12 Step Recovery Programs Guide New, Addiction-Free Lives (2023)

The Twelve Steps, originated by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), is a spiritual foundation for personal recovery from the effects of alcoholism, both for the person using alcohol as well as their friends and family in Al-Anon Family Groups. The 12 steps are also used in recovery programs for addictions other than alcohol.

Many members of 12-step recovery programs have found that these steps were not merely a way to overcome addiction, but they became a guide toward a new way of life. Some of the best-known 12-step programs include Alcoholic Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and Cocaine Anonymous (CA).

How the Twelve Steps Work

As explained in Chapter 5, "How It Works," in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, the Twelve Steps provide a suggested program of recovery that worked for the early members of AA and continued to work through the years for many others, regardless of the type of substance they used.

The Twelve Steps themselves are the essence of Alcoholics Anonymous. They are the directions meant to provide members a path to lasting sobriety and a substance-free lifestyle.

Twelve-Step meetings are considered the "fellowship" part of the AA mutual support groups, where people come together and share their experiences.

For many people, these groups may serve as their primary resource for changing their behavior, but they also often augment formal treatment. Such programs can also be helpful for long-term support and care.

One survey found that there were approximately 64,000 groups in the U.S. and Canada, with more than 1.4 million members. Worldwide, there are approximately 115,000 groups supporting more than 2.1 million members.

The 12 Steps

Though the original Twelve Steps of AA have been adapted over time, the premise of each step remains the same for all recovery programs that use a 12-step model.

By exploring the steps in depth and seeing how others have applied the principles in their lives, you can use them to gain insight into your own experiences, and to gain strength and hope for your own recovery. The steps and their principles are:

  1. Honesty: After many years of denial, recovery can begin with one simple admission of being powerless over alcohol or any other drug a person is addicted to. Their friends and family may also use this step to admit their loved one has an addiction.
  2. Faith: Before a higher power can begin to operate, you must first believe that it can. Someone with an addiction accepts that there is a higher power to help them heal.
  3. Surrender: You can change your self-destructive decisions by recognizing that you alone cannot recover; with help from your higher power, you can.
  4. Soul searching: The person in recovery must identify their problems and get a clear picture of how their behavior affected themselves and others around them.
  5. Integrity: Step 5 provides great opportunity for growth. The person in recovery must admit their wrongs in front of their higher power and another person.
  6. Acceptance: The key to Step 6 is acceptance—accepting character defects exactly as they are and becoming entirely willing to let them go.
  7. Humility: The spiritual focus of Step 7 is humility, or asking a higher power to do something that cannot be done by self-will or mere determination.
  8. Willingness: This step involves making a list of those you harmed before coming into recovery.
  9. Forgiveness: Making amends may seem challenging, but for those serious about recovery, it can be a great way to start healing your relationships.
  10. Maintenance: Nobody likes to admit to being wrong. But it is a necessary step in order to maintain spiritual progress in recovery.
  11. Making contact: The purpose of Step 11 is to discover the plan your higher power has for your life.
  12. Service: The person in recovery must carry the message to others and put the principles of the program into practice in every area of their life.

The Twelve Traditions

Just as the 12 steps outline the path to recovery for individuals struggling with addiction, there are also 12 Traditions that are the spiritual principles behind the 12 steps. These traditions help guide how 12 step recovery programs operate. The traditions focus on the importance of unity, effective leadership, and independence. They also address questions related to financing the group and managing public relations.

The purpose of the 12 traditions is to help provide guidelines about the relationships between the group and the community as well as between individual members of the group.

History of the 12 Steps of Recovery.

The 12 steps of recovery introduced by the founders of Alcoholic Anonymous are:

  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 wrongs.
  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 the 12 steps in use today are based on the same ideas written by the founders of AA in the 1930s, the understanding of the term “God” has since broadened to refer to any “higher power” that a person believes in.

Believing in this higher power may help someone find meaning in their life outside of addiction. For instance, they may find a greater sense of community by joining a spiritual or religious group. Or, they may engage in prayer and meditation. These can be healthy coping mechanisms someone turns to as they progress through recovery.

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Effectiveness of 12-Step Recovery Programs

There are many different paths to substance use recovery, and 12-step programs are just one resource that people may find helpful. Research suggests that 12-step interventions and mutual support groups can be essential in recovery.

