The 12 Steps of AA Explained

People going through the 12 Steps of AA

The 12 Steps of AA have changed so much for alcoholics worldwide. It has allowed them to fully embrace the concept of recovering from alcoholism. Moreover, it has given them a supportive group of peers working toward the same goal of alcohol recovery.

Since 1935, generations of problem drinkers have been aided by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), 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 then, over 200 other fellowship groups have been formed to address many addictions—Sexaholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and the like. These programs have helped hundreds of thousands of people overcome their addictions. They’ve helped repair families and friendships. They’ve also helped people become the best possible versions of themselves.

These programs follow a version of The 12 Steps of AA—the guiding principles outlining how to recover from compulsive, out-of-control behaviors and restore manageability to one’s life. After all, that’s what an addiction is—compulsive, out-of-control behavior. And the goal of recovery is to restore manageability to one’s life. If you or someone you love is looking to overcome alcohol addiction through alcohol counseling, consider AA or call 208.274.8609 to speak with someone from Ashwood Recovery about our alcohol addiction treatment options—such as our outpatient program.

Below are the 12 Steps of AA, with an explanation of the significance of each step. Use this information to help yourself or someone you love overcome addiction. No one needs to remain struggling as an alcoholic. The 12 Steps are one of the best ways to achieve the goal of sobriety.

The First Step

“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”

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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 of the 12 Steps of AA 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 must accept 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 they realize that, they can be

more receptive to the idea that they will need help to recover.

There are two important words in the First Step:

  • Powerless – This means that the person has lost control over their consumption of drugs and alcohol. They no longer can regulate when or how much they consume. The addiction is in charge.
  • Unmanageable – This means that the drinking or drug use harms the rest of the person’s life through health problems, relationship issues, legal difficulties, or feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse.

The critical thing to consider about powerlessness is that 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.’ This works well with the disease model of addiction. Addiction isn’t a moral failing. That means simply “being a better person” doesn’t work. If someone gets the flu, that’s not because they aren’t trying hard enough. It’s because a force beyond their control gave them the flu. Alcoholism works the same way.

The Second Step

“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Aligncenter Size Full Wp Image 1518There are two considerations for the Second Step of the 12 Steps of AA. First and foremost, the Second Step is about hope. Rather than resigning to a hellish downward spiral of addiction, a person understands that recovery is possible. In other words, although the struggling alcoholic has no control over their compulsion, that doesn’t mean there is no solution. The second consideration of this step is that it is possible to gain strength, inspiration, and guidance from something outside of and more significant than one’s self—if someone can lay a stubborn ego aside.

In other words, when you can temporarily subordinate yourself to someone or something helping you, you can guide yourself in the right direction. Alcoholism is, by its nature, a selfish behavior. It’s not selfish in the moral sense, but it does focus on only meeting the needs of the self. When the self is no longer the highest priority, it’s easier to stop drinking.

The idea of a higher power puts some people off, but AA isn’t a religious organization. The higher power doesn’t have to be God or any specific interpretation of God. There’s an entire AA group that’s focused on secular help called Secular AA. It could be fate, karma, or anything else. The point is that you need to find a source of inspiration to help you stay sober. The group realizes there may not be a secular AA meeting near you, which is why they also offer online secular AA meetings. This shows that you do not need to be religious to follow the 12-Step program.

The Third Step

“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

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For some non-religious people, the Third Step can be problematic, which is why the part “God as we understood Him” is essential. 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 alcoholics

The exact nature of your Higher Power is personal—it only has to be something outside of and more significant than yourself in which people can place their faith. This helps people look outside themselves. As a result, they are less likely to give in to their demons. There are four parts to “turning your will over”:

  • Asking for help – This process is crucial, 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 – This means conversing with Who or What is helping you, sharing your thoughts, asking questions, and expressing gratitude.
  • Learning to meditate – This 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 – This means finding a way to meet life on life’s terms rather than trying to control things beyond you. When you concentrate on those things you can control, you can better focus on doing what needs to be done to recover.

The first two steps were about reflection, but the Third Step of the 12 Steps of AA is about action. At its simplest, the Third Step means getting out of your own way.

