Personalizing the 12 Steps

The Twelve Steps

By Neil F.

On the 13th of April 1986, during a drive from Montreal to Toronto, I broke into a cold sweat and started shaking. I felt like I was losing control of my mind and my body. It was all I could do to resist the temptation to curl up into a little ball and cry. I could no longer stand the pain of living this way but did not want to die. Something had to change.

I decided to try the same changes that had seemed to work under similar circumstances in the past; I would stop smoking tobacco, I would stop drinking to reduce the likelihood of smoking and I would start an exercise program to regain my physical health. With this approach, I gained short term relief from my problems and I avoided admitting that alcohol was the real problem. In retrospect, this was denial and was always the source of my downfall. When I regained my health, I always went back to drinking as I was convinced that I had to be able to drink to be normal. Alcohol was a part of my business and social life and was to be protected at all costs.

While this approach had seemed to work in the past, this time was different. A week later I was bouncing off of the walls and the ceiling and really needed a drink. In a moment of desperation, I reached out for help; I attended my first AA meeting. Thanks to the fellowship of AA and the recovery process of the 12 Steps I have not had to pick up a drink since.

Thus began my struggle with the Twelve Steps. I really wanted the recovery that AA seemed to offer, but I didn’t believe in God. As a result, I was hung up on the second and third steps. Despite the platitudes of a “Higher Power” and a “God of Your Understanding,” when I read the Big Book and the 12 & 12 it was clear to me that the expectation was that if I did the steps I would come to my senses and convert to a belief in a personal God that sounded very much like the Christian God. For some time I tried the “fake it till you make it” approach but the truth is that I couldn’t just decide to believe what I didn’t believe. Pascal’s wager would not work for me.

Over time, I have come to accept the Twelve Steps as a template for a recovery process. This template can be tailored to be compatible with the beliefs and needs of each alcoholic. If I were a christian I could use the original template without modification. If I were a muslim, I could substitute Allah in the place of God. If I were a theravadan buddhist, I could edit the template to replace God with the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha. For an agnostic, or an atheist the tailoring might be more extensive but it is still possible.

After many modifications over the years, the following is my current, personal 12 step process:

  1. We admitted that we suffer from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.
  2. Came to believe that we could recover.
  3. Became open to changes in how we approach and respond to life.
  4. Made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.
  5. Reviewed our inventory with another human being.
  6. Became entirely open to change.
  7. Humbly affirmed our desire to change.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became ready to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through meditation to improve our understanding of ourselves, our program and our progress.
  12. Having changed as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

This process addresses what I believe are the core requirements of each of the steps and guides my recovery and daily living. This is how I understand the steps and this understanding informs any discussion I have with another alcoholic or any contribution I make in an AA meeting. I don’t try to convince others that the wording of the steps needs to be changed, I just talk about what each step means to me and how I practice the step.

In Step 1, I do not admit to being powerless over alcohol or to having an unmanageable life. The first step as worded in the Big Book seems to influence the newcomer to conclude that only God can bring about the required change. I do not believe that it is necessary to believe in God to recover from this seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. When I came to AA everything seemed to be hopeless but by working this process my life today is anything but hopeless. By following the process of the 12 Steps I remained an alcoholic but I recovered from the seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.

In Step 2, I came to believe that I could recover. This came about by reading the stories in the Big Book, by listening to what other members had to say during AA meetings and by talking to other members over coffee after the meetings.

My way of approaching and responding to life before coming to AA always led to drinking. I believed that I had to drink to be normal. I believed that I needed to be in control of all aspects of my life. I believed that what was important was success. Success would lead to happiness and success was measured in terms of money, position, power and prestige. When I did not get what I wanted, I responded to life with a lot of anger, resentment and fear. In step 3, I decided to take another look how I approach and respond to life to see if some changes might reduce the likelihood of my picking up a drink. I didn’t actually look at what needed to change in Step 3, I just made a decision to take a look and be open to change.

In Step 4, I made a searching and fearless inventory of how I approached and responded to life. This is the step where I really got to know myself.  I explored resentments, anger, fears and relationships. I understood which actions and reactions have negative and which have positive impacts on me and others. I identified what leads to lasting happiness and what to unhappiness. In this step, I tried not to judge myself or others. This step was about getting to know myself; not about moral judgement.

In Step 5, I gained additional insight by reviewing my Step 4 with another person. An individual with more experience in the program was able to help ensure that I had an understanding of how I had approached and responded to life and the impacts that this had on me and others.

