To read all posts in this series from the beginning, click here.


Intentionally setting the direction for the rest of one’s life is quite an ambitious task, but that is what’s called for at the twelfth and last step of a recovery program. Moreover, this direction is not simply a general effort toward better habits; it is envisioned as a spiritual journey. Step Twelve of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) says: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

How does this powerful statement fit into the context of negativity? When we develop more understanding of the harm done by negative thinking, we’re not just letting go of the particular negative thoughts that caused our problems—we are removing heaps of grungy old mental clutter and freeing up space to invite more beauty, peace, and joy into our lives. Then we are empowered to share our creative energy with others, bringing more kindness and joy to the world in ways we might never have imagined. We go through our days feeling more awake and alive. A spiritual awakening, indeed!

This bold vision is tempered by a reasonable dose of humility, in that it acknowledges not everything is going to work out perfectly. What’s required is to make the effort: “we tried…” I believe there are worthwhile lessons to be learned from unsuccessful efforts, in that they help to make clear what works and what doesn’t, so that more can be accomplished the next time around. That said, when something fails we shouldn’t just give up and say, oh well, we tried. If we start feeling like that, we might do better to look for motivation from Yoda: “Do or do not—there is no try!”

Carrying the message, in AA groups, means setting a good example for others and sponsoring new members. When we’re talking about negativity through online interactions such as blogging, rather than an actual recovery group, I would say it means keeping a positive tone in all the writings we publish, including comments on other people’s blogs and on social media. No personal attacks, no rants, no excessive drama. It also means avoiding pointless online arguments. Sometimes constructive criticism can be useful, both as to individual mistakes and as to cultural problems; but there is rarely anything to be gained from posting comments into the sort of threads where people yell at each other for days.

And finally, what are the principles we should seek to practice in all our affairs? I would put honest self-evaluation at the top, along with cultivating the belief that help will be there when we need it—that we’re not just struggling through life all on our own. Whether that belief is framed as having faith in God or more generally as having trust in the workings of the Universe, it goes a long way toward reducing the anxiety that underlies addictive behavior. And when we accept the discomfort of acknowledging our mistakes and correcting them promptly, we find that it’s not nearly as painful as avoiding our problems.

I hope that these virtual meetings have been helpful and that the upcoming year will be a good one for us all! If something I’ve said in this series of posts resonated with you, please take a few minutes to write a comment, provided you have the time. I would love to know!

To read all posts in this series from the beginning, click here.


I recently visited a blog that has a word-art image in the sidebar telling visitors, “Don’t be anxious. Pray instead.” That advice, I would say, is the eleventh step of a recovery program in a nutshell. After completing the previous steps and becoming more aware of past mistakes, it’s not always easy to feel confident about making better decisions in the future. Having messed up so much without even noticing many of the ways we went wrong, how can we feel sure that it won’t happen again?

At Step Eleven of a traditional 12-step program, the remedy is described as follows: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” There are other versions not as closely tied to Christian beliefs as this one; but whatever wording one prefers, Step Eleven is about aligning actions with values. It is an ongoing effort to make decisions based on conscious awareness of what is the right thing to do, instead of just going with what feels good at the time.

So, when faced with a decision, rather than worrying about all the ways things might get messed up, Step Eleven advises finding moral guidance and empowerment according to one’s beliefs. Meditation is helpful both because it reduces anxiety and because it creates a calm, peaceful space for reflection and being present in the moment. There are many questions on which to reflect—for instance, whether a particular choice comes from a place of love, whether others who encounter its results will feel uplifted, and whether it will contribute to or detract from the sum total of happiness in the world.

Of course, we can’t know exactly what the results of our choices will be; and the possibilities are vast. That’s why “improve” is the action word here—it’s all about slowly developing more understanding of what is right and how to get it done, rather than burdening ourselves with unrealistic expectations of making no mistakes. Incremental changes, however small, can be very powerful as time goes by.

Even the simple act of staying focused in the moment helps to keep negative thoughts away. Negativity tends to creep up unnoticed when, instead of being fully aware in the present, the mind wanders off into imaginary scenarios of what might happen in the future or what could have gone differently in the past. Often those scenarios are full of pointless drama and blame, making us feel upset about stuff that doesn’t even exist in real life! Although seeking to improve conscious awareness won’t completely shut off the internal drama generator, it can at least help us to notice more quickly when we have thoughts that need to be shifted in healthier directions.


