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What are the 12 steps and how do they work?

What are the 12-steps and how do they work? This is the second in a 5-part series of articles in which I discuss various aspects of the 12-step recovery program (and associated fellowships), and how you may utilise counselling alongside them. This particular article looks at what the 12 steps are and how they work. However, across the whole of this series however, I will also:

  • Explain where AA and the 12 steps come from (Part 1)
  • Explain the difference between the 12-steps of recovery, and the various 12-step fellowships that accompany it (Part 3)
  • Describe the the role of the 12-step recovery program in addiction hospital programs/recovery centres (Part 4)
  • Describe how counselling can help with working the 12-step program (Part 5)

As with the other articles in this series however, it first must be made absolutely clear that what follows is not sanctioned by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA) or any other 12-step fellowship. Instead, what follows are my own thoughts having been involved with the 12-step recovery and its associated fellowships both personally and professionally for over 30 years.

In part 1 of this series, I discussed the origin of the steps and how they came into being. If you’ve not read this yet, please go do so now as understanding this genesis will put this article into a more understandable context. In the describing the 12 steps below, I will stick with their original version as published in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. You will see that this version’s step one refers specifically to alcohol/alcoholism as being the issue/problem the individual working these steps is powerless over. Importantly, the issue/problem/behaviour that the person attempting to work the steps is struggling with (alcohol in this instance), is only mentioned in this first step. After that, the steps are somewhat generic and are applicable to any person wishing to achieve a psychological change by way of a spiritual experience in the manner Bill Wilson and the first 100+ recovered alcoholics involved in AA at that time did. If you look at the 12-steps as used by any other 12-step fellowship, you’ll find that the only change across all of the various fellowships is this word “alcohol” in step one. Each fellowship has adopted the steps for their own needs by changing that word in the first step. Cocaine Anonymous changes it to “cocaine and all other mind-altering substances”, Overeaters Anonymous changes it to “food” etc.

The 12-steps as written in the book Alcoholics Anonymous are:

  • 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 inure them and others
  • Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it
  • Sought though prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand him, praying only for the knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out
  • Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all of our affairs

The above is no easy list of tasks to undertake. But leaving that aside, what do they mean exactly, and what does one get from working through them? The rest of this article will attempt to put them into a bit more context.

You’ll see from careful reading of the 12 steps, that there are some tasks that require physical action to achieve, while others are a matter of internal processing. Specifically, let’s look at steps 1, 2 and 3:

  • 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

Step one is a realisation an individual comes to about their drinking. It is a personal admission that they have done everything in their power they can think of to stop drinking (or any other behaviour that they are compulsively engaging in and are unable to stop). By the time an individual reaches a 12-step recovery program, they usually feel there are no other options. I mean, let’s face it, coming into a 12-step program is not going to be the first thing people try. They come when they are beaten. They come when they’ve given up hope of stopping whatever it is they are doing on their own. They come when they’ve finally acknowledged they need input from something else. This is the basic definition of powerlessness as it is used in a 12-step sense. Essentially, if you had power over your drinking, it isn’t likely you’d have shown up at an AA meeting asking for help!

Step two is a bit trickier to get one’s head around. The biggest problem here for most people are the words: “restore us to sanity”. “I’m not insane!” is what most people say, and they’re right – most people who work the 12 steps aren’t insane in the classic sense of the word. What step two is referring to here is a certain kind of insanity around the repeating behaviour pattern that has driven someone to go a 12-step program in the first place. For example: Continuing to drink alcohol long after its use can be controlled, or long after the realisation of the damage it is causing. In as much as the language of step two is concerned, insanity refers to continuing to engage in any behaviour an individual knows without question is causing more problems than it is solving. This is what is step two means by the idea that one needs to be “restored to sanity”.

More subtly, step two sees the beginning of the overall goal of the 12 steps, which is that they are designed to facilitate a psychological change to overcome alcoholism by way of a spiritual experience. In step two, one is asked to consider (and then come to believe), that there is a power greater than one’s self which, if tapped into sufficiently, will help them to stop engaging in a particular problem behaviour. In modern 12-step fellowships you will hear voices who say it is ok to believe in and use any external power you want, and that there is no requirement for it to be of a spiritual nature. This author will stay well away from that debate. All I can say here really is, at the time the steps were written this was simply not the case. Yes, it is true that Bill Wilson removed the requirement for that power to be Jesus Christ (which is what the original 5 steps to salvation were designed around: see part one), but despite this, the original intention for step two is that one comes to believe that there is a spiritual power of some sort that will do for them what they could not do for themselves.

This can be seen clearly in step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him”. As mentioned elsewhere, the early sober alcoholics removed Christ as one’s required power source (upsetting the Oxford Groups in the process), and instead allowed one’s own personal conception of God instead. The idea behind step three is that having admitted in step one that an individual is powerless to stop their repeating behaviour pattern (of alcoholic drinking originally), they then come to a place where they believe there is a power that can be tapped into to remove the compulsion to engage in that behaviour. Step three is where one makes the decision to tap into that power.