Self-report information collected by AA, NA, and CA suggests that the median length of abstinence among currently-attending members is five years. Around a third of members report remaining abstinent between one and five years.

More formal research also supports the findings of support group surveys. For example:

  • Attending 12-step recovery programs in addition to specialized substance use treatment is associated with better overall outcomes.
  • Greater involvement, particularly when a person first connects with a 12-step program, is also linked to better outcomes.
  • Participating in activities and attending meetings may help reduce the likelihood of a relapse.

Pros and Cons of 12-Step Recovery Programs

While participating in the 12 steps of recovery can be beneficial for many people, consider the advantages and disadvantages of these programs before you decide if this approach is right for you.

Benefits

These programs offer a number of benefits, including:

  • A free resource for communities to address substance use problems
  • Readily available
  • Community-based
  • Encourages members to take an active part in recovery
  • Offers online and in-person options

Disadvantages

However, 12-step mutual support groups may not be for everyone. Some challenges or possible disadvantages include:

  • Co-occurring mental health or chronic health conditions may make participating in 12-step groups more challenging.
  • This approach places full accountability for addiction and recovery on the individual
  • 12-step groups may be less effective for certain groups, including women, BIPOC, and sexual minorities
  • The emphasis on powerlessness can feel disempowering to some people
  • Emphasis on a higher power can alienate some people
  • Does not address the physical aspects of recovery, such as drug detox and withdrawal

Recap

While 12-step recovery programs can be helpful, they are not always the best choice for everyone. They are an affordable, available, and convenient resource while people are recovering from substance use, but their emphasis on admitting powerlessness and leaning on a higher power can be a problem for some individuals.

Alternatives to 12-Step Recovery Programs

The 12 steps of recovery are not the only type of mutual support options that are available for people who are trying to overcome drug and alcohol use. A few alternatives to 12-step programs include:

SMART Recovery

SMART Recovery is a secular alternative to 12-step programs like AA. Rather than emphasizing powerlessness and embracing a higher power, the SMART Recovery approach emphasizes viewing substance use as a habit that people can learn to control. It draws on aspects of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and helps members to build motivation, cope with cravings, change addictive thoughts, and adopt healthy habits.

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S.)

This program is focused on helping people overcome addictions by focusing on their values and integrity rather than embracing a higher power. It encourages members to make sobriety the top priority in their life and take whatever steps they need to stay on the path to recovery.

Professional Treatment

In addition to mutual support groups, whether they are 12-step programs or an alternative approach, getting professional treatment can significantly improve a person's chances of recovery. Depending on an individual's needs, such treatments may involve therapy, medications, or inpatient/outpatient rehab. Talk to your doctor about which options might be suitable for your needs.

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.

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

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9 Sources

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Blum K, Thompson B, Demotrovics Z, et al. The molecular neurobiology of twelve steps program & fellowship: connecting the dots for recovery. Journal of Reward Deficiency Syndrome. 2015;1(1):46-64. doi:10.17756/jrds.2015-008

  2. Detar DT. Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs in recovery. Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice. 2011;38(1):143-148. doi:10.1016/j.pop.2010.12.002

  3. W., B. Chapter 5: How it works. In: Alcoholics Anonymous. 4th ed. New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc; 2001:58-71.

  4. Donovan DM, Ingalsbe MH, Benbow J, Daley DC. 12-step interventions and mutual support programs for substance use disorders: an overview. Social Work in Public Health. 2013;28(3-4):313-332. doi:10.1080/19371918.2013.774663

    (Video) 12 Steps of Addiction Recovery

  5. Alcoholics Anonymous.Estimates of AA groups and members as of January 1, 2012.New York, NY: A.A. General Service Office; 2012.

  6. Nash AJ. The twelve steps and adolescent recovery: a concise review. Substance Abuse. 2020;14. doi:10.1177/1178221820904397

  7. W., B. Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.77 ed.New York, NY:Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing;2012.

  8. Sussman S, Reynaud M, Aubin H-J, Leventhal AM. Drug addiction, love, and the higher power. Eval Health Prof. 2011;34(3):362-370. doi:10.1177/0163278711401002

  9. Donovan DM, Ingalsbe MH, Benbow J, Daley DC. 12-step interventions and mutual support programs for substance use disorders: an overview.Soc Work Public Health. 2013;28(3-4):313-332. doi:10.1080/19371918.2013.774663

By Buddy T
Buddy Tis an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.