Click here to read Recovering from Negativity, Step Twelve.

To read all posts in this series from the beginning, click here.


Our houses get cluttered unless we regularly take inventory of the contents and purge things we no longer want or need, which is something I’ve been working on this year. In much the same way, bad habits and unhealthy thought patterns get out of control all too quickly if we neglect to tidy our minds. That is why the personal inventory taken in 12-step programs is not just an isolated event but is instead an ongoing process of continuous improvement.

Step Ten says: “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” Promptly acknowledging the need to correct a problem is always important because the longer things go without being corrected, the worse they get. That is true in many areas of life—when we get in the habit of fixing small things promptly, we find that routine maintenance is a lot easier than leaving stuff to pile up and turn into big, overwhelming problems.

Addictions, including chronic negativity, often are made worse by the stress that comes from letting unexamined stuff pile up like that. Even though we may not want to face up to whatever we’re doing wrong, we probably have at least some subconscious awareness that things aren’t going as they should. That not-quite-right feeling triggers anxiety, which in turn leaves us tempted to indulge in self-comforting addictive behaviors. Then we feel guilty, which causes more anxiety, and down we spiral.

In our complicated society, where it’s very easy to overlook things because we always have so much demanding our attention, it’s an unavoidable fact that we are going to be wrong sometimes, no matter what we do. And as a result, we need to admit when we’re wrong. That simple necessity shouldn’t leave us feeling ashamed or intimidated. Sometimes it does anyway, because we all have bad memories of having been bullied—or at least criticized harshly—when we were wrong. Admitting a mistake can feel like it leaves us more vulnerable to abuse from judgmental people.

But in my experience, calmly owning up to a mistake and taking action to correct it usually has been uneventful—not nearly as scary as procrastinating about it while imaginary negative scenarios multiply in my thoughts! When we become confident enough to own our actions, including the mistakes, we project authenticity and strength to others, and they are more likely to respond positively to us.

Taking personal inventory regularly, followed by prompt action, can be looked upon as just another one of life’s many necessary tasks, like washing the dishes or mowing the lawn. The dishes will need washing again, the lawn will need mowing again, and we surely will make mistakes that need correcting again. That’s just the way things go.


Click here to read Recovering from Negativity, Step Eleven.

To read all posts in this series from the beginning, click here.


We have awesome personal power, even though we may not fully realize its extent. The small choices that we make as we go through our days ripple outward, touching others around us—and indirectly, others around them—in a cascade of consequences. With this power comes responsibility.

In today’s busy world, where we encounter so many decision points, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by anxiety about making wrong choices. Having to foresee all the consequences of our everyday actions seems like a huge burden; and we know there’s no way we could do it perfectly, no matter how hard we might try.

So, all too often, we punt. Instead of doing the hard work of making decisions, we let things pile up while we distract ourselves with habitual comfort behaviors, which turn into addictions when they reach the point of seriously interfering with our responsibilities. When we’re addicted to negative thinking, it’s much easier to complain about what others are doing wrong, rather than taking a hard look at ourselves and becoming aware of our own shortcomings.

But when we commit to being honest with ourselves, we understand that we are nowhere near blameless and that failing to make a decision is itself a decision. Then we’re faced with the big job of fixing the damage we’ve done to our relationships, which a traditional 12-step program refers to as making amends. At Step Nine, after having put together a list of people to whom amends are due, we move on to making “direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

That basically boils down to not being a wuss. A past incident of acting like a jerk generally calls for a direct apology for acting like a jerk, as opposed to leaving an anonymous note in the person’s mailbox or asking a mutual friend to pass on a message.

Sometimes it’s not possible to make amends, especially in the context of online negativity. We may regret having treated someone unkindly in a forum discussion several years ago, for instance; but the forum has been closed for a long time, and we have no idea how to contact the person anywhere else.

