Ask people if they know what the term “12 steps” refers to, and chances are they will answer automatically “Alcoholics Anonymous.” The 12 steps of A.A. are ingrained in our cultural fabric precisely because they resonate with so many people in a profound way, whether or not they cope with addiction. These tenets have long served as a touchstone for people who are living a life of sobriety one day at a time—the fact that so many people throughout the world have found meaning and comfort from them are a testament to their staying power throughout generations.
Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 Steps: A History
It wasn’t long after A.A.’s founding in 1935 that the steps to alcohol recovery were developed and put down on paper. The organization was started by Bill W. and Dr. Bob in Akron, Ohio as a place of fellowship open to anyone struggling with alcoholism and sobriety.
After other groups formed in Cleveland and New York, “Alcoholics Anonymous” was published in 1939 to serve as a textbook for the fledgling movement. Written by Bill W., the book outlined A.A.’s philosophy—and detailed the 12 steps that would become known globally for decades to come, as the organization has more than 115,000 groups, and counting, across the world. The steps have also served as a template for other groups that are focused on different addictions, such as drugs or gambling.
The AA 12 Steps List
Here are the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- 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.
- 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 12 steps of AA serve as a reference guide that can be used at any time to maintain recovery from alcohol use disorder or addiction. “Working the steps,” as it’s been called, is meant to focus on a higher calling and purpose, leaving little time and energy to spend drinking. While not mandatory, the Alcoholic Anonymous 12 steps are considered foundational for daily living.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has to put all 12 steps into practice every day. However, the steps’ overarching concepts of honesty, self reflection and acceptance, integrity, discipline, and forgiveness should be goals to strive for regularly throughout recovery.
Often, the 12 steps of A.A. are undertaken in order. That is especially important in regards to step 1, which calls for people to understand they have a disease and admit they need help. However, there are no hard and fast rules on the order the steps are taken, or how long someone works on a particular step before going to the next one. For instance, it may take some people awhile to give themselves over to God (step 3) or make amends with others (step 9). It’s also perfectly fine to return to a particular step if necessary. Every member of A.A. is meant to internalize the steps to alcohol recovery and apply them as needed to their particular situation. In this way, they can gain the insight and strength to manage their disease of alcoholism.
12 Steps and 12 Traditions
In addition to the A.A. 12 steps list, group meetings are the other integral part of the organization. Although A.A. is broad in scope, it considers local meetings the “heart and soul” of its program. These gatherings take place in a safe, secure environment where people can discuss their joys and struggles, and they all have the shared goal of giving up alcohol; that’s a big reason why A.A. often refers to itself as the Fellowship.
Attendance isn’t taken at meetings, and there is no paperwork to fill out to join. The goal is to be welcoming to anyone who recognizes that they have a drinking problem. Newcomers and people who don’t struggle with alcohol use disorder can come to open meetings, while closed gatherings are for A.A. members only. At open meetings, people will speak about their experiences with A.A., the evening is facilitated by a group leader, and it culminates in time for socializing and refreshments. Closed meetings are more informal, and all attendees are encouraged to talk about specific issues they are facing, and contribute to the overall discussion.
In the late 1940s, Bill W. realized the group meetings could use a guiding framework, so he developed the 12 traditions. In brief, they outline the following principles:
- Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.
- For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
- The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
- Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.
- Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
- An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
- Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
- Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
- A.A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
- Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
- Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
- Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.
Taken together, the 12 steps and the 12 traditions have shaped A.A.’s vision and mission, and given hope to millions of people striving to overcome alcohol use disorder. A 12-step program is often recommended as a part of treatment for alcoholism, or meetings could also be court-mandated for crimes where drinking was a factor. Members can travel just about anywhere in the world and will find a meeting at their destination. No matter how or why members decide to come to a meeting, the 12 steps of A.A. serve as common ground for everyone, no matter their age, gender, cultural background, political beliefs, or other differences.
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