Understanding 12-step recovery

For millions of people, 12-step recovery has proven to offer the best odds at living free from addictive behaviours such as drinking, drug use, gambling, spending and obsessive under or overeating. Carl Yung was into it. He input into its development. But how understood is it? 



The 12-steps can feel pretty wordy (guffy even). It uses words like ‘higher power’ and ‘God’ (but it's not a religious programme). And the international greeting of some of these fellowships is a hug (no one has to hug). All of that can put people off.

Working through the steps needs the support of 12-step self-help groups and the guidance of a mentor (a sponsor) who has experience of the process. But an understanding of the core principles can be illuminating to anyone looking to growthfully respond to life situations, and move away from the more destructive ones. Let’s take a look.

Step one

In simple terms: We’ve got a problem.

In full: We admitted that we were powerless over addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.

In principle: The first step is a beginning, the start of taking action. It’s an admission of what has really been going on in our lives. Some people’s health, relationships, work, finances, legal situation and other areas, have been so obviously affected by their ineffective approach to life, that it’s clear to them that they have an issue. Others may deny that they have a problem at all, putting their situation down to solely external reasons.

Step one involves an honest look at how our own damaging responses and behaviours have truly impacted on our lives. Being able to own that truth opens up far more effective ways of moving forward.

In sequence: The 1st step in us finding an effective solution to any problem is to get honest. That honesty allows a clearer assessment of how the principles of a 12-step programme can help in Step 2.

Step two

In simple terms: Here’s an effective solution.

In full: We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

In principle: With denial removed in Step one, the second step aims to replace it with hope; that responding to life more effectively is possible and that our stuckness can ease. Stuckness can mean repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

12-step programmes harness the collective experience and knowledge of millions of people living in sustained recovery from damaging responses and behaviours. This is a resource vastly more powerful than the attempts of one person alone. At this point in history, a 12-step structure simply offers the best odds of securing recovery from obsessive and compulsive behaviours.

In sequence: The second step develops the belief that approaching life more effectively is absolutely possible for us all. The decision to take this opportunity is the focus of step three.

Step three

In simple terms: We’ll give this effective solution a go.

In full: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

In principle: Step three takes the truth and hope from steps one and two and puts them into action; making a decision to prioritise recovery and learn more effective ways of living.

The terms ‘higher power’ and ‘God’ appear throughout the steps. 12-step programs are not religious so having a personal understanding of these words is important. ‘GOD’ could be interpreted as ‘Growth Over Destruction’.

The 3rd step develops an ability to see the bigger picture. A perspective protected from self-defeating or self-inflated thinking, where balanced choices can be reached.

In sequence: Step three is a decision to allow the principles of worth and care to influence an approach to life. These principles help the owning of behaviours in step four to be a healing process.

Step four

In simple terms: We review our part in our life.

In full: We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

In principle: Most life problems have taken root long before addiction has, but ultimately the biggest factor influencing how someone’s life will progress, is themselves.

The fourth step identifies underlying issues that addictive behaviours have attempted to change; resentments, feelings, guilt, shame, fear, relationships, secrets, etc.

With understanding and care, identifying these truths means there is no further need to drown or numb them. And very importantly, this fourth step is also about acknowledging personal strengths and assets.

In sequence: In step four, internalised feelings, beliefs and resulting actions are acknowledged and understood. Starting to release them can then begin in the fifth step.

Step five

In simple terms: We share with a mentor, the review of our part in our life.

In full: We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

In principle: Step five begins to set free feelings, behaviours, secrets and beliefs built up over a lifetime. These are often at the core of addictive behaviours.

The fifth step is an open admission. It could just stay as a personal acknowledgement in the previous step, but by sharing this truth with someone else (a sponsor), a number of key benefits can result:

  • Trust - Opening up to someone can be a pivotal step.
  • Perspective - Another outlook helps find a balanced view.
  • Acceptance - Honesty in this step will not lead to rejection.
  • Relief - There’s a chance to let go of unhelpful baggage.

In sequence: In step five a lifetime of feelings can be released by sharing them with someone who has experience of this 12-step process. Their informed perspective can help identify patterns of behaviour that can be explored further in step six.

Step six

In simple terms: We see from our review, behaviours that aren’t helpful.

In full: We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

In principle: Over a lifetime everyone develops different ways to deal with the events and feelings they face. Step 6 identifies the ways that don’t work and have actually created further problems; drinking, using, gambling, binging, starving, lying, blaming, resentment, self-pity, isolation, manipulation, intimidation, etc. But not acting out through these behaviours can be challenging if they have been in place for a long time.

There are real advantages in letting go of defective behaviours. The 6th step focuses on a desire to approach things differently and to believe that change is possible.

In sequence: Step six is about the willingness to respond to how life feels in a more effective way, that willingness is carried forward to a commitment to do so in step seven.

Step seven

In simple terms: We aim to use behaviours that are helpful.

In full: We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

In principle: The steps up to this point have resulted in an honest appraisal of how life has been, how addiction and other destructive behaviours have played a key part in the way things have turned out. The seventh step takes this new awareness and puts it into action.

