Checklist Mentality

“So what do I have to do to recover?” Addiction counselors get a version of that question almost daily. Like many questions, it contains some assumptions, and possibly a hidden agenda or two.


The first assumption is that this addict can recover. The second is more subtle. Notice it says, what do I have to do? Most seasoned addiction counselors have learned that this means the addict expects the counselor to wave a magic wand, or provide a foolproof recipe, that will allow addicts to gain the power to bring about their own recovery.


The counselor will also notice an undercurrent of defiance here. Obviously, if the addict does what the counselor recommends, and does not recover, it will be the counselor’s fault, won’t it? If the question were asked cleanly, it would be something like, “What is the least I can do (by myself) to guarantee recovery?”


The addict somehow expects to be handed a checklist, a set of instructions, or a prescription that, when followed, will give the addict control over the addictive substance or behavior. In many treatment programs and self-help groups, addicts are given just that, a fill-in-the-blanks worksheet or a list of tasks that must be completed before recovery can take place.


Many treatment centers, counselors, or even sponsors have their patients complete an assignment that relates to the First Step. They may write out a chronology of the progression of their addiction including the consequences that show powerlessness and unmanageability. That may be a very valuable tool to help them learn to use Step One as a tool. Yet we have seen many of them report proudly, “I did my First Step yesterday.” This statement implies that they believe they have checked off a box on the ticket to recovery.“

Eating or Food Plans

Long histories of diets and diet programs have conditioned food addicts to expect to be handed a diet or a food plan. Many will panic and feel “out of control” if they are not told exactly what they can and cannot eat, and when, and how much. The food plan then becomes a checklist that they can either follow (and be in control and in recovery) or “screw up” and feel guilty (and eat more).

Denying Steps One to Three

The problem with the checklist mentality is that it denies the powerlessness and unmanageability of the First Step, the Higher Power and sanity of Step Two, and the surrender of Step Three. Compare the concept of a set of specific directions with the “three pertinent ideas” from the Big Book (p. 60):

The ABCs

(a) That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.
(b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.
(c) That God could and would if He were sought.

Easy Does It

If this module eludes you, please don’t get discouraged. We are talking about the very heart of the program — ideas that many addicts do not fully comprehend until they have had many months or years of recovery, one day at a time. We are asking you to let go, a little at a time, and follow the guidance of your Higher Power or your Program. We are also suggesting that recovery may not come in a simple instruction booklet, or a set of rules.

Checklist mentality, see also: Defenses, Dichotomous thinking, Diet mentality, Disease concept, Judgment, Magical thinking, Mental aspects, Obsession, Priorities, Program, Stinking thinking, Visualiations.

Updated 11 Sep 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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