12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous Summarized for Anyone to Benefit From

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Alcoholics Anonymous also known as AA is an organization that helps people recover from Alcohol addiction.

The 12 step program and meetup groups they offer have been incredibly helpful for many people who struggle with alcohol abuse.

Since this program has been so helpful and effective for a large number of people healing themselves from alcohol addiction, I thought it would be great to learn from the 12 step process.

My thought is that if this can help people with alcohol addiction it can probably also help people who are suffering from many other issues such as anxiety, depression, chronic illness, other addictions, and much more.

The reality is, every chronic condition contains mental and emotional components that need to be worked out and healed in order for a full recovery. 

As someone who is healing from a chronic illness where anxiety and depression play a role, I’m interested in learning how the 12 steps of AA can help me as well as many other people who are struggling with issues in their lives.

The goal is to summarize the 12 steps and outline the basic principles they contain so that anyone who is trying to get their life back on track (or even just improve their life) can use the wisdom to help themselves.

What is AA

AA stands for Alcoholics Anonymous. It is a 12 step meetup group fellowship program where different people who have problems with alcohol addiction come together to solve their drinking problems.

The 12 steps are a set of spiritual principles that when incorporated into people’s lives help them in overcoming their alcohol addiction with the support of other people.

Founders of AA

In 1935 a couple of hopeless alcoholics met to begin a program of recovery that would go on to help millions find sobriety and serenity.

The first founder was Bill Wilson, a stockbroker from New York. He fought his own battle with alcoholism and learned that helping other people remain sober was one of the keys to his ability to stay sober as well. He also had a personally transformational spiritual experience that helped him out of his darkness.

Some people also acknowledge the fact that psychedelic experiences helped Bill Wilson transform his life.

The second founder was Dr. Bob an Akron surgeon who struggled for years with his own drinking problem. The two men got together in 1935 for their first AA meeting to discuss the idea and start the process. 

The 12 Steps of AA

The 12 steps are the basic foundation of the AA process. Below I’ll list each step and go into more detail about it from the AA resource materials.

You can see the PDF list of the 12 steps here.

1. We Admitted We Were Powerless Over Alcohol-That Our Lives Had Become Unmanageable

No one wants to admit complete defeat or personal powerlessness. 

But it is through admitting this complete defeat and humiliation that we are able to take our first steps towards liberation and strength. 

Our admissions of personal powerlessness provides a firm bedrock to rebuild our life on. It is only by doing this that someone can start down the recovery path and continue with the program. 

Until someone humbles themselves, their sobriety or healing will be fleeting and precarious.

This is a fact of AA life and being an alcoholic. Self-confidence is a total liability and illusion. It was a statistical fact that alcoholics almost never recovered on their own. It was only the people who were able to admit complete defeat that were able to change.

Many people with less severe forms of alcoholism try AA but it doesn’t work because they aren’t willing to give up control. Few people will sincerely try to practice the program and principles unless they have hit rock bottom. 

The average self-centered alcoholic doesn’t care enough. It is only when the person has been through hell and has hit rock bottom that they are open-minded and sincere enough to persist and utilize the program.

2. Came To Believe That A Power Greater Than Ourselves Could Restore Us To Sanity

Most people who come to AA get angry and skeptical when they come to this step. 

People who are not even willing to be open to the fact that there is possibly a higher power usually are in a state of mind that is belligerent, selfish, and savage. It is at this stage that their whole life philosophy is threatened. 

It’s bad enough to admit alcohol has control over them but then to acknowledge there might be a higher power is a lot. 

This is the beginning of the end of a whole previous life. 

A leader of the American atheists society was able to get through this, so anyone can.

It’s important to keep in mind that AA does not demand that you believe anything. All of its 12 steps are suggestions. You don’t have to swallow all of step 2 right now. All you need is an open mind. It’s not AA that has a closed mind, it’s the person. 

It takes the ability to stop fighting yourself. People who successfully change through AA usually come to believe in a higher power and even start using the word God a lot of the time. 

