What is the 12 & 12 in Alcoholics Anonymous?

The number 12 has served AA and other organizations its members quite well.

What is the 12 & 12 in AA?

The 12 & 12 (12 and 12) refers to combining two lists of 12 items that have shaped the approach, the steps, and the traditions. The 12-steps are a roadmap that facilitates a path to recovery from addiction. Meanwhile, the 12 traditions are the organizational principles by which 12-step groups maintain autonomy while working towards a common goal.

The founders of AA came up with the 12-steps very early on in its history. In 1950, they added the twelve traditions to solidify the organizational principles that allow groups to avoid distractions and help addicts recover.

In 1953 founder Bill W. published the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. It emphasizes the equal importance of both the steps and the traditions. Indeed, the two are inseparable. The steps illuminate the path an individual can take towards recovery. But the completion of that path without the group is impossible, and the group cannot provide that support without the traditions to guide it.

Read the 12 steps & 12 traditions in PDF format at aa.org.

The Twelve Steps

The founders of AA, Dr. Bob and Bill W., shared two beliefs on alcoholism and recovery, which have informed all 12-step programs since. They believed that addiction was primarily a spiritual malady rather than a question of willpower or morality. They also thought that the support and fellowship of other alcoholics was the key to recovery.

The steps are built in careful succession (1-12), with each one building carefully on the previous ones. Some of the steps are more difficult than others. Indeed, some members report that some of the stages are positively painful to complete. However, each serves an essential spiritual purpose, and the whole is worth considerably more than the sum of the steps.

Therefore, the 12-steps focus on ending the cycle of unhealthy selfish and destructive behavior. The process involves surrendering to a Higher Power and thereby repairing the spiritual life of the addict. Though the founders were Christian and the Higher Power they envisioned is God, any spiritual entity which helps us on the road to recovery can be used for this purpose.

Once the Higher Power’s strength reinforces the addicts, they perform a fearless moral inventory and survey all they have done wrong. They also try to understand which failures of character led them to behave that way. During this process, they also confess these wrongs to both their Higher Power and another person. Finally, this part of the process culminates in making amends for the wrongs committed in the throes of addiction and elsewhere.

In the last three steps, members have already made significant progress in coming to terms with their past. They work on bringing recovery and spirituality into their everyday lives. This process culminated with a commitment to service and to helping other addicts in need. As you can see, the 12-step program is a self-contained path to a full spiritual recovery from addiction.

The Twelve Traditions

The 12-step approach to recovery relies heavily on the power of the group. The founders believed that only fellow addicts could help an alcoholic by offering genuine support and fellowship. As Bill W. put it, he designed the rules to help the different groups survive. He explained that “most individuals cannot survive unless there is a group. The group must survive, or the individual will not.”

It became apparent quite early on that if the group plays such an essential role in recovery, it should be protected and regulated. After all, every group can’t just do whatever it is they want. The founders built AA on certain principles, and every group needed to uphold them to combat alcoholism.

However, they were wise enough to realize that regulation had to protect each separate group’s autonomy and independence. While every group needs to follow the same basic principles, there is no substitute for the judgment of the people in the group.

The way AA the founders organized AA was revolutionary. It lacks a governmental hierarchy and relies on traditions instead of explicit and enforceable rules. The traditions have a vital ideological component. They stress the principles of autonomy and service.

However, they are also notably pragmatic. As the organization formed in 1936 grew, the rising popularity brought many unanswered practical issues. The questions of money, independence, and public relations arose quickly as the fellowship grew. With no traditions or rules, each group handled their problems to the best of their abilities. The founders and other members could then see what worked best and base general principles on lessons learned the hard way.

By 1950 when the organization first published the traditions, the founders had a decade and a half of experience in running AA groups. They had experienced a great deal of both failure and success. Therefore, the traditions are not just abstract, idealized versions of how a fellowship should work. Instead, they are hard-won realizations of how a society of alcoholics can grow exponentially without diluting its core principles.

AA has survived this long because it has avoided some of the pitfalls which bring other organizations to their knees. It has limited power-seeking and aggrandizement by limiting hierarchical control. It has avoided divisiveness and outside interference by preventing the groups from championing other causes or taking external money. Strict adherence to the 12 traditions of AA has allowed the various groups to survive and thrive.

If so, the 12 traditions protect and help the group, just as the 12 steps protect and support the individual member. Both are intended to serve the higher purpose of the fellowship, to help all addicts in need.