Updated on May 23, 2022
What are the 12 Principles of AA and how do they work in recovery? A complete answer to this question begins with a quick history of how these principles originated, who developed them, and why. You’ll then get to learn about each principle separately and what it means….
A Short History of the 12 Principles of AA
Founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Robert Smith, Alcoholics Anonymous has grown to include worldwide chapters, each devoted to helping people end their dependence on alcohol. Wilson, who was struggling with alcoholism, originally sought out help from a Christian organization, The Oxford Group.
The Oxford Group had a broad focus and was designed to help people overcome their problems by confronting their fear and selfishness. Ultimately, Wilson broke away from the group to develop an organization specifically formed to contend with alcoholism, a problem rampant during his era and one that continues to plague millions in the U.S. and abroad.
Wilson met Akron surgeon Robert Smith at an Oxford Group meeting. Like Wilson, Smith also suffered from alcoholism. Both Wilson and Smith found that The Oxford Group’s treatment of sin as a “disease” resonated in discussions of their struggles with alcohol. The 12 Principles of AA drew heavily from these spiritual elements.
Wilson was the first to kick his alcohol dependence. He attributed his success to working with other alcoholics. He based his principles on that work and on his meetings with Smith, whom he also helped to achieve sobriety. In many ways, Wilson was ahead of his time. He believed strongly that alcoholism affected the body, mind, and spirit. Although the organization grew slowly in those early days, it also grew steadily.
With the publication of the organization’s principles and writings, word began to spread about its success. Once AA managed to help 500 people achieve sobriety, it attracted a more national audience. By 1950, the organization could boast having helped 500,000 people overcome their dependence on alcohol.
Who Wrote the 12 Principles of AA?
The 12 Principles of AA is essentially the work of AA’s founders, but early in AA’s history, the organization listed six principles, many of which were influenced by the founders’ experience with The Oxford Group. By 1939 and the publication of The Big Book, Wilson and Smith revised their principles, expanding them to reflect their work and its progress. AA is, of course, heavily focused on principles of Christianity, but many of today’s groups have modernized the tenets to reflect a more diverse audience. Even so, the 12 Principles of AA have remained its central guiding influence. Many people suffering from alcoholism continue to find success in recovery by participating in AA’s program.
What Is the Importance of Learning the Principles of AA?
Is AA right for you? To find out, it’s important to carefully explore the principles of AA. For Wilson and Smith, surrendering to a ‘higher power’ was an integral part of their plan’s development. Today, some critics of the program find that aspect of AA problematic, arguing that self-empowerment is an effective way to manage addiction and achieve lasting recovery.
On the other hand, millions have acknowledged their belief that AA and its principles saved their life. By studying the program, how it works, and each of its principles, you can determine if this type of program is ideal for you. Many people find it so helpful that they continue to meet with the group in order to help others as they work to maintain their own recovery.
There are many alcohol addiction treatment options today. AA’s plan is one of them. After getting to know its principles, you may want to try the program, or include it as part of your post-rehab aftercare plan.
How Do the Principles Relate to the Steps in the Big Book?
The main text of Alcoholics Anonymous, or “The Big Book” as AA members call it, goes step by step through 12 distinct phases, each crucial in achieving sustainable recovery from addiction.
Each step centers around a phrase, many of them invoking the ideas of God or a “higher power” who guides the recovering addict in various facets of their journey into sobriety.
The Big Book also outlines the 12 AA principles, which are single words encompassing the virtues needed to pass each step. Because these 12 steps of AA are single words, they can be interpreted in a much broader sense, which can be useful for those in recovery who don’t feel like the steps are speaking to them directly, for example, those who aren’t religious.
Here is a breakdown of the principles that match up with each step and how to practice them in a way that helps you create sustainable sobriety within the tenets of AA and NA.
What Are the Principles in the 12 Steps of AA?
Step 1: Honesty
“We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”
The first step in AA is about admitting your powerlessness, which boils down to a level of honesty that many addicts haven’t reached until now. Many people under the spell of addiction or alcoholism think that “it’s not that bad” or that they can “stop at any time.”
It’s almost counterintuitive: The way to be released from the power addiction has over you is to admit how truly powerless you are. Carrying honestly forward in your sobriety doesn’t focus on being honest to others, but to yourself.
