“The feeling of having shared in a common peril is one element in the powerful cement which binds us.”
~The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
Since 1935, generations of problem drinkers have been aided by Alcoholics Anonymous, the fellowship group comprised of alcoholics helping other alcoholics. In 1953, the group Narcotics Anonymous was founded, based upon the same principles as AA.
Since that time, over 200 other fellowship groups have been formed to address a plethora of addictions – Sexaholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and the like.
All of these programs follow a version of “The 12 Steps” – the guiding principles outlining how to recover from compulsive, out-of-control behaviors and restore manageability to one’s life.
Here are the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, with an explanation of the significance of each step.
The First Step – “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Addiction experts are quick to say that a person has to admit there is a problem before recovery can truly begin. But the First Step means more than this – it means finally rejecting the denial and self-deception that so often accompanies addiction.
In the First Step, the addicted person has to accept the fact that their addiction is beyond their control. With that admission comes the realization that “their” way of doing things simply isn’t working. And once the suffering addict/alcoholic realizes THAT, they can be more receptive to the idea that they will need help to recover.
There are two crucial words in the First Step:
- Powerless – This means that the person has lost control over their consumption of drugs and/or alcohol. They no longer can regulate when or how much they consume. The addiction is in charge.
The important thing to consider about powerlessness is this – it means that it is impossible to drink or use drugs “safely”. It also means that sobriety is not a matter of “having more willpower” or “trying harder”.
- Unmanageable – This means that the drinking/drug use is having a negative impact on the rest of the person’s life:
- Health problems
- Relationship issues
- Legal difficulties
- Feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse
The Second Step – “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
There are two considerations for the Second Step.
First and foremost, the Second Step is about HOPE. Rather than being resigned to a hellish downward spiral of addiction, a person comes to understand that recovery IS possible.
In other words, although the struggling addict/alcoholic has no control over THEIR compulsion, that doesn’t mean that there is not a solution.
So the second consideration of this Step is that it is possible to gain strength, inspiration, and guidance from something outside of and greater than one’s self – IF stubborn ego can be laid aside.
In other words, when you can temporarily make yourself subordinate to someone or something that is helping you, it is possible to be guided in the right direction.
The Third Step – “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
The first two Steps were about reflection – but the Third Step is about action. At its simplest, this Step means deciding to get out of your own way.
For some non-religious people, the Third Step can be problematic, which is why “God as we understood Him” is important. Your Higher Power does not have to be a deity. It can also be:
- The recovery process itself
- Medical and mental health professionals
- The innate strength of human nature
- Your support system
- The fellowship you receive from other addicts/alcoholics
The exact nature of your Higher Power is personal – it only has to be something outside of and greater than yourself in which you can place your faith.
There are four parts to “turning your will over” –
- Asking for help, and not just at the beginning of the First Step. Surrender your ego and be willing to ask for help anytime you feel overwhelmed during your recovery.
- Learning to pray, which simply means having a conversation with Who or What is helping you – sharing your thoughts, asking questions, and expressing gratitude.
- Learning to meditate, which means taking the time every day to reflect on the things that happen to you, what you learned, and what you might like to do differently. Processing your experiences and emotions can help you learn to change for the better.
- Practicing acceptance, which means finding a way to meet life on life’s terms, rather than trying futility to control things that are beyond you. When you concentrate on those things that you CAN control, you are better able to focus on doing what needs to be done to recover.
The Fourth Step – “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
In this Step, you continue to eliminate opportunities for denial by taking an honest – and sometimes uncomfortable – at yourself, your behavior when drinking/using, and the effect it has, both on yourself and upon others.
Why is this so important?
Before you can ever attempt to change your behaviors and attitudes, you have to know what needs changing. This inventory is not just about finding out your weaknesses – those things that need changing. It is also about uncovering your strengths – those positive traits that you can expand upon.
Your personal inventory must be:
- Fearless – as you face truth about yourself that you may not like. But only by acknowledging your faults can you take steps to correct them.
- Searching – as you sincerely take time to examine your thoughts, words, and deeds. To this end, it is a good idea to write your inventory down.
- Moral – as you weigh those thoughts, words, and deeds against an objective standard of what is right against your own selfish desires.
The Fifth Step – “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
This Step is absolutely necessary after a moral inventory. A person who has taken an unflinching look at the harm that their addicted behaviors have done can sometimes be tormented by that knowledge. Without productive relief, that torment can lead to old, destructive ways of coping – drinking and using.
Talking to someone else can help alleviate negative feelings of shame and guilt. When you unburden yourself of the weight of your past, you free yourself up to move forward unimpeded. Often, you will find that you are not so unique in your imperfection.
The old saying is that “confession is good for the soul“, and this is especially true for addicts and alcoholics.
The Sixth Step – “Were entirely ready to have God remove all of these defects of character.”
This is one of the more difficult Steps, because it is the culmination of everything that has come before. This is where you let go of those behaviors and attitudes that are holding you back.
The reason that this step is so difficult is because often, those behaviors and attitudes that are being let go have been the only ways to cope that you have ever known. Sometimes, it means relearning a whole new way to interact with the world.
This Step is not about perfection – it is about getting better. Throughout the course of your recovery, you will find yourself repeating the Sixth Step several times.
