A.A. Explained: Why the 12-step Journey Begins With “Powerlessness”

The importance of powerlessness

In 1939, Bill W. and Dr. Bob S., the founders of Alcoholic Anonymous, published the first edition of “The Big Book.” In it, they outlined AA’s philosophy and methods for a peer-based recovery program for alcoholics based on the Twelve Steps of recovery.

Worldwide, alcoholics, addicts and treatment professionals embraced the Twelve Steps, and more than 35 million copies of AA’s Big Book have been distributed in over 70 languages. First developed specifically for people with alcoholism (now known as alcohol use disorder), dozens of 12-step programs are now available for a variety of addictions including Cocaine Anonymous (CA), Gamblers Anonymous (GA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and specific LGBTQ AA programs.

Step One of the AA’s Twelve Steps is, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

What does it mean to admit you are powerless over alcohol or drugs?

What is AA step 1 - what is powerlessness?Admitting you are powerless over alcohol, drugs or a behavior means accepting the fact that you have an addiction that exerts tremendous power and control over your life. Despite your best intentions, you’ve lost the ability to limit your intake of alcohol or drugs or stop the behavior.

It also means recognizing that once you’ve passed the point of being able to give up drinking on your own, you can never regain the ability to drink or use drugs in a way that doesn’t completely control your life.

Those who subscribe to the 12 steps recognize that for most addicts, step one is usually the hardest. Admitting you are powerless over alcohol requires a tremendous amount of courage, humility and even fear. It can bring on a flood of powerful emotions including shame, anger and grief. However, it can also be a tremendous relief.

Why is admitting powerlessness the first of the Twelve Steps?

The founders of AA understood that in order for alcoholics to truly take ownership of their recovery, they needed to accept the fact that their lives had become unmanageable due to their addiction.

To admit powerlessness over alcohol (or drugs) means accepting the fact that you have lost control over your substance use. You accept that your life now largely revolves around maintaining your addiction and that your addiction is now the driving force behind all of your thoughts and actions.

Step one is fundamentally about honesty, while active addiction is characterized by lies you tell to yourself and everyone around you. Until you reach the point where you choose to get real, stop lying and accept that you need help, any efforts you make to deal with your addiction simply won’t be genuine or effective.

Why do so many recovering addicts believe in God or a higher power?

What is the important part about step 1 and powerlessnessThe original version of the Twelve Steps and The Big Book make numerous references to God, and this is largely because AA’s founders were Christians. The original references to God were quickly challenged in the early days of AA, and Bill W. addressed those challenges by explaining that every member was welcome to interpret God to mean whoever, or whatever, higher power they chose to believe in.

Bill W. said, “In Step Two we decided to describe God as a ‘Power greater than ourselves’, and in Steps Three and Eleven, we inserted the words ‘God as we understood Him'” to make the Twelve Steps non-denominational and meaningful for people of all faiths and beliefs.

The concept behind the references to God or a higher power in the 12-step program is to support addicts in the understanding that they need to find a source of strength that is greater than themselves alone. This could mean God, a general belief system or the recovery community itself. Regardless of what addicts identify as their own personal higher power, it’s an expression that means they are accountable to someone or something, that is bigger, more powerful and more influential than themselves.

If I admit powerlessness over alcohol and drugs, how does that help me recover from addiction?

Do you have to admit powerlessness in the 12-stepsStep One of the Twelve Steps is often scrutinized by critics who claim the concept of addicts admitting that they are powerless is a cop-out: a way to simply blame the alcohol or drugs for everything that had ever gone wrong in their lives.

While it’s true that the concept of admitting powerlessness over a substance may seem to be at odds with efforts to hold addicts responsible for their behaviors, in fact, the opposite is true. By accepting the fact that you are powerless over alcohol, drugs or addictive behavior, you have come to terms with your personal limitations.

In essence, you are making a conscious choice to stop lying to yourself. You accept that you can’t continue drinking alcohol or using drugs and that you have absolutely no control when you are using. You are also embracing your need to learn what led you to become addicted in the first place, the thoughts, and behaviors that fuel your addiction, and what you must do to achieve and maintain sobriety.

Need Help With Alcohol Abuse? We’re Here for You

If you are struggling with addiction to alcohol, drugs or a combination of substances, you don’t have to deal with your problems alone. Call us here at FHE Health. We’re available to talk 24 hours a day, and we offer a wide variety of science-based treatment programs.

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