As such, step three is yet another internalised step of decision making following on from steps one and two. The whole process so far goes like this:

Step 1) I cannot stop because I’m powerless

Step 2) I now believe there is another power that can help me to stop

Step 3) I’m going to turn myself over to that power so it can help me stop.

Having come to these realisations and then made this decision, next comes a series of steps that draw from the concept: “Faith without works, is dead”. The idea here is that just believing in some sort of higher power, and then saying “Yup, I’m going to turn myself over to it and it’ll take away my difficulties”, isn’t enough. One has to actually do something. This something is a series of actions that make up steps four though nine. In 12-step fellowship lingo, steps four to nine are called “cleaning house”.

Step four: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” builds from the decision made in step three. If one has indeed decided to turn their will and life over to the care of God, then quite probably there are still some things inside their psyche that will block this from happening as effectively as  they would like (or need). Step four is based on the idea that if someone is hoping to tap into their higher power sufficiently for it to stop them engaging in their particular behaviour, it’ll be important to identify what those things are. In later steps, these things are cleared away.

Step four therefore, is a pen and paper exercise of self-reflection. It provides an opportunity to clarify certain, specific things within one’s self that create difficulties in their life and may be blocking them from fully tapping into the power they came to believe in during step two, and then made the decision to commit to in step three.

Step five: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs simply means to sit down with another (your sponsor most likely – see part 3) and tell them all that they’ve discovered about themselves during the step four reflective personal inventory.

Step six: Were entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character, is an opportunity to double check that one really does wish to carry out the decision made in step three instead of making a commitment they’re not ready to make.

Step seven: Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings, is the task of acting on the step three decision to turn your will and your life over to the care of God as you understand him, and the asking of one’s personal higher power to assist by taking away all the unwelcome psychological factors identified in step four.

Next, the step worker turns back to the list of psychological issues identified in step four. During step four’s reflective exercise, aspects of self will have been discovered that, if that individual is honest, they’re probably not too happy about. After telling another person what these things are (step 5), ensuring they really do want to ask their higher power for help (step 6), and then actually asking that higher power to provide that help (step 7), most people will already be able to see – from their step four inventory, that there is a bit more house cleaning to do, namely:

Step eight: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all” is a list that will have almost completely been finished in doing the work of step four. All that has to be done now is to identify whether, and to what degree the things we discovered during step four resulted in harming anybody. The only additional work to do on the list is to determine if there is anybody else who should be added to it. To whom were we selfish? To whom do we owe money? To whom have we acted in ways that quite frankly, we need to apologise for and correct? It is highly likely that one’s actions in the past have caused harm to others, and step eight is the task of identifying that harm. In addition, step eight also asks us to work to be prepared to rectify that harm. Importantly however, there is no restitution work done as part of step eight, one is only being asked to ensure a willingness to do so.

Step nine: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them and others. This stems directly from the Oxford Group principle of making restitution to others. Essentially, once one has identified any harm to others that needs correcting as a result of steps four and eight, something has to actually be done about that harm. It isn’t enough to simply say “Oh yes, I can see where my behaviour has hurt these people”. We need to zero the balance sheet. The description of step nine in the text book Alcoholics Anonymous provides a fairly clear set of suggestions as to how best to achieve this.

Having completed the “house cleaning” afforded by steps four to nine, one next turns back to one’s self and one’s ongoing behaviour. Step ten: “Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it”.The context of this step is that this is simply a daily mini version of step four. Rather than allowing one’s self to behave in such a way that we build up another list of harms done to people that then need to be corrected in a large batch, step ten affords the opportunity to keep on top of things. Step 10 asks us to mentally re-do step four on a daily basis, so that if there is anything in our thinking and behaviour that needs to be corrected, it can be sorted out quickly.

Step eleven: 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” is fairly self-explanatory. The purpose of this step is to remind those who work the 12-steps not to take their foot off the accelerator pedal in terms of their spiritual journey.

Step twelve reveals the ultimate purpose in all of the above: Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs”. From this you can see the real goal of the 12-step program is to enable the person engaging in this effort to have a spiritual experience. More subtly, those who go through this process are trying to facilitate a psychological change sufficient to recover from alcoholism through the finding and creation of a connection with a power greater than themselves who can solve their problem. Once that connection has been found, step workers are then asked to be willing to assist others who may also be seeking it. This is a fundamental principle of Christianity, and of the Oxford Groups in particular. Importantly, 12-step fellowships do not actively reach out in any way, nor do they evangelise in any manner whatsoever. The idea of carrying the message in this context is to carry it to those who seek it by coming to a 12-step fellowship group. To freely provide it to those who want and ask for it, not to reach out to people and attempt to convert anybody.

I hope this brief description of what the 12 steps are and how they work has been helpful. Next week’s article will focus on the difference between the 12-step program just described, and the 12-step fellowships that accompany it.