This step is usually the hardest for people who had some form of faith then lost it and were opposed to the idea of a higher power because of their experience. 

This step is also hard for the “intellectually smart” people. They think they can handle everything on their own through the power of their intellect. These people eventually realize that intellect and humility need to be in combination or else just self centered intellect destroys their life. 

3. Made A Decision To Turn Our Will And Our Lives Over To The Care Of God As We Understood Him

Practicing step 3 is like opening a door that is closed and locked without a key. 

There is only one key and it is called willingness. Once unlocked the door opens almost automatically. 

The first 2 steps required acceptance, while this step requires affirmative action. It is only by action that we can cut away the self-will that has always blocked away God or a higher power.

Even if we had some faith or acceptance of a higher power before it was probably only on our own terms. It is in this step that we can actually let God into our lives in whatever way needed.

The effectiveness of the whole AA program will rest on this action of turning our will over to the will of God as we understood him. 

This step looks hard or impossible to the atheist or person who is skeptical or caught in worldly matters. But anyone can begin to do it, even a small effort of willingness will do. 

The door can shut and then grow again over time. 

People ask “what will become of me if I turn my whole life over to the care of something else or a higher power? Won’t my life fall apart?” 

This of course is the process by which instinct and logic bolster egotism and destroy spiritual development. 

This kind of thinking takes no real account of the facts. The facts are that what you have tried to do in your life has resulted in becoming powerless over alcohol. 

True independence of the spirit comes from allowing a higher power into your life.

All you have to do is look at the world and your own life which has led you to be an alcoholic to realize that self-sufficiency is not paying off. 

The dependence of AA has a proven track record of carrying people through world war 2 and the dependence on a higher power was the foundation of that.

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. Thy will, not mine, be done. 

4. Made A Searching And Fearless Moral Inventory Of Ourselves

Creation gave us instincts for a reason. They are wonderful faculties of a human being, but a lot of the time these instincts dominate and rule our lives. 

When out of joint man’s natural desires cause serious problems. No human being however good is exempt from these troubles. Nearly all emotional problems can be seen as a misdirection of instincts. 

Step 4 is a vigorous effort to discover what these liabilities in each of us are and how they have been misdirected.

We need to look at the unhappiness these problems have caused others and ourselves.

By discovering what our emotional deformities are we can move toward their correction. Without a willingness and fearless moral inventory they can not be tackled.

Instinct and emotions run wild is the underlying cause of drinking problems. We have drunk to drown feelings of fear, frustration, and depression. We have drunk to escape the guilt of passions and to make more passions possible.

This perverse soul-sickness is not pleasant to look upon. It will be painful when uncovered.

We think and believe that alcohol is the problem and that once the alcohol is gone the problems will all disappear. That our underlying problems are caused by the behavior of other people. That if only they would treat us better we would be alright.

At this stage in the proceedings, the AA sponsors and members come to the rescue. They point out that the newcomer has some assets as well as liabilities. They help them get to the point where they can take a clear look at their problems.

This is often hard for people with a lot of pride as they blind themselves to their problems.

Self-justification is the maker of excuses that has enabled the person to keep drinking and dismissing their problems.

We thought conditions drove us to drink. It never occurred to us that we needed to change ourselves to meet the conditions in a healthy way.

We had to see that when we held grudges and planned rebellions we were only hurting ourselves even further.

We have to admit that we have these defects and drop the blame to face them head-on.

List of defects:

  • Pride
    1. Leads to self justification always spurred by conscious or unconscious fears is the basic breeder of most human difficulties and of human progress
    2. Pride justifies our excesses and compels us to be angry when our stuff is threatened
    3. Pride and fear turn out to be boogeyman and nothing else once it is faced
  • Greed 
  • Lust 
  • Anger
  • Gluttony
  • Envy
  • Sloth

A complete inventory of our defects is tangible evidence in our ability to keep moving forward.  

5. Admitted To God, To Ourselves, And To Another Human Being The Exact Nature Of Our Wrongs

All of AA’s steps ask us to go contrary to our natural desires. They all deflate our egos. Few steps are harder to take than this step.

