The 12 Steps of Addiction Recovery

Alcoholics Anonymous or AA is the original recovery program that brought the world the 12 steps of recovery. The 12 steps have since been applied to other substances and types of addictions in recovery programs like Marijuana Anonymous, Al-Anon and Alateen for loved ones of alcoholics, Codependents Anonymous for people stuck in toxic relationships, Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and Workaholics Anonymous.

This article will describe the foundation of the steps, what each of the 12 steps of recovery means, what to expect when doing the steps, and how to help a person recovering from an addiction. 

Alcoholics Anonymous group therapy sitting down.

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Foundation

The 12 steps of recovery were published in the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous by two recovering alcoholics, doctor Bob Smith and businessman Bill W. The steps are founded on personal experience and Christian inspiration. They are based on the belief that by following these “principles, spiritual in their nature, as a way of life, you can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”

The 12 Steps of Recovery

The 12 steps of recovery are meant to be completed in order as one step builds upon the next. The original steps spoke of a single “God” but have since been changed to a “Higher Power” or a “power greater than you.” Here are the 12 steps in order:

  1. Admittance: If you’ve ever heard someone say, “The first step is admitting you have a problem,” now you know where it comes from. Admittance, acknowledgment, or honesty are all different ways of introducing the first step, which is to admit to yourself that you are powerless over alcohol or another substance or behavior and that your life has become unmanageable.
  2. Faith: Now that you’ve acknowledged your powerlessness, step 2 asks you to have faith that some power greater than you can restore your well-being and remedy your addiction. This step is also sometimes referred to as “Trust.” While faith in the process is developed in this step, it doesn’t stay here. People working the steps will use this faith in the process to help them through recovery. 
  3. Surrender: Step 3 is bringing together the work from steps 1 and 2. Here, you’ll surrender to your higher power as you understand it, acknowledging that you alone cannot recover.
  4. Self-reflection: Also known as “Inventory,” or “Taking Inventory,” step 4 is where a person takes a moral inventory of themselves. This is a challenging and essential step to recovery. Moral inventory includes assessing where you’re at with the basics of self-care, including exercise and nutrition, the status and health of your relationships, finances, and career. The "Big Book" recommends making step 4 an ongoing step throughout recovery as things change.
  5. Integrity: Step 5 is where a person confesses “the exact nature of their wrongs,” to themselves, their higher power, and at least one other person. While confession may seem simple and quick after the previous steps including admission, it’s not. It’s said that if a person skips or doesn’t do a complete job of this step, they may never overcome their addiction.
  6. Acceptance: Step 6 is about preparing yourself and becoming ready to have your higher power remove the parts of your character that are not serving you well. Letting go is vital to the process of moving to the next step and recovering.
  7. Humility: “Humility” here refers to quieting your ego and communicating with your higher power, asking for all “character defects” to be removed. Bear in mind we’ve learned a lot about addiction since the 1930s, and we know now that addiction is caused by many factors, none of which are “defective character.” Addiction is caused by complex factors including genetics and environment or circumstances.
  8. Willingness: Step 8 requires a different kind of inventory to be taken. Here, the person shifts focus from self to others. They’ll be asked to make a list of all people they have harmed or wronged before beginning the recovery process. 
  9. Make amends: Step 9 is where external actions are taken in the pursuit of forgiveness and healing. This is not an “apology tour,” but rather a thoughtful and premeditated exercise in trying to make right with these people, so long as doing so doesn’t cause any harm.
  10. Maintenance: The work doesn’t stop after step 9 because 12-step recovery is designed to be a new way of living. You’ll need to continue making amends and admitting wrongs from here on out. 
  11. Improvement: Step 11 is about improving the person’s relationship with God or their higher power. It’s also known as “Making Contact.” You may also see it as choosing what role your higher power will play in your life moving forward.
  12. Service: The backbone of any 12-step program, service is how the person gives back to their group or fellowship and uses their knowledge and wisdom gained throughout the steps to help others in recovery.

What to Expect

There is no set timeline for how long it will take someone to go through the steps. A person typically begins by attending their first AA meeting and being introduced to newcomer information (including information on the 12 steps).

It's up to each individual to decide when to begin “working the steps,” and when to approach a sponsor. Your sponsor is meant to provide guidance, support, and understanding during the steps process. 

How to Help a Person Recovering From an Addiction

Helping a person recovering from an addiction can come down to helping them connect to treatment—if they’re not already doing so—and encouraging support groups like AA. The people this person meets in these meetings are much better positioned to encourage their sobriety than family members are.

Attend meetings for loved ones of those recovering from an addiction as a way of supporting yourself and connecting with others who can relate. Bear in mind the person recovering from an addiction will need real-time to go through these big steps (not just a few days or a month). Recovery can take months and years.  Staying realistic about relapse and the road ahead is advised.

SAMHSA Helpline

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Summary

The 12 steps ask a person to admit they’re powerless and that a higher power can help restore their personal power—but only if the person takes a full moral inventory, lists all people wronged, makes amends where possible, opens their communication or strengthens their relationship with their higher power, and practices acts of service that helps them maintain the new life. Recovery is possible, especially with the help of loved ones and groups like AA.

A Word From Verywell 

The 12 steps are challenging for every anyone struggling with a substance use problem, no matter what their addiction. Going through the ways your addiction has taken away from your life and how it has impacted others may be painful. While working with a sponsor is expected during the steps, the best chance of recovery comes from a combination of efforts. Bear in mind that recovery is a lifelong process (but it does get easier!).

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long do the 12 steps of recovery take?

    How long it takes to complete the 12 steps of recovery is highly dependent upon individual circumstances. It is highly variable; it can take months to years. Some 12 steppers may continue "working the steps" as step 12 can continue on forever.

  • Do you need a sponsor to complete the 12 steps of recovery?

    There is no hard and fast rule that you need a sponsor to complete the 12 steps, although it is strongly encouraged in the program meetings. A 2014 survey found about 82% of AA members had sponsors.

  • Do the 12 steps of recovery actually work?

    The 12 steps of recovery work for some people and may not work for others. Many factors influence recovery, beyond whether or not the person completes the steps, though. These include genetic, biological, and environmental factors. The 12 steps model may not be for everyone, and there are other effective approaches to recovery that might be a better fit for some.

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