not true. 

In 12-Step programs, members are asked to take a “leap of faith” and “turn their will and their lives over to the care of God.” The alternative for everyone else (the 90 percent) is to find the power within themselves. They can take what I call a “leap of power.” This means regardless of what they feel, and what they’ve been told, they still can find the wherewithal from within to rise above their situation and transcend their self-doubt. They can step up to the plate and take control of their use of alcohol and other drugs, thereby surprising doubters and even themselves. 

If you want to help someone with a drug problem, then you can urge them to take a leap of power. To be convincing, you have to believe that it’s possible, which may necessitate overcoming your own doubts. Just look around: Countless numbers of people have overcome addictions without the 12 Steps. It’s a fact, not dogma. They discovered control from within. They decided it was time to change and realized that they could do it.

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