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The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of AA

The 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions are the basis of 12-step support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Family support groups (Al-Anon and Alateen) and drug addiction (Narcotics Anonymous) use similar steps. 

AA co-founder Bill Wilson published Twelve Points to Assure Our Future in the AA Grapevine newspaper in 1946. Seven years later, he published his book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. This book is different from the Big Book, which includes the stories of people who used AA to recover from alcoholism. These books are still available and published by AA World Services and serve as a resource for alcoholics and anyone who wants to learn more about the organization. 

Integrating the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions into your recovery offers a variety of benefits, including:

  • Helps you learn new strategies for overcoming addiction — 12-step meetings provide an opportunity for everyone to share their experiences and recovery journeys. This allows attendees to hear about the experiences of others and use what they can from those stories.
  • Finding peers who share your challenges and experiences — It’s difficult for people who do not have alcohol use disorder (AUD) to understand the challenges brought on by the disorder. AA brings people together who share the same struggles and understand how you feel.
  • Spend time in a judgment-free environment — People with AUD deal with judgment by friends, family, and society. AA offers a judgment-free environment where you can speak openly and honestly about your feelings and experiences without concern.
  • Access to support — Recovery is difficult and requires a lot of support. For many alcoholics, this support is difficult to come by. AA offers a resource for those struggling with alcoholism and gives them access to an organization that provides guidance and support when they need it most.
  • Affordable — It’s free to attend AA meetings, so even those who lack the financial means to enter other recovery programs have access to a sober and supportive environment.

Focuses of AA

Here are some key focuses of AA's principles:

AA and Spirituality

Like the twelve steps, the twelve traditions of AA announce that God is the ultimate authority. The twelve traditions also state that the organization’s longstanding focus on anonymity has a spiritual purpose too.

Like the twelve steps, the higher power (or God) mentioned in the twelve traditions is not of a specific religion or belief. Instead, it is simply a spiritual higher power.

AA and Autonomy

The twelve traditions stress that every AA group must be responsible for its governance. An AA group can consist of any two or three alcoholics who want to create one. Groups should communicate and cooperate for the organization's greater good, and its welfare should always be the primary consideration.

Likewise, AA must stay separate from any political or institutional connections. The twelve traditions also note that AA groups should never go into business. While they can work with hospitals, clinics, and other facilities, they should remain independent.

AA groups must also always be supported by voluntary contributions from members and never charge for their services. This keeps the AA group free from outside influences and protects the anonymity of its members.

AA is Free

AA services are complimentary to anyone who shows a desire to stop drinking. This is regardless of where they are on their recovery journey.

The group and organization must remain focused on the single goal of helping alcoholics and other individuals suffering from addiction without judgment. Because of this, AA should not establish connections or partnerships with any organizations or institutions that could impose rules about providing services.

AA and Anonymity

Anonymity is an essential part of AA’s commitment to helping those struggling with an addiction. It protects the organization's privacy and keeps the focus on its philosophies (instead of its members).

AA members should never give opinions on social or political issues. However, they can do so outside the group in their personal lives.

As anonymity allows AA to put its principles before its personalities, it enables all members to remain humble and serve the organization. For almost a century, AA has grown from small groups of people helping others to a global organization.

Thanks to the principles of the twelve steps and the twelve traditions, AA can stay true to its original goal.

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Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: The Difference

The twelve steps of AA have become firmly renowned as a path toward recovery from addictions. This includes drug and alcohol addictions, as well as others like gambling and sugar addictions. The twelve steps encourage people to acknowledge their problems, seek help, and practice healthier behaviors.

The twelve traditions of AA provide spiritual and practical guidelines for governing the AA organization itself. These traditions foster the practices that enable AA to stay focused on its one objective: to deliver a free, always accessible, and available haven for anyone who wants to break their addictions and build a new, sober life.

