What are the 12 Steps of AA?

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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An In-Depth Look at AA’s 12 Steps

Founded in the 1930s by Bill Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has stood the test of time as the gold standard in recovery. What sets AA apart from other modes of treatment is its reliance on fellowship, wherein alcoholics help one another. This system creates a sense of community where one doesn’t only feel obligated to recover for their own sake but for the sake of those who rely on them for guidance and inspiration.

The foundation of AA lies in its 12 steps, which act as a transformative process for alcoholics seeking to change. To help you prepare for what you can expect when you begin AA, here are the 12 steps in detail.

Step 1: Admitting Powerlessness

The journey toward recovery begins by recognizing that you are indeed powerless against alcohol. Don’t think of “powerlessness” as some sort of rejection of free will or self-control. Understanding that you can’t control the power alcohol has over you is one of the most radical and empowering admissions that you’ll ever make. By recognizing that your life is made unmanageable by alcohol’s control over you, you begin the journey of recovery and transformation.

There is a large degree of vulnerability in admitting powerlessness over alcohol, but this is where the fellowship aspect of AA recovery becomes so important. In meetings, you’ll quickly recognize that others are just as powerless as you are and equally as willing to bare their vulnerability to their fellow alcoholics.

Step 2: Believing in a Higher Power

Don’t worry if you aren’t particularly religious. Your “higher power” doesn’t have to be a traditional conception of God. Some AA members designate their higher power as a family member who inspired them, the idea of living selflessly, or even a tree that stood in the yard of their childhood home. However, if you are religious, your higher power, of course, can be God.

The acknowledgment of a higher power moves the focus away from the isolation and self-reliance that often accompanies addiction. Instead of living a life centered around yourself and your impulses, you begin to live a life centered around something much deeper and more significant. 

Step 3: Surrendering to the Higher Power

Surrendering to your higher power means that you intentionally accept that your life’s purpose and mission are much bigger than yours. Surrendering is not a sign of weakness but rather of great strength and moral fortitude.

This step can truly be a “make or break” moment for an addict. It might sound quite minor, but it’s a life-changing step. By surrendering to your higher power, you free yourself from the selfishness and self-centeredness that is the cornerstone of active addiction.

Step 4: Taking a Fearless Moral Inventory

Taking a moral inventory means examining your life and your past. It means being honest with yourself about how your actions and behaviors affected the people in your life and how addiction exacerbated your shortcomings. This can be a truly scary step for addicts, as confronting one’s own shortcomings with fearless honesty can be petrifying.

Although this step can be really scary, it has the power to change your life completely. Once you’ve been honest with yourself about your mistakes and your flaws, you’ll be amazed at how liberated and free you feel. This step is truly an incredible part of the process and one that requires a lot of courage and strength.

Step 5: Admitting Your Wrongs

You must admit to these flaws and mistakes once you’ve taken your fearless moral inventory. This step involves confessing your wrongs to another person or other people, often in a meeting or a conversation with your sponsor. While your moral inventory helped you be honest with yourself, being honest with others is where your transformation occurs.

This is also an incredible opportunity to re-learn accountability. Addicts often lack accountability, so learning how to be accountable to others again is an important part of your recovery journey.

Step 6: Welcoming Change

This step might sound minor, but opening yourself up to change is the first step of truly experiencing change. Alcoholics and addicts often feel like they’re living in a rut, where every day is almost identical to the one that came before it. When your days are no longer centered around substances, your day-to-day life changes drastically. Bracing yourself for this change and welcoming it as an important new phase in your life is important.

Step 7: Asking for Change

Once you’ve decided to welcome change in your life actively, you can ask your higher power to bring it into your life. This is a step centered around humility, as you’re admitting that you alone cannot change your life but need the benevolence of a force more powerful than you to bring it into existence.

Asking for change isn’t something you do once, but you must do it to complete this necessary step. However, you’ll be consistently asking for change as you proceed through your recovery journey. This can often feel like prayer, but remember, you don’t have to be religious to participate in this program. Asking for change isn’t about “making a wish” but rather speaking your desire to bring your improved life into existence.

Step 8: Making a List of Amends

It’s rare for an addict’s addiction to be a completely solitary experience. Usually, most addicts find themselves hurting the people that they love, even if that was never their intention. Addiction can turn an otherwise kind person into someone who is very ugly and hurtful.