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FAQs

Where are the 12 steps in the AA Big Book? ›

The Twelve Steps are outlined in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. They can be found at the beginning of the chapter “How It Works.” Essays on the Steps can be read in the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

Is the 12-step program the only way? ›

Although 12-step programs have a history of much success in helping drug addicts and alcoholics recover from substance use disorder, they aren't the only options for beating addiction.

What is the hardest of the 12 steps? ›

Whether you're working the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Al-Anon, or any other program, the most difficult of all the steps probably step 5. This is the one that asks us to admit "our wrongs" and to do so in front of our higher power and another person.

How long does it take to go through a 12 step program? ›

Most sponsors encourage the AA newcomer to attend 90 meetings in 90 days. That may seem like a lot and it may seem like a long time to commit to going to meetings. However, most 12-step programs, including those for people addicted to drugs, encourage new members to commit to those 90 meetings in 90 days.

What is the first of the 12 Steps? ›

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

What do the 12 Steps mean? ›

The 12 Steps outline a path to spiritual progress through a series of actions designed to elicit what The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous refers to as a “psychic change” – a complete mental, emotional, and spiritual shift in perception. We believe the 12 Steps can be a critical element of a long-term recovery program.

What occurs in the first step of the 12 step program? ›

Taking Step 1 means admitting that there is a problem and we do need help solving it.

What are the 12 principles of recovery? ›

The 12 spiritual principles of recovery are as follows: acceptance, hope, faith, courage, honesty, patience, humility, willingness, brotherly-love, integrity, self-discipline, and service.

Who wrote the 12 Steps in AA? ›

Bill Wilson, a former member of Alcoholics Anonymous, created the 12 Steps in 1938. During his experience, he wrote down his ideas and tips regarding sobriety. After combining these tips with a few other teachings and Christian inspiration, Wilson put the 12 Steps into action.

What are the three parts of step 12? ›

The principles of AA Step 12 are:

Hope. Faith/Action. Courage.

What is the average length of sobriety in AA? ›

14 percent of AA members stay sober between 10 and 20 years. 22 percent of AA members stay sober 20 or more years. The average length of AA member sobriety is nearly 10 years.

What is the failure rate of AA? ›

A New York Times article stated that AA claims that up to 75% of its members stay abstinent. Alcoholics Anonymous' Big Book touts about a 50% success rate, stating that another 25% remain sober after some relapses.

Can you just turn up to an AA meeting? ›

If you prefer, you can simply turn up at one of our meetings - click on this link to find one near you. We strongly suggest that when you arrive you let someone know that this is your first meeting, that way they will be able to provide you with information that most people new to AA find useful.

Why is the 12th step so important? ›

12 Step meetings allow you to meet others in similar situations who will reassure you that you are not alone as well as provide you with advice on how to get through obstacles that may challenge your recovery.

Is forgiveness one of the 12 steps? ›

Forgiveness is so important in recovery, it's a component of the 12 steps. In step 8, for instance, it's recommended to write down a list of people you may have offended and make amends with them. This is also the time to work on forgiving yourself and others, allowing your mind and spirit to be free.

What is step 10 in the 12-Step Program? ›

These daily practices are the subject of Step 10 of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: "Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it." Here the word "inventory" means taking stock of our emotional disturbances, especially those that can return us to drinking or other drug use.

Is there an AA 12 step workbook? ›

Whether you're looking for alcoholics anonymous gifts, narcotics anonymous gifts, serenity prayer gifts, sponsor or sponsee gifts, 1 year sobriety gifts for men or women, The 12 Step Workbook is the sober book that makes the ideal sobriety and recovery gift, that will make a real difference.

What step is the hardest in AA? ›

Those who subscribe to the 12 steps of AA recognize that for most addicts, step one is usually the hardest. Admitting you are powerless over alcohol requires a tremendous amount of courage, humility and even fear. It can bring on a flood of powerful emotions including shame, anger and grief.

What is Step 7 of the 12 steps? ›

Step 7 asks people to humble themselves and acknowledge that they are not perfect. This is accomplished by asking a higher power to help remove these shortcomings. It is important to remember that for some people, this may involve asking God, as they understand Him, for help.

What is the third step in the 12-Step Program? ›

What Is Step 3 of the 12-Step Program? Step 3 of the 12-Step Program is: “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

What is the last step in recovery from alcoholism? ›

Precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and termination are the stages of change that determine the path of recovery from alcoholism. These stages take time, determination, and patience but will ultimately lead to a meaningful life that is not ruled by alcohol.

