How Do 12-Step Programs Work?

Even though 12-step programs have been used for decades to help people recover from addiction, many people remain curious about how the programs work. The basic premise of the 12 steps is that people can help one another achieve and maintain abstinence from addictive substances. But in order for that to happen, people grappling with addiction must surrender to a higher power. That higher power can be God, reality, love, nature, or anything else that’s bigger than themselves. From there, individuals gain insight into their lives and work towards recovery by exploring 12 distinct steps.

What Are The 12 Steps?

The 12 steps were originally created in the 1930s by two people struggling with alcoholism, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, to help other people recover from alcoholism. The goal of the steps, which were Christian-focused, was to establish a mindset and foundation for life that would allow individuals to overcome alcohol abuse. Since then, the 12 steps have become less associated with any specific religion. Individuals of all belief systems grappling with any addiction can benefit from the 12 steps. Though the original 12 steps have been adapted over time, the premise of each step remains the same.

The 12 steps and the principles behind them are:

1. Honesty. Denial is a common part of addiction, but true recovery can begin the moment an individual gets honest about their situation. This includes accepting that they have lost control over their lives and admitting that they have become powerless to their substance of choice.

2. Hope. Individuals must believe that they can recover and overcome their current reality. They must believe that a power greater than themselves can help them recover.

3. Surrender. People in recovery must also recognize that they can’t recover on their own. They need the help of a higher power, and they must be willing to surrender their lives to that higher power.

4. Soul-searching. In order to recover, individuals must take a personal inventory of their lives. This often looks like identifying their problems and recognizing how their behavior affected themselves and others around them.

5. Integrity. As individuals reflect, they must do so with integrity. This means that part of their healing includes admitting their wrongdoing to themselves, a higher power, and others.

6. Acceptance. Although challenging, individuals have to accept their flaws exactly as they are and be willing to let them go.

7. Humility. This step requires embracing humility and asking a power outside of themselves to help them accomplish what they cannot do on their own.

8. Willingness. Individuals must be willing to make a list of the people they’ve harmed and make amends with them if possible.

9. Make amends. Individuals must actually make amends as they can. Forgiving others and receiving forgiveness is a great way to heal relationships.

10. Continued inventory. Individuals must continue to take personal inventory of their lives and quickly admit when they’re wrong.

11. Growth. This step is about moving toward the future. At this point, individuals should start to find greater plans and purposes for their lives.

12. Giving Back. Individuals should aim to help others. This can look like helping others understand the 12 steps, volunteering, or mentoring someone starting their recovery journey.

How The 12 Steps Helps Addiction Recovery

Individuals seriously looking to recover from addiction have to be honest with themselves and others. They also have to take ownership of their actions and work to create intentional change. 12-step programs can do this by:

  • Helping people overcome denial. Most people struggling with addiction also live in denial. The first step in 12-step programs is honesty. By taking a long, hard look at themselves, individuals can come face to face with reality, which can help them start to heal.
  • Helping them understand how addiction affects themselves and others. 12-step programs also help people recognize the impact of their actions on both themselves and others, which can be instrumental in creating change. When individuals are under the influence of addictive substances, they rarely see how their actions hurt others. This means they often have no desire to change. In addition to honesty, the 12 steps encourage humility and a willingness to see the truth and make amends. As individuals work through the 12 steps, they realize that their actions have negatively affected others. That realization helps them to take ownership of their actions and motivates them to work toward hurting others less.
  • Encouraging them to reflect on their past actions. Most people struggling with addiction don’t take the time to think about anything besides their substance of choice. The 12 steps help them to think about their past actions and future behavior. In addition to helping individuals understand how their actions impacted others, reflecting on poor decisions of the past can motivate individuals to make more informed decisions in the present and future.
  • Motivating them to mend broken relationships. Recovery isn’t just about quitting drugs and alcohol. True recovery is about restoring all aspects of an individual’s life, especially their relationships. The 12 steps help individuals mend relationships. By encouraging forgiveness and making amends, 12-step programs help individuals not only recover their physical health but their emotional and social health as well.
  • Inspiring them to live beyond themselves. More often than not, addiction is a selfish condition. Most individuals abusing substances only think about their pleasure, needs, and desires. By surrendering to a higher power, individuals learn to think and live beyond themselves. In addition to boosting their sense of worth and self-esteem, having a purpose greater than themselves can help hold individuals accountable. Instead of merely living for themselves, 12-step programs can help individuals realize that their day-to-day actions impact others as well as their own sense of purpose and well-being.
  • Helping them realize their need for continual self-inventory. Addiction is a chronic condition. Individuals recovering from addiction must be intentional about maintaining their sobriety. They need to watch out for triggering situations, distressing emotions, and harmful thoughts. The 12 steps encourage this level of intentionality by helping individuals realize their need for continual inventory. 12-step programs help individuals monitor their thoughts, emotions, cravings, triggers, and behaviors to make sure they are on track with staying sober. 12-step meetings are a great place to monitor such feelings, situations, and circumstances because they take place in a non-judgemental environment and allow individuals to share their experiences with others who have been and may be in similar situations.

Empowering You To Live A Thriving, Purposeful Life

Here at Meta Addiction Treatment, we believe in empowering individuals to take charge of their recovery. 12-step programs can be an important part of your recovery as they encourage honesty, humility, and an overall sense of wellbeing. These kinds of programs can also be a great way to connect with other individuals who have similar struggles and experiences. Contact us today if you’re ready to recover or are in need of some additional support and encouragement.

You can find a 12-step program in the greater Boston area using our meeting locator. Our recovery experts are ready and willing to help you every step of the way.

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