My step 6 required a lot of action. I needed to examine each inventory item and come to some conclusion about whether it led to happiness or unhappiness for myself and others. Then I looked at each item that led to unhappiness for myself or others to consider the impact of letting go of that approach or response. Invariably what I concluded was that letting go of negative approaches or reactions would lead to more happiness and that this in turn would reduce the likelihood of me picking up a drink.

In Step 7, I affirmed my desire to let go of my negative approaches and reactions. This is a step that I took on completion of step 6 but it is also a step that I revisit on a daily basis as a part of Steps 10 and 11.

At this point, I had identified changes that would improve my life and reduce the likelihood of my picking up a drink. I concluded that this would provide great benefits going forward but I was still bothered by my past. I wanted to be able to walk down the street and look everyone in the eye. I did not want to be worried about who I might meet. I wanted to be able to answer the phone without being concerned about who might be on the other end of the line. To accomplish this, I needed to clean up the wreckage of my past. To this end, in Step 8 I made a list of all persons that I had harmed and became ready to make amends to them all. To become ready to make amends required that I look at each situation and decide how I might best address any harm that had been done.

Having prepared to make amends in Step 8, in Step 9, wherever possible, I approached each person on the list to correct any harm that had been done in the past. My objective was to perform a reset. As much as possible, I tried to return the situation to the state that it was in prior to any harm that I had done. In some cases an apology was sufficient, in others money owed needed to be repaid and in some cases just being an engaged, supportive member of the family was all that was required.

In Step 10, I try to be mindful of what I am thinking, saying and doing on a continuous basis throughout each day. I try to look at how I am impacting myself or others and if I find myself engaging in my old approaches or responses I try to point myself back down the path I affirmed in Step 7. I find it most important to watch what I am thinking. If I can catch myself as soon as my thinking starts to go off of the rails, I get get myself pointed back in the right direction before doing vocal or physical harm. The more I practice being mindful on a continuous basis, the more likely this becomes. If I have gone beyond thinking and actually harmed someone else, I try to make amends right away.

Step 11 provides guidance for my daily living. In this step, at the beginning of the day I review how I want to approach and respond to life. During the day, I practice Step 10. If I remain frustrated when I try to reorient myself, I find it helpful to take some time for meditation. The meditation can be used to calm down, refocus and remind myself of how I want to live. At the end of the day, some quiet time to review my day is beneficial. It is a good time for ongoing self examination. At this time, I review what I am trying to accomplish, what progress I am making, what seems to be working, what seems not to be working. If I have missed something during my day, I can make note of any amends that still need to be made. I also use meditation on an ongoing basis to explore the working of my mind, my body and the relationship between the two.

In Step 12, I recognized that I have changed. While I an still an alcoholic, I no longer suffer from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. I am able to live a normal life. I have become a useful member of my family, Alcoholics Anonymous and society. I try to carry this message to other alcoholics and to practice these principles in all aspects of my life.

The preceding is my personal process. It is what I have used to guide my recovery and day to day living. It has worked for me. If you feel this process can work for you please feel free to use it. If not, please feel free to personalize it. If it is way off, please feel free to start again from the original template so that you have a process that you are comfortable with and that works for you.

May you achieve sobriety. May you remain sober. May you be happy.

Over a long and diverse career, Neil has lived in six provinces and two states. Now retired, he and his wife live on an acreage outside of Stony Plain, Alberta. He struggled with the religiosity of the Big Book and the 12 Steps, eventually discovering a lot in common between the teachings of the Buddha and the AA 12 Steps. He found that the steps could be tailored to a wide variety of spiritual beliefs and developed his own personalized 12 Steps, based upon the core principles of the original 12-Step template. Neil works his personalized 12 Steps, helps others in the fellowship in their recovery and is active in AA Service. His new way of life led him out of despair to a life filled with hope and happiness.

21 Responses

  1. Doris A says:

    Dear Neil,

    What a wonderful post. This is the best alternative 12 steps I have encountered so far. The way you have conceived and written them is both elegant and straight forward. I like that you still include some of the traditional language. Steps 6 and 7 are brilliant.


    Doris A

  2. Melanie C says:

    Hello Neil:
    Yesterday, November 14, 2014 after nine LONG years of abstinence being “Recovered” in the 12 step rooms, I “came out” of the closet as an agnostic. I had no idea that I was going to do so nor did I know myself that I was. It happened spontaneously as a result of another fellow’s share while in a meeting attended by nearly 300 fellows. I basically raised my hand announced alliance with the other fellow and began in the 3 mins allotted to speak opened my heart filled with secret pain telling of my experience and journey. NOW, where do I go from here… Would you direct me to where to begin, who and where the support systems are and how to strengthen and develop along the agnostic lines? May I be in direct contact with you?