We cannot live alone with our pressing problems and the character defects that aggravate them.

If we have come to know how wrong thinking and action have hurt us and others we need to talk to somebody about them.

The process of admitting one’s defects to another person is a part of all spiritual and religious traditions. 

For alcoholics, the fearless admission of defects is crucial to the ability to stay sober.

Step 5 is the beginning of true kinship with man and with god. It is also at this step where we feel the ability to be forgiven.

This process also brings humility. No defect can be corrected unless we clearly see how it is. When we clearly see our problems we will experience the pain associated with them.

The benefit of talking to another person about these defects is that we can get direct counsel on them and help in seeing them clearly. Going it alone in spiritual matters is dangerous.

By admitting defects to a higher power and to another person who is willing to listen and may have had similar problems this opens up the doorway to union with the divine and to other people.

6. Were Entirely Ready To Have God Remove All These Defects Of Character

This doesn’t mean that we expect all of our character defects to be removed quickly but that we are simply willing and ready to do what we can to allow God to come in and help remove these defects of character.

No matter how far we progress in our spirituality, desires will always be there which close off the grace of God. 

What we must admit is that we exult in some of our defects. Who doesn’t like to feel superior to someone else or who claims ambition is the reason for their greed.

We live in a world of envy and everyone is impacted by it in some way or another.

How often do we work hard with no better motive than to be secure and slothful later on which we call retirement.

Most people will admit that they prefer to hang on to some of these defects. We want to settle for only as much perfection which will get us by in life.

We should say for some things that we are not ready to give up yet that “this I cannot give up yet” instead of “this I will never give up”.

The moment we say “no never” our minds close to the grace of god. 

Step 6 is where we abandon objectives and move toward God’s will for us.

7. Humbly Ask Him To Remove Our Shortcomings

This step concerns itself with humility. 

The attainment of greater humility is the foundational principle of each of AA’s steps.

Much of what we read and what we hear highlights man’s pride. 

For example, the people of science with great intelligence have been forcing nature to disclose her secrets. The immense resources now being harnessed were claimed to bring everything we needed but instead have left us empty.

What alcoholics need to realize is that they have gone all out in confusing the ends with the means. 

First, most important is our character, spiritual, and health well being, and last is our attainment of materialistic desires.

Until now an alcoholic’s life has been to escape pain and drown it with the bottle but now we look and listen to find failure and pain transformed by the strength of humility.

The 7th step is where alcoholics make the change in their attitude towards humility to get help in removing shortcomings.

8. Made A List Of All Persons We Had Harmed, And Became Willing To Make Amends To Them All

This step is concerned with personal relations to discover where we have been at fault.

We must have the willingness to make amends to all of the people we have hurt or harmed when our emotions and instincts got the best of us.

This reopening of emotional wounds will not be easy but it is important on the path to sobriety and healing.

The moment we ponder a twisted or broken relationship with another person our emotions go on the defensive. To escape looking at the wrongs we have done to another we focus on the wrongs they have done to us.

This is where we need to begin a deep and honest search of our actions.

We need to forgive them for anything they might have done to us and most importantly we need to tell them we were sorry for the harm we caused when we were out of control.

This is the beginning of the end of isolation from our fellows and from God.

9. Made Direct Amends To Such People Wherever Possible, Except When To Do So Would Injure Them Or Others

Good judgment and a careful sense of timing and courage are needed for this step.

After reflecting on the people we have harmed in our life we will see that direct amends divides those we should approach into several classes.

  • Those who ought to be dealt with as soon as we are confident we can maintain our sobriety
  • Those who we can only make partial resolutions with
  • Other cases where action ought to be deferred
  • And others we may never be able to make direct contact with

The key is in the willingness to contact the people you need to talk to and do whatever you can to make amends with the people you have harmed in the past. 

This may mean paying financial dues, apologizing, or taking other necessary actions to clean up the relationship.

10. Continue To Take Personal Inventory And When We Are Wrong Promptly Admit It

When we approach step 10 we commence to put our AA way of living to use in fair weather or foul.

