Applying the 12 Principles of AA With Intention
At some point, everyone is new to recovery and AA. Maybe you have been in and out of recovery and don’t fully recall the detailed inner-workings of the 12 Principles, or maybe “how this whole AA thing works” is kind of a blur. Perhaps you’re ready to walk the steps of sobriety but have heard mixed reviews of AA in general. It can be a divisive topic, with one side claiming it is the only way to sobriety and the other side touting that some aspects are too rigid or even too spiritual.
In my personal experience, AA was and is an instrumental key in my recovery journey. For that, I am grateful. Gratitude is an extremely important element. However, gaining that understanding and appreciation was not without a hard-won fight. I hope that this post sheds light on the 12 principles of AA, what they are, what they mean to me, and how we all might live them out with intention.
What Are the 12 Principles of AA?
What are the principles of the AA traditions? Are they the same as the “12 Steps”? Essentially, yes, the 12 Steps and the 12 Principles are one and the same. I like to refer to them as the principles, as recovery is not always linear. Moreover, they are each just one word. Each of those single words represents a step in the journey to long-term recovery and sobriety; however, they are also open-ended enough to make meaning for the individual. Let’s discuss the 12 principles more in-depth.
When you think of the first step, the quote “the first step is to admit that you have a problem” may spring to mind. To an extent, that is spot on, but the first principle is more than that. Honesty refers to the need to be honest with oneself, with the group, or loved ones, but most importantly yourself. As addicts, we exist in a frame of mind where carrying on is believing things like “I can stop at any time” or “I don’t drink/use more than so and so, so I am okay.” Being honest with ourselves and others is the first principle because it is the door to letting yourself pursue all of the other principles that flow from that place of authentic self-reflection.
If you are wondering, “what are the spiritual principles in AA?” — maybe out of a place of hesitancy, or maybe just curiosity — this principle speaks to that question. After acknowledging your problem through the principle of honesty, the next step is to find hope in a Higher Power. Let’s be honest — the term “Higher Power” weirds some people out, especially if they do not believe in God or a monotheistic being of some variety.
In recovery, you will likely come across many people who have a “Higher Power” that is not a God at all. For example, I once met someone whose Higher Power was the sunrise. With that said, this step comes naturally to those who already have a tangible walk of faith. The importance of hope, especially so early in the principles, is that it acknowledges that there will be bad moments, stumbles, and hard times. A Higher Power offers faith and hope that is bigger than you — a comforting thought if there ever was one.
Once that Higher Power is identified, the next objective is to surrender to that greater force. The the AA big book states that we make “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Carrying forth this principle is to continually acknowledge that you are at the mercy of a Higher Power — you, your mortal flesh, and your desires no longer come first.
During the fourth step, we embark on a part of the journey that takes immense courage — detailing past mistakes. This is not done to dwell on the past but to acknowledge (in keeping with the principle of honesty) what we have done in a life of addiction. It takes courage to face these aspects of ourselves, but it is part of the process to remember that moving on does not equate to forgetting.
The next principle of integrity is also very much in line with the principle of honesty. It is where the individual takes the moral inventory of sorts formed in the previous step and admits these events and regrets first to God (or a Higher Power) and then to themselves, followed by another person. Integrity, in my understanding, refers to not only being honest but living honestly.
This step and principle is very spiritually focused. It is also extremely important. The book states one should be “entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” It is so imperative in recovery that one be willing to let go, to be forgiven, and to forgive oneself. This principle speaks to that readiness.
Step seven, humility, is essentially the openness and humble approach to being released from the past. It focuses on relying on the Higher Power to help you remove or step further away from your shortcomings. It also zeroes in on the idea that people have a very high opinion of self during addiction. Even if you feel a sense of worthlessness deep down while using, you may act very selfishly and self-importantly to get what you want — something myself and all of those in recovery understand.
Humility opens you up to the idea that “self” is very small in the grand scheme of things and the tapestry of life with God or your Higher Power. As somewhat previously alluded to, this reduced self-importance often feels less like something being taken away and more like a relief… a gift, even.
The principle of love doubles down on many of the previous principles, such as surrender, humility, and honesty. In this step, you make a list of those you have wronged in the past and in your addiction. This can be extremely challenging and even painful, but it is the principle of love because it is done out of a place of empathy and compassion, as you must be willing to plan on making amends wherever possible. Though the concrete idea of the “service” principle comes later, the principle of love begins the process of thinking with a loving service mindset.
Just as the love principle focuses on empathetically making a list of those wronged by you in your addiction, the ninth principle of responsibility urges you to make amends with whomever possible from that list. You acknowledge that you need your Higher Power’s help to do so, and you begin walking in a more mature manner, knowing that you must take responsibility for your past and future actions.
This step builds on the previous responsibility principle. While it is challenging to make a list of your wrongs, intimately acknowledging them and seeking to make amends and ask for forgiveness when possible, doing so continually and over the long term takes discipline. This applies as you remember scenarios that need to be addressed but also speaks to a new way of approaching regret or wrongdoing in the future. This allows the AA process to not only change you for the season of initially getting sober but for the long haul. It is as transformative as it is restorative, as I well know.
One of the more abstract principles, the step of awareness, is imperative to the longer lifetime journey of recovery. It is a personal concept that may vary from person to person, but I understand it to mean that you continue on in the world with whatever degree of normalcy you are experiencing in your life in recovery without losing awareness of God or your Higher Power. Awareness of the moment, not the past, not tomorrow but right here,right now conciously relating to the moment
The last step of AA is to pay it forward through the principle of service. Oftentimes, this comes in the form of sponsoring or mentoring those earlier in recovery or facilitating AA meetings. The founders of AA often talked about the intrinsic need for all of those in AA to work with another. It can also, of course, speak to the general acts of service you are called to do in the world through love and a changed heart.
Connect With Me
I hope this post has been helpful to you as you learn more about the time-tested journey of the principles of AA. Connect with me for more information about recovery support.