How to Work a Good 12-Step Program

What exactly is a 12-step program?  It is the people, principles, prayers, and lifestyle practices of recovery from addiction that was started by Alcoholics Anonymous back in the 1930’s.  To work a program successfully, you need all four—the people, principles, prayers, and practices.  You can’t just read and learn at home, just go to meetings and call your sponsor, just ask God to take away the desire to act out, or just change your ways with willpower or healthy thinking.  To recover you need to do it all.

12-step programs are being used by many to recover from addictions to substances like alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and addictions to behaviors like gambling, internet pornography, overworking and overeating.

You start new recovery behaviors in order to change the thoughts, feelings and situations that used to trigger relapse.  To insure change, much repetition is built into “the program.”  Certain things are repeated verbatim at each meeting, like reading the 12 steps of recommended problem-solving tools.  What are the 12 steps?  Here’s the gist of them in six pieces:

  1. Admit you’re powerless over your addiction, and that your life is unmanageable by you alone. Admit you will always need help from “a higher power.”
  2. Entrust your will and your life to the care (not control) of God “as you understand him.  If you’ve been burned by organized religion, you can make your higher power to be the spirit of the program, the wisdom of the Big Book (AA’s collection of stories and advice for staying sober), or whatever works for you until your understanding of God grows.
  3. Examine your past behavior and motivations.  Take inventory of your moral strengths and weaknesses.  Look at your problems and ask, “What was my part of this?  How do I clean up my side of the street?”  Confess what you’ve done and why to God, another person, and yourself.  You make no external excuses, taking responsibility by owning these choices and habits as expressions of your newly named character traits.
  4. When you ask God to take your character flaws, you find that God doesn’t usually take them away.  But God does take care of them, by taking away your denial and bondage to them, so you never again need to forget or lie about those traits, and you never need to use them as excuses anymore.  When you admit them freely, you talk them out, so you no longer feel compelled to act them out.
  5. Make amends to yourself and others for the mistakes you’ve made.   Pay back the money, self-esteem, truth, etc. you have taken from other people, “except when to do so would injure them or others.”  We go tell people we are sorry, and make every effort to restore what we have taken.
  6.   Give back to others what you have received.  You give service to your groups by telling your story, chairing meetings, helping newcomers, and cleaning up.  This keeps you growing and avoids relapse.


How does recovery work?  Meetings sometimes begin by reading also the 12 traditions of how groups manage their affairs.  The 12 traditions keep groups from owning property, competing with each other, making public statements, or taking stands on divisive and controversial issues like politics and religion.  To make sure they keep the focus on principles not personalities, they emphasize protecting the anonymity of its members.  They have “no leaders, just trusted servants.”

           The program grows “by attraction, not promotion,” so 12-steppers don’t make public statements about whether they are in a program like AA or not, or how much good it’s doing them.  They don’t try to talk others into sobriety or joining the group.  It grows only by people noticing changed lives, and deciding to come try 12-stepping for themselves, because “I want what you have.”

All this makes 12-stepping different from religion, which encourages its churches to own property, and encourages its members to testify, evangelize, and do public witnessing.  AA encourages worship and bible study, but it endorses no particular “sect or denomination.”  Like the self-help movement, people are encouraged to be in charge of their own program, and grow at their own pace.  They decide for themselves if they are an alcoholic or gambling addict or whatever, and they choose their own home group, sponsor, etc.  A home group is the one you go to most regularly, usually every week, and it’s usually where your sponsor goes.

To find the right sponsor for you, try to pick out one or two people that you like at each meeting you attend, especially meetings that your schedule allows you to make on a regular basis.  Try to pull those folks aside after the meeting, and tell them you liked what they said.  Be specific about how it relates to you, and then wait for them to say more.  If you like what they have to say again, ask if you could have their phone numbers.  (Nearly everyone will give this to you, because that's how they stay sober and serene – if they don't give it away, they know they will lose it.)  Use the phone numbers two or three times, and if those phone calls go well, ask if you could talk with them about possibly sponsoring you.  Ask how they like to structure their relationships and contacts with their sponsees, and try it their way.  Talk out frankly with them any problems you ever have with what they say.  It helps to “do what you're told,” but if it works out badly for you, tell your sponsor about it straight up.  You don't have to tell your sponsor everything, but you would be a fool to lie or misrepresent things to your sponsor.  The frequency and format of meetings with a sponsor is worked out between the sponsor and sponsee.  You can’t work a fourth and fifth step without a sponsor, and you can’t stay sober or get serene without taking those steps.  It is important to make this relationship a priority, because it has very important purposes.

There are three main jobs of a sponsor.  One is to make your meetings work for you, to make sure that going to meetings is a constructive experience for you, and for others.  Your sponsor is always your same gender, but here I will talk as if he is male.  He gives you feedback on what you say and how you interact.  He troubleshoots any relationship issues you have with others in the group, and in the program as a whole.  He cannot do this very well if you don’t both go to the same meeting on a regular basis.

His second and most important job is to walk you through the 12 steps.  This is a master-apprentice system: recovering people need to be ushered through the 12 steps one at a time by somebody that has himself been ushered through the 12 steps the same way.  To make it a good learning experience, your job is to do as you are told.  If you don’t think it is good for you, check it out with somebody else, and then talk it out with your sponsor.  Think of the steps as problem-solving tools that are dangerous in the hands of a novice.  Just as you would need to have somebody show you and oversee you as you learned how to use a gun, a power tool, or take care of a baby, each step is meant to be learned by first listening to instruction, hearing what others have experienced to be safe and effective, and finally letting others watch you do it.  The spirit of the law is as important as the letter of the law:  the purpose and attitude of a behavior is as important as the exact action that you decide to take.

The last purpose of a sponsor is to help you live a better life, by giving you encouragement and advice on the practical problems of living in recovery.  The thing is, he won’t know very well how to do this if you don’t let him do the first two things as well.  People often ask, “How long do I have to go to meetings?”  The best answer is, “Until you want to go, because you like the better living, laughing, and loving you find in those rooms, and later, you find coming out of your heart.”

Recovery is like the medical model.  It teaches that your addiction is a disease.  Alcoholism for example is portrayed as a physical allergy and a mental obsession, and medical treatment and hospitalization is encouraged as an adjunct to any recovery that needs it.  We aren’t responsible for having the illness or addiction, but we are responsible for whether we get treatment, by working the program of recovery that gets us well.

In conclusion, as I understand it, 12-step recovery teaches that “anything you put before your recovery you will lose,” including your job, your health, your family, and your faith.  That’s the bad news.   The good news is that if you follow the 12-step way of life, it is free, and it makes everything else in your life better.  You get not only sobriety, but serenity.  As they say, “it works if you work it.”  For a more elaborate cost-benefit analysis of recovery, ask me for my outline by that title.


Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach you can reach at [email protected], (502) 633-2860.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt