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The 12 Principles of Recovery Explained

The 12 Principles of Recovery Explained

Recovery can be intimidating. Many people hear about the 12 Steps made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous and think that the whole process is just too complicated. This is precisely why it is so important to have a better understanding of the 12 Principles of Recovery. The 12 Principles are basic spiritual concepts that guide the Steps. When you can grasp the underlying idea behind each Step, it greatly simplifies things and makes it easier for you to follow the path of your sober journey. Let’s take a closer look at each of the 12 Principles of Recovery and how they relate to the Steps.

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The 1st Principle—SURRENDER

“We admitted we were powerless over our addiction–that our lives had become unmanageable.” ~ The 1st Step of Recovery The very first Step may be confusing to you. How can you expect to win the fight against your addiction if you are “POWERLESS”? It goes against everything you think you know about the “War on Drugs”. That’s entirely the point. Insanity has been described as “doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.” Doesn’t that perfectly describe your previous attempts at sobriety? How many times have you tried to quit drinking and drugging, swearing that “THIS time, you MEAN it”? And how many times have your most solemn promises been proven inadequate? That’s not a criticism—that’s the nature of addiction. Addiction is a disease of the brain that hijacks your will and renders your best intentions ineffectual. And because you are trying to overcome substance-caused physical and chemical changes within your own brain, your solo attempt at recovery was doomed to failure before you even started. If you are like most addicts, your substance use was at least partially fueled by your stubbornness.  You cope with your problems in your own way, by drinking and drugging to numb uncomfortable stress and emotions. And when THAT became a problem, you insisted that you could manage just fine on your own. It hasn’t exactly worked, has it? But when you ADMIT that your best intentions are unequal to the task and SURRENDER to the reality of your addiction, you open yourself up to other possibilities that may be right for you. Surrendering does NOT mean giving up. On the contrary, it means you now have the FREEDOM to move beyond your own will and ego.

The 2nd Principle—HOPE

“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” ~ The 2nd Step of Recovery Reflect for a moment on those words – “came to believe”. Could there possibly be any better definition of how HOPE blossoms? Active addiction means the opposite – confusion, chaos, pain, shame, mounting consequences, and worst of all, deepening despair that your life will ever get better. When you look around, it’s obvious that people can and do recover from even the most severe addictions, even if you have no idea how to emulate their successful return to sobriety. And because those people seem are no better or stronger than you are, it’s also obvious that they received help from someone or something beyond their own will. For lack of a better term, this someone or something is usually referred to as a “Higher Power”. What is a Higher Power? It is anything greater than and outside of yourself and your own abilities that provides you with inspiration, strength, and guidance. Everyone envisions their own personal Higher Power differently:

  • The God of YOUR comprehension and understanding
  • Fate
  • Humanity
  • The Universe
  • Medical science
  • Other alcoholics and addicts who have achieved successful recovery

This final example—other people who are happy and thriving in sobriety—may even inspire you the most, because it offers demonstrable PROOF that true recovery is possible. After all, if someone who has been where you’ve been and felt what you’ve felt can STILL recover to live a sober and serene life, maybe there is HOPE or you, as well.×334.jpg

The 3rd Principle—COMMITMENT

“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” ~ The 3rd Step of Recovery Now that you have hope that a Higher Power CAN help you, what do you do with that fragile expectation? To borrow a phrase from poker, you have to go “all in”. It logically follows that if (a) your addiction is beyond your poor power to control and (b) your Higher Power can help you recover, then your only real option is to get out of your own way. No more stubbornly doing things YOUR way, because that’s what got you in trouble in the first place. When you COMMIT to trusting in your Higher Power, it means you get off of your “but”.  In other words, you fully decide to stop making excuses or protests against Steps in the recovery process that don’t fit match YOUR desires or preconceptions. Examples of “but” behavior include:

  • I need to go to a meeting, but…”
  • I probably shouldn’t be around this person, but…”
  • “My counselor told me to practice this exercise, but…”
  • “The doctor said to take this anti-craving medication, but…”

You’re going to want to balk at some of the things required of you during recovery. It’s EASY to throw up a smokescreen objection, but that’s just your ego talking. Resist the temptation to go back to your old way of things because you think you know better. If you already had all the right answers, your life wouldn’t be unmanageable.

