Twelve-step program

Twelve-step program

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A Twelve-step program is a set of guiding principles for recovery from addictive, compulsive, or other behavioral problems, originally developed by the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for recovery from alcoholism.[1] The Twelve Steps were originally published in the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous ("The Big Book") in 1939; more than 25 million copies have been printed in many languages.[2] This method has been adapted as the foundation of other twelve-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Co-Dependents Anonymous and Emotions Anonymous. As summarized by the American Psychological Association, working the Twelve Steps involves the following.[1]

  • admitting that one cannot control one's addiction or compulsion;
  • recognizing a greater 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;
  • helping others that suffer from the same addictions or compulsions.


Overview of twelve-step programs

The way of life outlined in the Twelve Steps has been adapted widely. The effects of Alcoholics Anonymous recovery within the family unit providing improved quality of life resulted in fellowships like Al-Anon; substance-dependent people who did not relate to the specifics of alcohol dependency started meeting together as Narcotics Anonymous[3]; similar groups were formed for sufferers of cocaine addiction, crystal meth addiction and other chemical dependencies. Behavioral issues such as compulsion and/or addiction with sex, food, and gambling were found to be solved for some people with the daily application of the Twelve Steps in such fellowships as Emotions Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and Sexual Compulsives Anonymous. Other groups addressing problems with certain types of behaviors include Clutterers Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous. Over fifty fellowships composed of millions of recovery members, all based in the same principles, are found around the world.

"After a while I began to wonder why I was not [happy] ... I decided to strive for my own spiritual growth. I used the same principles [Bill W.] did to learn how to change my attitudes. ... We began to learn that ...the partner of the alcoholic also needed to live by a spiritual program."

"Lois's Story" in the Al-Anon "Big Book", a typical story of a sufferer finding fulfillment through application of the Twelve Steps[4]


For more details on this topic, see Alcoholics Anonymous: History

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the first twelve-step program, was founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, known to AA members as "Bill W." and "Dr. Bob", in Akron, Ohio. They established the tradition within the "anonymous" twelve-step programs of using only first names. The Twelve Steps were originally written by Wilson and represented Wilson's incorporation of the teachings of Reverend Sam Shoemaker about the Oxford Group's life-changing program.

As AA was growing in the 1930s and 1940s, definite guiding principles began to emerge as the Twelve Traditions. A singleness of purpose emerged as tradition five: "Each group has but one primary purpose to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers."[5] Consequently, drug addicts who do not suffer from the specifics of alcoholism involved in AA hoping for recovery technically are not welcome in "closed" meetings for alcoholics only.[6] The reason for such emphasis on alcoholism as the problem is to overcome denial and distraction. Thus the principles of AA have been used to form many numbers of other fellowships for those recovering from various pathologies, each of which in term emphasizes recovery from the specific malady which brought the sufferer into the fellowship.[7]

The Twelve Steps

These are the original Twelve Steps as suggested by by Alcoholics Anonymous.[8]

  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.

Other twelve-step groups have adapted these steps of AA as guiding principles for problems other than alcoholism. In some cases the steps have been altered to emphasize particular principles important to those fellowships.[9][10][11]

The Twelve Traditions

Main article: Twelve Traditions

The Twelve Steps are accompanied by the Twelve Traditions, twelve guidelines for group governance as developed by Alcoholics Anonymous through its early formation. Most twelve-step fellowships also adopted these principles as their structural governance. In AA, the empathetic desire to save other alcoholics resulted in a radical emphasis on service to other sufferers only. Thus "the only requirement for AA membership is the desire to stop drinking." Similar membership guidelines were adopted by other fellowships. The Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous are as follows.

  1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.
  2. 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.
  3. The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
  4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.
  5. Each group has but one primary purpose to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  6. 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.
  7. Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
  9. AA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
  10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
  11. 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.
  12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.


