At the beginning of every AA meeting, someone reads the Twelve Steps, then someone reads the Twelve Traditions.
Just as the 12 steps lay the spiritual path of recovery for individual members, the 12 Traditions provide the principles that keep 12-step support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and the Al-Anon Family Support Group, healthy and grounded, and focused on their primary purpose of fellowship.
The 12 Traditions got its start in 1939 in the foreword of the first editions of the “Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.” Due to the quick growth of the group, many questions surrounding publicity, religion, and finances came up. In 1946, co-founder Bill Wilson published the “Twelve Points to Assure Our Future” in the AA Grapevine newspaper. In 1953, he published the book, “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.”
The following are the traditions that serve as a guideline or manual that defines the internal operations of the 12-step programs.1
- Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.
- For our group purpose, there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
- The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
- Each group should be autonomous, except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.
- Each group has but one primary purpose: to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
- An AA group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
- Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
- Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
- AA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
- Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
- Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
- Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles above personalities.
Tradition 1: Unity
“Our common welfare should come first; personal progress depends upon AA unity.”
Many people try to recover from addiction on their own, but isolation often makes it more difficult to abstain from drugs or alcohol. Tradition 1 is based on the fact that unity within the group will allow members of 12-step support groups to make more progress. The underlying message: While you want to reach your own individual goal of sobriety, your journey can become rudderless if you place “self” over others.
Tradition 1 also helps to ensure cohesion while honoring all voices in an open dialogue. Both AA and Al-Anon are structured to provide a platform for everyone, even those with minority views.https://7565a12ac56afba5d445a69e7ee5607c.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
As a group prepares to make a decision, all sides must be given an opportunity to speak without judgment or derision. If the group is drawn into controversy or becomes dominated by individuals, the unity of the group will be jeopardized. This is especially true of members who feel sidelined or minimized; these are the ones who are most likely to drift away or leave the program altogether.https://7565a12ac56afba5d445a69e7ee5607c.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
With that being said, all members of the group must be willing to accept the majority opinion and work together to put any decision into action. This helps prevent the divisiveness that can undermine not only the group but each member of the group.
A free exchange of ideas is considered healthy, so long as all members are committed to protecting the tenets of tradition 1.
How to Apply It to Your Life
Tradition 1 can be applied to your family as much as to your group. By placing your family’s common interests first, you can accomplish more and benefit from the unified support. This requires that each member of the family is heard, that their opinions be respected, and that consensus is reached whether you or anyone else in the family doesn’t fully concur.How Alcoholics Anonymous Works
Tradition 2: Leadership
“For our group purpose, there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”
Tradition 2 ensures that no member has authority “over” the group, providing a sense of “belonging” to all members—no matter their background, education, or professional expertise. In 12-step groups, there is no such thing as individual authority or governance, but there are group leaders entrusted with the responsibility to serve the group, not make decisions for it.
In this way, the fellowship reaches out to all who would seek its comfort and provides the atmosphere of a sense of “belonging” to all members.
But There Are Leaders…
Tradition 2 has been misquoted many times as “we have no leaders.” But it clearly states that each group does have its leaders—they just have no authority over the rest of the group. Whether they be the group’s representative to the area or district, or the secretary or treasurer, they have been entrusted with the responsibility to serve the group, not make decisions for it.
Groups clearly have other types of “leaders.” There are those who, by sharing their wisdom and strength in the meetings, are quietly recognized by the group as “spiritual leaders.” There are those members who are so well-founded in the principles and traditions of the program that the group turns to them when questions arise involving possible violations of those principles and traditions. These are leaders, too, but they do not govern, either.
Tradition 3: Eligibility
“The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
Tradition 3 was created to protect the fellowship from outside influences and ensure that the meetings would maintain their primary focus and not be diluted by the influx of other issues or influences. For members of Al-Anon, the only requirement is that you have a relative or friend with an alcohol use disorder.
Both Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon open their doors and offer fellowship to anyone who fits the eligibility outlined in Tradition 3 and generally leave that determination up to the individual. Basically, those who attend these 12-step meetings either feel a sense of “belonging,” or they do not and move on.
Some old-timers today believe that the fellowship has, in fact, been diluted by the inclusion of those who are primarily dealing with issues other than problems with alcohol, such as drug abuse. They feel that the program has gotten away from its spiritual foundations and primary purpose and may become diluted to the point of ineffectiveness.Going to Your First 12-Step Meeting
Tradition 4: Autonomy
“Each group should be autonomous, except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.”
Tradition 4 gives individual groups the freedom to vary their meetings, including where the meeting will be held; whether it’s open or closed; how to begin and end meetings (for example, closing with a prayer or moment of silence); the program content and topics discussed; and how to spend funds as needed.