The 4th Principle—HONESTY

“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” ~ The 4th Step of Recovery Addiction flourishes because of self-deception. No one WANTS to admit that they are addicted to alcohol or drugs, just as they don’t want to admit the dishonest or hurtful behaviors they engaged in while actively drug-seeking. “That’s not who I am,” they tell themselves. But if addiction is a disease that promotes dysfunctional behaviors, true recovery must mean addressing those actions and the accompanying character flaws. Here’s the thing—you can’t get better if you don’t identify precisely what’s wrong. In this case, that means taking an unflinching look at yourself—the REAL you, scars and all. This is the goal of the 4th Step of Recovery. The guiding Principle of the 4th Step—HONESTY—breaks down into two parts. Your moral inventory must be:

  • Searching—You must thoroughly examine your character, thoughts, and past actions, and make a list of both your defects and your strengths.
  • Fearless—Taking an honest account of your personal character means facing some uncomfortable truths about yourself. You must not be afraid to bring the skeletons in your closet into the light.

Your natural impulse will be to minimize your faults and gloss over uncomfortable realizations. Everyone wants to be the hero of their own personal story, and it’s distressing when that’s not the reality. But anything less than absolute honesty means you are doing yourself—and your recovery—a grave disservice.

The 5th Principle—TRUTH

“Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” ~ The 5th Step of Recovery Some people say that CONFESSION is the Principle behind the 5th Step—the open acknowledgement of personal wrongdoing. But what is confession except a candid admission of TRUTH? And the truth is, the thought of confessing these painful truths terrifies many people new to recovery. But two old adages come to mind that together highlight why it is so necessary:

“CONFESSION is good for the soul.”


“The TRUTH will set you free.”

This means that without confession, you stay morally unwell. There is an old recovery saying — “We are only as sick as our secrets.”

It also means that you will continue to be held back by your defects of character until you take steps to address them.  From a practical standpoint, honestly admitting your wrongs to another person is a way to protect your recovery from one of the biggest problematic behaviors practiced by addicts – self-delusion When you make this admission to another trusted person, they can hold you accountable – without judgment. This means that it will be harder to fool them than it was to fool yourself. They will also be in a position to offer feedback and, if necessary, further guidance and advice. So why do you need to also admit your wrongs to your Higher Power? Look at it this way: because of your past, you’re probably carrying around all sorts of emotional baggage—anger, rage, regret, shame, confusion, depression, and so on. Step 5 is your chance to unload that heavy burden and move forward with a lightened soul.

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The 6th Principle—WILLINGNESS

“Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” ~ The 6th Step of Recovery During the 6th Step, the Principles begin to work in combination. WILLINGNESS is your decision to stop holding back. In some ways it is an extension of the Principle of SURRENDER guiding the 1st Step. Put another way, it is you relaxing your ego and will, letting go of your own preconceptions and stubbornness, and giving permission for your recovery to proceed. Willingness also means purposefully having an open mind. This means remaining consciously COMMITTED to accepting new ideas, concepts, and ways of doing things—even if you don’t fully understand or are uncomfortable at first. In other words, it means having HOPE and faith that your Higher Power has you on the right path. Again and again during recovery, you will be asked to reflect on concepts that are new to you or do things that you may find difficult. But it is your willingness to do whatever it takes to recover that will keep you going while you are learning and growing.

