7 Reasons Not to Bring Your 12-Step Program Home for the Holidays

By John Lavitt 12/23/18

Shouldn’t you help your sister address her character defects? Isn’t it time to take your father’s inventory? And wouldn’t it be perfect to make amends to your mom at a family dinner?

Woman and man argue on a couch in front of Christmas tree; 12-step program at holidays
Your family of origin holds the keys to your most primal emotional and behavioral triggers.

Regardless of whether you are newly sober or have many years of sustainable sobriety under your belt in 12-step programs, what is true for practically everyone else in the world is true for you as well: Your family of origin holds the keys to your most primal emotional and behavioral triggers. Nothing compares to that cutting look from your sister or that sarcastic undertone in your father’s voice. Although they love us-- or maybe because they love us--our families can get under our skin and into our bones like no one else.

Since the prospect of being with family holds that much tension, many people in 12-step programs decide it makes sense to work the steps with their family members over the holidays. After all, only the first step is about drugs and alcohol. The other 11 are about changing behavioral patterns and rehabbing the disease of perception. If we apply them wisely and gently to the members of our family of origin, we think, we will be able to help them. Shouldn’t your sister be shown how character defects are defining her life? Isn’t it time to take your father’s inventory? And, given the importance of the holidays, wouldn’t it be perfect to make amends to your mom at a family gathering?

Actually, it’s not such a good idea. Forcing stepwork on your family goes against the spiritual nature of the program by crossing boundaries at the wrong time and putting your own wants and needs ahead of everyone else’s. But instead of just looking at the big picture, let’s delve into seven specific reasons why it’s not the best plan to do your stepwork with your family over the holidays.

1. Your Family Is Not Part of Your Program

Yes, many people in 12-step programs have family members who are also in 12-step programs, but that’s beside the point. If you want to discuss step work with a family member who’s in the program, then either go to a meeting or do so privately. Your family as a unit is not in a program. More importantly, most family members know very little about 12-step programs. They don’t want to do “work”—emotional or otherwise-- during the holidays, they simply want to enjoy the holiday season.

Ultimately, this is a question of proper boundaries. If you are a newly sober person, maintaining boundaries might not be your strong suit. When I was newly sober, I took everything personally. I didn’t understand the difference between what was about me and what was not about me. In truth, I was inclined to think everything was about me and I had to prove how well I was working the steps to everyone; I often felt entitled and superior. I had to be reminded by my sponsor that working steps should be kept within the context of my 12-step program.

2. A Program of Attraction and Not Promotion

In many families over the holiday season, there is that one family member who drinks too much and doesn’t know when to stop. Often, we were that family member until we embraced the path of sobriety. When we return to our families of origin over the holidays, we do not have to point out that Uncle Jack is drinking too much. We don’t need to preach the program to family members because that is not our role.

Tradition 11 of Alcoholics Anonymous reads: "Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films." The principle of attraction rather than promotion can be applied to the individual, as well. It is not my job to promote recovery and tell other people that they need to get sober. Instead, by being of service to my family over the holidays, I can attract others just by being a better person. It’s really not that hard. Take the family dog for a walk, pick up the milk from the corner grocery store, or play with your nieces and nephews so your sister and brother-in-law can have a break. See how they respond, you might be surprised.

3. You Are Not Your Family’s New Guru

When a newly-sober person finds a higher power that works for them and embraces a spiritual path, it can be a wonder to behold the light in their eyes. However, like any other powerful experience in this world, finding faith when you’re newly sober can be spiritually intoxicating. When combined with meditation and prayer, it can become a profound experience that you want to share with your family.

It’s not your role over the holidays to become your family’s new guru and point out their lack of a higher power. When your father gets upset when carving the turkey, try not to tell him to let it go and turn his anger over to a higher power. Sometimes the best way to be spiritual is to be quiet and modest. Be spiritual by doing the dishes and carrying the grocery bags. Such an approach works much better than trying to be the head cheerleader for your totally amazing higher power.

4. It’s Not Your Job to Take Your Family’s Inventory

If you have successfully completed Steps 4 and 5 in a 12-step program, then you have first “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Next, you “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Congratulations! It takes courage to work these steps and you’re making good progress. However, completing these steps does not mean that you now must help your family by taking their inventories. It’s not kind and loving to point out others’ resentments or “issues.”

Even if your family member is in the program, you are not their sponsor. And even if you were their sponsor, you wouldn’t be pointing out their resentments, they would be doing the inventory work themselves. Family gatherings over the holidays should be about fun and relaxation. Don’t spoil the vacation by pointing out lingering resentments.

5. Holidays Are Not About Highlighting Character Defects

If you have completed Step 6 and 7 in a 12-step program, then first you “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” Next, you “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.” Again, just because you faced this difficult process yourself does not mean you have the right to point out character defects in other people. This kind of criticism of family members, even under the guise of help, is a recipe for disaster. It’s not your job to shine a light on negative traits. Your family members may be far from grateful.

6. Amends Are Not About What You Want

The holidays are not all about you, and family gatherings during this season are not the right time for you to make dramatic amends to family members. First, the process of making amends should not be selfish; while you will get relief from making them and may be eager to finish this step, the actual amends are not about you, they’re about the other person. Often, by trying to make amends for past wrongs during the holiday season, you are doing more harm than good. Reminders of your previous misdeeds may be the last thing your family wants to hear from you at this time.

Amends should be private and on the other person’s timeline. You can bring up the idea of making amends to family members, but let them know that you want to do it at a time that makes sense for them. Amends are not about what you want, but rather about learning how to clean up your side of the street.

7. How About Having a Little Fun?

On page 132 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson made it crystal clear when he wrote, “But we aren't a glum lot.” The holidays are about having a little fun and enjoying yourself while being with loved ones. If you try to work your 12-step program with your family, you will not be adding to the good cheer.

Why not be of service to the holiday season by adding smiles, laughter, and gratitude to your family gatherings? Doesn’t such a positive approach ultimately make a lot more sense? Make it your goal to enjoy this holiday season, and you will feel rejuvenated and ready to continue on your positive path of sobriety in the new year. Your family and your recovery will thank you.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.