What Are the 12 Steps of Recovery?
Like many traditional sources of instruction, the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (now used in all sorts of addiction support) don’t receive the universal respect they once did. They now have all sorts of negative labels to cope with:
- “No basis in scientific research”
- “Effective in only 5 to 10 percent of cases”
- “Create a deprivation mindset through obsession with abstinence”
- “Discourage people from seeking rehab before ‘hitting bottom’”
- “Treated as the only way to recovery”
- “Bullying, blame-oriented”
- “Too Christian” (from people opposed to the view of “God” that was standard when the 12 Steps were created in 1953)
- “Not Christian enough” (from people who favor emphasizing specific Biblical concepts at every opportunity)
Some criticisms are valid: for example, we definitely shouldn’t ignore advances made in addiction treatment since the 12 Steps were first used. Other criticisms, however, overlook key points:
- Many problems are with individual recovery groups, not with the 12 Steps themselves. (For instance, nothing in the Steps implies someone can’t recover from a relapse.)
- While the 12 Steps weren’t created by medical science, they’re based on timeless psychological principles.
- The 12 Steps may not be a universal and permanent cure-all, but there’s no denying they have helped many people.
Many people who claim “the 12 Steps don’t work” couldn’t even answer the question, “What are the 12 Steps of recovery?” Before making a judgment call, it pays to understand what you’re judging.
Here, then, are the 12 Steps (modified from first person plural to second person, specific references to alcoholism replaced by general references to addiction), with suggestions on adapting the underlying principles to individual recovery needs.
STEP 1: ADMIT YOU ARE POWERLESS OVER YOUR ADDICTION AND YOUR LIFE HAS BECOME UNMANAGEABLE
This is entirely compatible with the medical fact that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing. Of course, anyone who stops at admitting powerlessness will see little further recourse beyond despair or even suicide. Being willing to admit one’s own helplessness (as opposed to suppressing the suspicion, as many “functional addicts” do) should be, not a signal to give up, but a signal to seek help.
STEP 2: BELIEVE THAT A POWER GREATER THAN YOURSELF CAN RESTORE YOU TO SANITY
The original concept of a “Power greater than yourself” was, of course, the Judeo-Christian God. Many people still find traditional religious beliefs an indispensable part of addiction recovery. However, the basic idea of a greater Power is applicable to any source that can furnish insight, advice, stick-with-it encouragement and accountability:
- Medical detox providers
- Psychiatrists or licensed counselors
- Supportive family and friends
- Peer support groups
- Even your own insights gained through treatment
Ideally, make room for all of the above, including the spiritual Higher Power. (Many people who think they have no use for religion have never given it a chance: at least take time to study the options and the traditions behind them.) The more support you have, the less life’s setbacks will be able to block your journey back to sanity.
STEP 3: MAKE A DECISION TO TURN YOUR WILL AND YOUR LIFE OVER TO GOD AS YOU UNDERSTAND HIM
This is one of the tricky spots for people who know they need help but don’t believe in God. If you aren’t ready to “surrender your life to God” in the traditional sense (and even if you are), general “letting go” can help. Let go of your “right” to control circumstances, let go of your sense of entitlement, let go of anything in your life (not just your addiction substance) that is doing more harm than good. Make a ritual of it: write your toxic beliefs on paper and shred them, or say out loud, “I let go of [specific hindrance to effective living] and accept that I can/must live without it.”
STEP 4: MAKE A SEARCHING AND FEARLESS MORAL INVENTORY OF YOURSELF
Among the most universally accepted of the 12 Steps, this one will probably be discussed in detail with your recovery mentors. One key point you may not have considered: fearless self-inventory includes not just admitting your weaknesses, but acknowledging your strengths. Many people find this more frightening than owning up to their faults (especially when it means making proactive commitments for the future), but it’s vital to effective living, which is vital to long-term recovery.
STEP 5: ADMIT TO GOD, TO YOURSELF, AND TO ANOTHER HUMAN BEING THE EXACT NATURE OF YOUR WRONGS
If you can’t visualize a specific “God” to confess your sins to, just go to a private prayer room or open space and read your confession out loud. (Even if you practice traditional prayer, say it out loud anyway: it will strengthen your resolve.
Many people find the “other human being” the hardest to confess to. Usually, the best choice is a professional counselor or mentor actively involved in your recovery program, though some people opt for a religious leader or close friend. Just choose someone you trust to be understanding and keep confidences.
STEP 6: BE ENTIRELY READY TO HAVE GOD REMOVE ALL YOUR DEFECTS OF CHARACTER
Never mind your personal concept of “God” on this one: the key words are “entirely ready” and “all defects.” You probably have character shortcomings you consider old friends and fear you’d be lost without. But until you summon the courage to let them go, they’ll be a ball and chain increasing your vulnerability to relapse.
STEP 7: HUMBLY ASK GOD TO REMOVE YOUR SHORTCOMINGS
Again, if you aren’t sure of a “God” to ask directly, try saying out loud, “I release these shortcomings [name them] and humbly resolve to live without them from this day on.” Do this in the presence of your therapist or other witnesses. (And again, even if you pray to a personal God, try making your request in front of witnesses: it’s harder to rationalize yourself into breaking promises that other human beings know about.)
