Cornerstone of Southern California, Celebrating 40 Years
What to Know About the 12 Steps for Alcoholics
Author: Phil Kosanovich
Published: April 20, 2020
historical marker for bill wilson at east dorset vermont

The 12 steps of most addiction recovery programs are based on the 12 steps developed by Alcoholics Anonymous in the mid 1930s: 

  1. Powerlessness: One, you admit you are powerless over alcohol (or drugs) and your life has become impossible to manage.
  2. Acknowledgement: Two, you acknowledge that a power greater than you can restore your sanity.
  3. Surrender: Three, you consciously decide to turn your will over to the care of your higher power or “God as we understood Him,” depending on your own faith and beliefs.
  4. Inventory: Four, you make a “searching and fearless” moral inventory of yourself.
  5. Sharing: Five, you share what you learn in step 4, your moral inventory, with someone else (typically a sponsor or counselor).
  6. Removal: Six, you are ready to allow your higher power or God remove those defects of character.
  7. Humility: Seven, you humbly ask your higher power or God to remove those defects of character or shortcomings.
  8. Recognize: Eight, you make a list of all the people you have harmed — not who’s harmed you! — and become willing to make amends with them, except in cases where it would be harmful to you or others.
  9. Amends: Nine, you connect with those people from step 8 and offer your amends, except in cases where you or someone else would be jeopardized.
  10. Continue: Ten, you continue the practice of steps 5 through 9, taking personal moral inventory and promptly admitting your shortcomings.
  11. Meditation: Eleven, you use prayer and/or meditation to stay in touch with your higher power or God, asking for strength and power to carry out the 12 steps of recovery.
  12. Practice: Finally, after practicing the steps, you carry the message to other alcoholics and/or addicts, and you practice these principles in all aspects of your life. 

1. There Are 12 Steps for a Reason — Sort of 

Some people might guess that the reason for 12 steps is so that you can work one step per month and complete a program in one year. That’s far from true. Most 12-step are not time-bound. Some people take weeks to complete a step, while others take months or even years. One of the reasons 12-step programs work is because they are self-directed, self-paced and not bound to a timeline.

Still, we are often asked why there are 12 steps and not 13, or 11, or 10 or, for that matter, 100?

According to AA lore, when AA founder Bill W. sat down to write his chapter that answers the question “how AA works” he made a list, counted the items, and they added up to 12. It’s as simple as that. 

2. 12-Step Programs Are Not One and Done

If you read through the 12 steps, you’ll quickly realize that the 12 steps are a lifelong commitment to sobriety. The program works best for people who practice the steps every day. 

Does that mean you have to turn yourself over to God, make a moral inventory list, and make amends with everyone every day? No. It means that some days might be a “step 4 day,” meaning you feel the need for some self-reflection. On other days, you might need to focus on step 9, and reach out to someone whose feelings you hurt. 

Related: Detox Orange County

3. The 12 Steps Are Numbered for a Reason

The 12 steps are numbered and ordered for a reason. They’re intended to be worked in a specific order. You begin by self-reflection and working on yourself, expanding to your circle of trust and then ultimately, to your greater community.

In the early days of your sobriety, we recommend that you work the steps in order with a sponsor or addiction counselor. But there may be times when you pause and revisit a step or work a couple of steps at the same time. For example, step 4 is commonly revisited as you get further into your recovery; you’ll discover new things to add to your moral inventory — this is quite common.  

As you complete the 12 steps, we encourage you to practice all of the steps and use them as you need them. 

4. You Don’t Have to Be ‘Religious’

One of the most common barriers to people entering 12-step programs is their reluctance to participate in something that refers to God or a higher power. Yet, many agnostics and atheists find the support they need in 12-step programs. 

There are a lot of misconceptions about 12-step programs, including that you have to believe in God in order to work the steps. Our 12-step program, like a lot of 12-step programs, holds no religious affiliations. 

The point is, your 12 steps should be seen as concepts and guidelines not an indoctrination to a religion. 

Many alcoholics and addicts lack the willpower to work recovery on their own and they need a higher power in whatever form they may choose to help them change their ways. Some people do hold strong religious beliefs, while others choose to call their higher power God or use the acronym GOD to stand for “good orderly direction.” God or your higher power can be anything from a single omniscient god to an outside unknown force of nature or a group seeking common goal. 

