Principles of the 12 Steps

by | Last updated Jul 31, 2023 | Published on Sep 13, 2017 | 12 Step Programs, Treatment | 0 comments

Character defects come up a lot in recovery conversation. Upon recognizing drugs and alcohol as mere symptoms of a greater affliction, we begin working to identify the other driving factors that led to our downward spiral. We then strive to replace these shortcomings with more positive attributes. For instance, we may begin with honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness—often defined as the three cornerstones of recovery. But these alone are not enough. We need other principles as well.

Fortunately, principles come in no short supply. In fact, we can easily name at least a dozen—one for each of the 12 Steps of AA. Understanding these principles allows us to apply them outside of our Step work, incorporating them into the broader scheme of our recovery effort. In fact, we often find our work on each Step much easier when incorporating the principles of the Steps that preceded it. And seeing as those who partake in our 12 Step recovery program will need to make use of these principles, we see value in discussing them here.

Make note that a brief internet search will turn up multiple versions of this list. Numerous sources appear to disagree on precisely which principles best define the 12 Steps. Nonetheless, even differing breakdowns share many entries in common. The following rank among the principles you’ll see listed most frequently in the course of your search.


Step One – Honesty

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“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”

When first reading these words, we might leap to the conclusion that the first principle is acceptance. However, this doesn’t quite fit the model of recovery as we know it.

Early recovery often resembles a period of grief. No matter how much we regret the life we knew, we still mourn its passing as we enter our new chapter. We cannot, therefore, expect those in early recovery to leap straight toward the fifth and final stage of the grieving process. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, when first defining the five stages of grief in On Death and Dying, said of acceptance:

“If a patient has had enough time…he will reach a stage during which he is neither depressed nor angry about his ‘fate.’ He will have been able to express his previous feelings, his envy for the living and the healthy, his anger at those who do not have to face their end so soon.”

Perhaps some will feel this way upon reaching Step One, but certainly not all. Most of us need to develop other principles before this type of acceptance sets in. At this stage, we simply let go of our denial. And getting honest with ourselves tends to be an emotional process. No, this is not the point after we express our envy for “normal people” or anger at our need to get sober. If we haven’t faced those feelings yet, this is when we first start to do so.

We won’t lie, Step One hurts sometimes. Not in the way that breaking denial hurts those who must grieve their own deaths. But much like breaking out of denial leads to feelings such as anger and depression in the Kübler-Ross model, Step One sometimes provokes such feelings in the newly recovering addict or alcoholic. Fortunately, the next two principles will grant us some relief.


Step Two – Hope

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

To get ourselves out of the funk that sometimes accompanies Step One, we must begin seeking a solution to our problems. This begins in Step Two, when we develop hope that a solution exists and that we can make use of it.

Those already familiar with some of these principles know that Step Three requires faith. Some believe hope and faith to be synonymous, so allow us to differentiate them here. Quite simply, hope is faith with less trust. Think of the classic Judy Blume novel in which a young girl named Margaret constantly prays that God will help her reach maturity. She maintains great hope that this will happen, yet becomes increasingly exasperated when it doesn’t. Despite her hope that she might see her prayers fulfilled, we see her faith wane throughout the narrative.

A more classic example is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a play in which two men spend day after day awaiting the arrival of a mysterious man about whom they seem to know quite little. In fact, despite their hope that he will arrive, they don’t even know that they are waiting in the right place. They continue waiting, but express great doubt and sometimes even consider giving up.

In other words, hope expresses promise but still allows for fear of disappointment. Those unfamiliar with the above literary references likely still understand the feelings they describe. At this stage in our recovery, we hope for the best but remain uncertain. We are like Cowboys fans, patiently awaiting another Super Bowl victory. Sure, it could happen. But will it? And more importantly, when?

We begin finding our answer as we continue adding to our principles.


Step Three – Faith

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“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

As discussed above, faith implies trust. Some describe this trust as blind, but it does not originate from nowhere. Instead, it develops from experience. In his short book on faith, Just Trust, author Dave Sheil compares faith to a light switch. As toddlers, we don’t necessarily understand how light switches work. Nevertheless, we slowly but surely come to understand that they do.

