Step 1

Step 1

This is a chapter from the pioneering book: The Alternative Twelve Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. It was originally written by two women, Martha Cleveland and Arlys G., and published in 1991. As valuable today as it was then, a second edition of this exceptional work was published by AA Agnostica.

Admit we are powerless over other people, random events and our own persistent negative behaviors, and that when we forget this, our lives become unmanageable.

Principles: Insight, Honesty

Step 1 is a shift in thinking. We shift from thinking that we are powerful and in charge of our lives to accepting the reality that our efforts haven’t worked. Our struggles to control ourselves and others have only made our lives unmanageable. In this way we have been blind to ourselves. Step 1 gives us the insight and honesty to admit that we are not managing our lives very well, that a lot of things are beyond our control and that we live with emotional pain. It is the first step on our road to serenity. We can begin to use the affirmation of serenity that millions of people have used before us.

Today I seek the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

(Adapted from “The Serenity Prayer,” by Reinhold Niehuhr)

Something About Denial And Self-Deception

Unexamined lives are often lives lived in denial. Denial is not conscious lying – it is simply self-deception, a series of personal blind spots. We don’t have to be bad people or have bad problems in order to engage in self-deception. The only requirement is that we don’t want to know all the truth about ourselves or our lives. We use our wonderfully complex brains to deny and obscure reality and to keep on believing that we are managing, that we are in control.

We throw ourselves into arranging the outcome we desire. And the outcome we desire is to keep on doing what we are doing. We want to feel good about ourselves without facing the pain and difficulty of admitting that we aren’t able to control other people, the random events around us and even our own persistent negative behavior. We want to feel good about ourselves without having to change, and denial is our shortcut.

We have many ways of deceiving ourselves. We deny that we have a problem. We hide a problem behind a visible asset or success. We give our problem a new name. We manipulate or blame others. We control. We knock ourselves out to please, to be good. We bully. We act helpless. We rationalize and justify. The list goes on and on in endless variation.

Our techniques are mental inventions that deny the truth about ourselves. We believe our inventions and cling to them. The denial that has been our shortcut becomes our dead end. We are blocked from real growth because we are blind and we stay blinded. Blindness remains our condition until we are ready to grow up.

Our Inner Condition Makes Us Ready For Step One

We have problems. Whatever they are, however large or small, we are afflicted and affected and less than serene. It’s a chronic situation. Some of us are stuck with an insolvable problem, some with a generalized inner distress. Our problems may be at the crisis stage or they may not be terribly serious. They may be obvious to outsiders or others may hardly notice them. It doesn’t matter. The point is that we feel an inner strain. Emotionally and perhaps physically, we are not comfortable.

Our chronic problems often grow up around points of unresolved pain. We have hurts from the past and we attach to them strong emotions, such as rage, feelings of inferiority or fears of being excluded or abandoned. We pile these emotions on top of each other and are propelled into ways of behaving that cause us even more pain. So we fall into a vicious cycle of compulsive feelings and activities as our solution.

We Are Packed Full Of Self And Loaded With False Power

One thing true of most of us is that we are full of ourselves. We are tied up in our own knots – we have no objectivity about what we think, feel or do. We are full of our pain and our rigid view about ourselves, other people and our problems. We are full of confusion, resentment, blame, anger, self-justification and self-pity. We can’t realistically see our own part in our problems because we can’t realistically see ourselves. We are unable to see, stop or control what we do that causes us so much pain. The weaker we feel, the more powerful we try to be – and the more powerful we try to be, the more we fail. It goes like this:

  1. We can’t see what the real problem is.
  2. We can’t see any solutions except those that come from our own confusion.
  3. We take our confused solution and act on it compulsively again and again.
  4. It doesn’t work. Or it may work for a while, but eventually it will fail and things will go back to the way they were before we tried to fix them.
  5. We do this dance again and again.

In this tight, closed little system, we attach ourselves to our problems and our method of fixing them. We attach to substances, activities and other people. We numb ourselves with drugs or alcohol. We drug ourselves with responsibility and compulsive overwork. We gamble. We overeat. We devote ourselves to rescuing others. We worry without ceasing, we hold resentments and are jealous. We become helplessness and make others take care of us or we form abusive relationships to act out our low self – worth. We can’t stop or control what we are doing. We can’t stop because our negative attachments run deeper than our willpower can reach.

All of this inner distress puts down roots that grow and spread inside of us and our denial protects these roots. This means we continuously tend and reinforce that which weakens us. We don’t ever let the roots dry out and shrivel. Instead we water them with our life’s energy, the same energy we could use to form a happy relationship with life, with ourselves and with others.

Our Lives Become Unmanageable

Our lives become unmanageable because we have to believe that we are powerful; we have to believe we are in control. We need to be in charge. To feel a loss of personal power feels like a loss of self. We deny this loss of self-power by controlling for dear life. We think all we need to do is to keep on doing the same things we’ve been doing and do them harder. Then we will find a different outcome, a cure, a genuine happiness. We will do almost anything to be happy, anything but change ourselves – so our unhappiness continues. An honest examination shows how “unmanaged” things really are.

