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The 12 Principles – the First Principle – Honesty

People suffering from the disease of addiction invariably live a life of dishonesty and deception. To hide their drug usage and behaviors from others, they tell lie after lie to everyone around them – their spouse, their family, their friends, their coworkers, their boss, and most especially, themselves. It is a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle. The addict often finds himself telling one lie and then having to tell other lies to cover up the original, ad infinitum. It becomes a fragile and ultimately unsupportable house of cards that end up eventually collapsing under its own weight. In the end, it is often only when the destructive consequences become overwhelming – the so-called “rock bottom” – that most addicts become willing to change. That is the beginning of Honesty.

The Principle of Honesty and the 12 Steps

In many ways, you could say that the Principle of Honesty permeates the 12 Steps and serves as the foundation for the entire program. It certainly is the basis for several individual Steps:

  • Step One – “We admitted we were powerless over (our addiction) – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  • Step Four – “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
  • Step Five – “Admitted to (our Higher Power), to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
  • Step Eight – “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.”
  • Step Ten – “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”

Each of these Steps is firmly grounded in the Principle of Honesty – honesty to ourselves, honesty to others, and honesty to our Higher Power as we understand it. When, through the working of these Steps, we fully make a commitment to Honesty, we nullify addiction’s greatest weapon – deceit. When we must finally face the unvarnished truth about the insidious nature of addiction, the havoc it wreaks in our lives, and the destructive consequences it brings about, we can finally say, “Enough!” We can begin to strive for something better.


Honesty that they are powerless over their drug of choice and honesty about the fact that their life has become unmanageable as a result is what leads people into recovery. Adherence to that same Principle of Honesty is what will enable them to stay sober when they are faced with the temptations and challenges confronted by all addicts. To outsiders who have never been affected by substance abuse, it may seem simple for a person to admit to themselves that they are an addict. After all, it’s just a word. But it is a word that is true – perhaps the first true word that the addicted person has spoken in quite a while. This is a huge and absolutely crucial first step in recovery. It is also the goal of Step One. People actively trapped in addictive behaviors rarely admit to having a problem. They will deny the seriousness of their condition, conceal and minimize their destructive actions, and deflect or trivialize the concerns of others.  As long as this pattern of dishonesty is being used and is effective, the addicted person has virtually no chance of recovery. In plain terms, a person cannot get the proper help that they need if they are never able to plainly state that a problem exists. Moreover, that admission needs to be twofold. A suffering addict needs to admit to himself that he needs to need help. Until that self-admission is made, no amount of entreaties, browbeating, begging, cajoling, reasoning, or threatening will have any meaningful impact. But as crucially important as that first moment of self-honesty is, it’s not enough all by itself. Addiction changes a person, distorting them into a warped doppelgänger with often-abhorrent personality traits that bears little resemblance to their original, sober self. A once-caring, conscientious, and generous person can become cruel, selfish, and duplicitous when enslaved by addiction. Just as it is impossible to reach your destination if you don’t know how to get there, it is also impossible to regain sobriety and serenity if you aren’t aware of the emotional baggage that addiction has burdened you with. For most addicts/alcoholics, the “searching and fearless moral inventory” mentioned in Step Four is extremely uncomfortable, because taking an unflinching look in the mirror can yield many painful truths. This self-examination is necessary, however, for two main reasons. First, an honest moral inventory of one’s strengths and weaknesses will give a person a brutally honest assessment of where they are as a human being. For perhaps the first time, the addict will be able to honestly admit to any undesirable character defects that they may possess. With this knowledge, and with the help of others, he will be able to take steps to correct those flaws. Just as important, however, is the fact that when a proper moral inventory is conducted, the addict will also be forced to admit positives about himself. Addiction is a disease that robs a person of self-esteem, and when forced to really take a good and honest look at themselves, many addicts are actually surprised to come to the realization that they have actual value as human beings. They are patently astonished to admit that they possess wonderful strengths and traits unique to them. Next comes the second part of that twofold admission.

Honesty to Others

Think about the first thing that every person says at every 12 Step recovery meeting everywhere around the world – “Hi. I’m _______, and I’m an alcoholic/addict.” Although the action is not complete, this is a partial working of Step Five. An addict needs to admit externally the nature of their wrongs. The words “I’m an alcoholic” or “I’m an addict” clearly convey a message that everyone in attendance at the meeting will understand. Among substance abusers, the nature of their wrongs is universal—addiction, with all the shades of meaning that the word entails. Only the person’s specifics are different. This public admission makes it much easier for a more detailed private admission at some later point. Whenever the addict is fully ready to complete Step Five, they can have an honest conversation, first with their Higher Power, and then, with another person whom they trust. Understanding the “nature of one’s wrongs” is an accounting of the harmful things that a person has done while lost to addiction. Understanding how those wrongs have harmed other specific people is the core of Step Eight. Put another way, in Step Five, the addict describes what they have done that was harmful to themselves or other people. In Step Eight, they get even more specific by listing each person that was in some way harmed by those previously-described actions. This honest and complete admission of the true nature of the addict’s wrongs and the impact of those wrongs is amazingly cathartic. The psychic poison of pain and guilt and shame that the addict has endured is suddenly washed away. Somehow, by sharing his story, the addict has divested himself of one of the burdens that were holding him back from moving forward; and now that the burden is lifted, the focus can now be on making amends as part of recovery.

Honesty about the Future

There is no such thing as an addict enjoying happy long-term sobriety and recovery who will say that they have “beaten” their addiction, or that they are an ex-addict. Addiction is a chronic and incurable disease that can be arrested, but never completely eradicated. Individuals following the tenets of 12 Step recovery quickly learn that addicts cling to the philosophy of “One Day at a Time” when it comes to sobriety planning. An addict in this type of program is Honest with themselves and understands that to best succeed, their entire focus needs to always be staying clean and sober just for today. Addicts who are Honest admit that addiction is too great and powerful an enemy to even think about defeating forever. To try and envision a lifetime of abstinence and control is too hard a task for anyone who feels the pull of addiction – it’s impossible to wrap one’s mind around. Under the Principle of Honesty, the addict can surrender and admit defeat. They simply do not have enough power over their addiction to abstain for the rest of their lives. However… They are strong enough to abstain just for today. By focusing all of their strength and energy on not drinking or using just for today, they will almost always find the tools and support they need to make it through, one day at a time. It is by stringing together enough of these “just for today” days that a person starts to achieve a real life of sobriety. The addict who is practicing the Principle of Honesty also knows that they will be an addict for the rest of their life, and that fact means that they can never lower their guard or lessen their resolve. Every minute of every day, their thoughts and actions need to be tempered by positive behaviors that in some way support continued sobriety. In terms of the 12 Step program, this means working each individual Step completely, and when all 12 are completed, starting over at the beginning. This means applying the Steps and Principles to all areas of their life. In practical terms, Honesty means that they know that because they are powerless over their addiction, there will be times when they are sorely tempted. When those moments arrive, they need to be Honest enough about their own shortcomings to be able to call on immediate help.

Essential for Sobriety and Survival

There is an old saying in 12 Step recovery that says, “You’re only as sick as your secrets“. This means that deceit and deception cause guilt and shame, which in turn creates a need for relief that formerly was only achievable by drinking or using. An addict in successful recovery will strive in all things to achieve the “rigorous honesty” described in early 12-step literature because they know that is their best and surest way to ultimately realize a life of serenity and joy.