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A Guide to AA’s 12 Steps of Recovery – What Are They? | CCFA

A Guide to AA’s 12 Steps of Recovery – What Are They? | CCFA
Written by Seth Fletcher on July 19, 2023
Medical editor Dr. Jonathan Siegel
Last update: February 26, 2024

What are the 12 Steps of AA? Take a look at our guide and learn everything you need to know about the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and their purpose.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has become popular worldwide for its devotion to helping people recover from alcohol addiction and find lasting sobriety. Founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Robert Smith, AA provides a platform, both in-person and virtual - for people to come together to share experiences, recover from compulsive alcohol use, and live sober lives. 
AA employs the now famous 12 steps to recovery, which serve as a spiritual springboard for recovery from alcoholism and its effects, as well as a guide towards a more positive way of living. They represent a course of action for dealing with problems related to alcohol abuse and addiction. The original 12 steps have evolved to meet the changing science and psychology of addiction recovery, even though the premise remains unchanged. The 12 steps have also formed the guiding principles for recovery programs for other addictions. Learn about AA’s 12 steps and how they help addicts recover from their addiction.

Key Takeaways

  • The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are a set of guiding principles designed to help addicts overcome alcoholism.
  • The steps are grounded in the belief that alcoholism is a disease of the mind, body, and spirit, and that connection with a Higher Power (of one’s own, personal understanding) Higher Power is a fundamental foundation for recovery.
  • These steps have evolved over the years to meet changing demands of science and psychology. 
  • The 12-step program works best in addition to other addiction treatment options. 
  • The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous have also formed the guiding principles for recovery from other types of substance abuse. 

What are the 12 Steps of AA?

The 12 steps of AA guide members towards taking action to tackle alcoholism and related problems. Each step revolves around a word, some of which recognize something spiritual or a Higher Power that guides the addict on the path to sobriety. These steps are: 

Step 1 – Honesty

We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives have become unmanageable. 

Addicts tend to spend a lot of time denying that they have a problem or believing they can quit whenever they want. The first step towards lasting addiction recovery is admitting you have a problem and are powerless to help yourself.

Step 2 – Hope

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

The second step brings a spiritual slant to addiction recovery. Members have to find faith in a Higher Power or something greater than themselves. You get to define who or what that power is and believe it can help you heal and recover even if you experience setbacks.

Step 3 – Faith

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

The third step encourages members to let go of their egos and put themselves at the mercy of their defined Higher Power. Doing this helps them to rely on something or someone greater than themselves to help them navigate the path to sobriety. 

Step 4 – Courage

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Step four allows members to perform an honest character and behaviour evaluation, so they can devise strategies to overcome defects that may have contributed to their alcoholism. A personal appraisal takes courage, as members may have to confront some painful and uncomfortable truths about themselves.

Step 5 – Integrity

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

The individual will have to speak openly about their defects to God, themselves, and another human being. Step 5 seeks to help members grow out of the guilt and shame of addiction so that they can begin to live more honestly.

Step 6 – Willingness

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

Step 6 arises from the belief that one cannot get rid of bad habits that cause addiction without some assistance from a Higher Power. The individual must also be willing to let those defects go without looking back. 

Step 7 – Humility

Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Step 7 teaches members to be humble, admit their shortcomings and accept that even their best is not enough to help them overcome addiction. Humility helps members realize that while they are responsible for exercising their free will to make responsible choices, relying humbly on a Higher Power is also a critical component to recovery.  Step 7 is about aligning one’s own will with that of one’s own Higher Power.  By going to meetings and hearing other peoples’ stories and by honestly trying to connect with one’s own Higher Power, one begins to open channels of intuition that were previously blocked by addiction.  Step 7 is reaching to a Higher Power for help to restrain oneself from using one's own will for selfish purposes.

Step 8 – Love

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

Step 8 requires members to write down the name of everyone who has been hurt by the addiction and be willing to make amends. This step is one of the most challenging as you have to come to terms with how much you’ve hurt people and take responsibility for your actions.

Step 9 – Responsibility

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

Step 9 builds on the previous step and involves going to any length to make amends for past mistakes. The individual must be willing to work through the discomfort of opening up to those you’ve hurt with your addiction and trying to repair damaged relationships. 

Step 10 – Discipline

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

Addiction recovery is a process, and step 10 helps you come to a point where you can control your actions at every moment. The idea behind this step is that you cultivate the discipline to maintain your progress for the rest of your life.

Step 11 – Spiritual Awareness

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.

