The 12 Steps & 12 Step Programs: Everything You Need to Know

The 12 Steps are a popular method for getting support in addiction recovery.

These steps were initially created to help alcoholics find sobriety.  These concepts are now used to rehabilitate many types of addiction, including substance abuse  disorders

However, be aware that the “steps” are only a small part of 12 step recovery programs.

The 12 recovery principles structure each member’s individual mindset.  This is simply the groundwork to operate in tandem with additional group-focused guidelines.

At Next Step Recovery, we receive many questions about our 12 step recovery program.

Questions like:

  • How do the 12 steps work?
  • Are 12 Step programs religious?
  • What are each of the 12 Steps?
  • Should I choose a 12 step program?

We’ll answer all of those and more here.

First though, let’s start with the most basic one.

What are the 12 Steps?

The 12 Steps are a set of principles developed to help individuals struggling with addiction change their beliefs.  Together, they act as a framework for sustainable recovery. What’s more, 12 Step communities of all types help provide the support and accountability many recovering addicts crave.

The 12 Steps of recovery were designed as the foundation for individual recovery.  They serve as guidelines for individuals on their journey back from addiction.

Many have heard of “12 Steps for Drug & Alcohol”.  However, the Steps are used in everything from sex addiction to overeating.

The language of the original steps is modified slightly for different programs.  Yet the core message remains the same.

Today, the original 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous has helped countless men and women make sobriety sustainable across the globe.

How the 12 Steps Works

Like any solid plan, every part has its purpose.

The 12 Steps are intended to be followed in sequence and in their entirety.  You may not like all of them. Some will be more challenging than others. But they are all crucial in your long term success.

Each step represents a unique challenge.  Tackle them at your own pace with the support of a sponsor.  Group therapy and 12 step support groups can also help—whether you need accountability, fellowship, or simply a listening ear.

Just remember, there are twelve steps for a reason.

Step 1

Step 1 - Honesty:

Step One can be understood as a stage of acceptance.

The most valuable phases of this First Step are:

  • “Powerless”
  • “Unmanageable”

This step is structured around the belief that one is “powerless” over one’s chronic disease.

AA co-founder Bill Wilson likely based this concept heavily on the work of Dr. William Silkworth.  Silkworth was among the first to approach alcoholism as a disease.

Addiction is not viewed here as a behavior controlled by willpower.  Step One aims to relabel the addiction of any affected individuals as a disease similar to a lethal allergy.

Admitting that addiction cannot be cured by pure behavioral will is the first hurdle.  This lack of control must be understood before a member can proceed with recovery.

Constant triggering of the addiction disease has caused life to be “unmanageable.”  Like any incurable recurring disease, addiction steals total control of one’s wellness.

“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Step 2

Step 2 - Hope:

Step Two represents a stage of hope for potential recovery.

Where the previous step may have spurred questions around being powerless to the addiction, the Second Step aims to show them a way forward.

Step Two uses an important term:

  • “Higher Power”

Notably, this is the first mention of a higher “Power” within the Steps.  Later, the terms “God” and “Him” may be used interchangeably with this “Power” concept.

A higher “Power” is anything external that inspires you to stay sober.  This Power usually has a larger presence than an individual person. This language is intended to make this belief accessible to all secular and spiritual people.

Examples of a higher “Power” include a religious God, the universe, or karma.  Some may choose medical professionals, or the process of recovery itself.

Other members have identified “God” as an acronym for “Good Orderly Direction.”  Some have even referred to it as “Group of Drunks/Druggies” for their fellowship.

In the end, you get to decide what a “Higher Power” means to you.

Hope stems from the fact that recovery is possible.  However, this is only true once you put aside ego and the illusion of control.  The acceptance in Step One allows room for external guidance to assist individuals on their road to  recovery.

Defining a personal higher Power early makes connecting with it much easier in later steps.

“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Step 3

Step 3 - Faith:

Step Three is identified as a stage of action.

Notable phrases in this step include:

  • “Turn our will [over]”
  • “God as we understood Him”

Despite the spiritual language, note that 12 step programs are open to all.  They encourage anyone to use the program with their own concept of higher Power.

Reframing the non-secular language is pivotal due to this flexible application.

“God” is the higher Power an addict will seek help from, as mentioned in Step Two.  Since addiction cannot be controlled internally, external help is required to proceed.

