12 Step behavioral addiction


6- 12 Steps of Behavioral Addiction


This page provides an overview of how the 12 Steps constitute a program of recovery from behavioral addictions, regardless of the specific type of problematic behavior. Each Step is defined along with its underlying principle, its goals, and the tools it offers the addict to live life free from addiction on a daily basis.


  • 12 Step program’s approach towards recovery
  • Overview of recovery with the 12 Step


12 Step program’s approach towards recovery

  • The 12 Steps constitute a program of recovery that address all aspects of the multi-faceted disease of addiction, whether substances or behaviors. The 12 Steps are spiritually based, and the principles of the Steps can be applied for recovery from any kind of addiction. The first Step spells out the specific type of addiction, while the rest of the Steps are the same for all 12 Step programs. The reason for this is that regardless of the type of addiction, recovery means adopting a new attitude towards life, while also committing to a set of actions to get free of addiction. In Step 1, the alcoholic admits to powerlessness over alcohol, the gambling addict over gambling, and the sex addict over his or her sexual conduct. But the program of recovery as encompassed in the rest of the Steps is spelled out in a way to help the addict achieve a new way of life based on spirituality. Though the 12 Steps make reference to God or to a Higher Power, it is important to understand that they have nothing to do with religion. Fellowships based on the 12 Steps are open to all regardless of faith or creed — and adherence to a religion is not required. Although many addicts in recovery do find it is useful to put faith in a God of their understanding, many agnostics and atheists are equally successful in working the Steps and finding recovery.
  • The 12 Step are a process; they are not linear or ever finished. Working the Steps means adopting a new way of living. It’s a life-long process, which is done with daily practice, according to the willingness of each individual addict in recovery. Some days the recovering addict will find they need to use one Step in particular. That might mean simply working Step 10 for daily maintenance. An addict who finds himself at risk of a relapse may need to work a specific Step for a time — or use the tools and the support of the program more. Sometimes an addict decides he is ready to expand on the quality and spiritual growth of his life in recovery and may want to rework all the 12 Steps with a fresh perspective. For example, an addict who finds his way of thinking getting distorted or his life getting out of sync may want to work Steps 2 and 3 to restore perspective and sanity to his thinking. Or an addict who finds himself tempted to go back to his old compulsive behaviors may want to return to Step 1 to remind himself – to admit to himself — of his powerlessness over his addiction.
  • There are many paths to recovery. No one’s is the same, and each addict works their program to the best of their ability on a daily basis, depending on their particular needs and goals. There are no rules or rigid guidelines to working the program. In fact, they are merely suggestions that when practiced have helped many find freedom from addiction. It is up to each person to put in the work and follow these suggestions; there are no authorities or professionals to enforce any aspect of the program. The philosophy behind all 12 Step programs is the belief that addiction is a multi-faceted and chronic disease and that recovery from this condition, like all other chronic illnesses, requires a daily program. Fundamental to 12 Step programs is the belief that the addict is never cured of his condition. Rather, the Steps enable the addict to live free from his addiction by applying principles and tools on a daily basis. For example, a person suffering from food addiction will always have this condition dormant in him, and if he doesn’t apply the program to his daily life, then sooner or later he will relapse to old eating habits and find himself once again in the grip of the addictive behavior, perhaps worse than ever.
  • In addition to the 12 Step, Fellowships of the various programs offer other tools for helping the addict maintain recovery while also pursuing a far better way of life. Among these tools are the slogans, such as “Live and Let Live” or “One Day at a Time”, which act as aids to maintaining a spiritual way of life. Members are also encouraged to get a sponsor, someone in the Fellowship who has more experience and who can answer questions and provide general guidance. Simply attending meetings provides a forum where addicts get together and draw identification, hope, and support from one another.
  • It is important to note that 12 Step programs do not claim a monopoly over recovery or that the Steps offer the one and only way for an addict to recover from addiction. In the main text of Alcoholics Anonymous (the original Fellowship from which all other 12 Step programs are derived) – the so-called Big Book – it notes that Alcoholics Anonymous could be an alternative approach for those who have unsuccessfully tried every other means to get clean. There is actual praise in the Big Book for those addicts who are able to get clean and maintain recovery through other means. As it says, “our hats are off to them”, to those who managed what members of A.A. itself were unable to do until they come into that program. These A.A. members were alcoholics who had tried everything to get sober – and failed. They had reached a place where they were faced with jails, institutions or death, and they made a decision to try Alcoholics Anonymous. This is the same choice facing addicts today who are seeking a way out of their addiction. And though no one insists that 12 Step programs are the only way to recover, a vast body of evidence demonstrates convincingly that these programs are the most effective means for an addict to address his addiction and maintain sobriety. Above all, the goal of recovery is, in the words of 12 Step programs, to stay stopped. As they say in the Fellowships, giving up our addictions is easy; we have done it a thousand times. It is keeping clean that is tough. 12 Step programs work because they offer an amalgamation of support and tools for this multifaceted condition. Along with the support of their anonymous Fellowships, these programs address the psychological, physical, spiritual, moral and social aspects that contribute to the destructive power of the disease of addiction.


