The 12-Step Program for Addiction Recovery
Addiction—also known as a substance use disorder (SUD)—is a complex but treatable brain disease. Addiction recovery is aided by professional alcohol treatment or drug treatment programs and by engaging in support groups that can offer encouragement, hope, and healthy peer interactions.1 Often, these support groups take the form of a 12-Step program in which participants work through 12 Steps to sobriety.2
What Are the 12 Steps to Recovery?
The idea of a 12-Step program began with Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, a program designed to support individuals struggling with addiction to alcohol in their recovery efforts.3
Over the years, other organizations have been formed to support recovery for all types of substances, not just alcohol; groups include Cocaine Anonymous (CA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Marijuana Anonymous (MA), to name a few. These recovery support groups tend to follow a similar general 12-Step ideology.3
The 12 steps to sobriety are usually practiced with the support of a sponsor, which is a senior member of the program that volunteers to share their experience and provide guidance to newer members in the 12-Step program.4
But what are the 12 Steps? Let’s break down each of the 12 Steps to sobriety.
Step 1: Admitting Powerlessness
Addiction is a disease that disrupts brain chemistry and circuitry, especially in the centers of the brain associated with motivation and reward.1,5 The 1st step calls for individuals to admit they have an addiction and accept that they are unable to control their drinking and/or drug use and that their willpower and motivation have been compromised. This step also involves admitting that one’s life has become unmanageable.6
Recognition of this loss of control and admission of being powerless over addiction is often more difficult than it sounds, but it is a necessary starting point.6
Step 2: Accepting a Power Greater than Oneself
AA is a spiritual organization that calls for people to believe in a Higher Power as one understands it. God, or a Higher Power, can come in many forms and does not have to be taken in the traditional sense. Step 2 of the 12 Steps to sobriety calls for faith that a Higher Power exists and that this power is necessary to restore sanity.6
The goal of Step 2 is for the individual to accept that they require help from a force greater than themselves in order to move forward in recovery.6
Step 3: Turning Life Over to a Higher Power
Each person will have their own idea of who or what the Higher Power is to them, and in Step 3 of a 12-Step program, individuals are asked to give control over their lives to this power. Unlike the first 2 Steps, which required only reflection, Step 3 requires action.6
The Serenity Prayer, which is a cornerstone of many 12-Step programs embodies the concept of the 3rd Step. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”7
Step 4: Taking a Moral Inventory
This inventory of self is meant to be comprehensive, searching, and fearless. This does not mean that it is without fear, but that individuals are encouraged to push past their fears and be honest in listing their shortcomings. Writing lists is often an important part of Step 4 as individuals are called to cite incidents, thoughts, feelings, and past experiences that may be difficult to think about.6
In Step 4 of the 12 Steps to sobriety, individuals are asked to be thorough and honest in their personal inventory, writing down anything that comes to mind, and then to explore the effects and particulars of each incident.6
Individuals often spend a lot of time on Step 4, writing, praying, and receiving encouragement from others in their support group.6
Step 5: Admitting Wrongdoing
During Step 5, individuals will choose a trusted person with whom to share personal stories and events recorded in Step 4. Individuals are asked to confess their shortcomings to their Higher Power and ask for forgiveness. Step 5 is often considered the confessional step and should follow Step 4 fairly closely.6
During Step 5 of the 12-step program, a trusted support person should be selected, after sins are confessed to the Higher Power, who can help the individual move forward and leave the past behind them. Addiction can be extremely isolating, and Step 5 is often the first step toward opening up to others.6
It can be difficult to admit to oneself any wrongdoings and even harder to then share them with others. During Step 5, individuals are often humbled and left with a feeling they’ve been emotionally cleansed.6
Step 6: Readying Oneself for God to Remove Defects
Step 6 of a 12-Step program is about letting go of negativity and the past and moving forward with the help of one’s Higher Power. Individuals pray, asking their higher power to remove their moral failings. Step 6 requires someone to understand that we often derive pleasure from our own flaws and sins, so being rid of them is more difficult than it seems.6
During Step 6, it may be helpful to write down several positive affirmations next to personal character issues, thus providing new and healthy methods for living in recovery.
