Why 12-Step Groups Can Be Harmful for Survivors of Religious Trauma

After three years in 12-step meetings I stopped attending over a year ago. I had learned what I needed to learn and it was getting to the point where the group dynamics were backfiring for me. I didn't know it at the time, but the way 12-step programs are set up and organized can actually be damaging for people with religious trauma.

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When I first started attending, a therapist of mine expressed concern because she said 12-step groups can sometimes function like fundamentalist groups. I disregarded her advice and lived to regret it. 

Here are a few problems I encountered in 12-step programs:

SAYING A PRAYER IN UNISON: One of the very first things that happens at the start of a 12-step meeting is that everyone says the Serenity Prayer together. But for those of us with religious trauma, this can remind us of chanting or communal prayer which was used to manipulate our state of consciousness. It can seem as if we are being forced onto the same "wavelength" as everyone else. For survivors of spiritual trauma who have fought so hard to regain our God-given freedom, this can almost feel like a personal violation.

SLOGANS: 12-step programs are full of slogans which members repeat to each other. Things like: “It works if you work it” and “One day at a time” and “Keep Coming Back” are repeated so often that they almost function like magic spells. For those of us with religious trauma, using a slogan can remind us of when people responded to our pain by quoting Christian platitudes or Bible verses: “All things work together for good!” or “Prayer Changes Things!” Whenever I felt vulnerable enough to share my pain and someone replied with a slogan, it paralyzed me.

CODED LANGUAGE: 12-step has its own unique language and is protective of how 12-step literature and pamphlets are used. Only “conference approved” literature is allowed in most meetings and members are discouraged from directly referencing outside material. This was a big red flag because I grew up in an environment where only “approved words” were allowed. As a newcomer, I once made the mistake of sharing about an outside-of-program book that was helpful to me and was interrupted by another member. She literally interrupted me right in front of everyone and said:  “we don’t name other books during meetings.” The embarrassment I felt reminded me of being shamed for reading anything other than the King James Version of the Bible.

THE PROMISES: at the end of many 12-step meetings a list of “promises” or “blessings" are read to the group. These "promises" are like miniature pep-talks that promise future success in life if we just work our 12-step program. The first time I heard “the blessings,” I had to restrain myself from bursting into laughter because it reminded me so much of prosperity gospel preachers promising us financial wealth if we just had enough faith (or gave our money to the church). 

THERAPY is DISCOURAGED: 12-step groups take a rather dim view of traditional therapy and counseling. While it’s generally acknowledged that many people do seek therapy, the perspective of most 12-step programs is that therapy can only go so far. I’ve heard from many sponsors and people in the program that therapy can help identify the reasons why we behave self-destructively but can’t help us change our behaviors. They are quick to testify that only 12-step programs actually saved their lives or changed their lives.

I would like to clarify that I do indeed believe 12-step programs work for a lot of people. I don’t dispute that. I’ve seen firsthand the positive outcomes for people and members of my own family. But I know there are others like me for whom the 12-step programs did not work—in fact, they may have even damaged us further. And it's important to me that our stories are heard.

The reason I chose to write about this was because every time I expressed my concerns to a sponsor or other member of the program, I was brushed aside. I even had a sponsor once tell me that: "Well, even if it IS a cult, it's a healthy cult."

Friends, there is no such thing as a "healthy" cult. And if your gut is telling you something is wrong, LISTEN. We have fought hard for our freedom. Nobody can take it away from us—unless we let them, unless we give it away. Remember: there is always hope.

The same hope that found you inside the cult can also heal you outside of it.

And for me, hope arrived in the form of helpful therapists and counselors. If I would have listened to the advice from 12-step groups, I wouldn't have found the healing I so desperately needed.

We all need a helping hand. We all need community and connection. It's ok if we can't find that in 12-step groups. We don't have to feel ashamed if 12-step groups don't work for us. God is big enough to find us wherever we are. There is always a path to healing and there is always hope.

Elizabeth Esther4 Comments