What is a 12 Step Program?

A 12 step program normally refers to the recovery process outlined in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, that has been subsequently adopted by a number of other organisations that help people with various addictions and problems.

The book Alcoholics Anonymous was written by the early members of AA, and was intended to be a record of their experience of how they got sober.

Up until the time the book was written, the members who were sober had used a number of different principles in their recovery, most of which were shared by word of mouth.

Part of the intent in the book was to codify these principles into a more formal set of specific ideas and actions that people could take, which was generally agreed to form the basis of most people’s sobriety.

The Value of Experience

As AA grew in size and more people got sober, people who had other addictions and problems began to realise that they were able to use the same principles that were used in Alcoholics Anonymous as a way of freeing themselves from whatever it was they were trying to deal with.

In effect, all they had to do was to swap the word alcohol with something else, such as drugs, gambling, food etc.

New fellowships  grew up such as Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous. All these organisations used the basic principles of the AA 12 step program, but adapted it to their own needs.

12-Step Principles

There are a number of basic principles behind  all 12 step programs, that form the basis of most people’s recovery.

These in essence include the acceptance of being powerless over the addiction, a moral inventory, becoming willing to make restitution for harm done and developing a sense of God in their life, however they may come to understand that.

Powerless Not Helpless

Some people criticise 12-step programs because they see the idea of powerlessness almost as a form of weakness.

This actually misses the point that people who admit they are powerless to the addiction do so because they actually are, not out of any issue related to their self-esteem or identity.

Acknowledging powerlessness over something is simply an acknowledgement of reality. If someone is not powerless over alcohol or drugs or anything else then they are not powerless over  it, period.

If they are powerless over alcohol or anything else than they are powerless over it, period

In fact acknowledging that one is powerless over something is a source of strength not weakness.

It means that one can focus one’s energies on things that you do have control over, rather than focusing them on things that you do not have control over, and draining your whole sense of spirit as a result.

A Moral Inventory

Whilst this is a somewhat awkward phrase, it is really about developing a sense of self awareness, and being willing to look at oneself through the eyes of various emotional drives, such as resentment or anger, fear, anxiety etc.

This can sometimes seem a bit negative, and people often talk about developing both positive and negative traits in terms of inventory.

In fact thinking about both positive and negative aspects of emotions tend to blur the reality of anyone’s emotional life.

Emotions are of themselves neutral in that sense, seeing them as either positive or negative is in fact a judgement.

Any type of moral inventory, or developing of self-awareness can only be really effective when there is no judgement itself, which can take a significant amount of time for most of us, but does fit to the cycle of an inventory being a process.

As with any process, like learning to ride a bike or drive a car, we learn by doing, and in doing we develop a degree of inner stability that we quickly build on each time we repeat the process.

Developing self awareness can be done in many different ways, but the emphasis on it in 12 step programs tends to suggest that it is both a historical and current need. This is why it can sometimes seem a bit overwhelming to people, as it seems to suggest an almost relentless focus on oneself.

Whilst there is some truth in this, it is also true to say that without self-awareness it is almost impossible to really move forward, and the real sense of freedom that 12 step programs bring is inherently linked to an internal sense of being at peace with yourself, which is to a large part conditional on self acceptance and self-awareness.

Making Restitution

For many people this is often the most difficult part of any 12-step program. It often means going back to people who you would rather forget, and would often rather forget you as well !

This is also an unconditional acceptance of one’s own reality, and can certainly seem fairly daunting.

The key to making restitution for harms done, is in many ways to keep the focus on harm.

This process is not meant to be a way by which someone auto corrects their whole life as if it hadn’t happened, or had happened in a different way.

It is about trying to make right harm you have done to other people. Focusing on the harm actually makes the whole process possible, although it can obviously take time for this to materialise.

Once it does, there is a quite natural and obvious sense of need to try and put it right, however daunting this may seem.

There comes a sense of naturalness about wanting to make peace both internally and externally, and a realisation that trying to put right whatever harm was done is an integral part of that process.

The God Question

Perhaps more than any other, the God Question has been at the heart of AA since it started, and is often seen as both the solution and the problem as to why people struggle with sobriety, and the 12-step program as a whole.

The God question tends to attract fundamentalists on both sides, and any fundamentalism turns to distort the reality of any issue.

This is certainly true both in the reality of  AA meetings, and the level of defensiveness that tends to come up in individuals whenever this issue is raised.

This is really sad in many ways, largely because it eats away at the real freedom people can experience, which is the freedom to be themselves, and to interpret the whole God question in whatever way they feel most appropriate to their lives.

The essence of AA, and the reason the book was written, was  and is about experience. The book was intended as a body of experience that people could use in anyway that they found helpful or not.

This is inherently true of all 12 step programs, whatever the problem or addiction. 12 step programs have never been about ideologies or belief systems, although individuals and groups will sometimes make them so.

Whilst there are many sides to the discussion about 12 step programs, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the ultimate goal is freedom, both internal and external, and anything that leads to that should be encouraged, and anything that takes away from that should be discouraged.


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