Step 2: Hope
“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
Step 2 is about finding faith in some higher power, and the accompanying principle of hope means that you should never give up that faith, even when you suffer a setback.
This virtue is easy to understand when it comes to practicing it on a daily basis. In recovery, not every moment will be positive, but if you keep that hope and faith alive, you’ll come back out on the other side.
Step 3: Surrender
“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
In Steps 1 and 2, AA instructs members to strip themselves bare of ego and power. Step 3 involves putting yourself at the mercy of this higher power and moving forward for “Him” — or whatever your higher power may be — over the selfishness of addiction.
The way to carry this principle forward is to always remind yourself that you’re at the mercy of a higher power, and you don’t come first.
Step 4: Courage
“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Step 4, which involves documenting every mistake you’ve ever made, is clearly tied to courage. Some of your past will be painful, and you’ll likely have to face some of your biggest regrets.
Living with courage means that you can start fresh without forgetting your past completely.
Step 5: Integrity
“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
Step 5 is about taking the moral inventory made in step 4 and admitting first to God, next to yourself, and last to another person.
You can practice integrity in your recovery by talking through everything that you feel guilty about and your mistakes. Basically, having integrity is to live honestly.
Step 6: Willingness
“Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”
In step 6, you have to prepare for your sins to be taken away by admitting to yourself that you’re fully ready to move past them.
Willingness as a virtue means you have to be ready to be absolved so that you can move forward without looking back. You should have willingness in everything you do.
Step 7: Humility
“Humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.”
In step 4, you made a catalog of your past, and in step 6, you admitted them and released yourself from the guilt and shame. Step 7 is being willing to be released from your past. In step 8, you ask God, or another higher power, for forgiveness.
Humility is one of the simplest principles to understand because it’s straightforward. When you’re humble, you’re cognizant of the fact that you’re not a major part of the bigger picture. Humility in daily practice means never seeing yourself as more important than you are.
Step 8: Love
“Made a list of all the persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to all of them.”
Love is empathy and compassion, and Step 8 asks you to make a list of everyone you’ve wronged in your journey to where you are now. That’s not all, though. You also have to be willing to make amends, which shows that you truly care for the people on your list.
Practicing your sobriety with the principle of love means that you’re not just existing for yourself but in service to the people you care about.
Step 9: Responsibility
“Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
By Step 9, you’ve forgiven yourself for your past. Now you need to make amends to others so that you can start fresh with them as well.
The principle of responsibility is reflected directly in this step, and practicing in life is clear: If you hope to remain close with those around you, you must be honest and open about your mistakes that impacted them.
Step 10: Discipline
“Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
Step 10 relates to its own principle very clearly. It’s one thing to take personal inventory and admit our wrongs one time. It takes discipline to continue to do this over an entire lifetime.
Step 11: 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 is about moving forward without losing track of a higher power. The continued awareness this demands makes it easy to pair the step with its accompanying principle.
Living with awareness means always paying attention to the higher power that guides you.
Step 12: Service
“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.”
The final Step of AA is to pay it forward. You’ve worked your way through the entire process of growing and setting yourself up for success in sobriety, and now you have the opportunity to guide less experienced members through their own journey. Living with the principle of service means it’s your responsibility to help others as you were helped when you first started to work the 12 steps.
The Value of the Principles of AA
With AA, not everyone has the ability to understand what it means to keep all of the steps in mind after completing them. The 12 spiritual principles package these steps into digestible virtues and provide a road map to lifelong health and sobriety.
To learn more about Alcoholics Anonymous, read why it still works all these years after its creation. If you’re interested in learning how you can leverage a 12-step group to help your recovery, contact FHE Health and learn about our aftercare and support group options.
Our 12-Step Series:
- Why the 12-step Program Still Works
- Step 1: Why the 12-step Journey Begins with Powerlessness
- Step 2: What is a Higher Power?
- Step 3: God as you Understand Him
- Step 4: Your Moral Inventory
- Step 5: Admitting Your Wrongs
- Step 6: Addressing Character Defects
- Step 7: Removing our Defects
- Step 8: Willing to Make Amends
- Step 9: Making Amends, How to Approach Step 9
- Step 10: Ongoing Inventory
- Step 11: How to Deepen Your Connection with a Higher Power
- Step 12: Sharing Your Spiritual Awakening With Others
- Understanding AA Lingo
- The Principles of AA