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A Short History of the 12 Principles of AA

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Robert Smith. Alcoholics Anonymous has grown to include worldwide chapters devoted to helping individuals end their alcohol dependence. Wilson, struggling with alcoholism, initially sought help from a Christian organization, The Oxford Group.

The Oxford Group’s expansive focus 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.

12 principles of aa
Although the 12 Principles of AA are based on spiritual principles, many nonreligious people have found the program immensely helpful.

Wilson was the first to kick his alcohol dependence. He attributed his success to working with other alcoholics. He founded his principles on that work and his meetings with Smith, whom he helped achieve sobriety. In many ways, Wilson was ahead of his time. He firmly believed that alcoholism affected the mind, body, and spirit. As a result, the organization grew slowly but steadily in those early days.

With the publication of AA’s principles and writings, word began to spread about its success. Once Alcoholics Anonymous managed to help 500 people achieve sobriety, it attracted a more national audience. By 1950, Alcoholics Anonymous could boast of having helped 500,000 people overcome their alcohol dependence.

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Who Wrote the 12 Step Principles AA?

The 12 Principles of AA is the work of AA’s founders, but the organization recorded six principles early in AA’s history. 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 modified their principles, extending them to reflect their work and its progress. AA is heavily concentrated on principles of Christianity, but many of today’s groups have modernized the12 Principles of AA to reflect a more diverse audience. Even so, the 12 Principles of AA have remained its significant guiding influence. As a result, many individuals struggling with alcohol use disorder continue to succeed in recovery by participating in AA’s program.

12 principles of aa
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) states that approximately 10% of the people who become part of a 12 Step principles AA program enjoy long-term success in their recovery

What Is the Importance of Learning the 12 Traditions of AA?

Is AA right for you? To find out, it’s important to carefully explore the 12 principles of AA. For Wilson and Smith, surrendering to a ‘higher power’ was integral to their plan’s development. Today, some critics of the program find that aspect of AA inappropriate, claiming that self-empowerment is an effective way to manage addiction and achieve recovery.

On the other hand, millions have acknowledged their belief that AA and its principles saved their life. By studying the 12 principles AA, how it works, and each of the 12 traditions of AA, you can determine if this program is ideal for you. Many individuals find it so helpful that they continue to meet with the group to help others as they work to maintain their recovery.

There are many alcohol addiction treatment options today. AA’s plan is one of them. After getting to know the 12 principles of AA, you may want to try the program or include it as part of your post-rehab aftercare plan.

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How Do The 12 Principles of AA Relate to the Steps in the Big Book?

The primary 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 alcohol addiction. Each step centers around a phrase. Many are invoking the notions of God or a “higher power” who guides the recovering alcoholic in various facets of their journey into sobriety.

The Big Book also outlines the 12 principles of AA, which are single words containing the virtues needed to pass each step. Because these 12 principles of AA are single words, they can be interpreted in a much broader sense, which can be helpful for those in recovery who don’t feel like the steps are speaking to them directly, for instance, those who aren’t religious. Here is a breakdown of the principles that match each step and how to practice them in a way that helps you create sustainable sobriety within the doctrines of AA and NA.

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What Are the Principles in the 12 Promises 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. Unfortunately, many individuals under the influence of drug or alcohol addiction think that “it’s not that bad” or that they can “stop at any time.”

Step 2: Hope

“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Step 2 is about discovering faith in some higher power, and the coexisting 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 daily. Of course, in recovery, not every moment will be positive, but if you keep that hope and faith alive, you’ll come back 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 deny 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 remind yourself that you’re at the mercy of a higher power.

Step 4: Courage

“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

Step 4 involves documenting every mistake you’ve ever made and is clearly tied to courage. Some of your “past” will be painful, and you’ll likely have to face some of your biggest regrets. However, living with courage means starting fresh without completely forgetting your past.

Step 5: Integrity

“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

It is about taking the moral inventory made in step 4 and admitting first to the higher power, next to yourself, and last to another person.

You can practice integrity in your recovery by talking through everything you feel guilty about and your mistakes. Having integrity is to live honestly.

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Step 6: Willingness

“Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

You must 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 must be prepared to be absolved to move forward without looking back. Therefore, you should have the willingness in everything you do.

Step 7: Humility

“Humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.”

In step 4, you made a record of your past, and in step 6, you admitted them and removed yourself from the guilt and shame. Step 7 is being willing to be removed 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 aware 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 compassion and empathy, and Step 8 asks you to list 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 genuinely 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 to start fresh with them. 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 open and honest 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 of these 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 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 step principles AA.

12 principles of aa
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The Value of the 12 Principles of AA

With Alcoholics Anonymous, not everyone can understand what it means to keep all of the steps in mind after completing them. However, the 12 step principles AA package these steps into digestible virtues and provide a road map to lifelong health and sobriety. If you’re interested in learning how you can leverage a 12-step group to help your recovery, contact We Level Up and learn about our alcohol treatment, aftercare, and support group options.