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What is a 12-Step Program...and could one be right for you?

5/15/2013 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Janis Omide, MS, CSAC


A set of guiding principles (accepted by members as 'spiritual principles,' based on the approved literature) outlining a course of action for recovery from addiction, compulsion, or other behavioral problems. [1] The 12-steps were originally adapted from a Christian Evangelical group called the Oxford Group-and first published in the book Alcoholics Anonymous (also known as The Big Book) in 1939.

Psychiatrist and author, M. Scott Peck, M.D. published the following regarding the founders of the 12-step program:

Thus I believe the greatest positive event of the twentieth century occurred in Akron, Ohio, on June 10, 1935, when Bill W. and Dr. Bob convened the first AA meeting. It was not only the beginning of the self-help movement and the beginning of the integration of science and spirituality at a grass-roots level, but also the beginning of the community movement.

(1993 book, Further Along the Road Less Travelled, p. 150)

Robert Burney, M.A. is an author, counselor, and a pioneer in the field of inner child healing and codependency recovery. He stated in his book, Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls:

I believe that in a hundred years historians will look back and pinpoint this milestone as the single most important event in the twentieth century. This milestone was the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron, Ohio, in June of 1935.

Besides the invaluable gift of sobriety that AA has given to millions of Alcoholics, it also started a revolution in Spiritual consciousness. . . .

The spread of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the other Anonymous programs which sprang out of AA, is the widest and most effective dissemination of this radical revolutionary concept that has ever occurred in Western Civilization.

As noted, the Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) 12-steps became the foundation of all other 12-step programs.


These are the original Twelve Steps as published by Alcoholics Anonymous: [2]

  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.

Where other twelve-step groups have adapted these steps to address their "powerlessness", the main altered wordings are in Step 1 and Step12, see List of Twelve Step alternate wordings.

The American Psychological Association summarized twelve-step programs as the process that involves the following:

  • Admitting that one cannot control one's addiction or compulsion;
  • Recognizing a Higher Power that can give strength;
  • Examining past errors with the help of a sponsor (experienced member);
  • Making amends for these errors;Learning to live a new life with a new code of behavior; and
  • Helping others who suffer from the same addictions or compulsions.


Twelve-step programs are always accompanied with The Twelve Traditions (which were also developed by AA in 1946). The traditions were adopted in order to help resolve conflicts in the areas of publicity, religion and finances-for structural governance. Click here for the Traditions Checklist.

A key factor for the 12-step program's effectiveness in part is due to the members being encouraged to practice the spiritual principle of anonymity and confidentiality. Other shared factors to the success of a 12-step group includes that the program is voluntary; there are no dues or fees; it is self-supporting through member's contributions; it is not associated with any denomination, politics, organization or institution; it does not endorse nor oppose any causes; and the primary purpose is to overcome the powerless behavior and to help others to achieve the shared goal.

As a result of AA staying true to its purpose and principles, it is estimated that there are approximately 114,000 AA groups and over 2,000,000 members in approximately 170 countries. -- At-A-Glance, 2012 (AA General Service Conference-approved literature).

Also, as a result of AA's 12-steps, there are over 50 "other" Twelve-Step Groups working on a course of action for whatever the participants need to recover from. See listing in 12Step.com website.


Most Frequently Used:

Al-Anon/Alateen - Strength and hope for friends and families of problem drinkers. Click on the blue words to enter the official website.

Alcoholics Anonymous - Official website for Alcoholic Anonymous (AA). The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. AA's primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety. Go to the How To Find A.A. Meetings section of the site and follow the instructions.

Narcotics Anonymous - Official website for Narcotics Anonymous (NA). NA focuses on the disease of addiction rather than any particular drug. Go to the Find A Meeting section of the site and follow the instructions.

Many members of 12-step recovery programs see the "guiding principles" as more than just 12-steps towards stopping an unwanted behavior, but they become one's guidance towards a new way of living.

The twelve-step meetings (affectionately know as "the rooms") can be very cathartic and for some, "life changing". Please feel safe in knowing that there are many reasons to admire and respect 12-step programs. Should you ever "desire" to attend, DON'T HESITATE!


  1. VandenBos, Gary R. (2007). APA Dictionary of Psychology (1st ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. ISBN 1591473802. OCLC 65407150.
  2. Alcoholics Anonymous (June 2001). "Chapter 5: How It Works" (PDF). Alcoholics Anonymous (4th ed.). Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. ISBN 1893007162. OCLC 32014950. www.aa.org/bigbookonline/en_bigbook_chapt5.pdf.

Janis Omide is a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor with a MS Degree in Rehabilitation Counseling for Addictions from the Medical College of Virginia/VCU. Currently, Janis is a Therapist for CBH assigned to provide SA counseling to VPRJ's Therapeutic Community. She has over fifteen years of experience in the profession of providing treatment to people with addictions of varied ages, genders & cultures: Substance Abuse (SA) Counselor in out-patient and residential; Vocational Rehabilitation SA Counselor; SA Specialist for ex-offenders/probationers & DUIs; SA Therapist for Doctors/Nurses; and including counseling people with co-existing psychiatric and substance use disorders.

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