5. 12-Steps Work Well With Other Therapies

A 12-step program helps us lay the foundation for living an alcohol-free and drug-free life, and it works well with other therapies, especially if you have other underlying emotional, behavioral, and mental challenges. 

For example, we use a number of proven therapies for treating addiction at Cornerstone, which you can learn about on our page, “Therapies Available at Cornerstone.” 

6. 12-Steps Are Not One-Size-Fits-All Programs

Even within AA, you’ll find that meetings take on their own personalities and styles. Not all are alike, and we encourage you to try out several groups until you find one that fits well with your needs and comfort level. For this same reason, we offer drug addiction treatment that is customized to the individual.

However most are modeled on the original 12-step, and they follow the same format, starting with the you as an individual, then to your close relationships, and ultimately to your community.

AA’s 12-step program was the first of its kind, and since then many groups have adapted it to fit their needs to help people battle all kinds of addictions — eating disorders, sexual addictions, gambling problems and more.

7. Anonymity and Confidentiality in 12-Step Groups

One of the reasons 12-step programs work is because of the mutual commitment to protect the anonymity of everyone in group settings. The vast majority of people who participate in 12-step recovery programs honor the promise that what is said inside the sanctity of a meeting stays there. 

That said, this is an ethical agreement and not a legal one. Legal protections that extend to relationships between healthcare providers, counselors, therapists and doctors and their patients do not extend to relationships among members of 12-step recovery meetings.

This is one of the key reasons that 12-step programs work better when they are accompanied by other therapies overseen by a licensed physician, therapist, or counselor. 

8. Don’t Confuse 12 Steps with 12 Traditions

The 12 steps apply to you and your personal journey through addiction recovery and sobriety. The 12 traditions apply to group conduct during meetings and group activities. Most programs adopt some form of the 12 traditions of AA, which cover these topics:

  1. The welfare of the group comes before the welfare of any individual.
  2. The group is free from religious affiliation.
  3. The group isn’t affiliated with any other outside organization.
  4. The group can consult with other groups, but must remain self-governing.
  5. The group has a single purpose — helping alcoholics (and addicts).
  6. The group isn’t incorporated or for-profit and if it operates within the walls of another organization, they must remain independent.
  7. The group must be self-supported financially through voluntary contributions of members.
  8. 12-step group work is free.
  9. The group must rotate leadership and not be governed by a single authority or person.
  10. Controversial issues don’t belong in 12-step meetings, such as religion, politics and other therapies.
  11. Members agree to anonymity during meetings and groups don’t seek public relations or public recognition.
  12. Members place principles above personalities, meaning the needs of the group exceed those of the individual during 12-step meetings. 

9. 12-Step Plus Formal Treatment Nets Better Results

landmark study in 2006 followed people who’d been in 12-step recovery programs and formal treatment for 16 years. They measured their progress at the 1-, 3-, 8-, and 16-year marks and found that people who participated in both 12-step programs and formal treatment had better long term outcomes for beating alcoholism. 

10. 12-Step Programs Generate Controversy

Twelve-step programs including AA’s and similar programs attract as many people who swear by their effectiveness as they do people who question their relevance in the 21st century. You just have to do a search for “12 step criticism” or “problems with 12 step programs” to learn about the controversies.

We use the 12-step program to complement our treatment programs so that when you are not under the immediate care of our staff, you’ve got a foundation and community that will support sober living. You should explore options for community support and try several until you find one that fits with your beliefs and supports your recovery. 

11. Detox and 12-Step Programs

For chronic acute alcoholics, we recommend that you detox under medical supervision. We mention that here, while we’re talking about 12-step programs, because these programs celebrate sobriety from day 1 through the rest of your program. They recognize milestones of not drinking, from 24 hours to 1 year and beyond. 

While we encourage you to stop drinking, we also want you to recognize the dangers that come from suddenly stopping drinking cold turkey. Talk to an addiction recovery counselor and review our resources so you can safely transition from drinking to sober living.

12. You Are Not Alone.

Twelve-step programs remind us that we are not alone. An estimated 2 million people are active in AA at any given time, according to, and that is in addition to the millions of people who are in other recovery and 12-step programs. 

What all of us can agree on is that 12-step programs remind us that we are not alone in our struggles. Millions of people struggle with addiction, and when you attend meetings, you will always find people who have similar, worse and better stories than yours. 

If you need to talk to someone confidentially about your drinking, our counselors are available around the clock. Contact us today

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