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The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous & How They Work

The 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous has a focus on achieving betterment and sobriety through giving up control to a personal higher power, admitting your moral failings, and seeking to change and improve the relationships in your life. The 12 steps make up a set of principles or guidelines that AA developed to help members reach and maintain sobriety.

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What Is Alcoholics Anonymous? 

Alcoholics Anonymous is a free fellowship designed to help people struggling with alcohol abuse achieve sobriety through spirituality and mutual support from people who are also dealing with similar problems or have in the past.

You can learn about the basics of their program through what they call the Big Book, which is titled Alcoholics Anonymous. This text describes the program and features some stories about how people used the program to get sober.

While this book is available for purchase, you can also read it for free on their website. They also feature a variety of resources where you can read about more specific parts of their program. This can be helpful for people seeking help and those wondering if the program is a good fit for those in their life who may struggle with alcohol.

What Are AA Meetings Like? 

AA meetings can vary a lot according to each individual group because groups have a significant amount of autonomy to act as they feel works best for their members.

A given meeting will either be “open” or “closed.” Open meetings are available for anyone interested in the program, including people who aren’t alcoholics. Closed meetings are intended for established members or those who are struggling with alcohol and have a desire to stop.

These are some common meeting formats:

Discussion Meetings

This is one of the most open-ended formats, with one member leading the group in a discussion about a chosen topic or set of topics. The content of this discussion can vary widely, but it usually pulls from various pieces of official AA literature.

Speaker Meetings

These meetings, which the AA website notes are often open, have a member speak about their struggles and what their life is like now. These speakers are chosen ahead of time.

The speaker is often someone who has achieved a certain length of sobriety. They aim to inspire people to continue in the program, showing what is possible with sustained sobriety.

Beginners Meetings

These meetings are for beginners. A more senior member of AA leads people in a discussion and likely helps them begin the early steps of AA’s 12-step program.

Step, Tradition, or Big Book Meetings 

These meetings focus on the official material of the program, like a few of the steps or traditions. The group will likely read some of the material and then discuss how to implement it into one’s life.

Notably, different groups can run their meetings in very different ways. If you don’t think one group is especially helpful for you or are just wondering if another might be better, it is worth seeing if an alternative group can help you more, assuming you have a general interest in the program.

The 12 Steps of AA 

The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are as follows, usually presented as a sort of past-tense creed:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.

This first step is all about honesty. People are encouraged to admit that alcohol controls them—not the other way around. They’re also asked to acknowledge that their lives aren’t ideal right now and that drinking is the cause.

Introductions at AA meetings often start with this step. People give their names and say something like: “I am an alcoholic.” For long-term alcohol abusers, this can be a very difficult thing to admit.

2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Admitting that alcohol is powerful can be depressing. This step is all about help and hope. People are encouraged to recognize that they can’t do the work alone, but that there is a better life ahead.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

This step is sometimes interpreted as ceding control, but it’s a slightly more powerful shift. Instead of trying to change their lives alone, with no one to help them, people are encouraged to seek out a higher power that is always available when needed. 

It’s important to recognize that “god” in this step isn’t necessarily a Christian god. It’s any kind of higher power that the person feels comfortable with and recognizes as meaningful.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

This step involves taking a close look at the past and the decisions that were influenced by alcohol. This can be a painful process, especially for people who have dealt with a lot of traumatic experiences while drinking. But at the end of this step, people should feel comfortable discussing the mistakes they made and the problems they encountered.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

After completing an inventory, people have a good idea of the problems and mistakes that were caused by drinking. This information is particularly helpful when it’s shared. Telling another person, and exploring these issues with the help of a higher power, can make that fourth step even more powerful.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

This step is sometimes explained with the phrase, “I want to be free.” After exploring the mistakes made and poor decisions that stemmed from drinking, people typically want to learn more about how to build a better life–and they may need a higher power to help them do so. At the end of this step, people should be ready for the hard work ahead.  

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

The higher power defined in Step 3 becomes even more important here. In this step, people continue to surrender their lives to this power. They admit that they can’t do the work alone, but they reach out to something bigger than themselves for the assistance they need. This could be the first time that many people reach out to their higher power as they work through the recovery process.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

During the inventory process, people may identify others that they hurt while drinking. Apologizing immediately isn’t always helpful, as people may not be ready to deal with those difficult conversations. But after working more steps and forming a tight connection with a higher power, it’s time. Making a formal list of everyone who has been hurt is part of this step.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

As part of this step, people make a commitment to fix issues without causing more harm. Some types of damage are too profound to truly fix, but people are encouraged in this step to hold difficult conversations and look for solutions when they can.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

At this point in the recovery process, people have done quite a bit of work on problems from the past. But in this step, people are encouraged to remember that issues could continue. They make a promise to check up on themselves honestly and make changes when needed.

11. 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.

This step sounds like people are forced to participate in religious ceremonies, like going to church. It’s critical to remember that people can define their higher power, and they can determine how they make a connection with that being. The important part is to maintain close contact and continue to ask for help with challenges.

12. 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.

This final step involves helping someone else. At this stage in the journey, people have worked through many steps and conquered many challenges. They’re encouraged to pay it forward by helping someone else. Doing so can remind them of how far they’ve come and why backsliding just isn’t smart.

AA & Religion 

Alcoholics Anonymous is a program founded on religious ideology. While there is some effort to keep the wording broad, both their steps and traditions mention God with a capital G in reference to the Christian god.

It is overt enough that non-Christians may struggle to connect with the program, even if they agree with many of the ideas expressed in the steps and traditions.

It’s important to remember that people are encouraged to define their own higher power. That entity could be the Christian God, but it could also be another person, the Earth, Buddha, or any other thing that people find motivating or inspiring.

Similarly, people aren’t required to pray, go to church, or otherwise participate in Christian traditions. People could meditate, sing, chant, or find another way to connect with their higher power when they need to do so.

Language barriers can keep people out of AA, especially if they have a difficult relationship with Christian traditions. But AA is designed with flexibility, and anyone is welcome.

The 12 Traditions

In addition to its 12-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous also abides by the 12 traditions, found here, which center around guidelines for a person’s relationships within the group, their community, and the wider AA fellowship.

These traditions have both short-form and long-form versions with their general focus being on maintaining a certain level of integrity and unity among members. They place significant importance on keeping AA as apolitical as possible to avoid controversy and keep the group inclusive.

There is also a variety of traditions designed to keep groups fairly autonomous, having them consult other AA groups only when actions may have a significant impact on the affairs of other outside groups.

Success Rates of AA

It’s not always easy to determine how effective AA is in treating addiction. Researchers must first determine what “success” looks like, and they must find people who are willing to think about what their recovery would look like either with or without their AA affiliation. Even so, current studies suggest that AA is incredibly effective.

In a study of more than 10,000 people, researchers found that AA was always more effective than simply psychotherapy in helping people to achieve abstinence. This study also suggests that people who participate in AA have fewer healthcare costs.

In a separate study, researchers found that attending AA meetings can improve the percentage of abstinent days. Feelings of depression are also lowered in people who attend meetings.

Finally, in a study published in 2020, researchers found that more than 40% of people participating in AA will stay completely sober a year later. That’s compared to 35% of people getting other treatments for addiction.

Studies like this suggest that AA could be a good option for anyone struggling with addiction.

Profile image for Dr. Alison Tarlow
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated January 22, 2024
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