The 12 Steps: an Overview

August 22, 2022

12 Step programs have been helping generations of addicts and alcoholics all over the world for decades. Despite its religious foundations with the Christian movement “The Oxford Group,” people of all faiths and perspectives have been able to heal through them.

Developed as means of overcoming alcohol addiction, the 12 Steps have been adapted to suit the needs of effectively all addictive behaviors, including gambling, hoarding, drugs, food addictions, codependency, and even the addiction of the family to the addict.

For the best chance of success, the steps are meant to be taken in order — and you need to complete them. Some are simple realizations, others are emotionally challenging actions to take, but all of them are designed to help you escape your addiction and become recovered.

There are countless varieties of the 12 Steps, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll focus on the original version for alcohol addiction, which forms the basis for all 12 Step recovery programs.

1. Honesty

“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” The first step focuses on the idea that addiction is more powerful than the addict, that it cannot be overcome by sheer willpower. 

The human ego likes to believe that it can be willed to achieve any task, but step 1 says that’s not always the case. Addicts need to humble themselves and allow for outside aid in recovery.

2. Hope

“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Building off the first step, this says to search outside of oneself for strength. 

For many, this is where God helps. For others, this is where terms like “higher power” or “universal consciousness” come into play. But for everyone, there needs to be something that’s greater than them from which they can draw energy and power to overcome their addiction.

3. Faith

“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” This is a step of action. Some will turn to prayer for strength, others meditation or reflection. 

You are responsible for only what’s under your control — which is very little. Everything beyond your control must be surrendered.

4. Courage

“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” In this step, addicts are asked to write down their resentments, their fears, and their sex behavior.

This step is not simply to bash yourself for your faults — it’s to get a greater sense of the person you’ve been, the person you are, and the person you’d like to be. 

5. Integrity

“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being to exact the nature of our wrongs.” Through confessing, people relieve themselves of guilt and lighten the burden that causes destructive coping behaviors. 

Taking a moral inventory allows you to fully understand your past, but bringing those thoughts out of your mind and sharing them with another person and with your higher power helps free you from them.

6. Willingness

“Were entirely ready to have God Remove all these defects of character.” In this step, people will let go of their old destructive coping mechanisms and learn to replace them with healthier means of coping.

Success in this stage comes from being fully open to new lifestyle changes. The flip side of being open to a new life means closing the door on the old one. It’s impossible to fully recover with one foot in each door.

7. Humility

Humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.” This is an extension of steps 3 and 6. Once you have a better understanding of your shortcomings, you’ll get specific about what it is your “higher power” needs to assist with.

Humility is the main focus of step 7. Reconnecting with the idea that your addiction is more powerful than you and that you cannot overcome addiction on your own allows you to forgive yourself for your past misdeeds. 

8. Self-Discipline

“Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.” This step is similar to your moral inventory, only it places the focus on the people you’ve hurt.

Understanding the damage your addiction has caused provides an actionable game plan in your path to recovery. Personal accountability is a major factor in regaining the self-esteem that was lost during years spent as an addict or alcoholic.

Not every harm can be fully amended, but it’s still important to find ways to alleviate the burden for both you and those you’ve wronged.

9. Love

“Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” This is the following through of the plan created in step 8. Call, visit, or write all of the people whom you think deserve an apology from you.

This is the hardest aspect of recovery for some people, but those who go through with it are relieved of guilt that’s been weighing on them for months, years, or even decades. 

10. Perseverance

“Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” This step acknowledges that recovery is a lifelong process. Step 10 is something you do constantly as new challenges present themselves.

The goal is not to be perfect every time you’re faced with a challenge, but rather to be mindful of your response and to always aim for improvement.

11. Spiritual Awareness

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.” Just like in step 10, this step acknowledges that recovery has no finish line. 

The continued relationship with your higher power is not just meant to give you strength to fight triggers and cravings in the early phases of recovery, but to also give you strength to maintain when things are better.

