The 12 Step Programme – What it is and what it isn’t

Origins of the Programme

The 12 Step programme is approximately 90 years old and its origin stemmed from the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous in America. It has subsequently gone on to be used for all forms of addictive behaviour, such as cocaine, heroin, gambling, eating, sex. The reason that it is now used by so many other organisations and support groups is that very simply the process and principles work and that over the years it has helped millions of people get well.

If you go to a residential rehab centre, such as The Haynes Clinic, part of your daily programme will be to attend 12 Step support groups along with others in treatment with you.  This is really positive as you will not be on your own but with people also experiencing a support group for the first time. Also, whilst in treatment you will get an understanding of the Steps and have completed written work on your understanding and their meaning and this will give you a huge advantage and a willingness to continue attending and engage within the group process. 

Misunderstanding the Programme

However, one of the traits of someone trying to show that they don’t need inpatient treatment and that they can cut down their alcohol addiction, gambling addiction or drug addiction by their own actions may be to attend a 12 Step support group as part of showing their family that they can sort out the problem themselves.  This pretty much leads to people saying that the 12 Steps are not for me, it’s a religious programme, it’s a cult, as they have no understanding of what they are attending, and barriers immediately come up and an immediate reluctance to continue attending. 

We need to remember that the steps were written in the time of prohibition in America and though the wording is old fashioned, no one has updated the original as the concept is not broken so it doesn’t need fixing. We just need more of an open mind and a willingness to change our thinking and behaviour and understand that we need to adopt a way of living that incorporates asking others for help.

Whilst the wording hasn’t been changed, for the purpose of this article I will simplify each Step so the reader can possibly get a clearer understanding

Overview of the 12 Step Programme


Step One

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

The first word of the first step is significant as it refers to “we” in Recovery. This is so important as we tend  to deny the extent of our problem. Therefore to make changes “we” need to have admitted and accepted that we have a problem in the first place. The word alcohol can be changed to whatever is our addiction, be it cocaine, heroin, gambling, sex, eating.  This Step also lets us look at how our addictive behaviour has led to spiralling problems in our life.  This Step is a thinking Step and is so very important as we need to accept that we need to make changes in our thinking and behaviour in order to get a life free from our drug of choice.

Step Two

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

This is also a thinking Step.  This is about realising and accepting that I can not undertake this journey without help.  A Power greater is simple mathematics as one plus one makes two. Simply me plus another, but not just any other but someone who is in Recovery and understands where I am could help restore manageability back in to my life.

Step Three

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

This is the action Step and very basically it is simply allowing the person or people we have identified in Step Two to actually help us. So it is very important that we can communicate with who we have identified and that we can actually get a response back from them. God does not have to be interpreted as a religious being, it could be Good Orderly Direction or a Group of Drunks or Group of Drug Addicts.  This is not a religious programme or we would just go to our place of religion on a Sunday. I can assure you that we have seen people both of a religious faith and no faith in treatment. Letting someone else help us with our problem is major step and requires humility.

Step Four

“ Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves “

This is basically sitting down and writing out a full life history. This should acknowledge our personal faults and how our behaviour and actions have impacted others and to detail how our use of our alcohol addiction or drug addiction has had an impact on our moral code. Effectively mapping a downward trend with our addictive behaviour.  This will obviously be done in Recovery and should produce a wide range of emotions from guilt, shame, sadness, anger and remorse.

Step Five

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

Then having written a full and honest life history it is then the willingness to  read it out and share that journey with someone else.  This can also be with your counsellor while in treatment at Haynes. This exercise is a further breakdown of your denial of your problem and the realisation of the extent of the mental damage that your alcohol addiction or drug addiction has caused to not just yourself but to others. This can be very powerful

Step Six

“We’re entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”

We are willing to continue to make changes, on a daily basis, to our thinking and behaviour. The understanding that this is a continuing process taken a day at a time

Step Seven

“Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings”

Being able to acknowledge our shortcomings, and a continuing willingness to let go of our old behaviour. And asking for help in making the changes that we need to make from others in Recovery at our support group.   

Step Eight

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

Making a very honest list of the people that we have harmed both mentally and emotionally and even possibly physically. The people we had blamed for our actions. Dropping all barriers to find the humility to be prepared to genuinely apologise to them.

Step Nine

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

It may not be possible to say sorry to someone, they may have passed away or continue to not want to talk to us.  It is important to accept that just because we are ready to say sorry, others may not be ready to accept our apology. However, we should try and make amends to those that will accept our apology. The reason this is further down the Steps is that those close to us had continually heard us utter the word sorry before we had gone in to rehab treatment and it had been meaningless.  Now people are seeing a change in our behaviour, and should not be dismissive of our apologies.

Step 10

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

Be aware that this 12 Step programme has no fixed end date.  We should continue daily to be aware of our behaviour and how it may be affecting others that we meet and our family and friends. Continuing to accept that we may not always be right and acknowledge that others will see us in a different light than we see ourselves.

Step Eleven

“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. “

Seeking help from others and not reverting back to “doing it my way”. Maintaining a faith that the 12 Step programme works and continuing to work it. Its like brushing your teeth, it becomes second nature

Step Twelve

“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.”

Working these Steps will lead to a positive change in our behaviour and our thinking. It is with this gratitude that we then help others through the stages of also making change and being there to also mentally support them.

In the ordered sequence of the 12 steps, the next fits seamlessly together like a jigsaw. As we grow in our Recovery, the more we gain an understanding of how the steps are linked to a change in our behaviour and thinking , with the help of others.  It all starts at the first Step and our breakdown of our denial.