Breaking Down the 12 Step Recovery Program

12 step recovery program

Breaking Down the 12 Step Recovery Program

The 12-Step recovery program is a common tool utilized, in one form or another, in nearly all recovery and drug rehab programs across the country. The first and most well-known iteration of the 12-Step program was introduced in 1935 with the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. Since the inception of the 12-Step program, the guiding principles and fundamental structure of the program has helped millions of those suffering from an addiction to alcohol or narcotics to move past their addiction and lead productive sober lives.  

In this article, we’ll break down the 12-Step program, shedding light on the individual steps and how they can help with those struggling with an addiction. At the same time, we recognize that the 12-Step program is not for everyone. We’ll discuss this as well, and outline how some alternatives to the 12-Step program can still prove beneficial to many people on their recovery journey while offering a program that is more closely aligned with their personal beliefs.  

The Traditional 12 Step Program

The traditional 12-Step program presents participants with a series of guiding principles that are designed to help addicts realistically view their addiction and then work to overcome it. It should be noted from the outset that the traditional 12-Step program is strongly centered around religious beliefs. Many of the steps require participants to recognize that there is a higher power outside of themselves, and use the strength of that higher power to aid them in their battle against addiction.  

The traditional 12-Step program is used in a variety of rehab facilities and is available for recovering addicts that have finished their inpatient recovery program in nearly every city in the United States. Both the Alcoholics Anonymous organization and the Narcotics Anonymous organization use the traditional 12-Step program, with small variations between the two. In the following section, we’ll list each of the traditional steps in the 12-Step program, and break down how each of them functions to help recovering addicts.

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

The first step revolves around two key principles. The first is that to truly embrace the process of recovery through the 12-Step program, addicts must admit that they have an addiction to drugs and alcohol. This step requires addicts to break through any self-delusion or justifications they may have told themselves or others regarding their addiction. The second principle is regarding a recognition of the fact that their addiction to drugs and alcohol has resulted in a variety of negative outcomes in their life. By doing so, this step forces recovering addicts to view the damage done to their relationships, professional responsibilities, and families as consequences of their addiction.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

The second step calls upon the recovering addict to recognize that they need help from a power outside of themselves in order to overcome their addiction. The second step is overtly referring to a higher religious power, God, which will offer the strength and guidance to recovering addicts in their battle against their addiction.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to our care of God as we understood him.

The third step is essentially calling for a leap of faith on the part of the recovering addict.  Recovering addicts must fully invest in the belief of a higher power that can aid them in their battle against addiction and guide them back towards a path of sobriety. Alongside this, recovering addicts must actively ask for the help they need from the higher power, whether it be through prayer, meditation, or other forms of devotion. Also notable is that the third step explicitly allows for different religious views on what that higher power is. Rather than focusing on a specific higher power, the third step instead revolves around submission and dedication to whichever higher power the recovering addict believes in.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

The fourth step in the 12-Step program requires recovering addicts to delve deep into their past actions to determine exactly what they have done wrong. Conducting this moral inventory will be an uncomfortable and sometimes painful process, but is necessary in order to atone for their past actions and begin the healing process. While the atonement process will begin at a later step, the first action the recovering addict must take is being honest with themselves about what the consequences of their addiction were.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

The fifth step in this process is integrally related to the fourth step. In the fourth step, recovering addicts must confront the uncomfortable knowledge about what harm their addiction has caused in their lives and the lives of those around them. In the fifth step, recovering addicts must share this knowledge with God and with another person. Sharing the knowledge of their transgressions will help ease the burden on the recovering addict of carrying around any guilt they may feel about their past actions and is the first step towards atonement for the damage caused as a result of their addiction.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all the defects of character.

The sixth step in the 12-Step program is a difficult one that is widely regarded as its own process rather than a goal you complete once and move on. This step requires the recovering addict to shed the attitudes and behavioral traits that led to their addiction. The recovering addict is asked to do this through the aid of a higher power.