Being an addict means being constantly on guard. By pulling strength from your higher power, you’ll be able to sustain all the progress you’ve made and feel confident that you can win every day.

12. Service

“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.” The last phase is to shoulder the responsibility of being someone else’s sponsor when the time comes.

This is why the 12 steps have been so successful for generations of people struggling with addiction. 

Helping another addict gets you out of yourself. You can focus on helping someone else and not on your own troubles, which can be incredibly relieving when your troubles are particularly heavy.

It works when all other activities fail.

What to Expect at a Meeting

Most people believe that if you ever step foot into a 12 Step meeting you’ll be bombarded with evangelists who will try to convert you to their religion, or force you into bearing your soul in front of a captive audience of strangers, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

You’re under no obligation to speak about anything when you go to a meeting. 

Some meetings and fellowships may have more religious members than others, but the groups as a whole will only focus on the spiritual aspect of the program.

The word “God” is used as a placeholder for any concept of a higher power simply because it’s the easiest way for most members to imagine what that means.

When you’re at the meeting, you’ll see people walking around. Some may say hi, others won’t. Some will recognize that you’re a new face and introduce themselves, others will leave you alone. 

Soon, the room will begin to fill up and people will chat with each other.

Then the chairperson will begin the meeting.

They’ll start with a preamble, usually from the AA Big Book, but others have been created for other addictions. Then the Serenity Prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference”

Then the chairperson and various members will read passages from their relevant addiction literature. Usually, someone will pick a topic that everyone will discuss. In some cases, a piece of literature is read aloud for multiple pages and then discussed.

People will be asked to share any experiences they have regarding the topics. Some will share, others will simply listen. You can do either.

Toward the end, newcomers will be asked to introduce themselves. You are not required to say or share anything if you feel uncomfortable. There’s no failing at a 12 Step meeting. Simply showing up is always a win.

Once that concludes, other group-related announcements will be made, then there will be a prayer to conclude the meeting. You do not have to participate in the prayer if it makes you uncomfortable. 

Once that is over, you can walk straight out the door, hang around for another cup of coffee, meet some new friends, or introduce yourself to the chairperson. Whatever makes you comfortable.

That’s it. There are no commitments, no financial obligations. Just a supportive network of people who were once in your shoes and can provide you with the tools to beat your addiction if and when you’re ready to make the change. 

If you can stomach a bit of spiritualism and the prospect of talking to new people, then your first meeting will be a breeze.

How to Get a Sponsor

Getting a sponsor is not mentioned anywhere in the 12 Steps or in the Big Book, yet it’s an unwritten rule to find one. 

Sponsors not only act as guides to help you fully understand the steps, but they can also act as a shining example of the serenity that’s waiting for you on the other side of the addiction.

Here’s how to find a sponsor.

1. Go to meetings

This may seem obvious, but in order to find a sponsor, you need to be in places where sponsors are. Take the leap, go to a meeting, and then listen to what people have to say.

2. Listen for people who have similar experiences as you

As you’re searching for the right person, you’ll want to find someone whose background is similar to your own. 

Having shared experiences, whether it be something as simple as growing up in the same area or being addicted to the same substance, will make communication natural. Communication with your sponsor is key to staying on the path to recovery.

3. Involve yourself in your meeting as much as possible

Not only do you need to pick the right sponsor, but you need to get involved in the fellowship of the meeting.

By being vocal in meetings and staying around to develop relationships, you’ll build a recovery community that can help you when things are tough.

4. Take a chance

Once you’ve done these things, you know a little about the sponsor you want, and they know some of your backstory, you just have to take the leap and ask them if they have the time to help.

Some won’t, and that’s okay. That person may already sponsor a lot of people and won’t feel like it’s right to take attention away from the people they’ve already committed to helping.

But don’t worry — there are a lot of sponsors in 12 Step programs willing and able to help you. Keep an open mind, and you’ll find the perfect fit.

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