What is a 12 Step Programme?

The 12 step programme is one of the most well-known and successful models in the treatment of addiction.

It is most often implemented in a group setting where people taking part in the programme have direct peer support as they make their way through the 12 steps to recovery.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction, you may want to look into a 12 step programme to see if it can help you or a loved one.

A 12 step programme is exactly as it sounds. A group of people struggling with addiction get together and progress through 12 different steps, with each step getting them closer to sobriety or abstinence.

It is most commonly used for alcohol addiction, however, it can be successful for other addictions as well, for example, drug addiction or gambling addiction.

The group setting of a 12 step programme means that everyone not only has the support from people that know what they are going through but also keeps them accountable as they will be checking in each week and telling the group about their progress.

What makes a 12 step programme stand out amongst other treatments for addiction, is that they are most often led by the group themselves. This means that the groups are not facilitated by an addiction counsellor or any other professional. They are simply organised by people who are struggling with an addiction and want to help themselves.

This also means that a 12 step programme is widely available to anyone who feels that they could benefit from it. Professional addiction treatments can be rather costly and not everyone has the luxury of being able to afford professional help for addiction. A 12 step programme usually costs very little, if anything at all, meaning that anyone from any social or economical background can join in.

The history of the 12 step programme

The 12 step programme has not deviated too far from its origins. In Ohio, USA, in 1935, a Stockbroker named Bob and a surgeon named Bill had become hopelessly addicted to alcohol.

With the help of Samuel Shoemaker, an Episcopal clergyman, and a close friend, Bill was able to get sober and maintain his sobriety.

He began working with alcoholics in a bid to help them, however, none of them was able to recover.

When Bill eventually met Bob, Bob was inspired by Bill’s story as a recovering alcoholic, and soon got sober himself. Both men began working with alcoholics at the local hospital, and soon found that their strategy worked.

Before long, groups of alcoholics were meeting all over America in a bid to recover from their alcohol addictions.

Then, in 1939, Bill wrote a book called Alcoholics Anonymous which talked about the methods they used to help people recover from addiction, and the philosophy of their 12 step programme. (1)

The claims in the book were backed up by several case studies proving that the programme developed by the men absolutely worked. Following the success of the book and several accompanying glowing articles, the success of AA and the 12 step programme rocketed.

What exactly are the 12 steps?

The 12 steps are as follows:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. 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.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs. (2)

As a 12 step programme is most commonly carried out in a group setting, there needs to be a focus on the group as a whole.

In addition to the 12 steps, there are also 12 traditions that the members of the group need to acknowledge. Not to be confused with the 12 steps, these are known as the 12 traditions.

The 12 traditions are:

  1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.
  2. 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.
  3. The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
  4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.
  5. Each group has but one primary purpose-to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  6. An AA group ought never to endorse, finance, or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
  7. Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centres may employ special workers.
  9. AA, as such, ought never to be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve
  10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
  11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
  12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities. (3)

Sponsors in a 12 step programme

People who join a 12 step programme are usually assigned a sponsor.

As is the norm in these programmes, this sponsor will not be a medical professional, but a long-standing member of the group – someone who has been in recovery for some time.

A sponsor is there to help new members cope with cravings or potential relapses and can pass on any helpful tips and advice that they learned from being on their own journey to recovery.

Sponsors normally offer their personal contact information so that they can be contacted in times of stress or crisis, and can be a great source of help and comfort to people who are just beginning their journey to sobriety.

How successful are 12 step programmes?

As the 12 step programme is most commonly associated with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), many of the studies done on the success rate have been done using AA as a basis.

However, these studies have shown that the success rates for people who attend a 12 step programme are roughly double those that use other means to becoming sober. (4)

This study showed that a massive 72% of people studied who attended regular AA meetings were able to maintain sobriety, compared to 39% of people who attended no meetings.

However, 12 step programmes are not without their criticisms.

A large foundation of the 12 step programme is a belief in God. The idea is that we are powerless in our addictions and have to turn to God to help us recover. Many people do not believe in God, and therefore, would not benefit from the traditional 12 step programme.

For people who are of religious persuasion, a 12 step programme can be incredibly beneficial not only because it can put you on the path to recovery, but also because it introduces you to other people who know exactly what you are dealing with and are there to support you. Many people believe that this camaraderie is a big reason why the 12 step programme works.


  1. https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/about-aa/historical-data
  2. https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/smf-121_en.pdf
  3. https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/About-AA/AA-Traditions
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2746426/