• • • • • •

After my husband and I have a fight, I’m always the one who has to initiate getting back together. I’ve told him and told him I’d like him to start things sometimes, but he never, never does.

For one of the few times in my life I thought things were really under control – everything was going along just right. Then I had that awful car accident and everything fell apart. I was out of work for six months and couldn’t do a thing about it.

When my boss criticizes something I’ve done, I always feel like a punished kid – I get mad and he gets irritated and turns me off. Everyone tells me this is crazy, and I know it gets in the way of a promotion, but I can’t seem to change the way I feel or the way I act either.

• • • • • •

When we honestly examine our lives, we see unmanageability everywhere. It can be seen in our behaviors, such as irresponsibility or compulsivity. It shows in our strained relationships with others. We feel emotions that we can’t control: rage, loneliness, chronic sadness or a need to be distracted by work, excitement or chaos. We find ourselves in a financial, legal, or job-related mess, and we can’t get out. We war with the people we love and can’t come to peace with them. In so many ways, large and small, seen and unseen, our lives are unmanageable. But most of us are slow to admit to our problem behaviors and our powerlessness to fix them.

Step 1 Is A Step Forward – One Step Back From Self

With Step 1, we go forward far enough to step back from ourselves and see that all our efforts and solutions have not helped. We are still the way we do not want to be. Denial has kept us stuck, but with Step 1 we at least become aware of our denial. We become aware that our efforts to control have kept us stuck. With fresh honesty we admit there is something wrong with the way we are living.

Step 1 gives us insight that cuts through our excuses, our rationalizations, our justifications, our blame – in other words, through our denial. It cuts right to the heart of the problem. As Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo said, “We has met the enemy, and he is us.”

Step 1 shows us we have been fighting against ourselves, not for ourselves. We let go of the belief that we are managing well. We shift from thinking that we are powerful and in charge to believing in a new reality.

We Admit Our Powerlessness And Amazing Things Happen

All power is seductive. Giving up the illusion of power is as difficult and as wretched as giving up real power. We hang onto it as long as we are able. And our illusion of self-power corrupts us as absolutely as brute power corrupts a dictator. All of this changes when we accept the message of the First Step. We “admit we are powerless over other people, random events and our own persistent negative behavior . . .”

To admit our powerlessness means to give up and admit that we are spiritually depleted, emotionally exhausted from trying to fix problems we can’t fix. We simply cannot manage any longer. Whatever power we did have is used up and we have nothing left to use or lose. Coming to accept all this is a giant leap toward self-honesty and truth. When we do, we begin to experience the paradox that accepting our powerlessness becomes the basis for ever increasing spiritual strength.

As we let ourselves experience powerlessness, we feel it in our body and inner spirit. We feel lighter, more relaxed, as though we are yielding to new joy and energy and as though somehow we can rest. We feel more in tune, more connected with everything around us. To experience powerlessness is to be one with life instead of one against life.

Our potential to heal is tied to our understanding of the following:

  1. What is within our power
  2. What is beyond our power
  3. Where we can join with wider powers.

When we understand this, we have the spiritual energy to face and walk through the pain we have worked so hard to deny and manage. When we admit powerlessness, we see choices where once we couldn’t see any way out. We gain freedom in our thoughts, emotions and behavior. We find we actually have a lot of power to change ourselves, but only ourselves. This is different from the tight, self – controlling power of the past. This is real power based in honesty and true understanding. Real power can’t be achieved, only accepted.

And this is when amazing things happen. When we stop trying to manage and control our problems, we mysteriously stop doing the things that are causing us the trouble.

This is true when alcoholics stop trying to manage their drinking and when worriers stop trying to manage their worries. When we resign from managing the problems of others, the situation may continue but the problems we make for ourselves disappear. We stop fighting for a new outcome. We simply let go of our interfering interest and control. We just quit. We don’t try to figure it all out, we detach.

We let go of the things we can’t manage and practice constructive self-management through working the Steps. And when we do, we find a life we lost when we became consumed with managing things that can’t be managed.


Helen is a perfect person. She is married to Mr. Right and has three school-age children. She is competent and well-liked and her friends look up to her as a kind of superwoman. Helen is terrific and her life looks wonderful.

All the time she was growing up, Helen’s father was erratically employed and abusive to her and her brothers and sister. Her mother was emotionally absent and neglectful. The household was chaotic. Helen vowed that when she grew up, she would never live like that.

She never did. Instead, the grown-up Helen became perfect. She was controlled and clean and graciously warm. She was everything she thought a wife and mother should be. Her husband was a nice, normal guy who provided a good living. Her son and two daughters were precocious, and she raised them by the latest child-rearing methods. Helen was proud of her children’s accomplishments and she pushed them to achieve more.

