What Is the 12-Step Program?
The 12-step program and the philosophy surrounding it was conceived by Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and published in 1938. In the decades since, it has been adopted by more than 200 self-help organizations with millions of members around the world. While created with alcoholics in mind, it has been adapted and modified for use in dozens of different support groups for addictions, compulsions, and other psychological disorders, including narcotics abuse, gambling, sexual addiction, and more.
The essential premise of the 12-step program is that people can come together as a group to help and support each other achieve and maintain abstinence to whichever substance or behavior they’re addicted. However, the program also insists that this process cannot truly begin without first surrendering to a higher power.
While some have difficulty with the religious basis of the 12-step program, it was inspired less by a specific religion and more by psychologist Carl Jung’s advice to Wilson that the cure for alcoholism needed to be spiritual in order to be powerful enough to combat “spirits,” or alcohol. While he was definitely making a bad pun, he was still onto something, since the 12-step program has stood the test of time and is currently employed by roughly 74 percent of treatment centers.
The Complete 12-Step List
Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Step 7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Step 11: 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.
Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Taking the First Step with Step 1
“The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink. Our so-called willpower becomes practically non-existent. We are unable, at certain times, to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago. We are without defense against the first drink.” – Bill Wilson, p.24, The Big Book
Whether you begin the program in group meetings, during therapy, or at a residential treatment center, Step 1 is the beginning of everything when it comes to getting on the path to addiction recovery, no matter the substance or behavior, but it can also feel like the hardest step to take. This is in no small part due to the difficulty in admitting not only that you have a problem but also that you are powerless against it.
The idea behind this is, of course, realizing that your addiction has moved beyond your control and taken over every aspect of your life. In being able to admit this fact, you can start to move forward and, after working through the steps and with the help of a therapist, a sponsor, or other systems of support, learn to control your addiction and gain power over it. But this can’t happen until you can look at your addiction with honesty.
Essentially, Step 1 is about letting go and breaking the cycle of denial and addiction so that you can move forward to an eventual state of acceptance so you can get to work on getting your life back.
4 Tips for Successfully Practicing Step 1
- Let go of your pride. In order to acknowledge and accept that you do not have control over your addiction, you need to concede that you have made mistakes, that you need help to combat your problems, and that you cannot do that if you’re hanging onto pride.
- Understand that admitting you are “powerless” does not mean you are weak. Quite the opposite, in fact! It takes real courage to accept that this substance or behavior has made you powerless, especially in the face of the stigma of addiction.
- Abstain from the substance or behavior to which you have become addicted. While this might seem like something that goes without saying, part of admitting you don’t have control over your addiction is understanding that you need to completely stop. For example, you can’t keep drinking “just a little,” because there’s no such thing when your addiction is in control.
- Be truly honest with yourself and want to make a change. Just saying you have a problem because you feel like you’re “supposed” to instead of really meaning and embracing it will not put you any closer to real recovery. It is a difficult process, so you have to mean it and you have to want it.
What to Keep in Mind for Step 1 and Beyond
Hitting “rock bottom” is not a necessary part of completing Step 1 of the program. All you need to do is be able to recognize and accept that your addiction is a problem that you are currently powerless to stop. If you can have this moment of realization and acceptance without having to undergo a significant event like losing your job or alienating the people you care about, that’s already a sizable victory.
It’s also important to remember that while the steps are laid out in a linear list, they don’t necessarily work that way. Many steps can be experienced simultaneously, out of order, or in a circular manner as you continue to work on earlier steps even as you’re moving forward in the program. Everyone moves through the 12-steps at their own pace and in their own way, and you cannot measure your personal progress against anyone else’s. What matters above all though, is being able to take that first “step” towards recovery by being honest with yourself and admitting and accepting your powerlessness.
If you or a loved one is struggling to take that first step, we at Pathway to Hope can help. You can contact us online or call 844-311-5781 for a free consultation and assessment. We’re here to help you take the necessary steps to get you on a path to sobriety!