Step 7: Asking God to Remove Shortcomings
Humility is the key to Step 7, as individuals are asked to seek God’s will in how their life is to be lived and asking Him to remove shortcomings like the ones outlined in the 12-step program.6
A key realization in Step 7 is when an individual finds that they must place the Higher Power first in their life, rather than only calling upon it when they need help—that humility needn’t always be something that is learned as the result of suffering or failure, but that it is something to be strived for voluntarily.6
Meditation is often useful during Step 7 as a method of self-introspection and learning how to apply humility to one’s life.6
Step 8: Listing Wrongs and Preparing to Make Amends
In Step 8, individuals are encouraged to be honest and write down names of anyone who they have harmed through both direct and indirect actions.6
Addiction can be far-reaching, and individuals should be thorough in their list, as no small slight should be overlooked.6
The purpose of Step 8 is to allow one to both release themselves from past resentments and to learn how to develop more positive relationships. In Step 8, participants work to forgive both others and themselves.6
Step 9: Making Direct Amends
During Step 9, participants in the 12-Step program attempt to make amends for wrongdoings done to specific individuals. In some cases, it is not possible to have these conversations directly; in other cases, reaching out to someone to make amends may do more harm to them than good (for example, if they were unaware they had been harmed and may be traumatized by learning of the transgression).6
With Step 9, individuals are apologizing for actions they took while under the influence of drugs or alcohol or for the damages their addiction has caused. Individuals may then attempt to offer restitution and seek forgiveness and reconciliation but need to be aware that they may not receive it. Working through Step 9 helps to set things right so everyone can move on.6
Step 10: Taking Inventory and Admitting Wrongdoing
Steps 1-9 set up a strong spiritual foundation and a new way of life without drugs and alcohol. In Step 10, individuals seek daily accountability for their actions.6
Recovery is ongoing, and individuals continue to examine how their thoughts, words, behaviors, and actions impact daily life and how to keep themselves in line with their faith and God’s will. This means taking inventory every day and immediately correcting any apparent wrongs.6
By understanding how certain things may make a person feel and therefore act, individuals can become more aware of themselves and their behaviors. Step 10 involves personal reflections and a kind of spot-checking to keep oneself balanced emotionally.6
Step 11: Improving Contact with Higher Power and Carrying Out What Is Right
Meditation, prayer, and self-examination make up Step 1, as individuals use these tools to form a spiritual connection with their Higher Power. When a person is in tune with themselves physically and emotionally, the spiritual aspect is also strengthened.6
After completing Step 11, one should be left with a sense of belonging and the understanding that a Higher Power loves and watches over them.6
Step 12: Carrying the Message to Others and Practicing the Principles in Daily Life
This final step is the service aspect, and it asks individuals to give back to others who are also struggling with addiction. After coming to God or another Higher Power, individuals are then taught to share this spirituality with others and support them in recovery.6
During Step 12, individuals are often asked to share their stories, testimonies, and struggles with others in order to provide hope and encouragement. Practicing the 12th step elicits a profound sense of joy and purpose in oneself as it helps others in their struggles.6
Do the 12 Steps Work for Addiction Recovery?
Programs like AA and other 12-Step groups provide a healthy community of support and solidarity filled with individuals who are all seeking to remain sober on a long-term basis.
Individuals who regularly attend AA meetings are about twice as likely to remain abstinent over those who don’t—and higher rates of attendance are linked to better outcomes—per the Journal of Addictive Disorders.8 The 12 Steps to sobriety can go a long way in providing individuals in recovery with the support they need.
How to Start the 12 Steps to Recovery
12-step facilitation therapy is a technique used in many inpatient rehab and outpatient treatment centers. This approach is designed to encourage patients to stay focused on their recovery after rehab and to form a positive network of peers that is conducive to sobriety.9
However, being admitted to rehab is not a prerequisite to joining a 12-step program, as these are generally community-based programs that are open to anyone who needs help with a drug or alcohol problem.10-12
Our facility, Desert Hope Treatment Center, uses the 12 steps as tools for recovery in Las Vegas, Nevada.
12-Step Programs: A Continual Resource
At any point, individuals may choose to go back and revisit any of the steps in the 12-Step program even if they have already worked through all of them previously. Different situations may require reflection or a look back at one of the steps.
Repeating or returning to a previous step is not failure or weakness; it’s a recommitment to yourself and your recovery.
How to Seek Help Beyond the 12-steps
If you’ve gotten this far and are still wondering:
- How are the 12 Steps going to help me?
- I’ve tried the 12 Steps before and it just hasn’t worked out. What now?
- Where do I start if I’ve relapsed and am not sure how to restart or if I want to try something new?
- Can someone help me learn where to begin?
- Is there something more comprehensive to help me continue or start recovery?
That is okay. Help is available. You can call us anytime 24/7 at .