The 12 Steps

The 12 Steps are as follows:

  1. Admit powerlessness over alcohol and that your life is unmanageable and you have a drinking problem. This is where the term, “admitting there’s a problem is the first step,” comes from. The first of the 12 steps is admitting you have a problem with alcohol.
  2. Believe in a higher power that can restore you and give you the ability to return to a healthy life. Members of AA acknowledge God or a higher power.
  3. Turn your life over to your higher power.
  4. Conduct a fearless moral inventory of your past and present faults. Members must work to get their affairs in order.
  5. Admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. You must admit your mistakes to another person, in addition to acknowledging them internally and admitting them to your higher power.
  6. Allow your higher power to remove all of your defects of character. Let go and accept that it’s time to change.
  7. Ask your higher power to remove your shortcomings and focus on healing, prayer, meditation, faith, and hope. 
  8. Make a list of all persons you’ve harmed and be willing to make amends. This step involves planning and admitting your wrongs.
  9. Make direct amends to people you’ve harmed unless doing so causes more harm to either party. This step puts step eight into action.
  10. Continue taking personal inventory and promptly admit if and when wrongs occur.
  11. Seek to improve our conscious contact with our higher power, reflect on each day, consider what went wrong, and how you can continue to improve.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of the 12 steps, carry the message to alcoholics and continue to put them into practice.
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What The 12 Steps Mean

The 12 steps provide a framework for recovery. It gives people who want to live a sober life a path to follow. AA members believe that if they work the 12-step program, it will keep them on track and provide them with the structure needed to remain sober. The 12 steps also acknowledge the lack of power an individual has over his or her addiction and encourage the reliance on a higher power for help with recovery. 

The 12 steps encourage people to have faith (loving God), surrender, do soul-searching, accept that it’s time to recover, gain humility, and be willing and forgiving. As they move into the later steps, they are encouraged to maintain sobriety and make contact with and carry their message of recovery to other struggling alcoholics. 

The 12 Traditions

The 12 AA Traditions are as follows:

  1. The common welfare of the AA group comes first and the group’s unity supports personal recovery.
  2. God is the ultimate authority for the group and leaders of AA serve but don’t govern.
  3. The only requirement for being a member of AA is a desire to stop drinking.
  4. Groups are autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or the entirety of AA.
  5. Each group has a singular purpose: to carry its message to active alcoholics.
  6. Groups must never endorse, finance, or allow the use of the AA name outside of the group.
  7. Each group must be fully self-supporting and decline outside contributions and should avoid all problems of money.
  8. The organization must remain non-professional. Service centers can employ special workers.
  9. Service boards and committees are allowed to form but are directly responsible to those they serve and there should never be a centralized organization.
  10. AA has no opinion on outside issues and can never be drawn into public controversy.
  11. Outreach is about attraction, not promotion. There is no organized public relations policy.
  12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all of the traditions. Principles are always above personalities.

What The 12 Traditions Mean

The 12 Steps are a cornerstone for recovery. The primary purpose is to give a person a roadmap to recovery. They emphasize how important it is to acknowledge the problem, seek help, and practice healthy behaviors by following the 12 step work.

The 12 Steps are for the individual member, while the 12 Traditions are for the 12-step organization.

The 12 Traditions, on the other hand, provide practical and spiritual guidelines for governing the organization. The traditions are used by AA and ensure that the resource is free, available, and a haven to those who need it.

Resources

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“The 12 Traditions of AA: What They Mean | AlcoholicsAnonymous.com.” Alcoholics Anonymous, 24 Nov. 2020

“AA 12 Traditions and History of 12 Traditions.” Step12.com

W., Bill. “Twelve Promises.” Alcoholics Anonymous Cleveland, 24 July 2020

Wilson, Bill. A.A. Tradition-How It Developed. 2019

Emrick, C. D., Tonigan, J. S., Montgomery, H., & Little, L. (1993). Alcoholics Anonymous: What is currently known? In B. S. McCrady & W. R. Miller (Eds.), Research on Alcoholics Anonymous: Opportunities and alternatives (p. 41–76). Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies

Tonigan, J. S., Connors, G. J., & Miller, W. R. (2003). Participation and involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous. In T. F. Babor & F. K. Del Boca (Eds.), International research monographs in the addictions. Treatment matching in alcoholism (p. 184–204). Cambridge University Press

Kaskutas, Lee Ann. “Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness: Faith Meets Science.” Taylor & Francis, Journal of Addictive Diseases, 1 Apr. 2009

Tonigan, J S, et al. “Meta-Analysis of the Literature on Alcoholics Anonymous: Sample and Study Characteristics Moderate Findings.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 1996

Montgomery, Henry A., et al. “Does Alcoholics Anonymous Involvement Predict Treatment Outcome?” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Pergamon, 18 Nov. 1999

Cain, Carole. “Personal Stories: Identity Acquisition and Self‐Understanding in Alcoholics Anonymous.” Wiley Online Library, Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, June 1991, www.jstor.org/stable/640431
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