Or maybe it was the sort of online community that’s always full of flame wars and random nastiness. If so, it’s probably best avoided regardless of who might still be there, for much the same reasons that an alcoholic probably shouldn’t go into a bar to apologize for having been rude to a drinking buddy. Good intentions tend to get overcome by familiar bad influences, which is why judges imposing probation conditions generally hand down a long list of bad influences to avoid.

And sometimes people are so suspicious that an unexpected kind message can cause more harm than good. I know a woman who tried to smooth things over after an online argument by sending a friendly email to one of the people involved, mentioning that she had noticed he lived very close by and their families were neighbors. Instead of giving her a neighborly reply, he publicly accused her of stalking him and threatening his family.

I’m not suggesting that it is always best to be exceedingly cautious online, avoiding all contact with anyone who might possibly hold a grudge. Still, it’s wise to exercise a healthy degree of caution.


Click here to read Recovering from Negativity, Step Ten.

To read all posts in this series from the beginning, click here.


Although many people would put 12-step programs in the general category of self-improvement, there’s actually a strong focus on looking outside the self. When we get addicted—whether it be to alcohol, drugs, negative thinking, or anything else—the behaviors are habitual, without taking time to reflect on how others might be affected. Recovery involves learning to take a broader perspective, honestly examining the behaviors and their consequences to family and society.

Step Eight is about preparing to make amends to those we have wronged. It’s a methodical process, consistent with the overall reflective tone of the program. Instead of rushing out and apologizing willy-nilly to anyone we might ever have harmed, Step Eight calls for making a list of the people to whom amends are owed, in addition to willingness to make such amends.

There are several reasons why a list is important. First of all, putting it together promotes thoughtful, in-depth consideration of how our actions affected others. It also helps in setting priorities; after all, we can’t mend every relationship instantly, so we have to choose where to focus our energies. The comprehensive nature of a list makes it less likely that anyone who should get amends will be overlooked. And because people may respond in very different ways, there needs to be some thought given to finding the approach that will work best for each person or group on the list.

Amends are not necessarily apologies, though they can be. The word “amend” comes from a Latin root that means “correction.” So the list-making process at Step Eight has to do with deciding how best to go about correcting the mistakes we’ve made in our relationships. While in some instances an apology may be useful and sufficient, that’s not always going to be the case. Sometimes actions, rather than words, are needed. It all depends on the circumstances.

When it comes to negativity, often the best way to make amends to those we’ve harmed by being grouchy and unkind is simply to cheer up! Resolving to be consistently cheerful around our family members, friends, and acquaintances—even though we may not always feel like it—can go a long way toward making them happier and mending the damage from our past bad attitudes. Ongoing positive conversations can benefit others much more than a simple apology (though that’s likely to be useful too), and it’s a good habit to cultivate anyway!


Click here to read Recovering from Negativity, Step Nine.

To read all posts in this series from the beginning, click here.


One of the most difficult aspects of banishing negative thinking is that it often pops up without warning. Even if we feel entirely ready to live without negativity, we can’t get away from the fact that the human brain is a busy storytelling machine. As we go through our days, we’re full of mental chatter, constructing one narrative after another to make sense of whatever we’re experiencing at the moment. Often we do this without much conscious thought, finding similarities between a present-day event and something in our past experiences, and then plugging in whatever narratives we’ve used in the past—without first reflecting on whether or not they’re appropriate.

Most of the time, our subconscious internal narratives are very useful. They allow us to navigate the complicated structure of modern society by way of familiar routines. If we stopped to analyze in detail all the thousands of possible decision points we encounter every day, we’d never get anything done. We need basic scripts that get triggered by simple observations, such as “That laundry basket is overflowing—time to put a load in the washer.”

But sometimes the mental chatter gets out of control, piling all sorts of random associations on top of each other. Carrying the basket to the laundry room, we might think about a friend’s aunt who fell down the stairs and broke a hip while doing her laundry. That brings to mind a recent online article about health insurance, which had a lively debate in the comments. Before we know it, we’re recalling a heated political argument that took place on a forum a decade ago. We’re angrily ruminating about all the stuff we’d have liked to say to the jerks on the other side of that argument—even though in the here and now, the only thing we’re doing is putting the laundry in the washer!