The 7th Principle—HUMILITY

“Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.” ~ The 7th Step of Recovery Some people have a hard time grasping this Principle, because the modern definition is associated with weakness, passivity, or even punishment. But during the conception of the 12 steps, HUMILITY was more about having the proper perception of one’s self. As Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, said, humility is “the clear recognition of what and who we really are, followed by a sincere attempt to be what we can be.” In this regard, the Principle of humility is important to your recovery, because by recognizing how addiction was controlling your life, you can better understand the work that is necessary to distance yourself from your disease. But when the definition of humility is expanded, it further demonstrates the need to set aside stubbornness, pride, and ego while you put your trust in your Higher Power and the recovery process. Humility is the opposite of addiction-driven selfishness. As the author C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” This means that you stop being a slave to your wants and desires. Asking for the removal of the shortcomings that have held you back your addicted demonstrates how much you want to break free from that enslavement. And when you are humble enough to admit that your self-centered ego, pride, stubbornness, wants, and desires helped support your active addiction, then you begin to realize that there must be a better way.

The 8th Principle—REFLECTION

“Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. ~ The 8th Step of Recovery If the 4th and 5th Steps were guided by the need for HONESTY and TRUTH about our addiction and character defects, then the 8th Step requires REFLECTION on the consequences of our behaviors. This Principle requires you to reflect on several concepts:

  • To “amend” means to right a wrong that you have committed. Because the damage caused by addiction takes many forms, it demands careful consideration to determine WHO was affected and HOW they were harmed.
  • To “amend” also means to make permanent changes. Any attempt to right your past wrongs are insincere and ultimately doomed to failure if you have not changed the behaviors that brought about the harm in the first place.
  • “All” is mentioned twice. This means that accepting responsibility for your past actions is unconditional.

Listing ALL the people harmed by your addiction-driven actions is a sobering exercise as you give real thought to the impact you have had on everyone around you. Because the list can get extensive, it is strongly suggested that you write it down. Possible headings on the list include:

  • WHO was harmed
  • HOW they were harmed
  • Your THOUGHTS and FEELINGS about the harm
  • HOW you can make amends

Here’s the thing—by studiously contemplating how your past behaviors affected other people, you increase your chances of successfully changing your future actions. If you are sincere, you’ll be less likely to repeat old mistakes.×300.jpg

The 9th Principle—AMENDMENT

Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” ~ The 9th Step of Recovery The Principle of AMENDMENT underscores how important it is to make a real effort to correct any mistakes you have made. Because it requires a direct positive action for a past negative action, some people refer to this Principle as JUSTICE. Un-righted wrongs result in unresolved guilt that can stunt your emotional growth during recovery. The weight of that guilt can slow your progress and even lead directly to relapse. Making amends – or at least, trying to – relieves you of that guilt. Also, making direct amends in a manner related to the harm helps drive home the idea that your actions have consequences. So, not only do amends help correct the past, they also remind you to avoid repeating those hurtful mistakes in the future. Finally, it is extremely likely that the people who were harmed the most by your addiction were those closest to you – spouse, partner, children, parents, close friends, employers. When you make a sincere attempt to make up for the harm you caused, it goes a long way towards repairing and rebuilding, positive relationships. Positive relationships and support are crucial to successful and lasting recovery. There are a few things to keep in mind –

  • An amend is MORE than an apology.
  • Sometimes, direct amends are impossible. In that case, your only option might be to make indirect amends by living your best life possible.
  • YOUR attempt is necessary, but THEIR forgiveness is not.

The 10th Principle—VIGILANCE

“Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” ~ The 10th Step of Recovery Some people refer to this Principle as PERSEVERANCE – “steadfastly maintaining your purpose in spite of discouragement, obstacles, and difficulty.” That is also an excellent description of successful recovery. By the time you reach the 10th Step, you will be feeling a justifiable feeling of accomplishment at your progress. Unfortunately, it is far too easy to become complacent. A lax attitude often leads to a return to a dangerous behaviors and thoughts. After all, old habits die hard. But keep this in mind – unhealthy thoughts and behaviors lead to relapse. VIGILANCE means constant self-appraisal, where you repeatedly examine your thoughts, feelings, motives, and actions to make sure that you are not harming others or yourself. It means never letting your guard down. But, it also means to persevere – to continue working your recovery program, even when it’s hard. It means taking it “One Day at a Time” and one Step at a time. Sometimes, it might even mean taking it five minutes at a time and repeating a Step over and over. Whichever prevailing Principle concept you subscribe to – vigilance or perseverance –it is important that you consciously choose to let it guide your actions. Don’t allow your progress to undermine your focus, and don’t permit any temporary difficulty to lessen your resolve. Recovery is a lifelong work-in-progress, and you will find yourself revisiting these Steps and these Principles multiple times.