Step 11 encourages members to remain in touch with a Higher Power (by prayer and meditation), paying attention to inspiration or promptings as a guide for navigating their recovery journey.

Step 12 – Service

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.

After completing the first 11 steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous program successfully, members are expected to guide other recovering addicts with their experience. Step 12 also involves practising the AA principles in every aspect of your life. 
If you or a loved one is dealing with alcohol addiction, the Canadian Centre for Addiction offers sophisticated treatment programs and support groups in a serene environment that inspires lasting change. Call 1-855-499-9446 today to understand your addiction treatment options and learn the best coping strategies to overcome your addiction.

The Purpose of the 12 Steps of AA

The purpose of the 12 steps of AA is to offer addicts a framework for growth and personal transformation and to equip them with skills for living addiction-free lives. The 12 steps outline a clear path to progress by offering a complete shift in mental, emotional, and spiritual perception. At the end of the program, members should have recovered from compulsive alcohol use and restored some order to their lives. This program also provides a supportive social network and fosters bonding among members. 

How Do The 12 Steps Work and Why?

The 12-step programs have proven to be effective because they encourage members to take an honest look at their lives to allow them to gain clarity on why they have become addicts. It works by helping them recognize their powerlessness and deconstructing their egos. Once this recognition sets in, they can start to take steps to amend their ways. 
The 12 steps programs work because they encourage participants to be honest, humble, courageous, compassionate, self-forgiving, and disciplined as they embark on their personal and spiritual growth journey. 

How Long Do They Take to Work?

How long it takes for the AA’s twelve steps to work depends primarily on the individual. There is no hard and fast rule to the program, and some people may spend more time on some steps than others. The steps are designed to be followed sequentially, but this isn’t necessarily compulsory. Some others may need a break between steps, while others never stop working on the steps as they integrate them into their daily lives.

12 Steps of AA and Religion

The twelve steps of AA were inspired by religious and spiritual ideals, but it is not a religious program. A Higher Power is referenced throughout the 12 steps, but it’s often followed by “as we understood Him,” allowing for a broader range of beliefs and perspectives. So, you don’t have to be religious at all to benefit from the 12-step program. 
These principles are best considered spiritual than religious as they focus on concepts such as faith, honesty, humility, courage, acceptance, repentance, and forgiveness. Whether a person believes that the Higher Power is God, karma, science, the universe, humanity, nature, or humanity, they’ll find a place in their 12-step program.

Benefits and Drawbacks of the 12 Steps of AA

AA’s 12-step program offers several advantages and sobriety benefits. There are also some drawbacks to consider before deciding to join a 12-step program. 


  • 12-step programs offer a free resource for communities to address addiction and related problems.
  • 12-step programs are community-based and readily available, making them accessible to everyone who needs them.
  • They empower individuals to take responsibility for their addiction and recovery.
  • 12-step programs provide structure and offer clear goals for recovery.
  • They offer a strong sense of support and accountability, making the recovery journey easier.
  • 12-step programs emphasize the importance of spiritual help and support on the recovery journey.


  • A 12-step program does not offer medical or clinical treatment, so it may not be the most appropriate option for individuals with co-occurring mental health disorders.
  • They are spiritual and faith-based, which may be a barrier to people who struggle to believe in a greater or Higher Power. But this belief need not be a barrier for those willing to have a spiritual experience, as long as the person is honest and willing to work the 12 steps.
  • 12-step programs are organized and led by peer support and may not be suitable for addicts who need professional intervention.
  • The emphasis on ‘powerlessness’ may not sit well with some individuals.  However, the longer one remains in the rooms of AA, one gets a deeper appreciation for the nuances of the meaning of `powerlessness’.
  • 12-step programs are held in public places and offer little privacy. Members may also have to deal with the stigma that comes from the wrong perception that the program is only for people who have hit rock bottom. There is a saying in 12-step programs that one does not need to get off the elevator at the ground floor.  One can step off earlier.

Are They Effective?

The 12-step program of AA can effectively aid people on their journey to addiction recovery. This program went on for decades without scientific backing, but available research currently supports the effectiveness of this approach to alcohol addiction treatment. 12-step programs not only help people achieve sobriety, but they also serve as valuable support sources for life if required. Joining a 12-step program consistently produces better recovery outcomes, especially if combined with other treatment options. 

