Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous is an important first step toward recovery. It’s the foundation on which the entire program is built, and it marks the beginning of your journey on the road to a better life.
Taking this step can be difficult, but it's an essential part of recovering from alcoholism. However, many people struggle with this step. What does it mean to be truly powerless? What does it mean to have a life that’s unmanageable?
Once you understand these important concepts, you’ll have a better idea of what you need to do to complete this vital step.
Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous is the first of the 12 steps of the program. It states: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”
This step is the foundation of the program for one simple reason — the rest of the steps require you to submit to a higher power and give your will and life over to that higher power. The idea is that a higher power has the power to stop you from drinking, but only if you submit to it.
This is a pretty extreme thing to ask someone to do, so you’re only going to do it if you feel you have no other option. If you still think you have power over alcohol, you’re probably just going to try to “figure it out” on your own, which means going back to drinking and trying to control it.
The steps just don’t work if you aren’t willing to submit entirely, and they also don’t work if you’re still drinking, even if you’re just drinking “normally” — that’s not what they’re for.
If you see the reality of the situation, if you realize that you really can’t stop drinking no matter what, then there’s some freedom here — you don’t have to fight anymore. You can surrender to your higher power and the program of AA, and you can start working on getting your life back together.
When taking Step 1, you’re admitting that you are powerless over alcohol and that your life has become unmanageable due to your drinking. This is an acknowledgment that you can’t control how much you drink or how often you drink, or both.
In the Big Book, it says: if when you honestly want to you can’t control your drinking, or if when drinking you can’t control the amount you take, you are probably an alcoholic.
It's a step towards admitting that you need help, and it's the first step in taking action in order to get that help.
Step 1 is also an acknowledgment that your drinking has become so unmanageable that it has had a negative effect on your life. This can include physical, mental, and emotional effects as well as effects on your relationships, finances, and career.
Acknowledging that your drinking has had such a negative effect on your life is an important part of taking Step 1 as it allows you to begin to take responsibility for your actions and begin to make changes in order to move forward in your recovery.
If you can’t admit these things, you need to ask yourself why you’re thinking about stopping drinking in the first place. Is someone pushing you to do it? Do other people see a problem that you don’t?
Usually, when someone in your life thinks you have a drinking problem, you should take that very seriously — they can view your life objectively, and you can’t. They can see the reality that you’re blind to.
If you’re not sure if you’re powerless over alcohol or not, try leaving it alone for 1 year. If you’re truly in control, this shouldn’t be a problem.
However, if you try this, and you find you can’t do it, or the thought of doing it just sounds terrible, then you might want to listen to the people around you who are saying something is wrong with your drinking.
Acknowledging powerlessness and unmanageability can be difficult and scary, but it has many benefits for you in recovery. It allows you to begin to take responsibility and ownership of your actions, and it can be a moment of clarity and understanding.
Acknowledging powerlessness can also be very freeing. You’re accepting reality and can begin to understand that you are not alone in your struggle and that there is help available.
After all, everyone in AA at one point or another felt totally alone. They felt like their problems were unique. When you realize that you’re just another person with the same problem as everyone else, you won’t feel so lonely.
Once you’ve admitted that you’re powerless and that your life is unmanageable, you can move forward with the steps.
In order to take Step 1, you must also examine your own behaviors and the consequences of your drinking. This can be a difficult and painful process as it requires you to look at your drinking honestly and confront the consequences of your behavior.
This can include examining how your drinking has affected your relationships, your career, your finances, and your physical and mental health.
Examining your own behaviors can be a difficult and uncomfortable process, but it's an important part of taking Step 1. It allows you to begin to understand the effects of your drinking, and it can provide you with insight into the underlying issues that have caused you to drink in the first place.
Thankfully, you won’t have to start dealing with these issues until you reach Step 4, by which point you’ll feel much more prepared. For right now, at Step 1, you just need to focus on admitting the truth about who and what you are and what you have done.
It can also be difficult to admit that you are powerless over alcohol and that your life has become unmanageable because it means you have to give up alcohol, which for many alcoholics is the only friend they feel they have left.
