The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous & How They Work
Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
The intention behind this first step is essentially to admit you have a problem with alcohol. The goal is that by first admitting alcohol has caused your life to become unmanageable, you can then begin to try and regain control.
2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
This step is about believing something beyond yourself can help restore your control. Power is an intentionally broad concept in this step, as it refers not only to divine power but also to the power of community and commitment.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Step 3 is about allowing God as you understand him to take control. Notably, Alcoholics Anonymous largely intends for participants to believe in a personal God or higher power rather than a specific one of a particular Christian sect. That said, the language still uses wording that does point to the God of the Abrahamic faiths or at least a very similar entity.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
In this step, you are to make an honest assessment of yourself. This assessment is ongoing and going to be relevant in many of the next steps.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
As a continuation of the previous step, you admit your moral failings to yourself, your higher power, and another person. The hope is that this can allow you to begin correcting any character flaws to become a better, more resilient person.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
This step is mostly about being ready to change through the grace of God combined with your own efforts. Not only does a participant admit their moral failings, but they also allow themselves room for growth and change.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Step 7 is a straightforward continuation of the previous few steps. You ask the power you believe in for help making the necessary personal changes.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
This step begins one of the more well-known parts of AA’s 12-step program, where you make a list of the people to whom you’ve done significant harm. The eventual goal is to heal damaged relationships when possible while bettering yourself and undoing some of the damage dealt, especially the damage dealt while abusing alcohol.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Continuing from Step 8, this step involves attempting to fix past mistakes to begin the previously mentioned healing and betterment process.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Step 10 has a focus on continuing your growth indefinitely. By consistently looking inward, fixing other mistakes you’ve realized you made in the past, and readily admitting any new mistakes you make, the hope is you can prevent falling into old habits that may have been destructive.
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 second to last step is about further finding and trusting your God to help you and empower you to combat alcoholism and any generally toxic behavior patterns that have damaged your life.
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 is about spreading the healing process you underwent in the hopes of helping other alcoholics heal. It is also about remembering the steps you took and continuing to practice their principles in your daily life. The goal is to make the healing and improvement process a lifelong journey of change.
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. Some groups may distance themselves from the idea, encouraging participants to define a higher power however they see fit. Some members define it as simply the universe in general.
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
Most research indicates the success rate of AA programs is around 5 to 10 percent. A 2007 internal survey conducted by AA purportedly said 33 percent of members claimed to have been sober for over a decade, with many more people sober for shorter periods of time, but that appears to not be accurate.
One problem with this disparity is likely that AA newcomers often leave early in the program. About 80 percent of people stop coming within the first month, and only 10 percent remain within three months. It is possible that many of these early leavers were not counted in the internal survey.
Of the people who benefit from the program, expert Dr. Lance Dodes suggests it may be due to the camaraderie the program can generate, offering someone a support network, rather than the actual steps themselves.
It is also difficult to maintain data on members simply due to the anonymous nature of the program. It’s possible that many members don’t respond to surveys, and the data that is collected is incomplete.
While the meetings and steps have undoubtedly helped people, overall, it isn’t an evidence-based program. Meetings are generally led by members themselves rather than medical professionals. Groups operate fairly autonomously and often with limited resources.
While group leaders may have a good understanding of how to deal with alcohol abuse on a personal level, they don’t necessarily have training regarding the latest and most evidence-backed ways to help others combat addiction and regain control of their lives. Overall, AA can be a good support pillar of an overall recovery plan, but it generally shouldn’t be the only approach used.
About the Big Book. Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Surprising Failures of 12 Steps. (March 2014). The Atlantic.
The Twelve Steps. Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Twelve Steps Illustrated. Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Twelve Traditions. Alcoholics Anonymous.
What to Expect at an A.A. Meeting. Alcoholics Anonymous.
With Sobering Science, Doctor Debunks 12-Step Recovery. (March 2014). NPR.
Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness: Faith Meets Science. (September 2009). Journal of Addictive Diseases.
Does Alcoholics Anonymous Work? (March 2011). Scientific American.