12 Steps of AA Alternatives

Some other mutual support groups help people trying to recover from drug and alcohol use. Some alternatives to AA’s 12 steps include:

SMART Recovery

Smart Management and Recovery Training focuses on empowering individuals to sustain recovery. Unlike AA, it doesn’t emphasize powerlessness but encourages members to see addiction as a habit they can learn to control. It employs cognitive behavioural methods to help members deal with thoughts that fuel addiction while building the motivation and resilience needed to develop healthy habits.


LifeRing is a secular group of peers that help members focus on abstaining from alcohol and other addictive substances.

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS)

Secular Organizations for Sobriety is a program that helps people overcome addiction by getting them to focus on their values and integrity rather than look to a Higher Power. SOS encourages members to prioritize their recovery and to do whatever is required to remain sober.

Moderation Management (MM)

Moderation Management is not based on abstinence. Rather it focuses on helping members learn how to moderate and control problem drinking behaviours. 

Professional Intervention

Professional intervention will often be required to help an individual recover from addiction. 12-step programs are usually more effective when combined with professional addiction treatment. Multiple addiction treatment options are available, and you may need to speak with an expert to know which is best for you or a loved one. 
The Canadian Centre for Addictions offers professional addiction treatment in our luxury facilities in Ontario. Our team of experts helps people understand their addictions and the healthier coping strategies available by engaging them in one-on-one counselling with certified counsellors, psychiatrists, and mental health professionals.

Brief History of the 12 Steps

The 12 Steps program was founded in 1935 when Bill Wilson, a struggling alcoholic, sought help from a Christian organization – the Oxford Group. Wilson met Robert Smith, a surgeon who also suffered from alcoholism, at an Oxford Group meeting. Wilson and Smith came to form a close friendship and found out that the group’s treatment of sin as a disease resonated with their struggles with alcohol. 
Both men supported each other to stay sober, and Wilson was the first to kick his alcoholism. He attributed his success to working with other alcoholics and his meetings with Smith. They devised the idea for a group they would call Alcoholics Anonymous drawing from the spiritual principles learned from their Oxford Group meetings. The group was founded on June 10, 1935, the day Bill Wilson had his last drink. In 1939, Bill Wilson and Robert Smith published AA’s Big Book, which would become the governing guideline for AA groups worldwide. The message and success of AA spread, and many people worldwide have found success in recovery using these principles. 

Are They the Same as the 12 Traditions?

While the 12 steps are designed to help individuals find their way toward sobriety, the 12 traditions focus on AA and its members as a body. The 12 traditions are guidelines governing the direction and operating procedures of AA fellowships worldwide. The 12 traditions of AA are:

  • Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA
  • For our group purpose, there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern. 
  • The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
  • Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups of AA worldwide.
  • Each group has but one primary purpose – to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  • An AA group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise lest problems of money, property, and prestige drive us from our primary purpose.
  • Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centres may employ special workers.
  • AA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve. 
  • Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues, hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
  • Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need to maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
  • Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before traditions.


Alcoholics Anonymous 12 steps have been used for a long time and have helped many people overcome alcohol addiction. In many cases, they are employed as an adjunct to other forms of therapy. There is a promise in the Big Book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous that by working the 12 steps, one may finda new freedom and a new happiness’.   Remember that only one of the 12 steps specifically refers to the word `alcohol’.   The other 12 steps are about building a more meaningful and responsible connection with others, with ourselves, and with a Higher Power of our own understanding.   
If the ideals and goals of 12-step programs appeal to you, it may be what you or a loved one needs to get over the line as you try to beat alcoholism and achieve lasting sobriety. 


What is the 12-step call list?

The 12-step call list is a collection of information about men and women willing to respond to people who call AA for help at any time. These people believe it’s important to give back what they’ve freely received and, by doing so, fulfill the 12th step of their own program.

Is the Big Book the 12 steps?

The Big Book outlines the 12 steps and 12 traditions that form the basis of AA. It also contains stories of people who have become sober using the steps and provides information and support methods for alcoholics and their loved ones.

Can you go to AA and not speak?

Yes, you can go to an AA meeting and choose not to speak.  However, you may discover that it’s helpful to share at some point. Sharing your experiences and the problems you encounter opens you up to helpful suggestions and perspectives. Your speaking also will help others, although you may not know who or what you have said that can assist someone to be happier or even change their life.

Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.


Dr. Jonathan Siegel earned his doctoral degree in counselling psychology from the University of Toronto in 1986. He is a registered psychologist in private practice and has 30 years of experience conducting both assessments and counselling with a diverse group of individuals presenting with a broad range of psychological adjustment difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, and addictions.

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