“Not only that, but we are so confident in the light switch having the ability to turn the light on, that if we flip the switch and the light doesn’t turn on, we will actually flip the switch off and back on, one or two more times, fully expecting the light to turn on. THIS is a measure of faith. We firmly believe that when the switch is flipped, the light will turn on. We know this because every time we have tested the theory, it has worked.”

As we work on developing our principles and experience the joys of sobriety, we gain faith that this life can work for us. We see others work these principles and thrive as a result, eventually coming to believe that we can do the same. Upon reaching this conclusion, we surrender to the Higher Power of our understanding.

This is not a “white flag” sort of surrender. Aside from trust, another quality marks the difference between hope and faith. This is action, which we begin taking as we incorporate the rest of the principles into our lives.


Step Four – Courage

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

The word “fearless” in Step Four implies courage, but not how you might think. Many of us do indeed fear the process of taking a long, hard look at our past. But we express all of the first four principles in doing so anyway. Our “searching” inventory necessitates full honesty, and we take this Step in the hopes of bettering our recovery. Faith then inspires courage, allowing us to push through the fear that sometimes causes us to procrastinate.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown provides an excellent definition of  courage that we may apply to Step Four.

“In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and, today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world, that’s pretty extraordinary.”

To continue working our recovery and developing our principles, we require the courage to be vulnerable. And it’s a good thing we begin building it in Step Four, because we’re going to need it in the Steps to come.


Step Five – Integrity

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

The word “integrity” bears a few meanings. In one sense, it suggests the maintenance of our moral values. It might also mean a state of wholeness, as in the term “structural integrity.” When applied to electronic data, it means consistency and a general lack of corruption. For the purposes of analyzing 12 Step principles, we may apply all of these definitions.

When we show the courage and integrity necessary to own up to our past wrongs, even before an audience of a single person, we demonstrate our morality. Step Five obviously does not take the form of bragging, but rather a confession of the wrongs that we wish to make right. This strengthens our relationship with our sponsor, and also helps them to assist us in outlining a plan for redemption. In this sense, Step Five lends an air of structural integrity to our recovery. Our plans to overcome our past become more whole. And as long as we leave nothing out and read everything on our Step Four list, Step Five demonstrates integrity through consistency of our timeline. Only by skirting the truth and lying during Step Five may our recovery efforts become corrupted.

At this point, the principles become quite intertwined. For as you’ll see, the next two principles play quite a role in Step Five as well, just as integrity plays a role in the next few Steps.


Step Six – Willingness

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

Step Six sounds like a tall order. Fortunately, it does not actually ask that we remove all shortcomings. It simply asks that we become ready and willing to try. More than that, it asks that we become willing to admit we cannot do it on our own. Our Higher Power, be it God or simply a supportive fellowship, will help. But no one can help us unless we open ourselves to it. Not only does this require the principle of willingness, but it also tests the degree to which we have undertaken the principles of the previous Steps. As noted in Drop the Rock, a popular guide to working Step Six and Step Seven:

“It is a matter of practice and willingness, of using the Steps we’ve already taken to maintain our commitment. The more willing we become and the more we practice acting ‘as if,’ the more active our surrender becomes and the more we are able to live ‘as if.’ It is a fulfilling and rewarding process. Acting ‘as if’ can raise questions of genuineness and authenticity. Is there a conflict with the person I am choosing to become and the person I currently am?”

The answer to this question almost invariably proves to lie in the affirmative, to varying degrees. As we continue developing our principles, we seek to minimize this sense of conflict and step more fully into the lives we’d like to see for ourselves. This feels quite empowering. At the same time, it necessitates a great deal of humility.


Step Seven – Humility

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“Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

We often confuse humility with humiliation, but this definition doesn’t work. If humiliation were all it took to get sober, most of us would have succeeded after our first blackout. Humility does not require us to lack self-esteem. In fact, the most humble among us generally recognize our strengths in addition to our weaknesses. The difference is that the meek will see their strengths without overinflating their self-importance. Returning to Drop the Rock, we take a look at those who properly exhibit this principle:

“They have gotten down to their own right size. Humility is understanding that they’re worthwhile. It’s the middle ground between the extremes of grandiosity and intense shame. They have a sincere desire to be and become the best they can be. Today we remember that humility is not being meek. It is being our true selves. Humility for us means staying our right sizeand remembering we are as humble as we are grateful.