    • Neil F. says:

      Hi Melanie,

      Coming out as an Agnostic or an Atheist in AA can be a frightening experience; I know it was for me. I valued being a part of the AA community and I was concerned that I might not be accepted if other members knew that I did not share their belief in a god. In meetings, I don’t usually dwell on the fact that I am an atheist, I just talk about my experience including how I do the steps. If someone else gets carried away with claims about mandatory belief in their god, when it comes my turn I may point out that AA does not require a belief in a god and that Agnostics, Atheists and members of non-theistic religions have been members of AA, become sober in AA and had good long term sobriety in AA dating back to the earliest days of AA. I try to avoid being argumentative but I do believe that its important for newcomers in particular to understand that a belief in god is not necessary nor is it sufficient for good long term sobriety. I find good sobriety is dependent upon how I approach and respond to life and not upon what I believe about a god.

      I accept that many have found that they couldn’t remain sober until they came to believe in a god. I believe them, I think they are telling the truth about their experience but this has not been my experience. I think it is important for newcomers to understand that a lack of belief in a god is not a good reason to go back drinking.

      One of the best resources that I have found to date has been the material that can be accessed through this site. The site provides access to a large number of insightful articles. As well, links to meetings and a chat room can be found here. In addition, books such as “The Little Book” and “Don’t Tell” by Roger C and “Beyond Belief” by Joe C are very helpful.

      As a result of identifying myself as an atheist, I have met other members who share a lack of belief so I now have a support group that is more closely aligned with and supportive of my recovery. For the most part, I remain accepted by the other AA members in my local district. It is true that there are some that roll their eyes when I talk, and some who are intolerant of anyone who strays from their personal dogma but I am accepted by the majority.

      Rather than carry on a lengthy discussion here, since AA Agnostica has our email addresses, I will ask them to pass my email address to you and if you’d like we can continue this conversation.

      I look forward to our discussion.

  3. Gord M. says:

    Thank you Neil. I have never felt such a relief as I did after reading your concepts of the 12 steps. The idea of faking it until I made it just was not working for me, I felt like I was fighting a losing battle, that I was lying to myself and everyone at my meetings. I feel I can now after 22 years of being sober do the 12 steps using your guidelines. I am not going to beat myself up about not been able to let go and let god. I’m just going to do the best I can, something must be working I’ve been clean and sober this long. I just feel so good right now.
    Thanks Neil

  4. Sara B says:

    I LOVE your rendition of the steps! I’ve been struggling with them since entering treatment in February because of my religious beliefs. This is EXACTLY what I needed to begin to work the steps and believe in MYSELF. Thank you SO much for this!!

  5. paul h says:

    I have long believed there is great pressure to conform in AA – both explicit and implicit. That some atheists or agnostics have drafted 12 steps is one example of that pressure. I see no need to do that. I have an interpretation of the first and second steps, the latter of which resulted I think from implicit pressure. Powerless in the first step means – and only means – that it is physically impossible for an alcoholic to drink safely. The second step means that AA could – and I think did – help me to stop drinking, especially in the first several months through a couple years. Sanity means not drinking. I’m still going strong after 30 years.

  6. Jack M says:

    Excellent version of the 12 steps… I would consider step 11 to either include “reflection” w/ meditation.

  7. steve b says:

    1. We admitted we were alcoholic, and we came to believe we could recover.

    2. We made a personal inventory, talked it over with somebody else, and did new inventories as needed.

    3. We worked to change ourselves for the better, meditating and doing anything else that helped.

    4. We made amends to people we had harmed.

    5. We let suffering alcoholics know that they could recover too, and we tried to live as decent human beings.

    • Neil F says:

      But, but, …..but its not 12. 🙂 On the other hand, although Bill really seemed to like the number 12, I agree that there really is nothing magic about the number 12.

      My 12 grew out of what I felt was at the core of each of the 12 steps and how I talk about each of the 12 steps in regular AA step meetings. I don’t try to convince others that their steps are wrong, I just share what is important to me.

      Each of your steps seems to be a generalization or combination of two or more of the more detailed steps. Others might prefer more detail, but if this is working for you then I see nothing wrong with it and others may find this level of abstraction to be helpful as well.

      Thanks for sharing.

