The History and Tenets of the 12-Step Program

The 12-Step Program was created by Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. The steps to recovery were first published in the organization’s basic textbook in 1939. Over time, word of the program’s success spread, and the organization’s numbers grew well into the thousands. The treatment strategy eventually became known as the 12-Step Program.

Since its existence, the 12-Step Program has been used by a variety of addiction treatment organizations. It assists individuals addicted to chemical substances, nicotine, gambling, eating, shopping, and sex in successfully recovering from their addictions. The program’s primary goals center on accountability for one’s actions, peer support, and encouragement. While there is an emphasis on God and acceptance of a higher power, the program welcomes all individuals, regardless of their religious and spiritual beliefs or lack thereof.

The 12 Steps

The 12-Step Program is comprised of 12 individual actions that each addict attempts to accomplish. While addicts must work through all of the steps to successfully finish the program, there is some flexibility with the order in which they complete them. In fact, members are often encouraged to revisit steps when necessary or work on multiple steps at the same time, if applicable. Furthermore, individuals who have completed the 12-Step Program often choose to start over and complete the steps again, making this form of treatment a lifelong process.

The 12 steps originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous are:

  • We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
  • Came to believe a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  • Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God.
  • Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  • Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  • Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  • Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  • Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  • Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for the knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
  • Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The 12 Traditions

Just as the 12-Step Program is followed by individuals seeking recovery from substance addiction, the 12 Traditions are meant to guide groups through the recovery process. These traditions act as a set of guidelines for Alcoholics Anonymous groups and are often adapted by other recovery programs. They are an essential part of The Big Book, which is the guide by which all Alcoholics Anonymous and many other recovery groups structure their programs.

The 12 traditions originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous are:

  • Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.
  • For our group purpose, there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
  • The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
  • Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.
  • Each group has but one primary purpose–to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  • An AA group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
  • Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
  • AA, as such, ought never be organized, but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
  • Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
  • Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

Hallmarks of the 12-Step Program

The hallmarks of the 12-Step Program help ensure that substance abusers who participate in the program can begin recovering from their addiction and sustain long-term sobriety or abstinence from their addiction.

Willingness to believe in a higher power

While the 12-Step Program is deeply rooted in spirituality, individuals who follow it are not required to believe in a specific God. For example, many Alcoholics Anonymous members choose to believe in a non-Christian God, while many others are agnostic or atheist. However, the steps do ask that members accept that there is something bigger than themselves in the universe, commonly referred to as a “higher power.”

1:1 dedicated sponsor

All members of a 12-Step Program are connected with their own sponsors. These sponsors have successfully completed the program and can act as trusted allies, helping addicts cope with the triggers that may drive them back to addiction and leading addicts towards sobriety.

Peer support and accountability

Group therapy is an important component of any 12-Step Program. It provides addicts with the opportunity to learn new coping mechanisms and holds them accountable for their own actions.

Anonymous and confidential

Two of the most essential aspects of a 12-Step Program are its anonymity and confidentiality, which allow addicts to recover without experiencing the stigma and stereotypes often attached to individuals in recovery programs.

Availability and accessibility of regular meetings

12-step programs for a variety of addictions are available all over the world. Members are welcome to attend a meeting at any time and are encouraged to do so whenever they’re feeling discouraged, anxious, stressed, or simply looking to receive or provide support.

No cost

12-step programs are completely free to any member. There are no fees or donations required. This ensures that individuals struggling with addiction have the opportunity to receive help whenever they need it without incurring a financial burden.

Well-known and well-respected

12-step programs are well-known around the world and are considered a highly respected path to choose to recover from an addiction, allowing addicts to feel a sense of trust and confidence, especially when they are new to a program.

Can co-exist with medication-assisted and behavioral therapy treatments

12-step programs are based on both individual accountability and group therapy and, as a result, don’t conflict with other treatment programs. Addicts can follow the steps concurrently with any other addiction recovery or rehabilitation program.

Can be continued for a lifetime

Many former addicts who have completed a 12-step program choose to continue the program throughout their lifetime either by revisiting the steps with which they found the most success or by completing all 12 steps again from start to finish.

Complimentary programs for family members and friends of addicts

Family members and loved ones of addicts often deal with high emotions and stress levels. 12-step programs typically offer free family support groups to help individuals who are affected by their loved ones’ addiction.

Effectiveness of the 12-Step Program

Although as many as 40% of addicts who join Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs leave within the first year, the program has proven to be effective for many individuals seeking effective means to achieve long-term recovery from their addiction. Addiction specialists tend to cite a first-year sobriety success rate between 8% and 12% for the 12-Step Program, according to an article published by the Los Angeles Times in 2011, while Alcoholics Anonymous itself conducted a study in 2014 that revealed 14% of participants remained sober between 10 and 20 years after completing the program, while 22% of participants abstained from alcohol for more than 20 years.

As noted by Jeremy Barnett, a Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor, “12-Step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), can be incredibly effective for those in recovery. While some struggle with the concepts of powerlessness and a higher power, AA provides elements of recovery that can be difficult to find elsewhere, such as a support system of other recovering addicts, a sponsor who acts as a mentor or guide in recovery and the 12 steps, and a full program of thoughtful re-evaluation of values and goals, all completely free of charge. Just like finding the right doctor or therapist, it may take some time to find a meeting that is a good fit for the person in recovery, as this can be a discouraging process for many who do not begin their recovery journey with this understanding. While AA is hugely beneficial to many, it is not addiction treatment and is often most effective when combined with a comprehensive treatment plan, including individual therapy, inpatient/outpatient treatment, and psychiatry, if necessary.”

The above information should help individuals suffering from an addiction or their loved ones gain valuable insight into the 12-Step Program. After reading the history of the program and viewing its basic premises, you may be better able to decide if this long-standing treatment method for addiction may work for you.