The unavoidable randomness of our thoughts is why we can’t rely on willpower alone to overcome addictions. Using willpower to choose one action over another is fine when we’re actually making conscious choices, but most of the time we’re not. Instead, we’re just reacting to our environment according to whatever scripted routines and semi-relevant memories happen to be floating around in our brains at the moment. Consequently, we’re likely to find ourselves engaging in addictive behaviors purely out of habit, without the benefit of any forethought.

In a traditional 12-step program, reliance on help from one’s Higher Power fills the willpower gap. Looking outside the self—whether we frame it in terms of looking to God, our family and friends, Nature, the Universe, or simply as practicing mindfulness—is essential to refocus our attention on what is happening in the moment. And as with the other steps of the program, Step Seven should be approached in a spirit of humility—that is, acknowledgment that there is much we don’t know, openness to further discovery, and gratitude for what we learn.

As we cultivate the habit of being present in the moment and become more aware of our surroundings, we’re less likely to find ourselves caught up without warning in old addictive patterns such as persistent negative thought loops.


Click here to read Recovering from Negativity, Step Eight.

To read all posts in this series from the beginning, click here.


The more we reflect on our circumstances, the more insight we develop. And words, by their very nature, are not always as precise as they could be. So it’s not literally possible to put together an exact description of our shortcomings at the fifth step of a recovery program. Even if we think it’s exact at the time, there will always be something that looks different as we gain more perspective.

When we’ve made our best efforts to identify the problems, though, it’s time to move on to Step Six, which is to be “entirely ready” for their removal. This task, like the previous one, is harder than it looks. After all, we wouldn’t have addictions if we didn’t enjoy something about them. So what’s called for at Step Six is complete willingness to give up that enjoyment, now that we have learned it’s not worth the harm.

Truth be told, there are plenty of things we like about our negative thinking. All that drama is exciting and makes us feel powerful. When we get in the habit of blaming others, we don’t have to think about our own responsibilities and whether we could have done better. Instead, we can imagine ourselves as righteous comic-book heroes valiantly defending truth and justice. And when others criticize us, we can play the victim and wallow in self-pity, whining about how mean and unfair they are.

That’s a lot to give up, even after realizing how much our negative thinking damages our relationships and sucks the joy out of our experiences. To be entirely ready to live without negativity, we must be willing to live without fault-finding and excuses. While that doesn’t mean going to the opposite extreme and blaming ourselves every time something goes wrong, it does call for withholding judgment and considering that there might be other explanations.

Just as we can’t fully understand our own circumstances because there are always more details on which to reflect, our understanding of others’ circumstances also is limited and incomplete. We don’t know exactly what caused them to act as they did. Often it’s not an evil premeditated motive, but just confusion or misunderstanding. Maybe they’re cranky because they didn’t get enough sleep, had a bad day at work, are feeling unwell, or have other problems we don’t know about. In short, their behavior probably doesn’t have much to do with us at all. They’re not really enemies—just ordinary people struggling with their own problems.

Although taking this perspective may seem harder than jumping to the familiar negative assumptions, it doesn’t really consume more time or mental energy. Because of the mind’s tendency to dwell on unpleasant incidents, when we assume that someone is deliberately being malicious, we’re likely to ruminate about the incident for a long time—which is not only a waste of time and energy, but also causes us to feel miserable for no good reason.

One morning in early May, a woman I had just met made an uncalled-for remark about my appearance. At first I was annoyed; but then I thought, well, she doesn’t know me either, so this can’t be about me. She must have been in a bad mood for her own personal reasons. That observation gave me enough emotional distance not to let her remark upset me. I later learned that she was depressed about losing her hair while she was in chemotherapy and that she was jealous of my hair.

When we understand that as a general rule, there’s no need to take other people’s behavior too seriously because they are not really trying to do us any harm, we can become genuinely ready to let go of that unhealthy old pattern of negative assumptions.


Click here to read Recovering from Negativity, Step Seven.

To read all posts in this series from the beginning, click here.


Looking at a big to-do list can make us feel overwhelmed, no matter how worthwhile the items on the list may be. Discussing them with others can give us the motivation and accountability we need to get beyond that unproductive inertia, as well as the perspective to determine how accurate (or not) the list may be. After taking a moral inventory at the fourth step and identifying our strengths and weaknesses, Step Five of a traditional 12-step program requires admitting “to God, to ourselves and to another human being” the exact nature of what we’ve done wrong.