  8. Lech says:

    Rather than personalizing them, I just decided to ignore them.
    I didn’t go to AA because I wanted to become a better person, grow spiritually, or to develop a conscious contact with some higher being. I went because I wanted to stop worrying about my alcohol consumption. AA gave me the insight that the easiest and best way to do that is not to drink.

    • Neil F says:

      Hi Lech.

      I agree that it is most important that I not take a drink.

      With this in mind, I wanted to increase the likelihood of not picking up the first drink. I found that to increase the likelihood, it was helpful to be open to change. In my case the change was identified and put into effect by following the process I outlined.

      I have found this to be very helpful. Your mileage may differ.

      Neil F.

  9. Frank M. says:

    Thank you, Neil F. Your experience speaks to my own, gives me courage, and provides some tools for sobriety. It’s everything that I want to do with my own sharing.

    Step One, for me, has come to mean something like “The road I’m on is going nowhere but down.” It’s my version of the original First Step as practiced in AA (at least in NY) which was – We admitted we were licked.

    Like you, the idea of “powerlessness” doesn’t come into it, except in the sense that I have no power over the effects of booze after I’ve drunk it.

    But I think you’re right. Bill was saying something more than that. You make a subtle but important point there.

    I had really failed to see how the later, canonized version of Step One, with the introduction of the idea of “powerlessness,” was part of Bill setting the stage for the necessity of finding God.

    My personal powerlessness is meant as an example of how “lack of power” was our dilemma. And then we’re told that human power is probably not enough. So when God is introduced as a Power greater than me, and a Power greater than human… hey, there’s the answer! I lacked power and here’s Power, and the right kind!

    Thank you for making this clear. You don’t really learn something everyday, as the old saying goes. But today I think I actually did.

    All the best,
    Frank M.

    • Neil F says:

      Thanks for the input. You have helped clarify what I was trying to say.

      It really is necessary to read step 1 in conjunction with steps 2 and 3 to realize what I think Bill was trying to set up in step 1. Bill was a good salesman; he knew how to set things up in step 1 so that his clients were likely to agree with his conclusions in step 2 and 3.

      I’m glad that you found this useful.

      Neil F.

  10. Bryan T says:

    This is the first secular 12 steps that really resonates with me. Not only that, but a wonderful explanation of how he puts it in motion. I feel this is just as important as the steps themselves!
    I still don’t attend AA meetings, because here in Surrey/Burnaby/Vancouver it’s very much the GOD way or the highway. I attend Smart recovery,
    I have also taken Mindfulness, Anger Mgmt., CODA, Grief and Loss, Chi Qong and meditation courses and have found all of these helpful and EYE Opening.
    No one thing seems to be the answer, but like any good recipe, a spoon of this and a dash of that……
    I played Junior “A” hockey in Sherbrooke when they were the Flyers farm club, I have owned my own successful medium sized business for 32 years, and I am a Motorcyclist.
    I just wanted to point out to all the people out there who think “breathe in, breathe out,” Centre yourself, live in the moment and meditation are Sissy stuff: it’s worth a try!! Perhaps I AM a sissy, but I am now a lot happier than I was!!
    Thank you so much Neil, I will pass this on if I may??
    Bryan T

    • Neil F says:

      I am happy to hear that you find this helpful. Feel free to pass on whatever is helpful to you and whatever you feel may be helpful to others.

      It sounds like you are open to harvesting good ideas from gardens along many paths. In my case, meditation made a significant contribution to my sobriety.

      I attend several AA meetings each week. In meetings, I just talk about what I find to be at the core of each step and how I work the steps. No one has thrown me out yet.

      Thanks again.

      Neil F.

  11. Ivan W. Kasiurak says:


    My name is Ivan K I am 81 years young, and at 2:00 pm August 29 1953 I had my last drink.

    I just finished reading Neil F’s article in AA Agnostica on the 12 Steps.

    In Step # one he says he does not admit to being powerless over alcohol, or having an unmanageable life.

    The First Step says we admitted we were powerless over alcohol- that our lives had become unmanageable.

    Neil no where in the First Step does it mention God, you must be reading a different First Step.

    Neil have a great day in AA, a day at a time. Ivan K

    • Neil F says:

      Hi Ivan

      Congratulations on your long term sobriety; you must be doing something right so by all means keep it up. I didn’t get sober until I was 41 so I think its unlikely that I will catch up.