When someone can see how past behaviours have been damaging, they can also see that doing things differently can now have a growthful effect on their own life, and the lives of those around them.

Life can be challenging, so the commitment to do things differently in the seventh step is approached realistically; it’s about progress not perfection.

In sequence: Step seven encourages people to move forward without repeating the old behaviours that harmed themselves and others. The people affected by these damaging behaviours are acknowledged in step eight.

Step eight

In simple terms: We acknowledge the people we harmed through those past unhelpful behaviours.

In full: We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

In principle: The first seven steps focus on fixing the damage to someone’s own life caused by their addiction and actions. The eighth step starts to bring others into this process of repair.

The thought of saying sorry to someone can be daunting and uncomfortable. So the aim of step eight is to focus on how others have been harmed, not the act of making amends to them (how and if to comes in the next step). Becoming accountable for causing harm can lead to a clearer sense of remorse, releasing shame and guilt.

In sequence: Rushing to put things right with others can have damaging results. The eighth step takes time to own and respect the nature of the harm felt by others, before considering how best to make amends in step nine.

Step nine

In simple terms: We make amends to them, if safe to, acknowledging the nature of the harm.

In full: We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

In principle: Steps one through eight develop honesty, trust, accountability, humility, and willingness to do the next right thing. All valuable principles in preparing for the ninth step. This action step recognises three basic aims:

  • Owning behaviour. Taking responsibility, freeing shame.
  • Repairing damage. To relationships, integrity, trust, etc.
  • Restoring clarity. Clarifying how the harm was caused.

A sponsor's guidance is crucial in step nine as some amends may be impossible to make directly, or unsafe for those involved. There are many ways to make amends indirectly.

In sequence: Step nine is not just about saying sorry. Making amends involves a decision not to repeat the same damaging behaviours, a commitment practised in step 10.

Step 10

In simple terms: We regularly check that we’re heading in a sound direction.

In full: We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

In principle: The insight developed through working the steps can lead to remarkable shifts in the quality of life. The best odds of keeping these rewards are through regular maintenance.

The 10th step is about maintaining the principles of steps four and five, six and seven, eight and nine, in a regular and simple way:

  • Checking and owning feelings, thoughts and behaviours.
  • Being aware of our impact, and up for doing it differently.
  • Acknowledging harm to others, putting it right promptly.

In sequence: The previous steps have focused on understanding and repairing the past, step 10 maintains a connection to the present. The benefits of developing this personal sense of connection are explored further in Step 11.

Step 11

In simple terms: We each explore our individual sense of purposeful connection with life.

In full: 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.

In principle: 12-step programs are not religious. So far in history they’re the most effective way to arrest addictions, working for people all over the word regardless of their beliefs.

The 11th step is an opportunity to develop personal ways to connect with a perspective centred in worth, care, and love (free of shame, humiliation and punishment). Some access this connection through others in recovery, personal or existing faiths, loved ones no longer alive, through a connection with nature; what ever feels right.

In sequence: Step 11 ensures connection to a perspective of solution, even when unable to directly reach the support of others. The importance of reaching out to people new to recovery is emphasised in Step 12.

Step 12

In simple terms: We give freely our experience of this process to people wanting to explore it too.

In full: Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

In principle: When someone finds recovery and invests in the steps the difference in their outlook, appearance, and ability to live life, can be truly astonishing. Their potential has awoken: Anyone can live free from addiction. Anyone.

For those new to the 12 steps, the most credible proof of this fact is to witness the recovery of others. Knowing how it works is valuable, practicing and sharing these skills is key to newcomers learning to find their own recovery. ‘Giving it away’ becomes the best way for those already in recovery to keep what they have; freedom from active addiction.

Long term recovery

There we have it. A simplified(ish) understanding of the 12-steps. So, what the best odds for long-term recovery?

Embracing the following suggestions is likely to increase the odds of anyone successfully addressing their addiction:

  • Attend regular meetings. The more meetings, the more knowledge.
  • Ask for help. Teaching a sound outcome alone is unlikely.
  • Keep an open mind. Initial suggestions can feel unusual.
  • Take action. Be prepared to go to put the leg work in.
  • Learn from other's recovery. This has unequalled value.
  • Find a sponsor. Learn from someone with knowledge of the steps.
  • Make recovery a life priority. Instead of addiction.
  • Talk. Behind most addictions are unaddressed issues.
  • Know that everyone deserves to live addiction-free. Everyone.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Belfast BT1 & Cambridge CB1
Written by Joe Carter, MBACP | BA Hons | Integrative Counselling Dip
Belfast BT1 & Cambridge CB1

Joe Carter. MBACP. Founder and Lead Therapist of The Bulb Booth.

Now a part of the therapeutic community in the North of Ireland, in 2002 Joe began practicing in Bury St Edmunds with one of the UK's leading rehabilitation services of the time; Focus12. Here he developed his specialism in recovery from addiction.

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