This is not an occasion for self-flagellation, but it does call for strict honesty. The word “exact” is significant because, it we don’t know exactly what went wrong, then we’re likely to keep on doing it regardless of our good intentions. Actions have a cascade of consequences, not all of them expected or fully understood; so it’s necessary to look at them in detail and trace the chain of cause and effect.

Blogging can be helpful for several reasons. I’ve found that writing about my thoughts and actions gives me more insight into them because I have taken time to reflect on an issue and to consider different aspects of it. Reading articles on other blogs can shed light on how people are dealing with similar situations. Exchanging comments can amount to the online equivalent of a support group, provided the comments are encouraging and constructive. And in general, blogging nurtures feelings of connection to the community and the world.

When we get caught up in negativity and lack any meaningful reflection on what we’re doing, then our choices are likely to result in problems we never imagined might happen. If I choose to make daily visits to a political forum that’s full of gleeful snarky attacks, it may seem harmless at first—but after a while, my worldview subtly shifts toward considering such behavior normal. This is because the definition of “normal” is not based on any objective criteria, but comes from whatever we encounter regularly.

It’s an insidious process… healthy routines and positive social interactions may fall by the wayside, replaced by long hours at the computer reading and posting sarcastic comments about political adversaries, while also arguing with other forum members. That in turn causes family and friends to feel neglected. Their expression of such feelings may be perceived as hostile, now that it has become normal to see ugly personal attacks every day. At that point, it doesn’t take long to get swept into a nasty downward spiral where it seems like the world is full of enemies.

Without striving to be exact about the problems caused by addictive behavior, we never gain the perspective needed to see how the pieces all fit together. Causation can be very tricky. When unexamined assumptions stay in place for a long time, they can prevent us from learning from our mistakes and growing emotionally, in addition to other kinds of harm.

One way to look at it is like the bushes growing in my yard, which had a lot of dead branches this spring because of the harsh winter. Some branches died all the way back to the main stem. When that happens, the bush needs to be pruned carefully, snipping away a tangle of dry dead stuff. There’s a high chance of getting poked even through gardening gloves, especially if it’s something with thorns. The work takes a long time, finding the base of each dead branch and cutting it off. But it has to be done to make room for new growth to sprout, or else the bush will never be healthy again.


Click here to read Recovering from Negativity, Step Six.

To read all posts in this series from the beginning, click here.


After acknowledging the unmanageable nature of an addiction, realizing the importance of looking beyond oneself for help, and then actually doing so, the fourth step in a traditional 12-step program is to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” What does this mean in the context of recovering from negativity? Surely, when we’ve been working to cultivate a better attitude, the last thing we want to do is make a list of all the reasons why we suck because we’re addicted to negative thinking. Can’t we just skip this one and go play golf?

Well, no. Because that’s not what it means. An inventory is a list, true enough; but in the usual sense of the word, it refers to what one has, not what one lacks. Business owners keep an inventory of what’s in the warehouse so that they can fill orders quickly, take advantage of sales opportunities, and grow the company. A proper inventory requires searching, literally—employees walk through the warehouse and make sure that the items on the shelves match what ought to be there. In much the same way, the searching inventory that takes place at Step Four calls for a thorough investigation of the resources available for moral growth.

This can get uncomfortable, hence the need to be fearless. Sometimes what we find on the shelf isn’t going to match what we thought was there. We might, for instance, wander into a dark corner of the moral warehouse confidently expecting to find barrels heaped high with Community Involvement and Kindness. But instead, we discover dust and cobwebs, along with the organizing flyer for the bake sale that we never got around to baking anything for, and the charity pledge form that we kept forgetting to turn in at the office because we got too busy and it seemed like just one more annoying nuisance anyway.

Taking an honest look at what’s really going on calls for courage, but we shouldn’t beat ourselves up emotionally for falling short of our expectations. When business owners look over their inventory and find that they’re running short of some products, they don’t moan, “Oh, I’ve done such a bad job, I’m terrible at running a business, it’s sure to fail.” They simply note the shortfall as an action item and move on.

