What are the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions?

Often, one of the hardest parts of taking control over alcohol addiction is knowing where to begin or how to move through the recovery process. The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) provide a framework to help ease the anxiety of getting sober, as well as compassion and support for those addicted to alcohol who are committed to battling their disease.

First published as Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions in 1953, the 12-step framework has helped countless alcoholics and addicts achieve and maintain sobriety since Alcoholics Anonymous’ founding in 1935.

The 12 Steps of AA Explained

The AA 12 Steps are the essential principles of Alcohol Anonymous’ recovery program, designed to help guide alcoholics through the overwhelming process of reclaiming their sobriety. Grounded in a spiritual approach, the 12 Steps serve as a roadmap for those battling alcoholism, not only on their journey to recovery but also to throughout the rest of their lives. They offer a means of support and accountability for addicts looking to get—and stay—clean.

The 12 Steps were written as reflections on how founding AA members coped with and overcame their struggles with alcohol. These reflections have since turned into a working methodology for alcoholics to use as they work toward recovery.

The 12 Steps of AA are as follows:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongdoings.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  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.
  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.

While AA is faith-based and the original language of the 12 Steps refers to God, many chapters instead ground their programs in the broader concept of a “higher power” to help them move through their recovery. Members are free to choose for themselves what their higher power is.

What Are the 12 Traditions of AA?

While the 12 Steps of AA are designed for individuals working toward sobriety, the 12 Traditions of AA address Alcoholics Anonymous and its members as an entire body. They’re the guidelines that inform the direction and operating procedures of the AA organization, and they help ensure continuity among all of the member groups worldwide.

These are the 12 Traditions of AA:

  1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA
  2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
  3. The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
  4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.
  5. Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  6. An AA group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
  7. Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
  9. AA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
  10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues, hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
  11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.
  12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

How Do the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions Work?

Many (if not most) alcoholics feel completely powerless to their addiction and don’t know how to begin the process toward recovery. The 12 Steps of AA break down this otherwise overwhelming feat into manageable, actionable measures that provide order and control over the symptoms of the disease.

The step-by-step framework allows alcoholics to step back and take an honest assessment of themselves and how their disease is affecting their lives and those of everyone around them, then move forward with making positive changes.

Similarly, the 12 Traditions of AA exemplify the tenets of leadership and unity. They work to keep the entire AA membership grounded and accountable to one another, as laid out by the very first Tradition: “Our common welfare should come first.”

The focus on the overall health of the group ahead of any individual member or chapter reinforces the idea that addiction, while incredibly lonely, can be overcome with the help and support of others.

The 12-step model has expanded beyond Alcoholics Anonymous—today, dozens of addiction support groups have adapted the 12 Steps to serve and support their members, including well-known offshoots like Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

Benefits of the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions

It takes great courage and honesty to admit the existence of a problem and ask for help. The 12 Steps are grounded in the practices of humility, acceptance, and forgiveness (among others), making it easier for alcoholics to acknowledge their addiction without fear of judgment or reprisal. They provide tactics for alcoholics to combat the destructive symptoms of their disease, as well as a sense of community and accountability that they otherwise may not have.

Support for Loved Ones

The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions aren’t just helpful for those battling addiction. Families and friends can find support and comfort through the framework as well.

Step 9 leaves space for an alcoholic to make amends with those that their disease has harmed, which can open a path of healing and repair for everyone involved. In fact, attending an “open” AA meeting together, where non-members are invited to participate, can help families understand what AA offers and how they can support their loved ones in sobriety.

There are also Al-Anon Family Groups designed specifically to provide resources and support to the friends and families of alcoholics. Even those not directly affected by alcoholism or addiction may find value in AA’s 12-step approach to working through any struggle.

The process of candidly assessing a problem and applying the specific framework of acceptance and action easily translates to working through many problems.

Practicing the 12 Steps of AA

The journey through the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of AA often begins with attending a meeting. There are meetings designed specifically for new members, offering an introduction to AA and its Steps and Traditions. You’ll also find study groups for those working through the AA 12 Steps. Other meetings center on a given topic, with members reflecting and sharing personal stories around that topic.

The 12 Steps of AA are designed to be completed in order, but there’s no timeline by which all 12 must be finished. Some AA members find they need or want to stay on one step longer than another; others may need to pause between steps to before being ready to move onto the next.

Many AA members work with a sponsor who can guide them through putting the 12 Steps into practice. Sponsors have typically gone through the recovery program themselves and can lend firsthand insight and support. Indeed, members may wish or find the need to revisit the 12 Steps throughout their sustained recovery—rather than a one-time process, they simply become tenets of everyday life.

Finding an Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting

Attending an AA meeting is often the first step on the path toward long-term sobriety. You can find a local meeting using the directory—simply choose your state and city to connect with a group near you. The only thing Alcoholics Anonymous requires to attend a meeting is the desire to stop drinking—nothing more, nothing less.

Still have questions about AA or other treatment options? Call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to get more information on how to find the right support for yourself or your loved one. A treatment advisor can connect you with programs beyond just AA, including rehab facilities, detox treatment centers, and more.

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