  • For information on the various aspects of addiction, please refer to: Disease of addiction
  • For information on the history of the 12 Step programs and Fellowships, please refer to: Foundations 12 Steps



Overview of recovery with the 12 Step

Below is a general overview of the principle and goals of each of the 12 Steps in order to familiarize you with their structure and approach towards recovery.

 12 Step behavioral addiction - 12 Step Recovery Behavior Addictions



Step 1- Admission & acceptance

1. “We admitted we were powerless over (substance and or behavior) – that our lives had become unmanageable.”


  • Recovery from any kind of addiction has to start with an admission that a problem exists. Sadly – tragically — it takes many years for most addicts to finally admit their addiction, and to acknowledge they have no power to control or remedy it on their self will alone. Denial of the problem is integral to the disease of addiction. Essentially, the condition is such that the addict reaches the point where he is unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, the reality being that addiction has taken over his life. It is said that addiction is the only disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease! Most addicts use an amalgamation of mechanisms to deny their conditions and continue with their compulsive behavior or substance abuse. That is what makes Step 1 vital. In the Fellowships, they say that Step 1 is the only Step that you have to do 100% in order to maintain recovery from your addiction. Step 1 asks the addict to face the reality that they are addicted and that the addiction has made their life unmanageable. Recovery from any kind of disease starts when the person recognizes its existence. In other words, no one is going to seek help until they have decided they need help. And this is a hurdle for those addicted to an activity, since the destructive power of the behavior continues to create harm even during those hours and days when the addict is abstaining from it.
  • To admit to being powerless is difficult. We live in a culture that celebrates accomplishment and ability, and to admit that there is something over which we must admit defeat goes against so much of what we have learned. The surrendering that comes with practicing Step 1 does not come easy to the addict. The gambler engaged in what initially was an innocent and harmless activity that offered relief from life’s problems may find it difficult to acknowledge that his gambling has become a major problem leading him to the gates of poverty and destruction. The food addict who occasionally monitored her food so as not to gain weight may find it very hard to accept that her eating behavior has now become the source of her physical and psychological maladies. No person starts an activity with the intention of becoming addicted to it. In the case of behavior addicts, where knowledge and information about this kind of addiction is scarce, such an admission is even harder.
  • The other principle of Step 1, namely powerlessness, aims to help the addict come to terms with the dire nature of his condition and the truth about himself. The point is that he is suffering from a disease over which he has completely lost power to control or stop based on will power alone. Step 1 says that it is irrelevant how persistent or determined or strong willed the addict is; as regards the addictive behavior, the addict is powerless. People, in general, still view addiction as a personal failing or a moral issue, believing that if only the addict was willing to exert himself, his problem would disappear. But these laypeople, along with active addicts themselves, fail to understand a basic fact about addiction, which is that it has nothing to do with strength of character. A fundamental aim of Step 1 is to help the still-suffering addict realize that his destructive and compulsive behavior is the result of a very real disease. This in turn helps the addict face his problem by relieving him of some of the shame and isolation that accompany his condition. Many addicts have been able to draw strength and courage from discovering that they suffer from a disease – one for which there is treatment — and start their journey into recovery.