Because of this feeling — that alcohol is something you need to feel okay, that it’s the friend who is always there for you when no one else is, that you’ll be lost without it — there can also be denial and resistance to taking Step 1.
This is why it’s so important to look at the damage alcohol has done in your life. Would a friend ruin your life the way alcohol has? Is this really something you want to hold on to? Is alcohol doing you any favors at this point?
Taking Step 1 just means admitting powerlessness and unmanageability. There’s nothing else for you to do. If you’re willing to say, out loud, that you’re powerless over alcohol and that it has made your life unmanageable, you’re ready to move on to Step 2.
At this point, you can begin to build a support system. It’s time to find a sponsor, find an AA home group, and maybe make other changes in your life, like going to therapy or moving out of a toxic environment.
It's important to remember that taking Step 1 is just the beginning of the recovery process. It's not a cure-all, and it doesn’t guarantee a life free from alcoholism. There’s still plenty of work to do — eleven more steps!
However, Step 1 is such a big step for most people and so overwhelming that they end up not moving forward. This is very dangerous — you want to get a sponsor and work the rest of the steps right away.
Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous is followed immediately by Step 2, which states that you must come to believe that a power greater than yourself that can restore you to sanity.
This higher power can be anything that you believe in, such as God or nature. If you are religious, you can choose the higher power of your religion, or you can choose a new religion. You also don’t have to have a religion at all — you just need to believe in something greater than yourself.
The role of a higher power in recovery is to take away the desire to drink. This is the essence of the program — once you reach Step 10, the desire to drink will be removed according to the Big Book.
Having faith and hope in a higher power can also be a source of comfort for you in recovery, and it can provide you with the strength and support you need to stay sober and keep working the program.
After all, the early days of sobriety can be very difficult. Having something greater than you to rely on can make it easier.
As soon as you can say you believe or are willing to believe in a power greater than yourself, you have completed Step 2.
For most people, working Step 1 doesn’t happen with a sponsor. Instead, they get a sponsor because they’ve finally come to terms with Step 1. Why would you ask someone to be your sponsor if you don’t think you’re powerless in the first place? Why bother with the steps at all if you don’t think you need them?
A sponsor is someone who has been through the program and can provide you with guidance, support, and advice. Their main job is to show you how to work the 12 steps, but a sponsor can also be someone who will listen and provide you with understanding and acceptance as you go through the recovery process.
A sponsor is essential for several reasons. First, they are able to look at your life objectively and give you objective advice. They will see things that you won’t be able to see.
Another reason is that the Big Book of AA can be difficult to read, and the instructions for what to do for each step are somewhat hidden because of the way the book is written. A sponsor knows where everything is and can show you exactly what to do and how to do it.
Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous is the most important step in the program. In most cases, when people struggle with other parts of the program, it comes back to a Step 1 problem.
The steps are very difficult in many ways. Step 9 — making amends to people you’ve harmed — can be frightening and overwhelming. You may not feel like you can face those you’ve harmed, and you might also owe a lot of money that you feel you can’t pay back. You might have done something so terrible you feel you can never make it right.
Most people would only go through with this step if they truly believed they needed to. And what would be strong enough motivation? What would make you feel like doing something this difficult was absolutely necessary?
This is what would do it — the truth that, if you don’t do it, you’ll go back to drinking. If you truly believe you have no power over alcohol and that it’s ruining your life, then going back to drinking isn’t an option.
However, if you don’t really believe that you have a problem with alcohol, that you’re not completely powerless, then this is where you’d probably stop with the program.
Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous is the foundation on which the entire program is built. Without it, nothing else works.
If you’ve taken Step 1 and you feel you need more help than AA can provide, we’re here for you.
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Cristal Clark, LPC-S, is the Medical Reviewer for ASIC Recovery Services. She reviews all website content for quality and medical accuracy. She is a master’s level Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and graduated from Liberty University in 2011. She has worked in the behavioral and mental health field for over 12 years and has a passion for helping others. She has been clinical director and CEO of a 200 plus bed facility, PHP, and IOP, with experience managing a team of counselors, individual/group/and family therapy, and coordinating continuum of care. Cristal is trained in EMDR and certified in non-violent intervention. She is a member of American Counseling Association and American Association of Christian Counselors.