Limits to Freedom
At the same time, it also cautions against straying too far from the program’s basic tenets. The autonomy provided in Tradition 4 does not mean an individual group has the authority to reword the 12 steps or Traditions, or to create its own literature. It also doesn’t mean that groups should introduce, discuss, or sell outside literature at their meeting places.
Many meetings have gotten away from the look and feel of AA’s primary purpose by using non-conference-approved literature, showing videos of popular self-help speakers, or allowing treatment professionals to speak at open meetings on the latest therapy techniques.
There is a saying that there is no right or wrong way to hold a meeting, but the group can cease carrying the message if it strays too far from its traditions and concepts.
Tradition 5: Carrying the Message
“Each group has but one primary purpose: to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.”
The primary purpose of any 12-step group is to carry its message and give comfort to others who are still suffering. This is spelled out in Tradition 5.
Individual members bring their own needs into the 12-step rooms, and each progresses through the journey of recovery at their own pace. Everyone is different. Each member has a personal reason for coming back week after week.
But as a group they have but one purpose, to reach out to others who are still suffering. Their purpose is to share with others the experience, strength, and hope that they have found inside the rooms.
An old-timer was once asked why he kept coming back after all these years. His answer was simple: “Because there was someone there for me when I came through those doors.”
Tradition 6: Outside Enterprises
“Our groups ought never endorse, finance or lend our name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.”
Tradition 6 seeks to preserve the integrity of the 12-step program and maintain its primary spiritual aim by preventing groups from endorsing any outside organizations and causes. As individuals, members of 12-step support groups are free to endorse, finance, or affiliate with any organization, religion, political party, charity, or civic organization they wish. The Al-Anon version adds: “Although a separate entity, we should always cooperate with Alcoholics Anonymous.”
With so many outside organizations in recent years attempting to use the name of Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon Family Groups to promote their treatment programs or therapy approaches, it’s more important than ever that Tradition 6 be observed.
Although individual members may recommend or even be employed by such organizations, the group as a whole should avoid associating its name with these outside enterprises, namely professional treatment facilities or therapists.
Even worthy projects such as starting a 12-step club or supporting a shelter for abused spouses should not be entered into as a group project, but rather as an effort of members as individuals, if they so desire. Invariably, these situations can involve struggles over finances and control and can divert a group and the fellowship away from its primary focus on recovery.
Why Tradition 6 Is Important
Members come into the rooms each week seeking help from the experience, strength, and hope of other members. This process can be interrupted if the group spends part of the allotted time for discussion of outside activities. When a group’s discussion becomes dominated by outside issues, it robs individual members of their meeting time. In short, Tradition 6 ensures unity within the group.
Tradition 7: Self-Supporting
“Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.”
Tradition 7 makes it clear that members of each local group can choose whether or not to place money in the basket for contributions, but it also ensures that the fellowship does not become involved with outside issues or conflicts by accepting “outside contributions.”
One of the principles of 12-step support groups is that each member is responsible for his or her own recovery. The first part of tradition 7 makes it clear that responsibility extends to the members of each local group as it passes the basket for contributions to pay the rent and maintain its literature library.
Tradition 7 says that 12-step groups are self-supporting through their own contributions. These contributions are used to employ special workers and maintain the district, area, and worldwide structure. This tradition is reflected in the history of AA when John D. Rockefeller, Jr. rejected a giving a large donation, as it would “spoil the thing,” and they must become self-supporting to be successful.
If the group collects more than is necessary to meet its expenses, the group can contribute to its World Service Office, which also follows this tradition by accepting no outside contributions. Although such contributions have fallen off in recent years, they are important in helping to carry the message worldwide.
Rejecting Outside Contributions
The second part of this tradition addresses the issue of the fellowship not becoming involved with outside issues or conflicts that could arise by accepting “outside contributions.” If such contributions were accepted, the group and its members might feel obligated to make some kind of concessions to the individual or organization making the donation.
Declining these contributions keeps the fellowship independent from outside influences. It also cuts out the need to constantly chase donor funding and government grants.
As the Internet became a part of daily life, members of 12-step groups naturally began gathering together online for mutual support. Many 12-step online support groups (but not all) were able to adhere to Tradition 7 and remain self-supporting, keeping outside advertising off of their websites and out of their online meetings.
Tradition 8: Giving It Away
“Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.”
Tradition 8 allows contributions to be used for support services while the groups provide only non-professional, mutual support, ensuring AA or Al-Anon remains an unpaid, nonprofessional organization. Anytime a newcomer reaches out for help, they will receive it, free of charge. In turn, as members freely share their own experience, strength, and hope with the newcomer, they help themselves and reinforce their own recovery.
Non-Professional Mutual Support
That’s not to say that members can’t be doctors and professionals, but they leave those outside affiliations at the door. It’s how the 12-step programs work. There is a saying in the rooms, “In order to keep it, you must give it away.”
