What Is a 12-Step Group?

A 12-step group is any organization based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. A 12-step group provides support to anyone struggling with an addiction by others who have already overcome or are still dealing with the same problem. Members sponsor one another as they work their way through a 12 step process designed to free them from compulsive behaviors surrounding alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, sex, shopping, and so forth. The key characteristics of a 12-step program are working through the 12 steps, attending meetings as often as you need them, and receiving individual support from a sponsor.

Meetings are open to anyone of any age or from any walk of life, and there are no dues or fees. Members know each other only by their first names in order to ensure privacy and “anonymity,” which is why the groups are known as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and so forth. There are now off-shoots of these groups in which family members and friends of addicts meet and support one another.
Each individual group has the freedom to set up their meetings the way they want. Some groups emphasize social outings such as picnics and parties; others focus on educating members through speakers and videos; and some have a variety of formats. Some members, especially in the early stages of recovery, find it necessary to attend meetings many times in order to stay sober. They may also contact their sponsors for individual support at all hours of the day or night when they feel that they cannot handle their cravings and compulsions alone.
Alcoholics Anonymous began in the 1930s when two men from New England (“Bill W.” and “Dr. Bob”) came together to help each other using principles of the Oxford Group, a religious movement dedicated to self-improvement through self-inventory, admitting wrongs, reparations, prayer, meditation, and helping others. The twelve steps are as follows:
1. Admit that you are powerless over your addiction and that your life is now unmanageable;

2. Believe that God or a Power greater than you can restore you to sanity;

3. Decide to turn your life over to that Power or God as you understand Him to be;

4. Perform a moral inventory of yourself;

5. Admit your exact failings to God and to another person;

6. Become ready to ask God to help you;

7. Ask God to take away your shortcomings;

8. List everyone you have hurt and decide to make amends to them;

9. Make amends to each person you have harmed unless you would injure them or others by doing that;

10. Continue your self-inventory and admitting where you are wrong;

11. Pray to understand God’s will for you and pray for the power to carry out God’s will, using prayer and meditation to improve contact with God;

12. As a result of working these steps, have a spiritual awakening and try to help other addicts, and to practice principles in all your affairs.

Although the 12 steps are based on spiritual practices, it is possible for atheists or agnostics to work the process in a secular way.
Your sponsor in the group is often the person you tell your failings too, and your sponsor often helps you make amends. Members have been known to return money and objects they have stolen decades earlier, to apologize to people for mistakes made in the past, and so forth during Step 9.
Twelve-step groups remain an important force in helping people with addictions. Even the most sophisticated residential treatment programs often require clients to attend 12-step meetings, especially once they return home. There are now over two million members in 150 countries for Alcoholics Anonymous alone, and millions more in other kinds of 12-step groups.