What is the 12 Step Program?

Evolution of the 12 Step Program

What is the 12 Step Program? | 12 Step Recovery

In the 1930’s from the ashes of many tolerance movements for alcohol abuse rose the first 12 Step program called Alcoholics Anonymous. During the 1930’s a Christian based movement known as the Oxford Groups were finding success based on the premise that all of the personal problems an individual might face are based on fear and selfishness. The Oxford Groups had comprised a 6 step program;

  1. Admission of personal defeat.
  2. Dependence on God.
  3. A personal Inventory
  4. Confession.
  5. Restitution.
  6. Helping others selflessly.

Sam Shoemaker, Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob Smith and others met at the Oxford Group which eventually got them involved in forming a new Fellowship called the Alcoholics Anonymous program.

During the 1930’s, 40’s and into the 1950’s, the AA program found a following as more individuals were able to find sobriety and experience recovery. Independent groups formed across the country. By the 1950’s problems of unity within the groups were causing issues that threatened the success of AA. Bill Wilson talked to many members and groups and formulated the 12 traditions which brought about the unity that was needed within the groups. The belief is that the 12 step program is the solution for the individual and the 12 traditions are the solution for the group. Combined they make up the basis of the 12 step program and has become a proven program of recovery. New drugs have emerged and are subject to abuse, but new programs have also merged to assist those who seek treatment or recovery from the disease.

The Twelve Steps as Defined by Alcoholics Anonymous

These Steps originated with AA and came from the Oxford 6 step program of recovery. As the process has enjoyed success, other programs have adopted and modified these steps.

What are each of the 12 steps from AA?


  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.

These steps have been amended by other programs but all of them essentially comprise the same process. Typically only the first and twelfth step are amended by each of the programs using these steps. Each step builds upon the changes brought about by the previous steps. When crafting the 12 steps, it was very important to Bill Wilson and the others involved that this process not be specifically about the Christian Ideals from the Oxford Group but more inclusive to all faiths, belief systems and even those without any faith at all. This allowed local AA groups to form and become the centers of a program of recovery for many alcoholics.


During the early 19th century, any available treatment program for those who were addicted to drugs like alcohol and morphine were reserved for the worst cases. In the United States, addicts and other forms of mental illness found treatment in institutions but there was no proven program of help . Some were lobotomized, sterilized, imprisoned and some attempts were made to offer help for drug or alcohol abuse. In Kentucky was the Lexington Center, a federal initiative to learn more about treatment options for drug users. New York had the affluent Charles B. Towns Hospital, and Boston had the Emmanuel movement, a popular Christian based solution with a specific program of recovery.

By the 1950’s, with the success of AA came the Minnesota Model for treatment that employed aspects of AA’s successful program. The vast majority of treatment options available today are based on the Minnesota Model; a self help model utilizing group therapy and behavioral changes. Also available starting in the 1950’s were pharmaceuticals. Antabuse (Disulfiram), Methadone, amphetamines, barbiturates and even LSD were used to treat alcoholism and other addictions. Other 12 Step fellowships have grown in popularity. The number of groups in AA and other programs have increased to offer help. Treatment options have grown. Rehab and detox facilities are better equipped to assist individuals with withdrawal since 12 step fellowships generally do not offer treatment or rehab help. There are residential treatment programs that accept patients on an ongoing basis and these locations operate like any other business with the intention of offering help to those who suffer from drug abuse.

Drug abuse has become epidemic and new drugs are becoming popular all the time. Society was quick to condemn anyone identified as a drug user a hundred years ago but the complexity of society has made this increasingly difficult. Drug use and drug abuse are sometimes subjective depending on the individuals and not everyone wants or needs help. All levels of government are looking for treatment options. Many treatment options and programs have emerged or evolved. Anonymous programs are becoming more popular but due to the anonymous nature of the programs, it is difficult to track success.


Addiction is defined as a brain disease that manifests as obsession with certain ideas and behaviors as well as a compulsion to act upon that obsession. Addiction is often characterized by the use of substances like alcohol or other drugs but can involve behaviors like sex, gambling or shopping. Many of these thoughts and behaviors can be considered normal, but when they start to interfere with the ability to function in everyday life, or become destructive, society will often classify them as addiction. Alcohol is the most commonly used drug and alcoholics are the largest population of those who suffer from addiction, but some find their addictive nature is pervasive in all aspects of their lives. As drug abuse continues, individuals often find new levels of suffering.


Alcohol is the product of fermentation of grains, fruits or vegetables. Alcohol can be distilled to increase the potency of the product. Simple wines and beer might have only two to six percent alcohol content, but distilled products can be as much as 100% pure. Alcohol is a mind altering substance that affects the way we think and behave. Alcoholics can become dependant on the drug and withdrawal can be dangerous, resulting in death. Carefully consulting with professionals is recommended for any alcoholic who wishes to stop drinking. Professionals will often recommend a rehab, treatment or detox facility.

The first twelve step Fellowship was Alcoholics Anonymous and designed to help those individuals who identified as alcoholic. Anyone who has a desire to stop drinking alcohol can join AA. The first step in the twelve step process is to recognize that you are powerless over alcohol and that your life has become unmanageable. The abuse of alcohol can become a problem for any individual, and when they seek help, the most successful model has been the AA program since the 1930’s. Each step in the step model is designed to help alcoholics find a new level of recovery in their treatment of the disease. All 12 step programs follow this model.


For a long time addiction was thought to be an incurable illness or moral failing. Early attempts to assist those who suffered were not always successful and often any success was difficult to duplicate. Many things changed with the development of the 12 step model of recovery by Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930’s. Alcoholics found themselves working together in small groups to help other alcoholics find sobriety. This became a program of recovery for those who suffered from this disease. Groups spread throughout the United States as carrying the message to other alcoholics was part of the program. Growing pains became evident and AA developed the 12 Traditions to help groups remain focused and help prevent some of the problems groups were finding in working with each other and within the group. Most step programs have adopted the 12 Traditions to assist with their common goal of recovery which includes carrying a message to others.

The 12 Step Model Becomes the standard for many programs

Early successes of AA inspired others to try and adapt the program. Most treatment centers utilize aspects of the Minnesota model for addiction treatment which evolved from the ideas used in AA. 80% of all treatment models today incorporate many of the ideas that originated in AA.

  • Mentor’s or Sponsor’s
  • Open and honest communication with others
  • Sharing the solutions and hope found in recovery
  • Commitment to a group
  • The ability to make amends and let go of the past.

Other people tried to adapt AA’s success to other substances including Cocaine Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and Crystal Meth Anonymous. There are many different programs today, addressing many issues like Codependents Anonymous.

Narcotics Anonymous is unique in that they adapted the program to what members believed was the source of the problem, rather than specific substances and has become the second largest 12 step programs in the world. They have adapted the 12 steps to suit their needs and define Step 1 as powerless over addiction.

What does the 12th step mean?

“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.” All 12 step programs are based on the idea that the disease can be treated by the application of spiritual principles learned from the 12 step process. Each step furthers a member along the path to an awakening of their spirit, with the ultimate goal of helping others who suffer from the same disease. The goal of any of these programs is to complete all 12 steps and help others by working in a group.

What is the 12th tradition of AA?

“Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” Anonymity is the condition where something or some idea is without name; the idea or ideas stand on their own. Rather than a collection of individual viewpoints, members strive to come together and present their experiences, strengths and hopes as a fellowship. Unity is their strength and diversity is the goal of any of the 12 step programs. While each of the programs adapt the 12 step process differently, the common goal of any of the Fellowship’s is growth for those who seek help with recovery.


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