Step 2- Solution to recover

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


  • Though Step 1 is often difficult to come to terms with and accept, it opens the door to hope and a solution in the form of Step 2. When the addict acknowledges he cannot by himself control or stop his compulsive behavior, he becomes ready to look for help and the means to recover outside himself. This is the foundation of Step 2, which is to bring home the fact that though the addict lacks the power to stop, there is something outside him in the form of a higher power can do for him what he cannot do for himself.
  • All 12 Step programs are rooted in spirituality, and Step 2 can be the foundation upon which the addict can maintain his recovery. 12 Step programs do not insist on a definition of a higher power. It’s an individual choice. Put in its simplest form, a power greater than yourself can be any power, so long as it is not you. The addict is faced with a stark choice: whether to rely on his own ways and means to recover or to choose a power outside himself to help.
  • Many people are turned off by the mention of God or a higher power. In today’s world, many have a bleak view of religion, and in their minds God exists only in relation to religion. Addicts in 12 Step programs, though, have chosen to create their own understanding of a higher power. Many choose the power of their Fellowship groups as their higher power, some define it in terms of nature, while others prefer to name it God as defined in their religion. It is up to each individual to decide what they want their higher power to be. The important thing is that the addict in recovery recognize that he does not posses the power to free himself from his disease of addiction, and therefore must develop an understanding and belief in a power outside himself.
  • Working Step 2 can be a liberating experience for the addict. Relieved of the burden of fixing himself, the recovering addict can relax and start to enjoy life. Step 2 offers a solution that offers hope, plus a sense of freedom. The addict recognizes through working Step 1 that his thinking had become distorted and his life chaotic and unmanageable. Having achieved this measure of humility and self-awareness, he can better grasp the message behind Step 2, which is that the solution to his problem lies outside himself. Upon working this Step, many addicts find a sense of freedom; they give up trying to solve their problem on their own. They are free of the continuous cycle of trying and failing, of promising and disappointing others, of seeing their life going further into ruin and destruction. Finally, there is hope. A power greater than themselves can restore their obsessive way of thinking back to normal, if only they allow and believe in it.