      Clearly, I remain an alcoholic and I will always be an alcoholic. If I pick up a drink the likelihood of my having a second, a third, ……etc. is very close to 1. I am powerless to change that fact, psychology seems powerless to change that fact, psychiatry seems powerless to change that fact and medical research has not yet identified a pill or gene therapy that will give me control after I take the first drink. For me, the good news is that at this point, I’m not interested in that type of solution for myself anyway.

      On the other hand, I am not powerless to do whatever is necessary to bring about the changes that will enable me to recover from the hopeless state that I was in when I came here. The perspective of the Big Book, and 12×12 is quite clear; only a higher power/personal God has the power to bring about this change. The further one gets into the book, the clearer it becomes that the expectation is that sooner or later I will see the light and believe in God. Since I do not believe in a higher power/God, I am happy that the official AA take on this is not correct; many agnostics and atheists have achieved good long-term sobriety without belief in God. I believe I am one of them.

      When I got here everything seemed hopeless. Something needed to change. I could not continue to live and respond to life in the same manner and expect different results. I came to believe that I could recover, concluded that to recover I would need to change, performed a rigorous self examination, identified what needed to change, affirmed my desire for changed, cleaned up the wreckage of my past and now I try to be ever mindful of what I am thinking, doing and saying as I live life. I believe that I have a happy and productive life both inside of and outside of AA. I have changed.

      While I did not know what I needed to do when I came here, I do not believe that a higher power/God made those changes. I had to attend a lot of meetings, do a lot of listening, do a lot of reading, do a lot of meditation, go down a few blind alleys before I found what would work for me. I take full responsibility for doing what I need to do on a daily basis to enable the necessary changes to take place in my life.

      When I came here, I was not powerless to change but I did not know what needed to do to change. What I have done and what I continue to do is quite accurately described in my Personalized 12 Steps.

      If what you are doing works for you, and it would certainly appear that that is the case, I would be the last person to suggest you should do something different. By all means, you should continue to believe and do what works for you and I will continue to believe and do what works for me.

      All the best in sobriety and thanks for your feedback.

  12. Joe C says:

    What a great read! I would say to anyone who is delaying working the Twelve Steps because they don’t like or don’t agree with a word in the original Steps – change the word. The word won’t mind.

    I can subordinate myself to the discipline of a new life – change when it’s my plan — not someone else’s. I really like what Neil says about Step Three. He describes it as a state of openness, of getting ready. This is so much more productive than defining terms which never worked for me in Step Three. How long was I stuck on the idea that there was this higher power and how could I turn my life over until I defined what this entity was? Logjam; there was no definition, there was no understanding and I was stuck. I was stuck because I was trying to bend myself into a worldview that I didn’t hold.

    Neil nicely re-frames the crossroads of Step Three as a willingness to open one’s self to new ways of seeing and having the faith to take the next Step. As “our more religious members” would put it, “Faith without works is dead.”

    A book I am re-reading is called, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics. Jonathan Haidt explores the psychology of morality and he makes a great a point about something we discuss at length in AA (and Neil makes this point, too). Our mind is open to the idea, “Can I think about these things differently and act differently?” By the same token our mind shuts to, “Must I think about these differently and must I act differently?” The reflex answer is, “Hell no!”

    The author tells a story of testing a theory on his four year old. After dinner, Haidt says to his son, “Dinner is finished; you must have ice cream now.” His son defiantly refused. Then Haidt said, “Well dinner is over, you can have ice cream.” The toddler thought that was a great idea.

    Neil does a great job of making every “We must” a “Can we,” or “Shall we.” Bravo.

    • Neil F says:

      Thanks for your kind words.

      Over the past few years, I have become more interested in the working of the mind and so have been reading a bit on psychology and neuroscience. Its not for everyone but I find it interesting and will take a look at the book by Jonathan Haidt. I just completed “Who’s in Charge” by Michael S. Gazziniga. He provides some interesting insights on morality and free will among many other things. I just started “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” by Steven Pinker and then I plan to tackle “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” by Gabor Mate; I downloaded it this morning. Its nice to be retired so that I have more time for reading.

      Thanks again Joe.

      • Frank M. says:


        Ha, I’m reading “Who’s in Charge” right now!

        Haidt has several good books out, but I would recommend starting with “The Happiness Hypothesis.” His newest book “The Righteous Mind” is also very good, and holds interesting insights into how the group influences our thinking, among other things.

        Haidt and a lot of other neuropsychology popularizers are in large part working out of the great Danial Kahneman’s notebooks, and Kahneman has finally written his own voluminous tome “Thinking Fast and Slow.” Which I can also recommend very highly.

        Best, Frank M.

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