The Fourth Step

“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

Aligncenter Size Full Wp Image 1520In this step, you continue to eliminate opportunities for denial by taking an honest—and sometimes uncomfortable—look at yourself, your drinking behavior, and the effect it has on yourself and others. Why is this so important? Before attempting to change your behaviors and attitudes, you must know what needs changing. This inventory is not just about finding your weaknesses—those things that need changing. It is also about uncovering your strengths—those positive traits you can expand upon. Your personal inventory must be:

  • Fearless – As you face the truth about yourself, you may find things you may not like. But only by acknowledging your faults can you take steps to correct them.
  • Searching – As you sincerely examine your thoughts, words, and deeds, writing down your inventory is a good idea.
  • Moral – As you weigh those thoughts, words, and deeds against an objective standard of what is right against your selfish desires.

When a person knows their strengths and weaknesses, they can make better choices. For example, someone who knows they aren’t good at math would never agree to be a treasurer. In the same way, a person who knows they can’t control themselves when they drink has an easier time choosing not to drink.

The Fifth Step

“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

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This step is vital after a moral inventory. A person who has taken an unflinching look at the harm their addicted behaviors have done can sometimes be tormented by that knowledge. Without productive relief, that torment can lead to old, destructive coping methods—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, people will find that they are not so unique in their imperfections.

Additionally, discussing the things you’ve done wrong has lots of benefits. For example, group therapy is one of the most successful methods of treating addiction. It can be hard to admit that you’ve done something wrong. But when someone keeps that inside, it creates guilt. This guilt makes them want to drink more. That’s one of the ways that the cycle of alcohol addiction continues. The old saying is that “confession is good for the soul, “and this is especially true for alcoholics.

The Sixth Step

“Were entirely ready to have God remove all of these defects of character.”

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This is one of the more difficult steps of the 12 Steps of AA because it is the culmination of everything that has come before. This is where you let go of those behaviors and attitudes holding you back. This step is difficult because those tolerated behaviors and attitudes have often been the only ways to cope that you have ever known. Sometimes, it means relearning a new way to interact with the world. After all, alcohol shapes the world for many alcoholics. The nature of the addiction means they’re always thinking about alcohol. That means that changing requires hard work. People need to admit that they’re ready for that hard work. This step is not about perfection but about getting better. Throughout recovery, you will find yourself repeating the Sixth Step several times. That’s because no one is perfect. But that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t try to improve. Any addict can overcome their addiction.

The Seventh Step

“Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

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The truth is many of your shortcomings could be intertwined with your addiction. And, because people are powerless over addiction, people are often just as powerless to overcome shortcomings on their own. This is where the critical concept of the Seventh Step of the 12 Steps of AA—humility—comes in. When people are humble, they admit when their way of doing things isn’t working and when they need help to overcome specific life problems. There are three reasons why humility is so essential in this step:

  • It allows people to recognize the severity of their defects – Without that humility, people may underestimate or minimize the impact of their actions.
  • It allows people to recognize their limits – They must be humble enough to understand that intellect, reasoning, and willpower are insufficient to overcome their addiction.
  • It allows people to comprehend the enormity of the Higher Power’s ability to transform their lives – Humility will enable people to realize that there is something greater than themselves and their addictions. And because it is more significant, that Higher Power can restore their sanity.

This step is much like the Third Step but is more specific. Now that a moral inventory has been completed, you may see yourself as you truly are, both the good and the bad.

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 house cleaning, but the Eighth Step of the 12 Steps of AA is about social house cleaning. It is about recognizing the wreckage you left in your wake while you were actively addicted. 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.

This step also helps people work on the guilt they feel. Remember, guilt can cause people to turn back to drinking. Confronting that guilt makes it easier to stay sober. It also helps remind people of the harmful effects of their drinking. Making a list of the wrongs someone committed helps them understand the importance of changing. It’s easy to overlook one or two events. But when people see a list of the times their drinking has hurt someone, it motivates them to change. In this way, the steps work together again. Understanding the effects of a person’s drinking on those around them helps them make decisions based on overall good. That’s instead of making decisions based only on themselves. This helps stop the cycle of addiction. The willingness to make amends is essential 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.”

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Like so many other interlocking steps, the Eighth Step of the 12 Steps of AA was chiefly about contemplation, while this step is about action. Now that you know what you have done and who you have done it to, you must correct your wrongs. This is a challenging but necessary step. It is complicated because ‘direct’ means face-to-face and in-person. This may seem strange in a world dominated by text messages and email. People need the courage to ask for forgiveness.