In other words, we recognize our strengths with gratitude rather than ego. To an extent, we may even practice gratitude in the face of our shortcomings. The principles teach us to use our weaknesses as learning opportunities. Our lives in addiction took us down a terrible road. But that same road led to a greater life that lies ahead of us. Realizing this, we continue our journey through the principles, that we may bring our dark past into harmony with our bright future.


Step Eight – Love

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“Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”

As mentioned from the start, some lists apply different principles to a few of the Steps. This includes Step Eight, although brotherly love tends to appear on most versions. The willingness to make amends requires compassion. Considering that many of those we harmed also harmed us, it may require a bit of empathy as well. We must set aside our anger toward these individuals, recognizing that we have made our own mistakes. We seek only to clean our own side of the street.

If we haven’t already, we should also start recognizing the value of the principles outside of the Steps. We show love not only toward those we harmed, but all those we encounter. The best way to prevent ourselves from needing to make amends in the future is to do right by people the first time around. The Emily Post Institute demonstrates how we accomplish this in their principles of etiquette, primarily respect.

“Respect can be a feeling, and it can be demonstrated in our actions and words. To us, respecting other people means recognizing and acknowledging their worth and value as human beings, regardless of their background, race, or creed. It’s demonstrated in all our day-to-day relations—refraining from demeaning others for their ideas and opinions, refusing to laugh at racist or sexist jokes, putting prejudices aside, and staying open-minded. We show respect not just by what we refrain from doing but also by intentional acts, such as being on time, dressing appropriately, or giving our full attention to the person or people we’re with.”

So remember, love and respect are more than feelings. They’re things that we do. Which is why Step Eight only matters when we follow it with Step Nine.


Step Nine – Responsibility/Justice

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“Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

Responsibility and justice form the core principles of this Step. You’ll generally see one or the other listed, but we note them both here due to the important relationship between them. Justice does not mean comeuppance. It does not mean that we strike back at those who harm us. Instead, we seek balance in our own lives by behaving responsibly. This means not only making amends, but also leaving well enough alone if we know that hearing from us will do a person more harm than good.

Whether others accept our amends or not bears no relevance. What matters is that we made an earnest attempt to live by our principles and to demonstrate them in approaching people with whom we have not had the best history.

Many include forgiveness on the list of principles for Step Nine as well. However, we must achieve forgiveness in Step Eight if we intend to follow through with Step Nine. We then demonstrate our forgiveness by responsible action—and by keeping our mouths shut when necessary. At some point during our amends, people inevitably lash out at us. We may feel tempted to bite back, listing out their own less-than-favorable qualities. But this is not forgiveness, nor is it necessarily responsibility to tell someone else about their defects. Remember, your responsibility when working the principles is to yourself. Let others be responsible for their own actions. You couldn’t force this type of honesty upon another person anyway, no matter how badly you may want to.


Step Ten – Discipline

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“Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.”

We actually see discipline pop up on Step Eight and Step Nine quite a bit as well. On such lists, Step Ten usually replaces discipline with perseverance. Call it what you want, the fact remains that Step Ten necessitates a daily upkeep of the principles utilized thus far.

The Big Book promises us that Step Nine will bring about a better way of life. Step Ten asks that we continue to maintain it. To some, this may sound confusing. How can Step Nine truly promise us a better way of life while asking us to work toward that life every single day? Shouldn’t a better way of life indicate an easier way of living? We may look to The Ripple Effect, a spiritual successor to Drop the Rock focusing on Step Ten, for an explanation.

“In early Step Ten work, we often say, ‘Wait a minute. What I just said or did was wrong. I’m sorry. Let me make it right.’ As we mature in our Step Ten work, however, we need to do this less and less often. We learn to observe ourselves, realize what we’re doing, and stop—before we’ve done much or any harm. With practice and experience, we catch ourselves earlier and earlier—first, after we act; then as soon as we act; later, as we begin to act; and eventually, before we act, at the moment of impulse or emotion.”

