At the Heart of Recovery: Making Choices

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

As I continue to reflect upon the wisdom of the 12 Steps and listen to others share their reflections, I usually learn or hear something that I was unaware of before.  The 12 Steps have a way of giving new insights and new perspectives. That is the beauty of the 12 Steps! I want to write about a recent experience I had with Step 3 as I prepared to give a presentation to my weekly 12 Step group. What struck me was the importance of making choices. I also was thinking that we are nearing the end of ’22 – a most challenging year – and preparing to greet ’23. There is that tradition of beginning the New Year with resolutions about things we are going to change. Most often, these resolutions usually are either broken or forgotten by the end of January. I think making choices also speaks to how we might make something out of these New Year’s resolutions and help us become the people we wish to become. So, I invite you to come along as we explore more about the importance of making choices.

Step 3

I believe our choices grow out of what we value, want, and intend.Like with all the Steps, Step 3 has different renditions in different traditions. For this article, I have chosen the following rendition: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of our Higher Power as we understand our Higher Power. I tend to shy away from using masculine pronouns in speaking of God as these masculine pronouns leave out women and their relationship to God. I also prefer the use of the term “Higher Power” rather than “God” because I know people in recovery who struggle with God and relate more easily to Higher Power(s), which might be the group they attend, their sponsor, nature, etc. And if someone’s Higher Power is God, there is no problem including God in the term Higher Power. Therefore, I find the term “Higher Power” as more inclusive, which is an important quality of 12 Step groups.

In this article, I choose to really focus on the first words of Step 3: “Made a decision.” This Step, then, invites us to make a decision or a choice – like getting up and becoming involved in and committed to some endeavor. This relates to the two Steps before: A choice to let go of powerlessness (Step 1) and to believe in a Higher Power who can restore us to sanity (Step2). My take on Step 3 is that this initial decision leads to many more decisions and choices that we need to make to keep us on track. Step work – like resolutions – requires on-going choices and decisions to keep us conscious about what we want to do.

Setting intentions and the plasticity of our brains

Years ago, when I was studying philosophy, I learned an adage that has stayed with me. That adage is: First in intention, last in execution. I believe our choices grow out of what we value, want, and intend. If we lack intention and direction, it is very difficult to make something happen. I’d invite you to think about something you really wanted in your life and the things you did – whatever the obstacles might have been – to make that happen. That is the power of intention!

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From the perspective of our brains, research has shown that our brains have the quality of plasticity. In other words, we can re-wire our brains through things that we do. Our brains are not just a given! One example of this is that there is a part of the brain that is called the amygdala – a more primitive part of our brains. When we are coming out of this part of our brain, we often find ourselves in flight or fight. I believe that when we are addicted, we are coming out of this part of our brains.  We react to stimuli that trigger us – the smell of alcohol, looking at porn, working extreme hours as a few examples. There is another part of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex that manages our more executive functions like controlling our impulses, focusing our attention, making choices etc. So, setting intentions or even resolutions can move us out of a more reactive way of living into a more focused kind of living. For example, choosing sobriety as opposed to a way of living that might be more addictive.

To-do lists

One of the ways that I have found helpful in making choices is creating to-do lists. When I shared this with my 12 Step group, some had a negative reaction to these kinds of Lists. Why? For one person, a former wife created these types of lists and gave them to him to do. Another had parents who created the lists for him to do. My idea is simply that it is up to each person to create such a list that contains those things that we are choosing to do that keep us focused and moving in the direction of what we want to accomplish. Ultimately, it is only I who can decide this.

I also am aware that I feel very good when I can cross off something on my list that I was able to do. I chose to do this – and I did it! Research shows that this process of choosing an action and actually doing it releases that good chemical in the brain – dopamine. These good feelings follow up on choices we made and provide an alternative to the highs we were searching for in our addictive behaviors. I also find that accomplishing something leads the way to more good choices in the future. We are building sobriety on a foundation of choices that we are continually making.


I believe addiction flourishes in isolation.The last aspect I want to mention in relation to making choices involves asking for and accepting the support of others. I call this a willingness to be accountable to others about what we are trying to do. I say this because I believe addiction flourishes in isolation, while recovery flourishes in community and with support. I struggled with my addiction and tried to stop and was basically unsuccessful for many years. Things began to change when I found a 12 Step group that I have attended for over twenty-seven years. Before I found this group, I kept my addictive behavior a secret. I made resolutions to stop and never shared these with anyone, and the resolutions – like what often happens with New Year’s resolutions – never led to my stopping my addictive behaviors. When I joined the group, I saw what was happening as people shared their stories – stories of slips and stories of recovery. People changed and they found the support to change. We need support when things are going well as well as when life is challenging. One last thought that came to me follows up on a comment made by a fellow by the name of Ernie Kurtz – a noted writer of topics around recovery. He said that anyone or anything can be a Higher Power just so long as it isn’t our self. I like this statement, and I can see that a behavior like making choices could be a Higher Power for some people. Might that be a Higher Power for you?

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Reflecting on Step 3 has reminded me of how important making choices is in our lives and in our recovery. It is not just one choice! It is many choices that re-affirm our intentions of what we want to have happen. I have found To-Do Lists and being accountable to others as concrete ways that can help us continue to make the choices that we need to make to accomplish what we want to do. This also helps us to re-wire our brains so that we are acting out of a more adult way of acting – from the pre-frontal cortex. This might also be of some help to those of us who like to make New Year’s resolutions and help them to become more than just longings we have at the beginning of a New Year which basically go nowhere. So, if you want to do something, jot down some things that will move you in their direction and both ask for and receive support. My best to you and thanks for reading!

Mark T. Scannell is a veteran 12 Stepper who believes that communities or Villages are essential in helping people recover from our addictions. His most recent book – The Village It Takes: The Power To Affirm – explores this theme.

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Last Updated on November 22, 2022

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