The Seventh Step – “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”
This Step is very much like the Third Step, but it is more specific. Now that a moral inventory has been completed, we see ourselves as we truly are, both the good and the bad.
The truth is many of our shortcomings are intertwined with our addictions. And, because we are powerless over the addiction, we are often just as powerless to overcome our shortcomings on our own.
This is where the key concept of Step Seven – humility – comes in.
When we are humble, we admit when our way of doing things isn’t working and when we need help to overcome specific problems in our lives.
There are three reasons why humility is so important in this Step:
- It allows us to recognize the severity of our defects. Without that humility, it is possible that we will underestimate or minimize the impact of our actions.
- It allows us to recognize our own limits. We have to be humble enough to understand that alone, our intellect, our reasoning, and our willpower are not enough to overcome our addiction.
- It allows us to comprehend the enormity of our Higher Power’s ability to transform our lives. Humility allows us to come to the realization that there is something greater than both ourselves AND our addiction. And, because it IS greater, that Higher Power can restore us to sanity.
The Eighth Step – “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”
The Fourth Step was about personal housecleaning, but the Eighth Step is about social housecleaning. It is about recognizing the wreckage that you have left in your wake while you were actively addicted.
In order to continue moving forward, you have to acknowledge the role you may have played in hurting others. When you become willing to repair the damage you have done, you again reduce the destructive pain, anger, hurt, and resentment that addiction causes.
It is the willingness to make amends that is important, because as you will see in the Ninth Step, it is not always possible to make reparations…
The Ninth Step – “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
Like so many other interlocking Steps, the Eighth Step was chiefly about contemplation, while this Step is about action. Now that we know what we have done and who we have done it to, we have to take action to right our wrongs.
This is a difficult, but necessary Step. Difficult, because “direct” means face-to-face and in person. We have to face those we have wronged, take responsibility for the harm we have caused, and try to make up for that harm in some tangible way. Making amends is more than just apologizing.
It is necessary because it starts to clean up the messes we have left behind. Since recovery is all about moving forward, making amends for the wrongs we have done lets us “balance our books”, so we owe nothing from our addicted past. It allows us to have a fresh start.
A word about “wherever possible”–
Sometimes, reconnecting personally with someone we have harmed in the past can reopen old wounds or cause difficulties in someone else’s current life. For example:
- Seeing an ex in person can cause them embarrassment or problems in their current relationship.
- A person you may have physically harmed might be traumatized by your presence.
- Confessing to some criminal act you may have committed does not mean implicating others.
In such instances, it may be better to write a letter acknowledging the past harm, expressing the willingness to make amends the other person may deem necessary, and asking for forgiveness.
This Step requires that we (1) apologize, (2) try to repair our wrongs, and (3) ask for forgiveness. It does NOT require that the other person grant that forgiveness.
When we are sincere, but direct amends for forgiveness are not possible, we should simply “let go” of the burden we have been carrying around, and resolve to do better in the future in our interactions with others.
The Tenth Step – “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.”
This Step is about continued growth and vigilance. In essence, is about laying the foundation for our future. When we are continually honest with ourselves, it is much easier to recognize triggers, behaviors, and attitudes that could result in a relapse.
Admitting when we are wrong allows us to continue moving forward in humility, without the denial and self-deception that addiction brings about.
It also prevents us from accumulating more emotional baggage that can slow down our recovery.
Perhaps the best thing that an ongoing personal inventory does is keep us “on track”. It keeps us from straying too far from our path of recovery.
The Eleventh Step – “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.”
This is a spiritual Step, but people who have reached this point have usually come to terms with the “God” language the Twelve Steps contains. In other words, they have already formed their own personal concept of a Higher Power.
For some, GOD is an acronym that stands for “Good Orderly Direction” – the path that they want their life to take. For others, it can even stand for a “Group Of Drunks/Druggies” – the fellowship they receive from others in their AA/NA meetings.
“Prayer and meditation” means making a conscious effort to improve our understanding of the path that our Higher Power has for us.
To be more specific, prayer means TALKING to our Higher Power – sharing our burdens, admitting our wrongs, asking for help, and expressing our gratitude.
Meditation, on the other hand, means LISTENING to that same Higher Power – putting aside our own egos and desires in order to understand what we should be doing.
The Twelfth Step – “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
This Step is at once self-serving and selfless.
For yourself, there are few things that you can do that can better serve your own sobriety then by working with others who are still struggling. Being of service to others has several benefits:
- It reminds you of where you once were and where you no longer want to be.
- It helps hold you accountable.
- It gives you a sense of purpose.
- It keeps you from becoming complacent in your recovery.
- It enhances your fellowship with others.
But on the other hand, it allows you to be of benefit to other struggling alcoholics/addicts:
- Sometimes, a still-suffering person will trust you above others, because you understand what they are going through.
- You have insights that may allow you to help when no one else can.
- When you share your story, others may be inspired by your successful ongoing recovery – to the point that they are finally able to regain their own sobriety.
It is important to understand that addiction is incurable and lifelong. Recovery requires vigilance and work, one day at a time, for the rest of your life. You’ll find yourself repeating the Steps over and over again as a means of safeguarding your sobriety.
No, the 12 Steps are not a cure for your addiction – they are guiding principles is that allow you to restore sobriety, sanity, and serenity to your life.