By doing so, the recovering addict is able to build up a new set of beliefs about themselves, what they are capable of, and turn former weaknesses to strengths in their battle against their addiction. This step is considered an ongoing process because letting go of attitude and behaviors that have been learned or developed over a lifetime is not an easy process. Rebuilding those former weaknesses into character strengths is also an ongoing process that will require discipline, dedication, and resolve to accomplish.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

This step requires that the recovering addict develop a bearing and attitude of humility.  Learning humility can be difficult in its own right, but is a key aspect of the 12-Step program.  Through humility, the recovering addict can recognize that their previous way of living, one of addiction and pain, was not the best course of action for them. This recognition will allow them to seek out a healthier way of life that is sustainable and beneficial for both them and those around them. The seventh step in the 12-Step process calls the recovering addict back to their devotion and submission to a higher power that was required in step three.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

The eighth step in the 12-Step program is related to the fourth step, in that it requires the recovering addict to make an inventory of the people that their addiction harmed. Whereas the fourth step was more of an internal process, requiring the recovering addict to determine how their addiction harmed the self, the eighth step calls for the recovering addict to make a complete list of how their addiction led to the harm of others around them.

A key part of this step is being willing to make amends to those people that have been harmed.  While this may not always be possible, as the next step indicates, the act of being willing to rectify the damage done in the past is in itself a step towards healing and recovery and indicates that the recovering addict is taking responsibility for their addiction.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

The ninth step is the step where recovering addicts begin to act on the list they created in step eight and strive to make amends to those people that they harmed through their addiction.  This step explicitly recognizes that in some cases, this will not be possible, as it would lead to even greater harm to some people.

That being said, this step requires the addict to directly acknowledge that they have harmed others, and seek to repair the damage that they have caused. This step is an ongoing process and is an extremely difficult and painful one for most recovering addicts. However, by completing this ninth step, recovering addicts are able to begin the process of moving past the wreckage that their addiction caused and move forward towards a healthier, addiction free lifestyle.

10.Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

The tenth step calls for the addict to develop a character that is honest with themselves about where they make mistakes, and then to be humble enough to admit those mistakes. This step is more of an ongoing process as well, one that allows the addict to continuously recognize where bad habits or weaknesses may be manifesting and work to fix those faults in a beneficial way.

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.

The eleventh step is highly spiritual in nature and is concerning the recovering addict’s relationship with a higher power. Recognition and submission to a higher power came in earlier steps, and the eleventh step calls upon the recovering addict to continue to cultivate and build upon the relationship they have already created.

It requires the recovering addict to maintain conscious contact, whether it be through prayer or meditation. This indicates that the recovering addict should be maintaining an open line of communication with the higher power that they believe in, becoming more attuned to the guidance of that higher power while also sharing the burden of their recovery with their God.

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.

The twelfth step calls for the recovering addict to commit to sharing the 12-Step program and their successes with the program with others suffering from addiction. This step is centered around continued outreach and service. The recovering addict is encouraged to share their experiences with others who are suffering from addiction and help to guide them onto a path of recovery.

The twelfth step encourages mentorship, a key aspect of the 12-Step program. This step also requires the recovering addict to recognize that recovery from addiction is a lifelong process, and reminds them to continually work through their 12-Steps as they continue on their path of sobriety.

Alternatives to the 12-Step Program

While the 12-Step program is a proven method for helping many on their journey towards recovery, the program is inherently faith centered and requires submission to a higher power.  For many with secular and personal beliefs that don’t align with this approach, there are alternative 12-Step programs that offer many of the same benefits.  

At their core, these alternative programs utilize the same fundamental approach that the traditional 12-Step program offers, but do not require followers to openly submit to a higher religious power. Alternative 12-Step programs have the strength of a proven history of success, similar to the traditional 12-Step program, while also offering key strengths from the traditional program such as mentorship, group work, and lifelong processes of healing, reconciliation, accountability, and growth.




Ultimately, each addict’s path to recovery is unique. Some may have personal or religious beliefs that the traditional 12-Step program resonates with. Others, however, may be more inclined to follow an alternative approach. Recognizing this fact allows the recovering addict and their treatment center to tailor an individual treatment plan that takes into account their beliefs to formulate the best treatment options for them.  

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