Can we keep emotional balance and keep our amends?

No one can improve their life or make it good without a consistent personal inventory and a right effort to persistently clean up destructive emotions.

If we have an emotional hangover or we have a relapse or shortcoming of our character then we need to promptly admit it and make a loving effort to correct it.

This can be hard for many people because many have not acquired the practice of healthy self-awareness and introspection.

It’s important to understand that every time we are disturbed there is something wrong with us, not the outside world. 

We need self-restraint, honest self-analysis, a willingness to admit when the fault is ours, and the ability to forgive others and ourselves when we slip up. 

We shall look for progress, not perfection.

This is a critical step in maintaining better character and emotional balance in life which will help prevent relapse.

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

Prayer and meditation are the principal means of conscious contact with God. 

If one is just willing to pray, ask for help, and practice meditation to quiet themselves down to hear the higher power then one will surely progress in the way God sees best.

The main impediment to this step is the resistance to “God” or prayer because of the conception that has been formed in many atheists and agnostics minds.

The facts of AA life confirm that we need God’s help. When alcoholics can bring humility to God and open their minds in prayer and meditation the higher power starts to work in their lives.

The most critical thing to remember with this step is that prayer must be for God’s will, not your own will that you demand God to do for you.

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

This is where we begin to practice all the 12 steps in our daily life. 

Once the 12th step is seen and someone has had a spiritual awakening the result is that they want to embody this love and power in their lives and help other people get there as well.

The previous 12 steps set someone up to receive this spiritual awakening.

Things that all spiritual awakenings have in common:

  • They have become able to do, think, feel, and believe in that which they were unable to do before on their own resources alone
  • Have been granted a gift that amounts to a new state of consciousness and being
  • The person is really going somewhere and has purpose in life
  • The person has been transformed and the way they used to be is changed 

The key with this step is being able to embody the principles and integrate the spiritual awakening directly into life with all the new hardships and challenges that will inevitably come up in the future.

How The 12 Steps Apply to Other Issues

Personally, I have found the principles of these 12 steps to be true in any problem in life.

It seems to me that even if different strategies or language are used for these 12 steps that if the basic principles are understood then they can help transform any problem we truly want help with.

Below is how I see the 12 steps applied to other problems besides alcohol addiction.

Basic Principles from 12 Steps:

  • Accepting reality how it is not how your ego wants it to be
  • Developing personal awareness through meditation or another practice to uncover your problems/wrongdoings and admitting/acknowledging them
  • Working together with other people for support
  • Surrendering control over your life to God or a higher power which you truly believe can guide and restore you
  • Developing the humility to pray and ask God or the higher power for help
  • Continuing to improve your conscious awareness over time and aligning yourself with divine will, not selfish interests 
  • Integration of spiritual awakening and union with God into your life every day 

I personally think that if someone is in line with these principles then they will have a fantastic life. They will have more love, joy, connection, purpose, and they will have less pain, fear, worry, and depression.

It’s important to remember that just reading and understanding these steps is one thing but actually embodying them and going through the process of spiritual transformation is a whole different ball game. 

I bet if you asked any recovered alcoholic or any person who has overcome severe issues in their life they will tell you how hard and painful the process was to regain some stability. 

So, I think these are awesome principles that can be applied to anyone’s life problems or to anyone who is working on living the best life possible.

Concluding Thoughts

It seems pretty amazing to me that a couple of guys who met to discuss their drinking problem would end up developing a program that has gone on to help millions of people struggling with alcohol addiction and other issues.

This just goes to show with the love and power of God (or higher power other than you) plus the devotion of a few people to a worthy mission how anything can be accomplished.

I definitely think that everyone can learn from the principles and success of AA. 

If people with broken lives and severe alcohol addiction can transform themselves for the better we can all learn something from this to make ourselves better people.

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Josh is a writer and entrepreneur who runs a small digital content publishing business. His main interests are in topics related to developing personal and financial freedom. When not working he enjoys reading, yoga, surfing, being outdoors, meditating, exploring, and hanging with friends.