3- Step 3- Faith in action

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


  • The Steps are in the order they are in for a reason – and Step 3 grows naturally out of Step 2. Now that you have developed a belief in a power greater than yourself who can restore you to normality and free you from your obsession with your addictive behavior, you are ready to allow it to happen. Step 3 requires putting faith into action. You have been offered hope and a way out of addiction. You first admitted you had a problem and then agreed that that only a higher power could relieve you of that problem and restore you to sanity. Step 3 is simply asking that you take the next logical step and hand your will over to the care of that power greater than yourself.
  • The suggestion that we hand over “our will and our lives” to a higher power may strike many as strange and foreign. It is likely that anyone unfamiliar with the spiritual roots of Step 3 is likely to balk at the suggestion that they no longer attempt to be in constant control of every facet of their lives. This is doubly so for addicts, who by nature are grandiose and obstinate – and imagine that they are supremely in control of their lives (despite all evidence to the contrary). But practicing Step 3 is fundamental to achieving freedom from a chaotic and destructive life. It has to be noted though that Step 3 simply requires a decision on our behalf, it does not state total abandonment of our self will in all areas of our lives. The Step itself talks of a willingness to try to this way of negotiating through life, of letting go of the illusion of control. It does not imply that we cannot make decisions freely by ourselves for life matters. Step 3 says only that if you admit your life has become unmanageable because of your addictive behavior, then as far as this activity is concerned you must be ready to listen to others, and follow suggestions. Such a new way of thinking is usually easier to accept for those who have suffered the extremist consequences of their addiction. After their many failed attempts and hard-knock experiences, they are well aware that their own ways do not work. They may find it easier to surrender and give another way a try. The term “in the care of God” can also strike some as strange or even risky. Put simply, though, we are handing our will over to a power that cares for us and wishes to help us out of our addiction. One manifestation of that power greater may be the sponsor who suggests we try a different way when the compulsion to act on our addiction is strong. Another way we might hear from our higher power is through members sharing at meetings about how they cope with their problems without resorting to the addictive activity. For those of traditional religious faith, working Step 3 can literally mean asking our God in prayers to take our will away and trusting him to take care of us.
  • This Step may be easier for addicts whose problems are with substances, because one can completely abstain from using them. With behavior addictions, it is a bit more difficult in that they are activities that are inevitable parts of life. A food addict cannot completely abstain from eating. But he can identify the areas and circumstances where food has become a major problem in his life and then work Step 3 by handing his will over to the care of God in these problem areas. For example, he may resort to food as means of coping and escaping from life problems. So he would need to use the principles of Step 3 by handing his will over whenever he has the desire to resort to food for such purposes / under such circumstances. Similarly the sex addict, the workaholic or codependent in the case of behavior addictions because of their nature each addict would need to identify problematic areas and work steps 1 to 3 around them.
  • The principles of the first three Steps, which set the spiritual foundation of all 12 Step programs, aim to achieve the following. In Step 1, we become humble and admit defeat. We accept that we have lost the power to control or stop our compulsive behavior. In Step 2, we find hope that there is a solution, a way out of our addiction. We also recognize that the solution is not within us but must come from a power greater than ourselves, a power that we are free to define however we wish. In Step 3, we act on our newfound belief and put into action this faith by making a decision on a daily basis to turn our will over to the care of our higher power.



Steps 4 & 5 – Self-examination & confession

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

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


  • Now that we are armed with a bit more ego awareness, self-discipline, and faith, we are ready to review our past in Step 4. This Step calls for a thorough examination (an “inventory”) of our experiences and relationships with a view toward uncovering patterns of dysfunctional emotions and behavior, called “character defects.” Whether it is done in therapy or with a sponsor, disclosure of the inventory in Step 5 aids development of self-esteem and an observing ego. One gains more objectivity and self-acceptance, and guilt, resentments, and paralyzing shame begin to dissolve. With it go the false self, self-loathing and depression. For some, this process may also involve recalling childhood pain, which is the beginning of empathy for oneself and others.
  • No one becomes an addict overnight, whether the addiction is to substances or behaviors. In fact, we usually carry on with the addictive activities for years before reaching the dark places where we are finally forced to admit their destructive effect. We abuse a substance or compulsively act on behavior for an amalgamation of reasons. Working Step 4 provides the framework for us to identify our dysfunctional patterns of behaviors and emotions in order to uncover what first led us onto the path of addiction.
  • Step 4 is about an honest self-examination, an activity foreign to us addicts. Most of us have spent our lives blaming others and holding them responsible for our problems. Here is an opportunity for us to look at our part in the problems and all that has gone wrong for us. Very importantly, resentments that time and time again led us to compulsively act out are honestly processed in this Step. We will finally begin to understand what makes us tick, why we felt we needed to engage in behavior that was destructive but that we used to cope with life.
  • The aim of Step 5 is to help us build our lost self-esteem. The deeply honest sharing of our thoughts and fears that is at the heart of Step 5, something usually done with a sponsor, will very likely be the first time we have ever opened ourselves up to another human being. A sort of confession, the principle of this Step is to relieve us of the heavy burden of guilt and shame we may be carrying due to the years of living with our addiction. All the lies, dishonesty, manipulations, resentments, and humiliations that are part of being an active addict – and which drive us to further pursue our addiction to blot out the guilt — are brought into the open and shared with another. We no longer have to isolate ourselves or hold onto secrets, living what amounts to a double life. As they say in 12 Step programs, “we are only as sick as our secrets.” There will be less self-loathing, anger and depression now that we have taken Step 5 with another person; someone who like us is imperfect and filled with faults.



