A Higher Power, Spirituality, and Addiction Recovery

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Many people with addictions are put off getting help because they have heard that there is a spiritual element to recovery, and they do not feel that they can function within a spiritual framework. Spirituality and addiction recovery sometimes seem to go hand in hand. The 12-step movement, with its focus on a higher power, can be particularly challenging for some individuals. Some of the reasons that people with addictions feel strongly about this include:

  • Not having a religious background and feeling uninformed about religion and spirituality.
  • Feeling that religion is about controlling people and not wanting to be controlled or to be part of an approach that controls others.
  • Recognizing the role of religions in war and other atrocities and not wanting to be associated with them.
  • Being an atheist—believing that there is no God.
  • Being agnostic—believing that there is no way of knowing whether God exists.
  • Having had an unpleasant or abusive experience with a member of a church or religious organization, particularly if they were in a leadership position.
  • Having experienced or witnessed such severe abuse, pain or suffering, that the idea of a God who could have prevented this makes no sense in any positive way.
  • Feeling uncomfortable with the idea that some religious doctrines associate human suffering with past failings or wrongdoings and are somehow "deserved."

These are all valid reasons for rejecting or refusing involvement in a religious organization. But they do not, in themselves, exclude you from discovering your own spiritual path. Many people are able to connect their spiritual path with organized religion, but many others do not require a "religion."

What Is Spirituality?

Spirituality is part of the human experience in which we explore who we are and what our life is about. This can include some of the following:

  • Getting in touch with your own moral compass—a way of knowing what is right and what is wrong according to your own beliefs and principles. These beliefs do not need to be handed to you by religion. You can discover them by exploring your own thoughts and feelings.
  • Learning to use your moral compass as a guide for how to live your life. For example, if you believe it is wrong to lie, finding ways to live more truthfully.
  • Respecting yourself and others. People who grow up in abusive situations may find this difficult but ultimately very fulfilling when they achieve it.
  • Getting perspective on your problems. This includes recognizing that it is possible to improve your situation with willpower and support.
  • Realizing that we all have human weaknesses and letting go of the pride that may be getting in the way of asking for help if you need it.
  • Receiving and giving support to others.

Taking It Further

While these are spiritual activities that can help enormously with most people who are working on overcoming addictions, there are other spiritual activities that a smaller number of people are able to engage in. They are not essential to the recovery process but may lead to a happier life. Don't put yourself under pressure to do this if you are not ready.

  • Discovering your unique gifts and creating a life that uses them.
  • Forgiving people who hurt you in the past.
  • Seeking forgiveness from others.
  • Gaining new insights—"learning" from your experiences of addiction.
  • "Giving back" to the community—for example, volunteering or working in the addictions field or related areas.

One increasingly common approach to healing, mindfulness-based therapy, has roots in Buddhist traditions. However, it is important to note that the mindfulness found in psychotherapy is often presented as a secular practice, distinct from the kind of mindfulness taught in Buddhism.

There has been philosophical debate over how much mindfulness can truly be separated from its religious origins, but for the purposes of addiction treatment, you don't need to believe in a higher power to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness-based therapy can be a good way to get in touch with your spirituality without getting embroiled in ambivalence or feelings of inconsistency between the therapy and your beliefs (or lack of them).

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.