Woman on steps represents 12-step treatment approach

Learning From the 12-Step Treatment Approach

When we hear about someone “working the 12 steps,” our minds go to recovery. After all, the 12-step treatment approach was developed to help people all over the world reach sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. 

You may have a close friend or loved one progressing through the 12-step treatment approach right now. If so, you probably know that some moments are challenging while others are rewarding. You might be witnessing the difficult yet healing journey unfold right before your eyes. 

Still, most of us don’t have the best grasp on what each of the 12 steps entails. A better understanding of the program can help you support your close friend or loved one on their journey. And you might just find a way to apply the 12 steps in your own life as well. 

Let’s dive in, shall we? 

The 12-Step Program: A Few Ground Rules

It might help to start with a few ground rules for how the 12-step program works. 

Ground Rule 1: You’re going to encounter language that feels outdated. 

The 12-step program effectively began with the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, with a book detailing the program and its decades of success written in 1953. Phrasing and word choice are reflective of this time period. 

Ground Rule 2: The use of the name “God” refers to a “Higher Power.” 

It’s up to each person to decide what Higher Power means in their personal 12-step journey. For some, this will be an obvious and easy choice—the Higher Power reflecting already established beliefs. For others, this may take some time and consideration. 

Ground Rule 3: While the steps don’t work for everyone, they do change the lives of many. 

Through its surveys and stated in its Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous finds that while 25% of members will fall back into addiction, a full 50% stay sober and the remaining 25% relapse but return to the program. 

The 12-Step Approach in Full

With our ground rules in mind, let’s take a quick look at each of the 12-steps as defined by Alcoholics Anonymous

  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 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.

The Message of The Final Step of the 12-Step Treatment Approach

Let’s take a moment to reread the final step of the 12-step treatment approach: 

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. 

For our purposes today, we’re going to hone in on that last phrase: 

And to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Here the founders of AA give a little nod to the universal truths implanted in the 12 steps. If a person completing the program should be able to apply what they’ve learned to every aspect of life, perhaps we can as well? 

After all, looking for universal truths in each of these steps might help us better understand what our loved ones are attempting to do and might just help us be better people as well. 

The Universal Truths Found in Each Step in the 12-Step Approach

To simplify this process just a bit, I’ll shorten the title of each of the steps in the 12-step treatment approach while working to keep its original meaning intact as much as possible. Of course, you can always refer to the complete list above if you like! 

A quick note: It’s important for me to point out that if we’re not in recovery from drugs or alcohol, there’s no way for us to fully—or perhaps even remotely—understand what our friend or loved one might be going through. 

Instead, think of this as an exercise to get you just a smidge of the way there. You’ll see the goal of a person in AA listed in bold, with the universal truth you might apply found in italics below. Give it a try—you might just learn something!  

After all, we’ve all failed in one way or another—mismanaged finances, anger problems, unhealthy habits, unkind words—and we could all benefit from the opportunity to grow. 

Step 1: Admit I’m powerless over alcohol and my life is unmanageable. 

What am I powerless to control? Where do I fail to maintain order? Can I readily admit this fact? Why or why not? If I’m struggling to concede a lack of control, how might I get to a place where I willingly say to myself and others, “I’m not doing so well in this area.”? 

Step 2: I believe a Higher Power can help. 

Do I believe in a Higher Power? Is it God? Is it a deity by another name? Do I believe that this supernatural being can help me here, in the natural, with the things that cause me to struggle? If I don’t believe in God, what might I place my beliefs in? Nature? Humanity? Fate?

Step 3: I turn my will over to a Higher Power. 

Am I willing to submit my own desires to a Higher Power? Can I relinquish control? Do I feel silly considering this—and if so, why? What might happen if I readily give up autonomy to the God of my choosing? 

Step 4: I do an honest inventory of my morals. 

Who am I really? Do I actually possess the strong character that I portray—online or otherwise? How do I conduct myself when no one is watching? How do I act when I think the people watching don’t matter? Can I list my moral failings without holding back? 

Step 5: I admit my wrongdoings to a Higher Power, myself and others. 

It’s one thing to admit wrongdoings to myself—but can I say them out loud? Could I admit them to a Higher Power? Can I share them with those closest to me without twisting the details and making myself look a bit better in the long run? 

Step 6: I want to rid myself of my character defects. 

Can I move from admittance to action? Do I actually want to change, or am I okay with continuing on with less-than-okay behavior? What would it take for me to be willing and ready to instill new habits in my life?

Step 7: I humble myself before a Higher Power, asking for help. 

Am I willing to reach out for help? To not only believe in a Higher Power but to also believe that He/it can affect real change in my life—and for the better. Am I willing to admit, through my actions, that I can’t do this life alone?

Step 8: I make a list of people I have wronged with a desire to make amends.

Who have I wronged? To whom have I spoken unkindly, failed to practice patience, taken advantage of, ignored, abused, rejected? Am I willing to take inventory of these person-to-person sins? 

Step 9: I make those amends. 

Can I take that list in my hand and do something about it? Can I apologize without minimizing my part? Will I commit to better behavior in the future and actually mean it?

Step 10: I continue to take inventory of my actions and readily admit wrongdoing. 

How might I regularly reassess my actions to ensure that they are above board—that I’m treating both myself and others with respect? That I’m making good decisions and carrying them out in a proper way. Can I admit when I make a mistake? Because, of course, I will. 

Step 11: Seek relationship with a Higher Power, asking for wisdom and power. 

Can I work to grow in relationship to God—or grow in a greater understanding of my choice for a Higher Power? How might I seek wisdom and strength from the God of my choosing? 

Step 12: Help others and apply what I’ve learned in all areas of my life. 

How might I apply what I’ve learned to help others on their own journey toward a more healthy, wholesome life? If I went back and began the 12 steps over again, what issue might I tackle this time?

I’m not sure about you, but as I read through the universal truths found in each of these steps, plenty of personal issues and areas for growth come to mind. Some are small and might see me breeze easily through the steps, while others cut deep—they’re difficult for me to admit and would take quite some time to work through.

My hope is that you read through these steps in much the same way. Perhaps you’ll walk away with a better understanding of what your close friend or loved one may be experiencing. And that maybe you’ll find yourself on a journey of your own as well. 

If we can help with any questions regarding the 12-step approach to treatment or recovery in general, please give us a call at 844.767.9404.

By Stephanie Thomas – Contributing Writer with Promises Behavioral Health

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