Steps 6 & 7- Humility & transformation

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

7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings. “


  • Though working Steps 4 and 5 enable us to identify our distorted behavior patterns and perverse attitude towards life, more is needed to make us change and live free from addiction. The self-destructive tools and mechanisms we have used for years to cope with life and its problems, namely our addiction, now need to be replaced with healthy ones. This is where Steps 6 and 7 come in, which are there is to provide the opportunity to help us live life upon new terms.
  • In Step 6, we look squarely at the character defects that led to our compulsive behaviors, and we become willing for our higher power to remove them. It is an important Step — and one that requires daily vigilance, for these defects are closely aligned with our addictive behavior. For example, the codependent who created havoc in her life due to compulsive rescuing and people pleasing may need to confront her buried feelings of low self-worth. She may need to take a deeper look at her childhood to assess the root of her behavior and then become willing for her God to remove them by working Step 7.
  • All the Steps bring the addict a greater sense of self-awareness, and without knowledge of ourselves, there is little chance of addressing our problems. Step 6 specifically asks us to reflect on our defects and their role in our addictive behavior.
  • Admittedly, it is painful for most who have fallen prey to addiction to dig deep into the past, into their childhood — and to confront the truth about all that went wrong. Yet this is what Steps 6 and 7 asks us to do. But the payoff is to pave the path for our new way of life, free from our destructive ways of living. Having acknowledged our faulty personality traits, all that is required is a willingness to let these defects go. Having come to understand that we no longer need these defects, we become willing for God to remove them. These two Steps require a simple acknowledgement of the truth about ourselves and a willingness to change, for which we ask the help of our higher power.
  • There is incredible humility in working Steps 6 and 7. In some regards, they are two of the most spiritual Steps in that they require a working partnership with our God. In Step 6, we show humility by acknowledging that we do indeed have faulty personality traits. In Step 7, in another demonstration of humility, we admit that we are powerless to rid ourselves of these defects, and that we must turn to the God of our understanding to remove them. As we work Steps 6 and 7, which are on daily basis, we experience a complete personality transformation; we start to live life upon a new basis and attitude, no longer dependent on our old ways to destructively carry us through our lives.



Step 8 & 9- Accountability & Forgiveness

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

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


  • Up to now the Steps have been focused on the addict and his relationship to himself. Steps 8 and 9 provide us with the opportunity to review our relationships with others, the goal being to put them on a healthy and peaceful basis. Steps 8 and 9 provide the spiritual means to gain self-esteem and compassion towards ourselves and others. By working these two Steps, we become able to let go of our shame and guilt, which enables us to hold our head high again in our community.
  • It is said an addict is like a hurricane, that wherever he goes he leaves misery and despair in his wake – with family and friends taking the brunt of it. Step 8 and 9 aim to address and rectify this so that we can have peace and harmony in our relationships in our new way of life. Like Steps 2 and 3 or Steps 4 and 5, these two Steps work hand in hand with each other. In Step 8, we become honest and acknowledge that we have harmed others as a result of our compulsive behaviors and destructive actions. In Step 9, we muster the courage to approach these same people to apologize, offering to make amends for the harm we did them. We cannot expect that all the people we now approach to make amends will welcome us back into their lives – and who can blame them? But we do it anyway, because it’s important to our program of recovery. In other words, we do our part, and we leave the outcome to God. With these Steps we ensure that our new way of life, free from addiction, is not jeopardized. If we fail to at least attempt to mend broken relationships, to make restitution for the harm we have caused others, we shall continue carrying a heavy burden of shame and guilt. That combination of guilt and shame is a powerful and dangerous concoction for an addict trying to recover and avoid reverting to the old ways of living his life. These two Steps are as much about our recovery process as they are about renewing our damaged relationships.
  • The 12 Steps constitute a program of action, one designed to put our lives on a spiritual basis. Practically speaking, it would certainly be difficult to start a new way of life surrounded by those still hurt and angry with us. Steps 8 and 9 allow for the air to clear. In a way, these Steps help us announce to the world that, “yes, we are addicts and we have caused harm to others, but that does not mean we are bad people and have to live the rest of our lives in shame and guilt.” We take responsibility for our past actions and own up to them through making amends to the best of our ability, however the opportunity may present itself. Having worked Steps 8 and 9, we can hold our heads high and walk freely amongst our community and family members. We are no longer living in shame and guilt, nor do we want to hide and isolate. We are free, because we have owned up to our past misdeeds and taken responsibility for our actions.



