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What Does Working the 12-Steps Really Mean?

Although working the 12 steps is not the only way, it is definitely the most commonly followed path to sobriety. The 12-Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous has been around since 1935 making their continued use even more impressive. Even after decades of medical advances and the development of new therapies, the 12-steps remain the de facto choice for sustaining sobriety. First time exposure to the steps usually happens at some point during addiction treatment. Most treatment centers will include either in house 12-step meetings (Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, usually), or transportation to outside meetings as part of their program.

Early on in sobriety is a great time to begin an understanding of these steps as they will be instrumental in keeping you sober beyond treatment. As you begin to hear people in meetings talk about “working” the steps, you may wonder, “What does that even mean?” Simply put, it is working with a fellow addict or alcoholic to better yourself.

The way that the steps are “worked” varies from sponsor to sponsor. There isn’t necessarily a clear-cut way to do them “right”. The main text from which the 12-steps came from, The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, doesn’t even give an exact way in which the steps should be carried out. So, what happens is everyone has a different experience. There may be similarities between sponsors, but ultimately it should be an incredibly personal experience. What follows is a general outline of what to expect from working each step, but by no means an exact representation of what you may experience. Alcoholic’s Anonymous refers to the 12-step program of recovery as a ‘simple program for complex people.’

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol that our lives had become unmanageable.

In step one, you must accept the fact that your addiction is beyond your control. With that admission comes the realization that your way of doing things IS NOT WORKING. Once you realize that, you can be more open to the idea that you need help.

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

Step two is all about hope. Some people dislike the idea of a higher power. But AA isn’t a religious organization. A higher power doesn’t have to be God or any specific interpretation of God. It could be fate, karma, or anything for that matter. What matters is that you find a source of inspiration to help you stay sober.

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

Step three is the first step that requires an action. To sum it up nicely, the Third Step means deciding to get out of your own way.

  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

The big one. This is the step you’ll often hear people fear the most. Step four means it’s time to do some actual work. By acknowledging your faults, you can begin to take steps to correct them. It can take a lot of courage to write down your actions and thoughts. This is why people so often procrastinate on this step.

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

Time to fess up. You’ll essentially be reading your fourth step to your sponsor at this point. Talking to someone else can help alleviate feelings of shame and guilt you may have. When you release yourself from the weight of your past, you allow yourself to move forward.

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

It’s time to let go of all those old behaviors that got you in this mess in the first place! Easier said than done for sure. But this is where it’s time to at least be willing to give these up.

  1. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

This step is very similar to step three but a bit more specific. After the previous steps, it should be easier to realize that we need help to overcome our shortcomings. Humility is important because it shows that we recognize we need the help of our higher power.

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

Time to get that notebook out again. Step eight means literally writing down all the people you may have harmed along the way. In order to continue healing, you need to acknowledge the role you may have had in hurting others. When you become WILLING to repair the damage you have done, you reduce the pain, anger, hurt, and resentment that addiction causes.

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

The companion step to number 8. This is where you actually go down the list and make direct amends to people, plain and simple. This is a difficult, but necessary step. We need to face those we have wronged, take responsibility for the harm we caused, and attempt to make up for that harm in some way. Making amends is more than just apologizing. It means trying to undo the damage.

  1. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

This step means being mindful of our behaviors and attitude in daily living. Staying vigilant makes sure we never slide too far back into our old ways. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are really programs of self-improvement and constantly striving to better yourself.

  1. 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.

This step is one to be practiced on a daily basis. Whatever your higher power might be, a daily attempt at connecting and remaining connected is what it’s all about. Prayer and meditation are making a conscious effort at improving your understanding of the path you Higher Power has for us.

  1. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs

This step is all about being selfless and serving. At step 12 its time to bring another fellow alcoholic or addict through the steps. Reaching out to someone who may be suffering is just as important for maintaining your own sobriety, as it is for those who need help.



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