Being of Service in 12-Step Groups


Sober Recovery Expert Author

Service is one of three principles in Alcoholics Anonymous. The other two are unity and recovery. While service may seem to be an obvious principle to interpret, it can cause some confusion when it is used as a manipulative way to attempt to control others.

Manipulative Behavior in Addiction and Sober Recovery

Recovering addicts may be some of the best manipulators in the world. They certainly have the skills, which are honed sharply during active addiction. Because manipulative tendencies may not be completely laid to rest when an addict is in early recovery, some members will use their manipulation skills within their 12-step groups. This phenomenon is not news to other members attending the 12 step groups. However, there will be things said frequently in the group meetings that are not in the spirit of what the founders had in mind when they stressed the importance of being of service to others as a way of enhancing and strengthening personal recovery from substance abuse.

Service is one of the principles in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), along with unity and recovery. Here we explore the difference between "being of service" and "being manipulative" -- a distinction that some AA members find confusing.

Differing Definitions of "Service" in AA

Early in Alcoholics Anonymous, there was a completely different need for service than that seen today. There were only two original founding members. They were hard-pressed to spread the word about recovery to those who were still in the throes of active alcoholic drinking. As these two founding members were able to achieve success with new members, the new members were able to relieve some of the workload. The workload involved spreading the word about AA to other alcoholics, and offering them support for recovery. Soon they had recruited a small group of recovering alcoholics, and from there they changed the history of addiction by forming Alcoholics Anonymous. This is a brief explanation of work that was done out of belief in the AA approach to recovery and the need to spread the word. This kind of work is no longer needed in Alcoholics Anonymous. Now there are thousands of AA meetings in countries all over the world, and that type of work isn't needed. However, there exists a huge need for other types of service work to be done at many levels in AA.

The Need for Real Service in Today's AA Programs

The need to provide service to other members in AA and other 12-step programs does not diminish, but rather increases every day. The service you provide in Alcoholics Anonymous and in other 12-step communities is rewarding, sometimes frustrating, and usually under-appreciated, but it most often leads to a stronger recovery for you--the person who performs it.

When Service Is Manipulated or Misguided

Sometimes problems occur when those who do not understand the nature of service in recovery tell others in the group things that are patently untrue. For example, a frequently heard catchphrase is, "Never say no to an AA [or NA] request." The origins of this saying are unknown. Too often, this catchphrase or misguided philosophy is used to bully others in the program into doing what that someone else wants them to do. This is not real service as it is defined in Alcoholics Anonymous; this is manipulation. The person being cornered into doing what the other member wants them to do will perform this function, but will likely do it with hesitation. An AA member who has been cornered into providing service has been conned, manipulated, and trapped into doing something because they believe that catchphrase to be true.

Understanding Real Service in AA

It is strongly hoped that an AA sponsor will enlighten other members about the misuse of this untrue phrase. It has become a widespread expression, used altogether too often. New members of 12-step groups fall prey to it frequently. They are manipulated into doing things that they do not want to do out of a feeling of guilt that is imposed on them. Again, this is NOT what real service in AA is about, nor what it was intended to be. Anything done through manipulation, guilt or shame is not considered service. Resentment and anger are the by-products of this type of work. Love is the by-product of real service provided voluntarily in support of other AA members. Anything that is undertaken through guilt cannot produce the dedication and love that was the very spirit of those early founding AA members. This is truly the spirit of service as it was intended in AA.

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