Deciding to become sober is a major commitment, and for many, the task may seem overwhelming. Staying away from alcohol often requires making many changes—and some major ones—in an alcoholic’s life. But not all those adjustments need to happen at once. The 12 Steps of AA helps you to become sober one step at a time.
What Are The 12 Steps of AA?
The Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Step Program is one of the most famous systems in the world for helping people work through and recover from addiction.
As a whole, the method works to help a person admit there’s a problem, honestly examine the effects of their problematic behaviors and work to atone for and correct them, through a mixture of self-motivation and faith in a higher power.
But individual steps are also meant to be considered on their own, with plenty of points to reflect on in each.
Step One: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable.
The first step toward solving any problem is admitting there is one. This initial step not only helps the alcoholic let go of denial but forces them to admit that the issue of their drinking is beyond their control and that it has negatively impacted their lives.
Step Two: We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
While many people focus on the mentioning of a “higher power” here—for good or for ill—the major takeaway from this step is that there is hope for recovery; that addiction doesn’t have to be forever.
Relinquishing control to a higher power is what makes that hope possible—after all, you alone can’t be expected to solve a problem you just admitted is beyond your purview.
Still, at AA meetings, that “higher power” can take many forms, from the more traditional figures found in religious books to the mysterious mechanics of the universe to the power of the program itself.
Step Three: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
If Step Two asks us to believe in a higher power, Step Three implores us to actively put our faith into it. We can do this by expanding our relationship with that power, by expressing gratitude for it, seeking help through it, learning to meditate, and practicing acceptance.
Step Four: We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Another action-oriented step, and perhaps one of the most uncomfortable points in the process for many AA members, this step asks us to start making lists, whether mental or physical.
Up for consideration should be what we’re really like when we’re drinking, and all the ways this has impacted our lives. “Searching” implies the broad scope we’re implored to take when exploring these thoughts, and “fearless” refers to the fierce level of honesty we must have with ourselves through this process.
If we’re not willing to see how ugly the truth is, we’re right back at Step One, wrestling denial.
Step Five: We’ve admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
This step is meant to help lessen the weight of any heavy revelations found in Step Four.
By talking out our problems with another person—like a therapist, a priest, or a fellow AA member—we can help unburden ourselves from the shame and guilt we might feel, and gain even further relief or revelation through realizing we’re not alone in our struggles.
Step Six: We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Where the rubber meets the road, this step implores us to combine everything we’ve learned from the previous steps: We now see a clear and honest picture of ourselves and have developed a relationship with a higher power. Step Six asks us to then let go of what we’ve realized are detrimental behaviors and trust that power will see us through.
Widely considered to be one of the most difficult steps, Step Six isn’t about instantly morphing into a perfect, healthy, and sober person. It’s about having the willingness to work toward that change, committing ourselves to ourselves and our own self-improvement.
Step Seven: We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
The keyword here is “humbly.”
This step sounds similar to steps Six and Three, and it is, but it specifically reminds us to infuse our belief and trust with humility. When we are humble, it keeps our perspectives in check, helping us understand the true impact of our actions, the true measure of our limits, and the true greatness of that greater power, through its ability to transform our lives.
Step Eight: We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
This step rather straightforwardly spells out its assignment. In a way, it’s a callback to Step Four, though instead of focusing on what personal pain our addiction has wrought, we’re asked to see how our actions have hurt others, including any anger, resentment, or hurt we may have caused.
Step Nine: We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
A natural extension of Step Eight, this asks us to take that list-making process one step further, imploring us to actually see those we’ve hurt, face to face, to offer amends, unless that action would cause them more pain. (In these cases, writing a letter is recommended instead.)
Step nine isn’t just about forgiveness – in fact, it’s not guaranteed those we reach out to will be willing to forgive us – but about personal accountability, doing right by ourselves by doing right by others, and continuing to let go of the past.
Step Ten: We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
This step helps keep us committed to recovery.
Change is the only constant—indeed, the 12 Steps of AA actively promote it—so as we continue to change and grow, we must continue to check ourselves and our behaviors. How are we currently doing?
This step also works as a safeguard against relapse. You may think, “I’ve been sober for a while now, I can have a drink.” But forcing yourself to look at that thought honestly may help you realize it’s not true.
Step Eleven: We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge for his will to us and the power to carry that out.
Another step that nods to the spiritual side, this consideration simply asks us to keep up, and continuously work on, our relationship with our higher power, be it our preferred religion, our fellow AA members, or our support system.
In this context, “prayer” can be considered talking things through, “meditation” is considered reflecting on those conversations, and “conscious contact” is considered listening with intention.
Step Twelve: 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 our affairs.
Basically, the final act of the AA 12 Steps is to commit to continuing practicing what you have learned and to help spread the message to other alcoholics, particularly those at AA meetings.
The step aims to help keep us accountable, on many levels: Helping others gives us purpose; it reminds us of where we were – and where we don’t want to be again; it keeps us from becoming complacent in our recovery, and it strengthens our fellowship with other AA members.
Many AA members also choose to revisit the AA 12 steps after completing the process, understanding, and learning from them differently after whatever changes may have come to pass.
Still, the steps are only effective if and when you’re fully committed to seeing them through. Success in the program is a dedication to the program. And without a sincere desire to get better, there can be no sincere recovery, no matter how many steps you take.
Finding an AA meeting near you can be done easily online. You can even join an online meeting if that’s more convenient and safer for you.
How Do You Work Through the 12 Steps of AA?
As you can see, there’s a very intentional rhythm behind the AA 12 steps, and they’re meant to be worked through chronologically. Though, everyone is encouraged to go through the process at their own pace: Some people may need breaks between certain steps; some people may need more time with certain steps; some people may stall out at certain steps and have to start over.
It’s also okay to revisit certain steps – as long as you’ve previously completed them. Everyone, and everyone’s journey to recovery, is different.
You can work through the AA 12 steps on your own (they’re found and further explained in the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book), or find further help working through them at AA meetings. In fact, some AA meetings are actually designated “step” meetings, where discussions will center around one step in particular.