Understanding the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

Understanding the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

Many mental health professionals do not understand the 12-Step recovery process, unless they have participated in a 12-Step program. Although they may encourage their clients to do so, they may feel perplexed or intimated, or act patronizing. Lot’s of times, therapists do not realize that the 12-Steps are not merely an antidote for addiction, but are guidelines for nothing less than a total personality transformation. Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was influenced by Renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung, whom he wrote seeking a treatment for alcoholism. Jung replied that the cure would have to be a spiritual one – a power equal to the power of spiritus vivi, or alcohol. .

The 12 Steps provide a spiritual remedy. They outline a process of surrender of the ego to the unconscious, God or a higher power, and very much resemble the process of transformation in Jungian therapy. Jung believed that unity and wholeness of the personality, which generates a sense of acceptance and detachment, occurs when both the conscious and unconscious demands are taken into account – when not the ego, but the Self, is at the center of consciousness.

The following is a summary of how the Steps work; however, any linear description is misleading, because, like transformation, the process is circular. Although these Steps apply to numerous addictions, whether to a person, a substance (e.g. alcohol, drugs, food) or a process (e.g., sex, gambling, debting), the focus here is on alcohol and drug addiction and the family members who are in a codependent relationship with the alcoholic/addict.

Facing the Problem

To start recovery, you have to acknowledge that there is a problem involving drugs or alcohol, that there is help outside oneself, and the willingness to utilize it. Doing this, ushers the beginning of hope and trust in something beyond oneself (such as a therapist, sponsor, or the program). Invariably, it has taken years to face the problem, but by opening a closed family system, and learning about addiction, denial starts to thaw. The first part of "working the First Step" is an admission of powerlessness. Step 1 reads: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives have become unmanageable." (Other words, such as "food", "gambling" or "people, places and things" are often substituted for the word alcohol.) The substance abuser begins to understand s/he is powerless over drugs or alcohol, and the codependent slowly learns that she or he cannot control the substance abuser. The struggle not to drink and the codependent's vigilance over the addict begin to slip away. As time goes on, attention starts to shift from the substance, and, for the codependent, the substance abuser to focus on oneself. Before taking this Step, endless therapy sessions are spent by the alcoholic, wondering, "Why do I drink?" With a loved one complaining about the addict's behavior. There are deeper and deeper levels of working the First Step during recovery. The first stage is the acknowledgment that there is a problem with a substance; second, that it is a life-threatening problem over which one is powerless; and third, that actually the problem is not only with the substance, nor with the substance abuser or others, but lies in ones own attitudes and behavior.


Now, with a modicum of trust, and either out of desperation or faith, one acquires a willingness to turn to a power beyond oneself. This is Step 2. "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." In the book Alcoholics Anonymous, it states, "Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power--that One is God." (p. 59). This being (power) could be a sponsor, therapist, the group, the therapy process or a spiritual power. By following these Steps, reality itself becomes a teacher, as one is asked to continually "turn over" (to that Power) an addiction, people and frustrating situations. By doing all this, the ego relinquishes control, as one begins to trust that Power, the growth process and life as well.


All the processes that have gone down is an increasing awareness and observation of ones dysfunctional behavior and addiction(s) - what is referred to as "insanity" in the Second Step. This is a crucial development, because it signifies the genesis of an observing ego. With this new tool, one begins to exercise some restraint over addictive and undesirable habits, words, and deeds. The Program works behaviorally as well as spiritually. New behavior can be reinforced by group support, because the emotions triggered by these changes are very powerful and can easily retard or arrest recovery. For the very same reasons, family, friends and lovers may resist change in order to preserve the system's homeostasis. The emotional discomfort may be so great that the substance abuser may revert to drinking or using. The 12 Steps provide help in Step 3. Here one is asked to relinquish the ego's central position as director, and to turn ones life "over to the care of God as we understood God." This is the practice of "letting go" and "turning it over," meaning that one cannot control outcomes, others' attitudes, and behaviors, nor daily frustrations that can trigger a relapse. In Jungian therapy, the individual "comes to change his attitude from one in which ego and will are paramount to one in which he acknowledges that he is guided by an integrating factor which is not of his own making... named the Self - a 'God-image,' or at least indistinguishable from one.". The idea of surrender can be particularly frightening to someone - like many addicts - who has been traumatized by abuse or neglect. Building trust is a process, but as faith gradually grows, so does the ability to let go and move towards more functional behavior.