Steps 10 to 12- Maintenance, meditation & service

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

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other (… addicts), and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”


  • The last three Steps are called the growth and maintenance Steps for their aim is to provide us with the tools to stay clean and live our new way of life in recovery on a daily basis. Addiction is a chronic condition; we shall never be completely free of it. If we don’t work the Steps and take the actions required on a daily basis, we are bound to slip back to our old destructive behaviors to cope with life’s problems. Working Steps 10, 11 and 12 ensure we maintain our new way of life free from addiction. On top of that, these Steps offer us the spiritual means to live our lives in peace and serenity.
  • Life is not perfect and problems arise. It is also a given that we are human, that we will make mistakes and do things wrong. The point is that just because we are in recovery does not mean we are immune to pain or difficulties. Step 10 makes provision for living life on life’s terms. It is suggested we practice Step 10 daily to maintain a good quality of life. In a way, it’s the Step that combines Steps 1 to 9, giving us the tools to deal with any problem area in our lives. If there is a problem beyond our control, we work Steps 1 to 3 on it. If we pick up resentments or find ourselves bogged down with our defects, we work 4 to 7. If we harm another or ourselves, we apply Steps 8 and 9 and make amends.
  • We now have at our command a set of spiritual principles and tools that provides us with the means to handle any of life’s problems. The Steps have been called a program for living, and for good reason. They are built on knowledge about human affairs that extends back many, many generations. Rarely is there any situation or circumstance where the Steps cannot be employed to bring peace and harmony in our lives.
  • Step 11 suggests meditation and prayer as ways of maintaining contact and a steady relationship with our God on a daily basis. Having found freedom from addiction and a new way of life rooted in spirituality, this Step provides us with the means to solidify and expand on that. The foundations for this Step lie in maintaining humility and reliance not on ourselves but on our higher power. Being naturally self-willed and grandiose, we addicts are bound to return to our old ways of thinking, assuming we know best and have all the answers. This Step reminds us that we are not God and that in order to live a better way of life, we need conscious contact with our higher power on a daily basis. Those of us in recovery have found that the deeper our knowledge and relationship with our God is, the less we are burdened with anxiety and fear. We have learned to trust and keep faith that we are being looked after.
  • We found ourselves at the depth of misery and despair because of our addiction. Some of us had brushes with death, or contemplated suicide, or spent time in mental or criminal institutions. The 12 Steps and anonymous Fellowships offered us a program of recovery and support — all totally for free. We have been able to rid ourselves of our compulsive behaviors, and in the process are able to live a life beyond our wildest dreams. Working Step 12 is our way of acknowledging the gift that was freely given to us. It suggests carrying the message of recovery to those still suffering. This can take many forms, including acting as a sponsor, doing service at meetings or sharing our experiences of addiction and recovery with those in hospitals or jails. We have found that the more we carry the message of recovery to suffering addicts, the stronger our own recovery becomes. We let go of selfishness and ego and are able to view life in a balanced and realistic way, mindful of where we once were. Our gratitude grows as we help others suffering in their addiction by offering them hope, remembering how far we have come in recovery. Because we know first hand the hell of addiction, we are in the best position to help the still-active addict.
  • This Step suggests that we apply the principles of the 12 Steps in all areas of our lives. Working these Steps we have at our disposal the tools to build a life free of the curse of addiction. On top of that, we learn to let go of the fears and grievances that so bedeviled us all our lives. As it says in the Steps themselves, they are about the “joy of living.”


  • For further information on goals and spiritual principles of 12 step programs, please refer to: Recovery 12 Steps

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