Asking for forgiveness in person requires even more courage. You have to face those you have wronged, take responsibility for the harm you have caused, and try to rectify that harm in some tangible way. Making amends is more than just apologizing. It also means trying to undo the damage. That means repaying old debts, whether they’re monetary or otherwise. It is necessary because it cleans up the messes you left behind. Since recovery is all about moving forward, making amends for your wrongdoings “balances your books,” so you owe nothing from your addicted past. It allows you to have a fresh start.

Some words about the “wherever possible” part—sometimes, reconnecting personally with someone you 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 embarrassment or problems in their current relationship.
  • A person you may have physically harmed might be traumatized by your presence.
  • Confessing 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 you to apologize, repair your wrongs, and ask for forgiveness. It does not require that the other person grant that forgiveness. Some people may not be willing to forgive. A recovering alcoholic needs to accept that. This is one of the ways that the steps work together. When someone is comfortable with another person’s right to refuse forgiveness, they demonstrate that they can cope with the world.

When you are sincere, but direct amends for forgiveness are not possible, you should ‘let go’ of the burden you have been carrying and resolve to do better in your interactions with others. This shows how the steps work together. The Ninth Step directly relates to the Tenth Step. Instead of dwelling on past mistakes that can’t be fixed, people must continue trying to be their best selves.

The Tenth Step

“Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.”

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The Tenth Step of the 12 Steps of AA is about continued growth and vigilance. In essence, it is about laying the foundation for your future. When continually honest with yourself, it is much easier to recognize triggers, behaviors, and attitudes that could result in a relapse. This step helps to re-enforce the lessons and practices of the other steps.

People constantly try to improve themselves instead of giving up. It also helps prevent people from making justifications for drinking again. Everyone’s familiar with these justifications. For example, “I’ve been sober for three weeks, so I can have a drink.” This mindset isn’t possible with a constant moral inventory. Instead, self-assessment helps people see when they’re wrong before they act rather than afterward. These justifications can lead to a slippery slope. “I can have one drink because I’ve been sober for three weeks” becomes “Two drinks isn’t that bad.” This can easily lead to “Well, I’ll just party tonight and stop again tomorrow.” This situation is especially true for alcohol.

Booze hurts decision-making skills. Once someone has some alcohol in them, they’re more likely to make decisions that serve only themselves. That can lead to relapse. Admitting when we are wrong allows us to continue moving forward in humility, without the denial and self-deception that addiction brings about. This type of honesty is essential to recovery. After all, if a person has a problem, then ignoring that problem won’t make it go away. It also prevents us from accumulating more emotional baggage that can slow down our recovery. It encourages people always to try to be their best selves. They may not always succeed. But just trying makes their lives and the world around them better. Perhaps the best thing an ongoing personal inventory does is keep us ‘on track.’ It keeps people from straying too far from their path of recovery. It gives people a way to focus on improving themselves. This approach means they’re less likely to fall back into alcohol abuse. That’s because they focus on getting better instead of trying to numb their pain.

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.”

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This is a spiritual Step, but people who have reached this point have usually come to terms with the “God” language the 12 Steps of AA contains. In other words, they have already formed their concept of a Higher Power. For some, GOD is an acronym for Good Orderly Direction—the path they want their life to take. For others, it can even stand for a “Group Of Drunks”—the fellowship they receive from others in their AA meetings. The “prayer and meditation” part means making a conscious effort to improve your understanding of your Higher Power’s path for you. More specifically, “prayer” means talking to your Higher Power—sharing your burdens, admitting your wrongs, asking for help, and expressing your gratitude. “Meditation,” on the other hand, means listening to that same Higher Power—putting aside your ego and desires to understand what you 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.”

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This step of the 12 Steps of AA is self-serving and selfless. For yourself, there are few things you can do that can better serve your sobriety than 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 in these ways:

  • 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 can finally regain their sobriety.

It is essential 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 12 Steps of AA over and over again as a means of safeguarding your sobriety. The 12 Steps of AA are not a cure for your addiction. Their guiding principles allow you to restore sobriety, sanity, and serenity to your life.

Find Help for Alcohol Addiction in Idaho at Ashwood Recovery

Ashwood Recovery is a highly-rated treatment center in the Boise, Idaho area. We are dedicated to providing substance abuse and addiction recovery services that promote healthier lifestyles for our patients. Our program includes individual and group counseling, medical detoxification, medication management, relapse prevention therapy, 12-step education classes, fitness activities, and healthy nutrition planning. Contact Ashwood Recovery today at 208.274.8609 to learn more about how our caring and compassionate team can help you or someone you love overcome alcohol addiction.

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