This is why you must make a list of the people you’ve hurt and past instances that bring you feelings of shame and regret. This step will act as a precursor to the next one, so it’s important to be thorough and honest with yourself if you want the process to work and transform you.

Step 9: Making Amends

This is the step that scares people the most. Until now, most of your tasks have involved either just you or other AA members. Now, you’re being asked to make amends to people outside the safe space of an AA meeting. While it takes courage to admit your wrongdoings to other alcoholics, you know that they understand what you’re experiencing and feeling from their own experiences. Admitting your wrongdoings to people who might not be addicts themselves can feel terrifying.

While this step can be the most difficult for AA members, it also has the potential to be a true turning point in your recovery journey. Once you’ve been fearlessly honest with not only yourself but with other people, you’ll truly feel liberated from the shame and secrecy that holds addicts back.

Making amends isn’t as simple as just telling people, “I’m sorry.” If you believe that contacting a person would be harmful to them, AA discourages doing so and instead implores you to express the sentiment to the universe instead of to the person directly. Beyond offering an apology, making amends is also about pledging to do better in the future. If a person chooses not to forgive you, you must commit to feeling apologetic and motivated to improve your future behavior regardless of their feedback.

Step 10: Continual Self-Reflection

Remember, there’s no such thing as saying “I’m cured” when it comes to recovering from addiction. Once you’re an addict, you essentially always will be. What changes isn’t the nature of your character but rather your decision to actively use substances or to choose to lead a clean, honest, and fearless life.

This is why continuous self-reflection is so critical to the recovery process. In movies, it might seem like characters who recover from addictions are magically transformed and turn over a new leaf just in time for the end credits. However, life is not a movie. Recovery can be messy, and you’ll often feel ill-equipped to deal with life’s challenges.

Self-reflection doesn’t always have to be a formal event where you write in a journal or call your sponsor, although both of those are great tools to have in your recovery arsenal. Self-reflection can be as simple as taking five minutes to close your eyes and breathe when life feels overwhelming or when you feel triggered to drink. As long as you pledge to self-reflect continuously, you don’t have to worry about doing it the “right or wrong” way.

Step 11: Seeking Spiritual Awareness

Much as you’ve committed to continuous self-reflection, it’s important to commit to consistently maintaining a relationship with your higher power. This is where the importance of acknowledging your own powerlessness over alcohol comes into play. While self-reflection is good, it doesn’t always take into account this powerlessness. Deference to your higher power, however, recognizes that you need a force much bigger than yourself to maintain sobriety.

Prayer and meditation are fantastic tools for this. A daily ritual where you acknowledge your higher power and your gratitude for your ongoing recovery is a fantastic way to stay on the recovery path and prevent a relapse. This is why you’ll often hear people in meetings refer to themselves as “grateful alcoholics.” They’re not grateful for the bad memories or experiences that alcoholism brought them but rather for the transformative experience of submitting to a higher power and humbly recognizing their own powerlessness and vulnerability. 

Step 12: Helping Others

Remember, there is never going to be an “I’m cured” moment in your recovery journey. While that may sound disheartening, try to understand its benefits. You’re committing to an ongoing recovery journey, one where you’ll experience humility, transformation, and fellowship.

Fellowship is essential to AA and the very heart of why it’s so effective. As you approach your twelfth step, you’re going to encounter people at meetings who are approaching their first. Just as more experienced members helped you when you were on step one, you now have the opportunity to do the same for newcomers. This might mean that you become someone’s sponsor, or it might just mean that you offer a listening ear to these newcomers at meetings.

It’s also not wise to think of the 12 steps as a linear process, although you should aim to complete them this way during the start of your recovery journey. However, you are always welcome to revisit individual steps as needed. In the future, you might remember a person you hurt and feel the need to revisit the task of making amends. AA is a marathon, not a sprint, with a clear beginning and end. As long as you commit to humility and honesty, you’re doing it the “right way.”

Transforming Your Life With The 12 Steps

The 12 Steps are a crucial part of recovering from substance abuse and transforming your life. While they can sound intimidating and even scary, they have the power to rebuild you and give you your life back.

For more information about how you can incorporate the 12 steps and AA into your life, contact us here at Defining Wellness Centers. We are committed to helping addicts free themselves from the chains of substance abuse and create the life that they want and deserve.

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If you are ready to take the step towards a new life, call Defining Wellness today and learn more about how we can help you.