Going to a professional counselor is different from going to a group of others who are in recovery. Twelve-step groups are different from professional recovery services, offering the support that the members feel in sharing and listening to each others’ stories. There is no authority the member can rebel against.
Hiring Special Workers
Twelve-step organizations at the national, state, and regional levels may have service centers which serve the fellowships as a whole by printing and distributing literature and meeting schedules, maintaining answering services, and other tasks.
Many times, these central offices and service centers involve more work than volunteer service workers can provide, so some hire full- and part-time employees to do the necessary labor to keep them running smoothly. Tradition 8, therefore, allows for the “special workers” to be hired and paid a salary to do the work that volunteers cannot cover.
Special workers may be employed to keep the AA message alive around the world through printing, communications, and other technology. This is not paying for 12-step work but paying for the services needed to support it with literature and outreach. Members understand the difference between paying for support services but not paying for professional counselors.
Tradition 9: Organization
“AA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.”
By not being highly organized, support groups keep the emphasis on true fellowship and their primary purpose. Unlike many other traditions, Tradition 9 does not require much from its members.
In the real world, businesses and other groups are “organized.” There is a hierarchy of authority established so that some members of the organization have the authority to “direct” the actions of others.
But in the 12-step group, no one has this kind of authority. The groups are a “fellowship of equals.” Decisions are made by the group as a whole and not by one or a few members. There may be committees or a secretary to help with handling contributions.
By creating and maintaining this atmosphere of “true fellowship,” 12-step groups ensure that even the newest members can quickly gain a feeling of “belonging.”
If no one is in authority, how are “executive” decisions made? Decisions are made by the group as a whole through what is known as a group conscience vote. Any member of the group can request that a “business meeting” be held, separate from the group’s regular meeting time, for the discussion of any issue that affects the group as a whole.
After a discussion of the issue, during which all members have an opportunity to express their opinions, the group votes on the issue and the majority vote decides the question. In this manner, the group maintains unity by providing an atmosphere in which all voices are heard—from the oldest long-timer to the newcomer—and everyone has an equal voice and vote.
Tradition 10: Outside Opinions
“Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.”
By choosing not to express opinions on outside issues such as politics, alcohol reform, or religion, AA and Al-Anon avoid controversy, both publicly and within the fellowship itself. Tradition 10 also helps members to maintain focus on their common purpose.
As Al-Anon’s preamble to the 12 steps and traditions says, “Al-Anon is not allied with any sect, denomination, political entity, organization, or institution. It does not engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any cause.”
Likewise, AA does not lend its name to outside organizations, such as professional treatment facilities. You might see advertisements for treatment programs that claim to be “12-step based,” but you won’t see any that say they are affiliated with AA.
Applying the Principle to Personal Lives
If this tradition is followed, it works to keep the fellowship as a whole from engaging in public controversy, but the principle can also be applied to “all the affairs” of individual members.
For example, if Al-Anon members apply this principle to their lives, then someone else’s recovery (or more importantly, lack of recovery) becomes an outside issue, allowing them to “detach” from the problems of others and focus on their own recovery process.
Tradition 11: Public Relations
“Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.”
Anonymity in the media protects not only the individual member but the fellowship as a whole. It is AA’s public relations policy to attract rather than promote. Part of Tradition 11 is not using full names or naming groups. For example, if a member wishes to discuss the benefits of being a member of AA with the media, they should identify themselves by their first name only.
For example, if John Doe uses his full name in an interview, he should not name his recovery group. He might simply say he is in “a recovery group.” If he wants to discuss Al-Anon or AA by name, he should identify himself only as John D.
This anonymity is for the good of the fellowship rather than protecting the identity of the member. The example is given of a famous athlete or television personality—a role model—who gets into recovery and announces to the entire world that AA has saved his life. What happens if that person relapses? Then people might think AA is useless and be less likely to seek it when they need to seek sobriety.
But Tradition 11 was also developed by the founders of the 12 step programs in order to avoid other potentially damaging situations.2
The purpose of 12-step groups is for one member to help another and to be responsible for being the attraction to the program. A member does not cede this responsibility to a spokesperson or promotion campaign.
Tradition 12: Anonymity
“Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles above personalities.”
A hallmark of 12-step recovery programs is the offer of anonymity to participants. Anonymity helps protect the group and keep the focus on principles rather than personalities. According to Tradition 12, personal anonymity should be maintained at all levels of participation in 12-step fellowship, including in meetings, in 12th step work, and even in sponsorship.
Many times, newcomers to the program will go to their first meeting expecting to find trained professionals who are there to help them. What they find instead is a fellowship of equals who are gathered together for mutual support. There are no doctors, therapists, or counselors, only other members who have or have had the same problem in their lives.
Like every part of a 12-step program, living up to these 12 Traditions takes work and commitment as you or someone you care about takes the journey toward lasting recovery.