Alcoholics Anonymous: The 12 Steps Explained

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on October 11, 2021

The Big Book is the foundation on which Alcoholics Anonymous was built — an all-inclusive overview of the 12 Steps. Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups have used this book to inform and guide their addiction recoveries for decades.

The 12 Steps Of Alcoholics Anonymous Explained

First developed in 1939 and since remastered, Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism is commonly referred to as the Big Book.

With over 30 million copies sold, this book serves as the guiding framework for the 12-step method of recovering from addiction.

The Big Book discusses:

  • personal stories of recovery
  • the reality of alcoholism and sense of powerlessness
  • the 12 steps of recovering from an addiction to alcohol
  • how to turn those principles into actions
  • the importance of working with others in recovery
  • tips for wives, family members, and employers of those abusing alcohol

The 12 Steps Explained

Whether you’re just beginning the 12 steps, have been following these principles for years, or have a family member who’s working through the program, these steps can help your recovery.

Here, we’ll discuss each of the 12 steps of recovery as explained in the Big Book and used in AA meetings across the world.

The 12 steps outlined in the Big Book are as follows:

Step One: Admit Powerlessness

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

The first step to recovery according to the Big Book is to admit that you are powerless over your decision to drink alcohol and that your life has become unmanageable.

The book recounts many different stories from men who’ve experienced the sway of alcohol and lack of control when the substance is involved.

This step is all about honesty: being honest with yourself about your drinking, the effect it’s had on your relationships or employment, and other areas of your life.

Step Two: Belief In A Higher Power

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

In step two, members are encouraged to turn toward a higher power and accept that they need help.

When the book was originally published, this meant a belief in the Christian God. Today, “faith” can extend to other beliefs, including a belief in the 12-step program.

If you don’t believe in a higher power, do not skip the second step. Instead, you should find your source of a “higher power” in other ways.

The key in step two is accepting that you need help, which may mean help from friends, a sponsor, the program, a treatment program, or another higher power.

You do not need to pursue religion, pray, or believe in God to embrace the second step of recovery.

Step Three: Making The Decision

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

The spiritual principles of step two apply to step three as well: you do not need to believe in God to follow this step.

Step three encourages participants to embrace their chosen treatment plan or higher power and begin accepting outside help.

Instead of turning your will over to “God,” you can alter the language to align with what you deem your higher power to be in your recovery.

If you choose a rehab program, then step three encourages you to turn your will over to the advice, treatment, and recovery guidelines of that program.

Step Four: Looking Inward

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Without looking inward, no real progress can be made. For many recovering from alcohol addiction, step four is an extremely painful and difficult process.

Step four is when a person takes a long, hard look at the effects addiction has had on their life and relationships.

The individual is encouraged to take an inventory of wrongs they’ve made and areas of life that need to be changed.

A person working through step four can be emboldened by knowing that their experience is not unusual or devious. All who work through AA have done wrong and overcome those things.

Step Five: Admitting Your Wrongs

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

In the fifth step of recovery, a person must confess what they’ve done wrong. Though painful, this step is intended to relieve them of guilt and burdens weighing them down.

Again, here, “God” can refer to a person’s sponsor, support system, therapist, AA group, or other higher power.

Individuals can share with their AA groups the discoveries they made in step four and admit to wrongs they’ve committed as a result of addiction.

Step Six: Letting Go Of The Old

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

The Big Book describes step six as the best possible attitude a person can have when on their journey to recovery from alcohol addiction.

This is a stage of release when a person readies themselves to be rid of all “defects of character.”

To reap the benefits of the program, an individual in recovery needs to be ready to let go of old patterns (defects) and embrace newer, healthier ways of life.

Step Seven: Humility

Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

The Big Book stresses the importance of humility when admitting to shortcomings and asking for help.

By this point in the process, you’ve already practiced humility by admitting powerlessness (step one), turning toward others for help (steps two and three), and looking inward to admit your wrongdoings (steps four and five).