The 11th Principle—ATTUNEMEN

“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.” ~ The 11th Step of Recovery The Principle of ATTUNEMENT prompts you to remember the positive lessons you have learned and to remain receptive to the messages of recovery. These messages can come in any form and from any source – your Higher Power, your peers, your counselors, or even from Life itself, the harshest teacher of all. For example, your Higher Power may “speak” to you through your peers in a recovery group or in a 12 Step support meeting. You may hear something in their familiar stories that is perfectly applicable to your own personal situation. But in order to hear that message, you have to be listening. Applying this Principle also requires that you work on consciously increasing your AWARENESS of yourself – your physical and mental state, your emotions and thoughts, your actions and reactions, and your personal situation. This awareness is so important because it helps you recognize and address problems before they become major issues that could jeopardize everything you have worked for. Many people in recovery achieve this self-awareness through some combination of prayer and/or meditation. As with the other Steps, becoming attuned to the will of your Higher Power requires practice. Get in the daily habit of finding a solitary, quiet place where you can be more receptive. As the 11th Step says, there are two things you hope to gain:

  • Knowledge – You want to hear what your Higher Power is trying to tell you.
  • Power – You want the resources and the ability to do the things you should.×347.jpg

The 12th Principle—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 12th Step of Recovery The Principle of SERVICE is a powerful culmination of everything that has come before. It incorporates several key concepts:

  • “Spiritual Awakening” – This refers to the profound change that successful recovery can bring to your life. It is MORE than “just” abstaining from alcohol and drugs. It also about achieving emotional health, sanity, stability, and serenity. It is about changing the way you treat others, and yourself.
  • “Carry this Message” – No one can reach a struggling alcoholic or addict quite like someone who has been where they are, done what they have done, and felt what they feel. Just as some of your greatest inspiration came from other people who successively recovered by using these Steps, so, too, can you inspire others.

And here’s the best part – by giving someone else the “roadmap to recovery”, you will also find it easier to stay on the right path. Helping others keeps YOU sober.

  • “Practice these Principles” – It wasn’t just the Steps that got you to this point. It was also applying the Principles behind those Steps. Although in this instance these concepts helped you regain your sobriety, they are applicable in almost every area of your life.

For example, imagine how much you would benefit if you were more Honest, Humble, and Vigilant in your professional life, or how your personal relationships would blossom if they were filled with Hope and Commitment.

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The Value of Having Principles during Recovery

Some people think of the 12 Steps as a roadmap that can guide their sober journey, and that analogy isn’t far off. However, how good is a map that gives you directions but doesn’t tell you about any obstacles along the way? You still might reach your destination, but it will be a lot harder and take much longer. That is the purpose of the 12 Principles. When you work on each Step of Recovery, reflect on the underlying guiding Principle. Don’t just do what the individual Step is telling you—think about why you are doing it. When you fully realize why each Step is so important, you are far less likely to stubbornly – and foolishly – try to do things your own way. You get out of it what you put in. One very famous 12 Step quote that is often repeated at the close of the meeting is, “It works if you work it, and it won’t if you don’t.” Keep one very important thing in mind – recovery is a process, not perfection. Sometimes, your progress will be slow, and sometimes, you may even stumble. But the beauty of the Steps and Principles is that you can always start over or pick up where you left off. Go at your own pace, because recovery is not a race. As long as you are trying, it doesn’t matter when you arrive, only that you eventually make it.