Twelve Step programs symbolically represent human structure in three dimensions: physical, mental, and spiritual. The disorders and diseases the groups deal with are understood to manifest themselves in each dimension. For addicts and alcoholics the physical dimension is best described by the "allergy-like bodily reaction" resulting in the inability to stop using substances after the initial use. For groups not related to substance abuse the physical manifestation could be much more varied including, but not limited too: agoraphobia, apathy, distractibility, forgetfulness, hyperactivity, hypomania, insomnia, irritability, lack of motivation, laziness, mania, panic attacks, poor impulse control, procrastination, self-injury, suicide attempts, and stress. The illness of the spiritual dimension, in all twelve-step groups, is considered to be self-centeredness. This model is not intended to be a scientific explanation, it is only a perspective that twelve-step organizations have found useful.[12][13]

The process is intended to replace self-centeredness with a growing moral consciousness and a willingness for self-sacrifice and unselfish constructive action.[13] In twelve- step groups, this is known as a spiritual awakening or religious experience.[14] This should not be confused with abreaction, which generally only results in temporary change.[15] In twelve-step groups, "spiritual awakening" is believed to develop, most frequently, slowly over a period of time.[16]

Twelve-step groups emphasize self-admission that members "have a problem." In this spirit, members open their address to the group along the lines of, "Hi, I'm Pam and I'm an alcoholic" — a catchphrase now widely identified with support groups. This self-identification is the sole qualification for membership in the organization.[citation needed]


"Sponsors share their experience, strength, and hope with their sponsees... A sponsor's role is not that of a legal adviser, a banker, a parent, a marriage counselor, or a social worker. Nor is a sponsor a therapist offering some sort of professional advice. A sponsor is simply another addict in recovery who is willing to share his or her journey through the Twelve Steps."

from NA's Sponsorship, Revised[17]

In twelve-step programs, a sponsor is a more experienced person in recovery who guides the less-experienced aspirant ("sponsee" or variously, "sponsoree") through the program. Newcomers in twelve-step programs are encouraged to to secure a relationship with at least one sponsor.[17][18] A vast array of publications from various fellowships emphasize that sponsorship is a "one on one" relationship of shared experiences focused on working the Twelve Steps.[19][20][21]

Sponsors and sponsees participate in activities that lead to spiritual growth as defined by the Twelve Step Process. These may include practices such as literature discussion and study, meditation, and writing. Completing the Twelve Steps implies being competent to sponsor to newcomers in recovery.[18]

Sponsees typically do their Fifth Step with their sponsor. The Fifth Step, as well as the Ninth Step, have been compared to confession and penitence. Many, such as Michel Foucault, noted such practices "produces intrinsic modifications in the person" and exonerates, redeems, purifies them; it unburdens them of their wrongs, liberates them and promises their salvation.[22]

The personal nature of the behavioral issues that lead to seeking help in twelve-step fellowships results in a strong relationship between sponsee and sponsor. As the relationship is based on spiritual principles, it is unique and not generally characterized as "friendship." Fundamentally, the sponsor has the single purpose of helping the sponsee recover from the behavioral problem that brought the sufferer into twelve-step work, which reflexively helps the sponsor recover.[18]

Non-twelve-step addiction recovery groups

For more details on this topic, see Addiction recovery groups.

There are a variety of approaches to recovery available. While twelve-step programs emphasize spiritual solutions to addiction, some others suggest alternative approaches.


For more details on this topic, see the related sections in the following articles: Alcoholics Anonymous: Criticism, Emotions Anonymous: Criticism, Narcotics Anonymous: Controversies, Overeaters Anonymous: Criticism, Self-help groups for mental health: Criticism and Sexaholics Anonymous: Criticism

The criticisms of twelve-step groups are as varied as the pathologies they address. People have attended twelve-step meetings and success still eludes them. Their varied success rate, and the belief in a Higher Power suggested in the organizations, are common criticisms of their universal applicability and efficacy.[citation needed]

See also


  • Christians in Recovery - an association of Christian recovery groups with a linked website that shares resources on recovery, a program of TechMission
  • Alcoholics Victorious - a Christian 12-step program for recovering alcoholics, a program of Christians in Recovery and TechMission