Step seven furthers this theme of humility by asking participants to commit to honesty and humility throughout their recovery.

Step Eight: Willing To Make Amends

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

Individually or with your sponsor, take account of anyone you’ve wronged when abusing drugs or alcohol.

At this stage, all a person is doing is creating a list, and no confrontation is involved yet.

They should think deeply about each person and how they’ve wronged them, and reflect on the damage that substances had on their relationship.

Step Nine: Making Amends

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

By step nine, it’s time to put the humility, inward-looking, and acknowledgment of wrongs to the test by making amends with those you’ve harmed.

In this step, individuals should create space to address each person, asking for forgiveness

Reopening old wounds of the past can be intimidating for many people following the 12 steps. For that reason, fear is a primary motivator in avoiding making amends.

The Big Book acknowledges these obstacles and discourages extreme judgments of ourselves, instead, looking forward to the healing that might come from such conversations.

Step 10: Recovery Maintenance

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

Once a person goes through the first nine steps, they may feel as though those steps are completed and don’t require any further examination.

But for the program to work how it’s intended to, a person following the 12 steps must continue to revisit their previous steps, taking inventory and admitting to wrongs.

Step 11: Prayer And Meditation

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.

In step 11, participants should focus on prayer (which may be interpreted as talking to someone) and meditation (which may be interpreted as listening to yourself and others).

Work on improving your connection and communication with yourself and others during this time. If the higher power you turn to in recovery is your sponsor, seek a connection with them.

Step 12: Carrying On The Message

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.

After a person has worked through each of the 12 steps, they can bring their wisdom, knowledge, and recovery experience to others who need guidance.

By now, a person in recovery has learned about:

  • their powerlessness over addiction
  • placing their trust in a higher power, and submitting to it
  • the importance of looking inward and practicing humility
  • how to accept wrongdoings and make amends
  • ways to make healthy steps toward change

In step 12, you can revisit each of these learned lessons and bring those principles to other people, leaning on one another in recovery.

You can do this by being an active participant in your AA group, reaching out to friends overcoming addiction, volunteering with local organizations, or becoming a sponsor.

Who Can Use The Big Book?

The Big Book began as a tool for those addicted to alcohol but has since expanded its reach to include those abusing other substances.

Some of the support groups that have branched off the principles of the Big Book include:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Alateen (for teen children of parents who abuse alcohol)
  • Al-Anon (for family members and friends)
  • Cocaine Anonymous (CA)
  • Codependents Anonymous (CODA)
  • Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA)
  • Gamblers Anonymous (GA)
  • Heroin Anonymous (HA)
  • Marijuana Anonymous (MA)
  • Narcotics Anonymous (NA)
  • Overeaters Anonymous/Food Addicts Anonymous (OA/FAA)
  • Pills Anonymous (PA)
  • Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA)

The Purpose Of 12-Step Groups Based On Alcoholics Anonymous

Though originally designed for people who drank alcohol, the 12 steps outlined in the Big Book can be applied to a variety of demographics and areas of addiction.

Each of these groups is peer-led, focused on sharing individual experiences and supporting one another in their continued recovery.

The recovery groups are not restricted by age, race, or gender, and are open to anyone who wants help recovering from addiction or support because they have family members who are addicted.

How Long Does It Take To Go Through The 12 Steps Of AA?

There is no set timeline for how long it should take a person to work through the 12 steps of AA.

If you’re working through them now, or plan to do so, do not rush through the 12 steps. Some may be tempted to address each step quickly so they can be over and done with it.

However, true consideration for the program requires thoughtful responses and action steps.

For some, the 12 steps may take months, and for others, years. It’s not easy to uncover difficult emotions and create real steps toward recovery, so the 12 steps are not meant to be done quickly.

Resources For People Overcoming Alcohol Abuse

If you or someone you love need help overcoming an addiction to alcohol, you’re not alone. Many organizations and programs can help.

Use any of the following resources to begin your recovery or to help a loved one:

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on October 11, 2021


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