This is why the affected give control of their “will” to their higher Power.

“Turning your will and life over” is an alternate way to say one is accepting outside help when they feel overwhelmed.

You may see this process labeled with spiritual terms like “prayer” and “meditation.”  This is why reframing these concepts is essential to your knowledge of the 12 Steps.

Engaging with their higher Power is just a process of conversation and reflection.  They reflect internally on experiences, using these lessons to talk with external help.

Turning your will over does not mean all control of life is in the hands of the external.  Individuals in recovery also identify what’s in their own control, then take initiative to improve.

“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

Step 4

Step 4- Courage:

Step Four could be viewed as a stage of honesty.

Key terms to focus on here are:

  • “Fearless”
  • “Moral inventory of ourselves”

By taking notes on the effects of one’s addictive behaviors, they can identify what must change.  This may be painful, but it helps them to process their impact.

“Fearless” indexing of one’s impact on others and themselves can guide better decisions.  All that one may think, say, or do should be noted and processed.

As this “moral inventory” grows, those in recovery can find areas of both weakness and strength.  Both are important when one is choosing actions that are morally correct.

Meditation and acceptance in Step Three is an important practice for this reflection.  The affected individual learns to accept weaknesses and amplify strengths.

Ultimately, this inventory process makes recovery much more attainable.

It also sets the stage for a successful life over the long term.

“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

Step 5

Step 5 - Integrity:

Step Five is focused on the act of confession.

Key terms to note here are:

  • “Admitted… our wrongs”
  • “To God”
  • “To ourselves”
  • “To another human being”

Here, one has “admitted” their moral discoveries of Step 5, both externally and internally.

The goal is to lower one’s risk of destructive coping by relieving them of their guilt.

Shame creates a cycle of relapse that is challenging to break.  As you unburden yourself, the release helps you avoid unhealthy coping.

Admitting specific harmful behaviors began in Step Four.  But, true cleansing comes from speaking with the external world about these acts.

One’s specific reframing of “God” will determine how they will confess their wrongs.

The affected may already be admitting their harm through spiritual prayer.  Others may find themselves in a dialogue with their mental health professionals, or shouting to the cosmic void.  There is no right or wrong way to confess.

For many, discussion with “another human being” will occur in their support group.  The fellowship of a 12 Step program comes into full effect here.

The layers of this confession may happen in isolation or simultaneously.  But, all will help cleanse the weight of shame from the affected person’s conscience.

“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

Step 6

Step 6 - Willingness:

Step Six is regarded as a stage of release.

Significant phrases include:

  • “Have God remove”
  • “Defects of character”

Releasing the negative behaviors identified in the previous steps is a massive hurdle.

“Defects of character” are reshaped by replacing old coping behaviors with healthier decisions.  Learning new ways to behave is hard, so one might revisit this step multiple times.

The Sixth Step is also about choosing improvement over perfection.

Remember that addiction is treated as a disease.  Willpower cannot perfectly help you avoid triggers.  One’s higher Power, “God,” will help when hardship strikes.

Progress should always be valued by an affected person, regardless of relapse.  Learning usually requires mistakes, so recovery will never be a straight path.

“Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

Step 7

Step 7 - Humility:

Step Seven connects with the idea of humility.

This acts as an extension of Step Three and Step Six, as now one knows specifics about their weaknesses.

Now that they know what to remove, they can allow their higher Power to assist.

Remaining humble keeps the recovering individual from downsizing the impact of behaviors.  It also causes one to check the limits of their will over disease.

Most importantly, one is able to see the influence a greater force can have on addiction.

“Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

Step 8

Step 8 - Brotherly Love:

Step Eight is like a moral inventory of one’s social damages.

Guilt management is vital to averting one’s destructive coping behaviors.  As in Step Four, this is a form of assessing guilt for hurting others and taking action to admit it.

“Persons we had harmed” makes us accountable for the danger of an unmanaged addiction.  Facing this truth gives the affected another chance for progress.

This external focus is a recurring theme in the 12 Steps.  Making “amends” for social harm is focused on doing good outside of themselves.  This replaces addictive behaviors that tend to be self-serving.

Eventually, one has less guilt and more motivation to improve the lives of others.  Those in recovery can move forward “willing” to improve their social connections.

“Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”

Step 9

Step 9 - Justice:

Step Nine drives an affected individual to take action to mend their social harms.