Remember, Daniel-san didn’t wax a car once and then become a karate master overnight. He worked hard at it, persevering through difficult training sessions and showing the discipline to keep going no matter how strenuous it seemed. In time, his lessons started becoming easier. He grew into the Karate Kid over time. Likewise, rigorous practice of Step Ten will help us to become more attuned to our principles. One day, we may wake up and realize just how far we’ve come. At this point, we can begin working toward an even greater level of spiritual awareness.


Step Eleven – Awareness

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“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.”

Upon reaching Step Eleven, we find ourselves able to embrace numerous spiritual principles. Great—now what do we actually do with them? Our principles benefit us and those we love, but we may still lack a fundamental sense of purpose. Don’t feel ashamed if this describes you, as it describes most human beings on any given day.

In our search for purpose, we inevitably find ourselves looking toward the future. Through prayer and meditation, we learn to ground ourselves in the present. Instead of searching for some monumental goal in life—a noble endeavor, though often originating from something other than humility—we seek to determine how we can make ourselves of use in the present.

Spiritual awareness means that we try to do the next right thing at all times. This isn’t about determining God’s plan for life, the universe and everything. We cannot know that. But we can remain spiritually aware in this moment, paying attention to the signposts that will lead us down the right path. And if we find ourselves off the path, as we most certainly will from time to time, we work again to establish spiritual awareness so that we may get back on the right track.

Of course, sometimes we feel as if the path has been ripped away from us through no fault of our own. There’s a great speech about this in the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights.

“Give all of us gathered here tonight the strength to remember that life is so very fragile. We are all vulnerable, and we will all, at some point in our lives, fall. We will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts, that what we have is special. That it can be taken from us, and when it is taken from us, we will be tested. We will be tested to our very souls. We will now all be tested. It is these times, it is this pain, that allows us to look inside ourselves.”

Life in recovery will not be perfect. It will bring hardships both old and new. But through awareness and understanding, we may continue seeking the right path. And in our worst moments, the last of the principles will help us to escape from the torment of our own minds.


Step Twelve – Service

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“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.”

First of all, we should note that many do not hear Step Twelve correctly when read aloud. They think of the spiritual awakening as “a” result, not “the” result. This one tiny word, however, makes a huge difference. It lets us know the answer to the question we posed in Step Eleven. The purpose of developing our principles is, among other things, to share these principles with others.

Service takes many forms. Returning to Emily Post’s principles of etiquette, let us take a look at the given definition of consideration.

“Consideration is about having empathy for another person, and the key to consideration is thoughtful behavior. Being thoughtful means thinking about what you can do for those around you and how your actions will affect them. Consideration leads us to help a friend or stranger in need, to bestow a token of appreciation, or to offer praise.”

Whether performing an act of charity or helping another person work the 12 Steps, all principles meet in the middle when we perform acts of service. We maintain the honesty and humility to see that the world does not revolve around us. Maintaining awareness and discipline, we keep our eyes peeled for acts of service we may perform. Willing to perform these acts, we then approach those in need with courage and integrity, hoping to do what we can and maintaining faith that we will make a difference. In this way, we touch others with our sense of responsibility and brotherly love. And should we misstep, doing more harm than good, we know that we can use these same principles to make it right.

In our darkest hours, using these principles for the benefit of others will help us escape from negativity. Service gets us out of our own heads and into the world. In active addiction, we were not a part of the world around us. Through the principles of recovery, the goodness of the world moves through us and manifests in our actions. And with each act of kindness, we find ourselves feeling more and more blessed to finally feel involved in something.

Here at Amethyst, we want our clients to experience the sense of wonderment and zest for living that accompanies true sobriety. For more information on our programs and how they may help you to discover these principles for yourself, drop us a line at your convenience. We look forward to sharing the gifts that recovery has bestowed upon us.

Written by: Justin Kunst

Written by: Justin Kunst

As a member of the Amethyst Recovery Center marketing team, Justin Kunst dedicated his time to curating powerful content that would reach and impact individuals and families who are struggling with substance abuse.


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