What Are the 12 Steps of Recovery?

Group of diverse people holding hands up in the air

The 12 Steps are considered by many to be the most successful recovery program ever. They are a series of positive guiding principles set out in 12 different stages that anyone can do.

They were written in 1938 by Bill Wilson, an alcoholic New York stockbroker, who discovered that by going through a certain spiritual process, he stayed sober. Previously, alcoholics had been seen as people with an incurable problem who would often die prematurely.

In 1939, the 12 Steps were first published in print in Alcoholics Anonymous, more commonly called the ‘Big Book’ – one of the world’s bestselling recovery books. It is most likely the most-read recovery book in history.

Excerpts from it are read aloud at most Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. AA presently has more than two million members, with AA meetings in around 180 countries.

There are also dozens of different groups using slightly adapted versions of the original 12 Steps. These are for addiction to various drugs as well as behavioral addictions, including work, gambling, and sex.

Usually, the 12 Steps will be run through under the guidance of someone who’s been through them for themselves. If this is through a 12-Step group, this person is known as a sponsor, who is basically a mentor.

What do the 12 Steps say?

Woman and therapist hugging after sharing recovery progress with aa meeting group

Below are the 12 Steps as they were originally published in the Big Book to help with alcohol addiction. The many adapted versions replace the word ‘alcohol’ with whatever the problem is.

Because of certain experiences and beliefs, some people are put off because there is mention of ‘God,’ but a great many agnostics and atheists have successfully gone through the 12 Steps.

The word ‘God’ can be considered as a Higher Power and can be anything a person believes is a greater power than they are on their own. Often, this is their 12-Step group, the universe, Mother Nature – or, of course, many people are comfortable using the word and traditional concept of God.

The 12 Steps of recovery, as written by the founders of AA, are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
  1. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  1. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  1. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  1. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  1. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  1.  Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  1.  Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  1.  Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  1. 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.
  1.  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.

How do the 12 Steps work?

Because, as Step 12 states, the result of doing the 12 Steps is a ‘spiritual awakening,’ it is difficult to explain exactly how they work. But it can be said that the process will reduce someone’s ego, and this leads to greater spirituality.

The APA (American Psychological Association) summarized the 12 Steps as follows:

  • Admitting that one cannot control one’s alcoholism, addiction, or compulsion.
  • Coming to believe in a Higher Power that can give strength.
  • Examining past errors with the help of a sponsor (experienced member).
  • Making amends for these errors.
  • Learning to live a new life with a new code of behavior.
  • Helping others who suffer from the same alcoholism, addictions, or compulsions.

Each of the 12 Steps can be seen to have a theme:

  • Honesty
  • Hope and faith
  • Surrender
  • Courage, soul searching
  • Integrity
  • Acceptance
  • Humility
  • Showing love
  • Forgiveness and taking responsibility
  • Discipline
  • Awareness
  • Spiritual awakening and helping others 

People who go through the 12 Steps in a manner that is ‘fearless and thorough,’ as the AA literature suggests, talk of their previous compulsion leaving them. They will often say they see the world differently and feel more comfortable in it, that other problems such as anxiety and depression largely leave them.

What can the 12 Steps help people recover from?

Stop alcohol concept. Person refuse to drink alcohol.

The 12 Steps have been adapted by many different groups of people. 

Starting in 1951, by the partners of AA’s recovering alcoholics, the first new group was Al-Anon.

In 1953, Narcotics Anonymous (NA) was formed. This was followed four years later by Gamblers Anonymous.

Not even naming all the 12-Step groups, there is Overeaters Anonymous (1960); Debtors Anonymous (1971); Emotions Anonymous (1971); Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (1976); Workaholics Anonymous (1983); Co-Dependents Anonymous/CoDA (1986); and Internet & Technology Addicts Anonymous (2009).

There are many more, too, including Marijuana Anonymous; Cocaine Anonymous; Neurotics Anonymous; Eating Disorders Anonymous; Food Addicts Anonymous; Nicotine Anonymous; Pills Anonymous; Heroin Anonymous; Underearners Anonymous; Clutterers Anonymous; Crystal Meth Anonymous; Nar-Anon; and Sexaholics Anonymous.

It is increasingly being realized that the 12 Steps can help anyone suffering from a variety of mental health illnesses and emotional problems as well.

In fact, 12 Steps creator Bill Wilson had noted something exceptional not long after the 12 Steps first came into being. He wrote in the Foreword to the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions book, published in 1953: 

“Many people, nonalcoholics, report that as a result of the practice of AA’s 12 Steps, they have been able to meet other difficulties of life. They think that the 12 Steps can mean more than sobriety for problem drinkers. They see in them a way to happy and effective living for many, alcoholic or not.”

Where can I do the 12 Steps?

There are many meetings, both online and face-to-face, for AA, NA or whichever group is suitable for somebody’s particular problem. At these meetings, a sponsor can be found.

There are also an increasing number of counselors, coaches, and therapists who are using the 12 Steps recovery program to help people. Also, research has discovered that more than 70 percent of treatment centers introduce people to the 12 Steps in some way.

We include an introduction to the 12 Steps in our 30-90 Day Personalized Treatment Program at Tikvah Lake.

Call us today to hear more about how we can help you or someone you care about.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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