Step 1 What Is The Problem – The Steps We Took by Joe McQ

Joe McQ is the Joe of the well known Joe & Charlie BB studies, tapes, and retreats. He has some compelling wisdom for us about Step 1 in his book entitled ‘The Steps We Took’. Here is a short extract of the first portion of his chapter on Step 1

What is the Problem?

We can become so caught up in a problem that all we can see to do is to try harder—try to get the wrong method to bring the right results by doing it harder!… Step 1 tells us we’d better stop and name the problem, and become willing to admit defeat before we rush in to fix things.

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable

The truth is that many of the problems we have in life we can’t fix. We are powerless over a whole lot of things. Step 1 is about being powerless, about not being able to fix everything. It’s simple: sometimes we have to say, “I can’t fix it.”

Throughout our lives, we find ourselves powerless in certain situations. For example, we are powerless over other people. A lot of us are like the guy who doesn’t realize that he is powerless over his co-workers. He goes to work day after day, year after year, trying to change them. This foolishness may go on for twenty-five years, or he may lose his job because of it—but he goes there eight hours a day trying to straighten those people out. If he would admit that he is powerless, the situation might get better. If he admitted his powerlessness over other people, his situation might get better on its own.

It was insanity for me that I tried for sixteen years in every way I could to drink normally. All I had to do was admit that I couldn’t do it. What is this insanity, what is this drive within us that makes us want to try to do what we cannot—whether it’s drinking or using or controlling others?

One thing that makes us “insane” is self—especially self-will and self-reliance. It doesn’t seem to matter what race or even what gender we are, we humans are often the victims of “macho” thinking, that is, self-reliance. I think Jesus may have been teaching the principle of the first Step when He said, “Deny thyself.” He meant, “Give up on yourself as the answer. Give up on self-reliance.”

Let me use an example. My wife used to save her Green Stamps until she could get the premiums from the Green Stamp store. It never failed—everything she brought home had to be put together. Now, these things always came with clear instructions (principles) telling you step-by-step how to put whatever it was together. They would be ABC instructions, so simple they would insult a person of my intelligence. And it never failed that I would throw them in the garbage can and proceed to do it my way. After a while, I would be mad and frustrated trying to do it on my own and without the instructions. As soon as I’d see my wife looking the other way, I’d dig the instructions out of the egg shells and coffee grounds and lower myself to follow the principles until I got the thing put together.

When I’m trying to put something together, I may be trying to drive a tapered peg into a hole wrong end first. I keep hammering and hammering, but the thing won’t go. I drive and force and maybe I’ll finally look at the peg and say, “This peg won’t go that way.” Then I’ll turn it around. But I can’t turn it around until I admit that I’ve been trying to do it the wrong way.

Of course, as long as I persist in taking wrong actions, I’m going to get wrong results. (Or as Ernie Larsen puts it, “If nothing changes, nothing changes.”) I have to admit that I was doing it wrong and turn the peg around before I can accomplish what I want to. As long as your mind tells you that’s the way it goes, you can’t do anything else. Somebody can be standing beside you saying, “Hey, turn that around!” but you can’t do differently. We can get so caught up in a problem that all we can see to do is to try harder—try to get the wrong method to bring the right results by doing it harder!

And we do this, we persist, because we want to be in control and self-reliant. We don’t want to admit defeat.

We humans are not meant to depend on our individual selves; we are meant to rely on each other. God didn’t intend for us to be self-reliant; we are designed, as our principles spell out, to rely on each other. And we are designed to rely on God. We want to be self-propelled, but we can’t be. Human beings surely aren’t capable of operating without energy from God and from each other. In Step 1, we give up on being self-propelled, self-directed, and self-reliant.

Another part of our “insanity” is our blindness to reality. The story is told of a guy who had two horses. It worried him that he couldn’t tell them apart. So finally he cropped one’s tail, and he said that worked for a while but the tail grew back. Then he thought he would mark one horse’s hooves with chalk, and that worked for a while—until the horse walked through some water. Finally, his son got a letter from him saying, “Well, son, I’ve finally figured out how to tell those two horses apart: I’ve discovered that the white one is four inches taller than the black one.” Sometimes we are so blinded by a problem that we can’t even begin to see the truth. We can’t imagine any alternative to the ways we’ve been unsuccessfully trying to solve our problem.

Once we give up on a problem—any problem—and realize we are powerless over it, then we can make changes in ourselves. But we can’t make any changes in ourselves until we see that we are powerless. This is really the key. Until we realize we are powerless over the situation, whatever it is, we can’t begin to believe, we can’t see the need to make new decisions or to make changes. We can’t see any possibility of making new decisions or changes in our lives.

2 thoughts on “Step 1 What Is The Problem – The Steps We Took by Joe McQ

  1. The article makes some strong indictments about self reliance. It tightens the direct linkage of self reliance with our powerlessness over alcohol and perhaps the unmanageability we experience as we overreach to be the ‘director’ and ‘star’ of own self centered feature film. This is a powerful and perhaps controversial statement worth deeply considering from the article:

    “In Step 1, we give up on being self-propelled, self-directed, and self-reliant”

    If u find that statement a possibility, I would encourage you to read two additional articles. The first , by a different author, is entitled ‘The Dangers of Self Reliance” and can be found by clicking

    The second article is a more full examination of the relationship between our self reliance and the self centered fears that animate our character defects and create so much of the ‘manufacture of misery’ (BB p.133) that separates from the theme of the ‘joy of living’ (12&12 p.106) the program promises. This article is entitled ‘4th Step Fear Inventory’ and can be found at

    I believe these articles are a very useful way to connect our alcoholism , our self reliant worldview, and how this way of living denies us the fullness of what our lives can offer us and what we can offer back to others and to God as we practice ‘the twelve steps, spiritual in nature , as a way of living’ (12&12 p. 15).


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