There are several possibilities for action when a company runs short of inventory. Reordering the usual quantity of the same product is the most common and obvious choice. But depending on market conditions, other options may be more profitable. Maybe the product that is running low is overpriced, difficult for the company’s employees to process, or not in much demand. If so, the best choice may be to substitute an alternative item from another vendor. Or perhaps it should be discontinued because the company has a large quantity of another product, and the empty space in the warehouse is needed for promotional items to use in a marketing campaign to improve the overstocked product’s sales.

We also have many options in the context of a moral inventory. Let’s take a closer look at the bake sale example: After bringing carrot cake to a church or community group’s annual bake sale for many years, we didn’t get around to doing it last year, and now we feel grumpy just thinking about it. Does this mean we should put extra reminders on the calendar for this year’s bake sale?

Not necessarily. Maybe putting together all the ingredients for grandma’s carrot cake recipe seems like it has gotten too time-consuming over the years (it’s now “overpriced” in terms of time); or we don’t enjoy baking as much as we used to (a “processing” issue); or we feel unhappy because the carrot cake is not as popular with the bake sale’s patrons as it once was (the “demand” is less). If so, we shouldn’t feel obligated to do it anyway. Making a cash contribution instead would be perfectly acceptable. And if growing the carrots in the backyard garden was the most fun part, perhaps we could turn our charitable energies toward making better use of our “overstocked” carrot inventory—bringing carrots to the food bank, or working in a community garden.

In general, if there is some aspect of life that we’ve been neglecting and that leaves us with negative feelings when we think about it, then we probably need to look for more desirable alternatives instead of forcing ourselves to do it the same way. A thorough inventory of what we’ve been doing, with particular attention to the reasons for our actions and how they align with our moral values, is vital for making well-informed decisions going forward.


Click here to read Recovering from Negativity, Step Five.

To read all posts in this series from the beginning, click here.


Earlier in this series, I discussed the addictive, damaging nature of persistent negative thoughts and wrote that when we feel our thoughts are out of control, we shouldn’t be afraid to look beyond ourselves for help. What comes next—the third step in a 12-step recovery program—is the decision to actually do so.

Sometimes the third step is described much more succinctly as “Pray.” Although there are other ways to look beyond oneself for guidance and nurturing, many people find traditional prayers helpful because they provide the structure of a familiar, reassuring ritual. Words remembered from childhood come easily to mind and give us comfort, without need for all the mental effort that would be required to construct an entirely new ritual from scratch.

Ritual is important because when we remove anything from our lives, it needs to be replaced in a structured way by something else to fill the space. Otherwise, whether we’re talking about addictive behaviors or anything else we don’t want, it soon finds its way back into its usual spot because the power of habit is so strong. So, if we’re to succeed in removing negative thought loops from our minds, we need to put regular and comfortable patterns of positive thinking into the space they once occupied.

As mentioned, there are many ways of going about it—prayer, a gratitude journal, reading inspirational material, centering oneself through mindfulness and meditation, spending more time outdoors connecting with nature, and so forth. What’s important is that the new positive activities be done regularly, so that they can train the mind into better habits. Behavior and thought always are interrelated. When we do something regularly, it feels normal and expected; and whatever thoughts occupy our minds most of the day are the ones on which we’re most likely to act.

At first it seems awkward to fit different activities—whatever they may be—into our daily routines. We worry that there won’t be enough time or that it will feel like drudgery. We’re afraid of how other people will react—will they think we’ve joined a cult or gone loopy in woo-woo land if they notice us praying or meditating regularly? It seems so much harder than just keeping on with the same old stuff we’ve done before. And if it’s hard, then maybe it’s not working. Maybe we should just give it up before we totally fail and things get even worse.

After some time passes, though, we find that the new habits build on and reinforce each other. It feels more natural to start the day by counting our blessings, rather than by grumbling about the weather or some little inconvenience. Even in moments when we’re not consciously trying to shape our thoughts, we just happen to discover a few rays of peace and serenity breaking through the gloom anyway. The world starts to feel like a place where we really can expect to find love, care, and guidance when we need them. Of course, the journey is still in its early stages; but far below the surface of our awareness, real, substantial changes are happening.


Click here to read Recovering from Negativity, Step Four.