What is the 5th step in the 12-Step Program? ›

Step 5 of the 12-Step Program is: “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

What are the 3 R's of recovery? ›

Simply put, you need to help your clients follow the three “R's” of recovery—refuel, rebuild and rehydrate. These are the cornerstones of post-workout and recovery nutrition.

What is the first rule of recovery? ›

Rule 1: Change Your Life

The most important rule of recovery is that a person does not achieve recovery by just not using. Recovery involves creating a new life in which it is easier to not use.

What are the 3 P's in AA? ›

Prepare, prepare, prepare. These are the three P's of introducing.

What are the 3 pillars of AA? ›

The circle stands for the whole world of AA, and the triangle stands for AA's Three Legacies of Recovery, Unity and Service.

What is the first step prayer in AA? ›

First Step Prayer

I admit that I am powerless over my addiction. I admit that my life is unmanageable when I try to control it. The true meaning of powerlessness. Remove from me all denial of my addiction.

Why AA doesn t work for everyone? ›

So then, why does AA work for some people and not others? People have different beliefs and different needs, and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) just doesn't fit everyone. Some people love the camaraderie that AA offers and believe that their long-term sobriety depends on going to AA meetings for the rest of their life.

Is there a non religious version of AA? ›

A.A. is not a religious organization.

Alcoholics Anonymous has only one requirement for membership, and that is the desire to stop drinking. There is room in A.A. for people of all shades of belief and non-belief.

Why does AA have a low success rate? ›

Problem #1 — The Success Rate of AA Is Low Because the Wrong People Are Forced to Go. This is the biggest problem affecting the success rate of AA — people are forced to go who shouldn't be there. Look, AA is for people who are bottom-of-the-barrel drunks and drug addicts.

Which is an example of a 12-step group? ›

Founded in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) became the first 12-step support group. AA is the largest and most well-known of the 12-step groups. However, there are many other "Anonymous" groups based on the same 12-steps.

What is the spiritual awakening in step 12? ›

Your spiritual awakening during recovery begins when you find yourself actively thinking about things beyond your drug of choice. You begin to appreciate the purpose and meaning of life.

Is it okay to use AAA batteries instead of AA? ›

It totally works since AA and AAA batteries carry the same amount of voltage.

Do you have to pay for AA? ›

There are no dues or fees for AA membership. An AA group will usually have a collection during the meeting to cover running expenses, such as rent, coffee, etc., and to this all members are free to contribute as much or as little as they wish.

Is AA the only way to get sober? ›

Is AA The Only Way To Stay Sober? No, you can take many pathways to long-term sobriety. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) remains one of the most common support groups for long-term sobriety. AA inspired additional 12-Step programs, like Narcotics Anonymous (NA), for those struggling with other types of substance abuse.

What is the purpose of the 12 steps? ›

The 12 Steps outline a path to spiritual progress through a series of actions designed to elicit what The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous refers to as a “psychic change” – a complete mental, emotional, and spiritual shift in perception. We believe the 12 Steps can be a critical element of a long-term recovery program.

What are the first three of the 12 steps? ›

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

What occurs in the first step of the 12-Step Program? ›

Taking Step 1 means admitting that there is a problem and we do need help solving it.

What does IC and RC stand for? ›

International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium.

What happens after the 12 step? ›

The truth is that you can never really finish the 12 steps. Recovery is an on-going, consistent journey. As you go through life in recovery, there will be ups and downs and trials and challenges. In recovery, you will experience births, deaths, disappointments, and celebrations.

What does step 12 say? ›

Step Twelve of Alcoholics Anonymous consists of just 28 words: "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."

Is there an AA 12-step workbook? ›

Whether you're looking for alcoholics anonymous gifts, narcotics anonymous gifts, serenity prayer gifts, sponsor or sponsee gifts, 1 year sobriety gifts for men or women, The 12 Step Workbook is the sober book that makes the ideal sobriety and recovery gift, that will make a real difference.

What is the AA prayer? ›

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. Our Fellowship's Serenity Prayer can be recited either in the first (I, me) or third (us, we) person.

What are the step 3 promises AA? ›

Promise 1: We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. Promise 2: We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. Promise 3: We will comprehend the word serenity. Promise 4: We will know peace.

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