Whatever approach you choose, remember the “humble” part. You aren’t promising to finally remove your own shortcomings, but to accept help getting rid of them.
STEP 8: MAKE A LIST OF ALL PERSONS YOU HAVE HARMED, AND BE WILLING TO MAKE AMENDS TO THEM ALL
As with Step 4, nearly every philosophy of recovery agrees with this one. Don’t spend too much time making your list “complete”: the people closest to you, and anyone else seriously hurt by your actions, will no doubt come to mind quickly. You may recall others after you start making amends, but don’t use finishing the list as an excuse to procrastinate on the crucial—and very difficult—next step.
STEP 9: MAKE DIRECT AMENDS TO SUCH PEOPLE WHENEVER POSSIBLE, EXCEPT WHEN TO DO SO WOULD INJURE THEM OR OTHERS
You’ll probably need help from a counselor deciding where direct amends would do more harm than good. If you rely on your own judgment, it’ll be easy to rationalize “might hurt someone worse” when you just want to avoid the pain of apologizing face to face. A few basic principles:
- If you only thought ugly things, bringing that out in the open could indeed cause unnecessary injury. Just make a point of being friendly from now on.
- When someone’s all too aware of what you did, yes, you owe them a direct apology, and material compensation if appropriate.
- If you aren’t sure whether they remember or know you were responsible, that’s where things get tricky. Examine the individual situation with the help of an advisor.
STEP 10: CONTINUE TO TAKE PERSONAL INVENTORY, AND WHEN YOU’RE WRONG, PROMPTLY ADMIT IT
In other words, don’t sit back, content you’ve done your duty, after completing Steps 1 through 9 or even after celebrating your first sobriety anniversary. Keep an eye on yourself and be diligent in avoiding temptations to relapse. And if you do relapse—or slip up in some other way—apologize and make amends immediately. Procrastinating might become the first step down a slippery slope of rationalization, denial and return to addiction.
STEP 11: SEEK THROUGH PRAYER AND MEDITATION TO IMPROVE YOUR CONSCIOUS CONTACT WITH GOD AS YOU UNDERSTAND HIM, PRAYING ONLY FOR KNOWLEDGE OF HIS WILL FOR YOU AND THE POWER TO CARRY THAT OUT
Even diehard atheists can benefit from meditation and mindfulness techniques that clear the mind to receive new insights. Whatever form of prayer or meditation you practice, remember that the point is to receive understanding and strength to do the right thing. Don’t focus on what you want.
STEP 12: HAVING HAD A SPIRITUAL AWAKENING AS THE RESULT OF THESE STEPS, TRY TO CARRY THIS MESSAGE TO OTHER ADDICTS, AND TO PRACTICE THESE PRINCIPLES IN ALL YOUR AFFAIRS
Doing something for someone else is a proven help in staying sober. Besides doing what you can to help others struggling with addiction, try volunteering at least twice a month with another cause or organization you believe in.
Being able to answer the question “What are the 12 Steps of recovery?,” and to draw on them for principles applicable to one’s life, is helpful in recovery with or without a formal 12 Steps program. However, the Steps are one tool, not the full recovery approach: perhaps reliance on the 12 Steps alone is why scientific research has found a relatively low sobriety success rate in Alcoholics Anonymous and other peer-organized programs. The Steps are best used in conjunction with professional treatment and therapy: then they can be an invaluable guide in long-term recovery.
- Alcoholics Anonymous (2012, January 12). “A.A.’s Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, and 12 Steps and 12 Traditions Now Available in eBook Format.” Retrieved from https://www.aa.org/press-releases/en_US/press-releases/aas-big-book-alcoholics-anonymous-and-12-steps-and-12-traditions-now-available-in-ebook-format
- Alcoholics Anonymous (2012, July). “12 Steps and 12 Traditions.” Retrieved from https://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/12-steps-and-12-traditions
- Flanagin, Jake (2014, March 25). “The Surprising Failures of 12 Steps.” The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/the-surprising-failures-of-12-steps/284616/
- Glaser, Gabrielle (2015, April). “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous.” The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/04/the-irrationality-of-alcoholics-anonymous/386255/
- Koerner, Brendan (2010, June 23). “Secret of AA: After 75 Years, We Don’t Know How It Works.” Wired.com. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2010/06/ff-alcoholics-anonymous/
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (2015, July). “Addiction Science.” Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/addiction-science
- Szalavitz, Maia (2014, September 24). “What I’ve Finally Concluded About 12-Step Programs After 25 Years Writing About Drugs and Addiction.” Pacific Standard. Retrieved from https://psmag.com/social-justice/ive-finally-concluded-12-step-programs-25-years-writing-drugs-addiction-91099
For related information on recovery programs, see the following articles:
- Alcohol Withdrawal at Home & Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey
- How Introverts Can Benefit from Inpatient Drug or Alcohol Programs
- How to Advocate for Your Health Needs During the Rehab Admissions Process
- Veterans and Alcohol Abuse: How to Find Help and Financial Options
- What Are the Rates of Addiction and Recovery in Women?
- What You Learn in Rehab
- What’s the Success Rate of Alcohol Recovery?