Two central themes apply here:

  • “Made direct amends”
  • “Wherever possible”

“Direct amends” means one should give an in-person apology, attempts to fix the harm, and request forgiveness.  Doing so provides an intentional gesture of goodwill.

The act of amends is not always “possible” though.  A recovering person may cause further damage to the affected person if they contact them.

As such, you will have to assess if the specific relationship can put others in jeopardy.  This can be mentally, physically, socially, or even legally if a crime was involved.

If further harm is likely to be caused, it’d be wise to accept amends cannot be made.  Indirect amends can be tried in some cases if in-person contact is too much of a risk.

However, even indirect contact such as a letter may still not guarantee forgiveness.

Acceptance practiced in earlier steps will help the recovering person let go of what they cannot control.  By living in the world as is, we move towards healthier beliefs.

“Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

Step 10

Step 10 - Perseverance:

Step Ten reinforces the moral inventory by maintaining one’s ethical compass.

The Fourth Step saw recovering persons take stock of past disease-triggering behavior.  The Tenth aims to log current and future behaviors for more progress.

If one continues to view addiction as a disease, one can continue to minimize the risk of agitating it.  As such, progress does not mean one is cured or in-control of disease.

“Admitting” imperfect moments reduces the illusion of control and the cycle of guilt.

Further, this type of admission to an external force keeps the affected accountable.  Their higher Power and the fellowship of 12 Steps keep people focused on recovery.

“Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”

Step 11

Step 11 - Spirituality:

Step Eleven continues the trend of talking and listening to a higher Power.

These concepts are established in the following terms:

  • “Prayer”
  • “Meditation”
  • “Conscious contact”

As stated previously, spiritual language is purely for individuals to define.

However, it helps to think of “prayer” as talking, and “meditation” as listening.

“Conscious contact” with a higher Power simply means talking and listening with intention.  With the goal of growth in mind, one must use talking, listening, and reflection as tools.

Being humble is the key to progress here. Intentional listening requires humility.  The same applies to asking for help, or sharing aspects of guilt, burden, and gratitude.

“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.”

Step 12

Step 12 - Service:

Step Twelve aims to reinforce one’s internal lessons while externally guiding others.

These two themes capture the message:

  • “Carry this message to alcoholics”
  • “Practice these principles in all our affairs”

Accountability, purpose, and fellowship are the glue of the 12 Step recovery program.

After encountering each step, a recovering person has built a new lifestyle with these concepts at the core.  This insight guides new members and inspires them to recover.

Fellowship encourages sober people to “carry this message” to addicted individuals.

Meanwhile, those in sobriety are held accountable by the fellowship to minimize the harm of their life-long disease.  One must “practice these principles in all” affairs.

Imperfection is the only guarantee, so some may relapse and revisit previous steps.  But, these steps aim to provide stability with practice, and support in challenges.

“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.”


By now, you should have a better awareness of how the 12 steps of recovery work.

To recap, you now know:

  • The 12 Step program is the framework for many addiction support groups.
  • The 12 Steps are not religious today, despite using the language of its religious origins.
  • Each of the Twelve Steps focuses on unique aspects.  These can be accountability, behavioral control, fellowship, and life purpose.
  • The 12 Steps of recovery are free and open to anyone with a serious commitment to recovery.

The 12 Steps are a proven framework.  But they are not an all-encompassing addiction solution.  In fact, no such thing exists today.

Instead, the 12 steps are best paired with clinical therapies such as CBT and DBT.  When co occurring disorders are present, Dual Diagnosis is also recommended.

At Next Step Recovery, we also see great results with yoga, meditation, Adventure Therapy, Equine-Assisted Therapy, and even Brazilian Jiu Jitsu!

In the end, everyone has a unique recovery journey.

Still, follow the path that others have taken and you’re likely to end up in the same place.  Better yet, take that journey with other like-minded people who want to reach sustainable sobriety too.

That’s the power of the 12 Steps for Drugs and Alcohol.

The 12 Steps of Addiction Recovery - AA, NA, Sex Addiction, & More

Know someone who could benefit from a proven pathway to lasting sobriety? Please like and share this post with them.  Or, leave your questions or comments about the twelve steps below! We’re always looking for ways to keep the conversation about recovery going.  Education is one of the most powerful tools we have to fight addiction.

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