Inventory; Building Self-esteem

So along with some more ego awareness, self-discipline and faith, one is ready to review ones past. This is Step 4. It requires a thorough examination ("a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves"), with a view towards uncovering patterns of dysfunctional emotions and behavior, called "character defects." The "exact nature of our wrongs" is then "admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being," in Step 5. Whether in therapy or with a sponsor, the process of self-disclosure in a non-judgmental environment required by Step 5 further develops self-esteem and an observing ego. Through conscious acknowledgment of ones imperfections, one discovers his or her frailty and humanity. Guilt, resentments and paralyzing shame begin to gently dissolve, and with it, the false self, self-loathing and depression. For some, particularly people in therapy, this process involves recalling childhood pain and grief work, which is the beginning of empathy for oneself and others.

Self-acceptance and Transformation

The encounter with the shadow brings unavoidable conflict and pain. Following an acknowledgment of dysfunctional emotional and behavioral patterns, the person is still faced with the realization that awareness alone is not enough. Change doesn't happen until old habits are replaced with healthier skills, and/or until the purposes they served are removed. As awareness increases the old behaviors become increasingly uncomfortable, and no longer work. Now this concept of surrender is described in Step 6. "Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character." The above statement is similar to Step 3; however, Step 3 is more of a conscious decision and is usually associated with surrendering control over situations or things outside of oneself, while Step 6 underscores the psychological process of personal transformation that evolves throughout recovery. Step 6 embodies a further development of self-acceptance and opens the door to change. Ideally, the person continues, pursuant to Step 10, to examine their patterns and "defects" with a sponsor or therapist as they show up on a daily basis, to better understand their feelings, motives, consequences and other options. Like the movie "Groundhog Day," attempts to change can become frustrating. For as long as one furtively tries to change, and blames oneself in the process, no movement occurs - not until one gives up, in despair. The above process asks that one give up control and ego clinging, and look for a source beyond oneself. Then one is "entirely ready." There is a parallel in Jungian therapy, where a critical point is reached. This process of working with the shadow leads to the modesty needed to form relationships. It is this humility in relation to God that is required by Step 7, which states, "Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings."

Compassion for Others

The review of ones shortcomings in Step 5 reveals ones effect on others, and awakens empathy for those one has harmed. Steps 8 and 9 suggest that one make a list of those people to make direct amends to them. Jung advises that where it is not possible to restrain the expression of the shadow, we can at least mitigate it with an apology, rather than blame the other person. This builds humility and compassion, and self-esteem.

Tools for Daily Growth

The entire process of recovery and spiritual growth are never truly completed, but a continual process. The last three steps are referred to as maintenance steps, and it is recommended that they be commenced early in recovery. The whole journey of the 12 steps emphasize moral behavior - doing the right thing. You can see that step 10 recommends one take an on-going inventory, and when wrong make prompt amends. This promotes self-responsibility and integrates awareness of the shadow on a daily basis to keep the slate clean in relationships with others. Step 11 recommends meditation and prayer to improve "conscious contact with God." This strengthens the relationship to the Self and increases Self-awareness. It promotes new behavior, by reducing reactivity and anxiety accompanying change, and by increasing tolerance for the experience of emptiness, which supports the Self as old behavior and ego structures fall away. Step 12 recommends doing service and working with others, which reduces self-centeredness and enhances compassion. Additionally, sharing what one has learned is self-reinforcing. This Step also suggests practicing these principles in all areas of ones life. This is a reminder that spirituality and growth cannot be practiced in only one segment of our life, without contamination from other areas. For example, dishonesty in any area undermines serenity and self-esteem, affecting all of ones relationships. It also protects against the tendency of many people to switch addictions to deal with the anxiety and depression that can accompany abstinence