An Introduction to the 12 Steps

Anonymous Author


Whether you are an addict or not; an addict in recovery, an addict in denial or the son, daughter or partner of an addict, it is only a matter of time before you will be presented with a client that is connected to a 12 step fellowship, therefore I am writing this short introductory article to help shine light on the often misunderstood and shadowy world of recovery.

Most of you will be acquainted with the founding fellowship, Alcoholics Anonymous, but perhaps not so familiar with the other 300 different groups targeting issues such as food addiction, love addiction, gambling addiction, addiction to shopping, social phobias, smoking, co-dependency and so on. In the UK alone there are over 3400 meetings a week for Alcoholics and over 6000 including the other types of fellowship group, all following the same framework.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the first twelve-step fellowship, was founded in Akron, USA on August 11, 1938 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, known within AA as “Bill W.” and “Dr. Bob”. They established the tradition within the “anonymous” twelve-step programs of using only first names “at the level of press, radio and film.

Bill W. founder of AA

Bill W. founder of AA

The Process

Once a newcomer has familiarised themselves with a meeting, they are encouraged to seek out a sponsor who will guide them through the 12 steps and share the wisdom of their own experiences. A sponsor is someone that is achieving abstinence themselves, has completed the 12 steps incorporating them into their daily life and importantly has their own sponsor for guidance. The sponsor/sponsee relationship is unique to the individuals but typically the sponsor will guide their sponsee through the steps over a period of time. Daily/weekly phone calls and texts, face to face meetings are all common practice, but once again, the container will be determined by the two individuals. Each step has a series of questions to work through until the message has been truly grasped. Some fellows might take 3 weeks to complete the steps whereas some others might take 3 years. It is very common for the steps to be repeated as and when needed.


The Steps (worded for Alcoholics Anonymous):

  1.  Step One – We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-that our lives had become unmanageable. After years of denial, the first step in recovery is to admit that you have a problem. The lesson inherent in this step is Honesty
  2.  Step Two – We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. This step offers a person the hope and faith needed to return to a healthy life. A power greater than ourselves can be God or anything in which the participant believes. The lesson here is Faith
  3. Step Three – We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. The spirituality and religious beliefs that help a person feel comfortable and accepted are encouraged. The lesson of this step is Surrender
  4.  Step Four –We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. This is an admission of past and present faults so the person can try to fix them. The lesson of this step is Soul Searching
  5.  Step Five – We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Knowing what a person has done wrong and then admitting it to the group is important. The lesson of this step is Integrity
  6.  Step Six – We Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Participants let go and accept the fact that it is time to change. The lesson of this stage is of Acceptance
  7.  Step Seven – We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. The spirituality of AA focuses on healing, prayer, mediation, hope and faith. The lesson here is of Humility.
  8. Step Eight – We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. This is focused on planning and accepting the wrongs in their life, not so much actually completing the task of making amends. The lesson here is of Willingness
  9.  Step Nine – We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Apologizing to some of those harmed will make some relationships better and for others, it can make a situation worse. The lesson here is of Forgiveness
  10. Step Ten – We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it. The importance of admitting when a person is wrong, as with a relapse into addiction, is important to the success of recovery. This lesson is about Maintenance
  11. Step Eleven – We 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. Quiet time to reflect on the day, what went wrong and what needs improvement helps a person in recovery. The lesson here is about Making Contact
  12. Step Twelve – 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. Giving back to the community that has helped a person in their recovery is how the program works. This final lesson is of the value of Service

Further Interest for Pyschotherapists

Recovery is holistic and sought in several areas, which may include the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
Despite the very clear spiritual underpinnings of the 12 step programme, it can also be seen as a very behaviorally orientated process, with links to CBT methodology that sees the addict working towards thinking differently, acting differently, and actually taking personal responsibility for one’s decisions. Once the addict has been guided through the steps with their sponsor, they will be encouraged to give back to the fellowship in the way of sponsoring newcomers and thus the message is spread.

The enormous impact that Carl Jung had on the fellowship is less commonly known. If it were not for Carl Jung treating a patient for alcoholism and that patient conveying Jung’s thoughts, it is debatable whether 12 step programmes would exist today. Carl Jung noted in a letter to co-founder Bill Wilson, “You see, alcohol in Latin is spiritus and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as the most depraving poison.  The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”   In other words, the highest form of religious experience counters the most depraving poison – high spirit against low spirit”. Jung recognized that the key motivating factor in the beginning of an addiction is the seeking of spirit and that alcoholism is a misdirected attempt at what is essentially a healthy drive towards individuation.

Both your work with your client and the work of the 12 steps are often intertwined but this will not be so clear to you without a basic grounding, therefore, to conclude, I invite you all to explore the 12 steps fellowships further and become acquainted with the message that it carries to many of your future and perhaps currents clients.

Carl Jung's letter to Bill WIlson

Carl Jung’s letter to Bill WIlson

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