Why 12 Steps? Understanding the Philosophy of the 12-Step Program
Many modern addiction treatment centers follow a strategy known as the 12-step program for their patients, which is intended to provide them with an outlined path for guidance and support. The 12-step program has been a popular set of guidelines for helping an individual with their addiction for almost a full century, yet many people do not truly understand what has made it so impactful. Particularly to the modern reader, it may seem like an outdated philosophy given that it is filled with religious reference, but the fundamentals at its core are valuable regardless of an addict’s background and belief system.
To understand the philosophy of the 12-step program, it is useful to know a bit about its origin. The original 12-step program was written in 1938 for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), although the organization traces its inspiration back four years earlier. This is when two of its founding members, a stockbroker named William Wilson and a surgeon named Robert Smith, were both struggling with their alcohol use and met with each other for mutual support. After a long conversation and several interactions, the two men realized that support from other recovering alcoholics was a valuable tool in helping an alcoholic stay sober. Eventually this would lead to the founding of AA to carry that discovery to other struggling alcoholics, and along with it the 12-step program itself. Here it was intended to serve as the rule book for AA moving forward and has since been adopted in various forms by countless other organizations and rehab centers.
The 12-steps are still used in their original form by AA, and their core meaning has been transferred into other forms by different organizations organization. Here are the 12 steps and what each one means for an alcoholic or addict that chooses to follow them or any variant of them.
1. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”
The first step to overcoming a problem is for a person to recognize the problem itself. That is what an alcoholic or addict is forced to admit when they accept this first rule in the 12-step program. It is a crucial starting place because it positions them to wholeheartedly attack their substance use disorder rather than attempting treatment while lost in denial, which will cause them to fail the recovery attempt.
Other key points in this first rule come with the words “powerless” and “unmanageable.” These are intended to stress the nature of addiction itself, since when dependent on a substance, the user loses control over their usage and in turn loses control of their life. The AA version of this includes mention to alcohol specifically, but that part of the line can be modified to apply to any type of addiction.
2. “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
This line helps to reinforce the part of the first line that states the addict is “powerless” in the face of their addiction. With it, the addict is admitting that they will only be able to overcome their condition by accepting outside help. In a modern secular context, this can be interpreted as family, friends, professionals, and other recovering addicts.
3. “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
The original AA was founded on the principle of the Christian deity being crucial to recovery. Modern AA technically still holds this religious tie, but this line can be interpreted in different ways to apply to a wide range of individuals with different backgrounds. Other organizations frequently modify this step explicitly and ones that follow to be more inclusive and remove the religious component.
Although in its original form this line is religious, the core of the line is better described as presenting the addict with spirituality. This means that the individual is turning their attention toward matters of the human soul or a spiritual understanding of the world rather than remaining focused on the physical world alone. To understand this better, it is useful to know that while religion is a part of spirituality, spirituality is not necessarily religious.
4. “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Another way to phrase this line for clarity would be to say that the addict has made an honest and unbiased (as can be) evaluation of themselves. Regardless, the purpose of the step is that the addict has examined their life to better understand the damaging extent of their addiction, their lack of control, and perhaps even identify potential causes for their fall. This also serves to ensure that they are not in denial about their condition.
5. “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
The fifth step in the program further removes lingering feelings of denial while also realigning the addict with their spiritual journey. Additionally, the last part of the line directly brings other people into the picture, making the addict’s journey about more than just themselves. In the AA context, this specifically refers to one other alcoholic since when a person joins AA, they are paired with someone else. Under a wider understanding it can mean the rehab group an addict is in, medical professionals, or anyone else where it would be beneficial for them to know about the addict’s struggle.
6. “We’re entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”
Once again, the AA official step list refers to God, but the step can be viewed in other ways. The principle meaning of this step is that the addict is choosing to open themselves up and change their life for the better. This is no easy task and can only work after having followed each of the prior steps since it means letting go of their old ways of living, which includes old coping strategies, and learning a new, healthy way to interact with and exist in the world.
7. “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”
In some ways, this step is a continuation of step 4 because it means that the addict has analyzed themselves enough to recognize both their positives and negatives, and now seeks to remove the negatives. Humbly asking God or another higher power (such as spirituality) to remove the shortcoming is utilized to remind the addict that they are only human and have limits when by themselves, but by recognizing that, it is easier to take the necessary steps toward recovery.
8. “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”
This step can be summed up with the word “accountability.” Its purpose is for the addict to acknowledge their mistakes and the people they have harmed through them so that they can begin to try and make up for what they have done. While it may not always be possible to truly make amends for what has happened, deciding to make a sincere attempt is the key to repairing as much as possible.
9. “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
Step 9 is the continuation of step 8. In step 8, the addict is preparing themselves for the task of making amends, meanwhile in step 9 they are following through with that goal. Doing this gives back to the people that were harmed and helps the addict deal with any guilt that they are facing, which is critical since guilt may be one of the feelings that turned them toward or locked them in dependence. This happens because their chosen substance became a coping mechanism for dealing with the negative feelings.
10. “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
This step acknowledges that recovery is an ongoing process and that no addict is ever “cured” of addiction. Rather, they must always be conscious of their mindset and behavior if they are to remain sober. Relapse does frequently occur during recovery, but it is critical that when it happens, the addict admits to it and takes responsibility for their actions rather than trying to hide it or blame it on someone else like they might have before the program began.
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.”
Where step 10 focuses more on the critical side of ongoing recovery by looking inward and acknowledging mistakes, step 11 highlights the spiritual side of it by turning outward to draw strength from a higher power. The original AA refers to God here, but remember any spiritual belief system that can provide a sense of guidance can be swapped in. Furthermore, praying can be exchanged for other spiritual activities, such as meditation. Regardless, the end goal is for the addict to look beyond their own wants and struggles and be willing to accept help.
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.”
What you receive, you must pass on. The final step of the program urges the recovering addicts to go out and repay their second chance in life by helping others who are suffering from addiction. This benefits not only these new people who are in desperate need of help, but directly aids with the ongoing recovery process since working with others serves to remind the addict of the struggles they have overcome while also maintaining accountability, finding a new sense of purpose, and strengthening their ties to a positive recovery community.
The philosophy of the 12-step program is geared toward reshaping the individual into a more positive version of themselves rather than simply targeting the immediate problem of a dependence. This is what has allowed the program to stand the test of time and remain an effective treatment tool. It focuses on the long-term betterment of a person, and in turn serves to strengthen them against future temptation from either their original substance or alternatives, reducing the odds of relapse.
What makes it even more significant is that the 12-step program has an emphasis on community building in order to aid the addict’s ongoing recovery and allow them to give back to others trapped by addiction. This paves the road for helping many more individuals in an effective manner and theoretically guides the world toward a place where the stigma of addiction fades and everyone has the opportunity to receive the help that they need.