  1. ^ a b VandenBos, Gary R. (2007). APA dictionary of psychology, 1st edition, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. ISBN 1591473802. OCLC 65407150. 
  2. ^ Alcoholics Anonymous (June 2001). Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th edition, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. ISBN 1893007162. OCLC 32014950. 
  3. ^ Narcotics Anonymous (1987). "Chapter 8: We Do Recover", Narcotics Anonymous, 4th Edition, Van Nuys, CA: Narcotics Anonymous World Service Office. ISBN 0912075023. OCLC 14377415. 
  4. ^ Al-Anon (July 1995). How Al-Anon works for families and friends of alcoholics. New York, New York: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc.. ISBN 0910034265. OCLC 32951492. 
  5. ^ Alcoholics Anonymous (February 2002). Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Hazelden. ISBN 0916856011. OCLC 13572433. 
  6. ^ Alcoholics Anonymous. For Anyone New Coming to A.A.; For Anyone Referring People to A.A.. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.. Retrieved on 2006-06-15.
  7. ^ George E. Vaillant (2002). "Singleness of Purpose". About AA: A Newsltter for Professionals (Fall/Winter). 
  8. ^ Alcoholics Anonymous (June 2001). "Chapter 5: How It Works", Alcoholics Anonymous (PDF), 4th edition, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. ISBN 1893007162. OCLC 32014950. 
  9. ^ Narcotics Anonymous World Services (2007-02-23). World Service Board of Trustees Bulletin #13: Some thoughts regarding our relationship to Alcoholics Anonymous. Retrieved on 2007-10-07.
  10. ^ RonStarR and TraditionallyStepping (2006-01-13). NA History Chronology. Retrieved on 2007-10-07. “Note the 1953 Events Detailing step adapatation: NA emphasizes the unity by starting all steps with 'we'”
  11. ^ Crystal Meth Anonymous. The 12 Steps of Recovery. Retrieved on 2007-10-07.
  12. ^ Kurtz, Linda F.; Chambon, Adrienne (1987). "Comparison of self-help groups for mental health.". Health & social work 12 (4): 275-283. ISSN 0360-7283. 
  13. ^ a b Ronel, Natti (2000). "From Self-Help to Professional Care: An Enhanced Application of the 12-Step Program". The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 36 (1): 108-122. DOI:10.1177/0021886300361006. ISSN 1552-6879. 
  14. ^ Roehe, Marcelo V. (September/December 2004). "Religious Experience in Self-Help Groups: the neurotics anonymous example" (in Portuguese). Psicologia em Estudo 9 (3): 399-407. ISSN 1413-7372. 
  15. ^ Marmor, Judd (April 1980). "Recent trends in psychotherapy". American Journal of Psychiatry 137 (4): 409-416. ISSN 0002-953X. 
  16. ^ Alcoholics Anonymous (June 1976). "Appendix II. Spiritual Experience", Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. ISBN 0916856593. OCLC 32014950. 
  17. ^ a b Narcotics Anonymous. "Sponsorship, Revised (pamphlet): What does a sponsor do?" (PDF). Narcotics Anonymous.
  18. ^ a b c Alcoholics Anonymous. "Sponsorship Q&A (pamphlet)" (PDF). Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.
  19. ^ Crystal Meth Anonymous. NYCMA: What is a Sponsor?. New York Crystal Meth Anonymous Intergroup. Retrieved on 2007-10-08.
  20. ^ #SLAA Online Group of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous - Sponsorship Online (2007-02-05). Retrieved on 2007-10-08.
  21. ^ Overeaters Anonymous Unity Intergroup Website: Sponsorship (2007-09-19). Retrieved on 2007-10-08.
  22. ^ Kriz, Kerri-Lynn Murphy (May 2002). The Efficacy of Overeaters Anonymous in Fostering Abstinence in Binge-Easting Disorder and Bulimia Nervosa. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. 

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