Her family behaved as she directed, the way they ought. Secretly Helen felt superior. She had conquered her childhood. Under her surface warmth and graciousness she had a hidden contempt for people who lived in what she called “grubbiness.”

Trouble began when her oldest child, Eric, was in junior high. He started making friends who were not up to Helen’s standards. Eric wasn’t clean, wore sloppy clothes and ate when he was hungry. He even started skipping school – Helen got calls from the principal’s office. Eric wouldn’t listen to her when she tried to talk to him nor would he listen to his father.

Helen was overcome with anxiety and thought Eric’s future was at stake. She nagged and snooped and continued to try to mold him into her image. She felt like part of her life was reeling and she tried desperately to reassert her control.

Eric stood firm about his new – found independence, so Helen moved on and tightened her grip in other areas. She began giving her husband lists to remind him of things she wanted him to do. She over-scheduled her daughters with sports, lessons and academically-enriching activities. She doubled up on her high-profile volunteer work and gave lovely dinner parties at least twice a month. Life was still as perfect as Helen could make it.

Then Helen’s husband had business reverses. She was outwardly kind and supportive but inwardly raging. How could he upset her life like this? How could she buy the things she needed? What would happen to the family? She began to monitor his business closely, to make suggestions and to “help” him. She organized and planned. Her neck hurt. She was exhausted.

Helen began to clean her house obsessively. She cleaned and cleaned. She cried with self-pity as she scrubbed floors on her hands and knees. She didn’t know why she cried. She didn’t even know why she scrubbed the floors.

One evening after Helen had done the dinner dishes, she returned to the kitchen and saw a banana peel lying in her immaculate sink. A boundless rage rose up from somewhere deep within her. She grabbed the banana peel and, waving it in front of her, stormed around screaming, “Who did this? Who did this?” Her family was stunned.

Helen couldn’t stop. She stormed and screamed and raved. She knocked over a chair and even pounded the wall. Then she collapsed on her bed and sobbed for hours. The pain of her past came through her tears. She understood that her anger had nothing to do with a banana peel. Her anger had come from somewhere deep inside herself. She was frightened and realized that she had always been frightened. She was afraid to love and afraid of not being loved. She felt unsure of who she was. She felt empty inside. In a few seconds of clean honesty she understood the depth of her unhappiness and she understood that she was powerless.

Although she didn’t know it, this moment was Helen’s big turning point, her first Step 1. A few days later she went with a friend to a 12-Step group and began to live in a new way.

Helen had many insights as she began to work the Steps. She came to understand that her solution to her pain had been to become perfect. Striving toward perfection had made Helen feel powerful, the exact opposite of how she had always been afraid of feeling. Playing the game of Mrs. Perfect and winning had actually made Helen a loser in her own life. Helen began her 12-Step journey the night of the banana peel. She accepted her powerlessness and walked through her pain, past her perfection and into her own rich humanity.


Jerry was only able to admit his problem in detox. Until then he tried to manage and control his alcohol and drug use by mental inventions, by denying he had a problem.

His attachment to booze and drugs began when he was 15. Life was a party and life was fun. Using gave him the emotional easiness he lacked and he loved it. He felt clever when he smoked and virile when he drank. Together they were a real high.

Sometimes Jerry acted inappropriately when he used, and sometimes he couldn’t remember what he did. This didn’t always happen, though, so he could pretend it was no big deal. He just remembered how good the booze made him feel and he couldn’t wait until the next time.

Jerry started to use other drugs, too. When he was 19, he got in with a new crowd who used LSD and coke. They hung out together, went in together to make big buys and looked on each other as real friends.

Jerry’s brother was concerned about him and talked about what awful effects drugs could have. Jerry was sure his brother was over – reacting and trying to control him. He was furious. This gave him a good reason to go to his friends and have a really great party.

Jerry continued to use different kinds of drugs, always trying for that perfect state of emotional ease he had found when he first smoked and drank. Most of the time he missed the mark and felt good for a while and then awful. Sometimes he just felt awful. He lost his third or fourth job and had to go to work as a bag boy at a supermarket. Jerry was always full of rage and resentment so he just used more drugs. He never connected his misery with his use.

His brother talked to him again about drugs, so Jerry decided to prove that he didn’t have a problem. He actually quit using for almost six months. His health improved, his mind cleared and he got a better job and paid his overdue bills. His experiment in quitting “succeeded,” so he began using again.

In a matter of weeks Jerry was out of control. He used all kinds of drugs and he used them all the time. He still tried to manage his behavior and made all sorts of rules, but he never carried through.

When Jerry wasn’t invited to the family Thanksgiving dinner, his ever-present resentment erupted into a four day high. He passed out in the hall of his apartment building, and his landlord had him taken to detox. Jerry was enraged and humiliated. He told the detox staff that he didn’t need to be there, that he was a social user and his landlord caught him at a “bad time.” The sideways glance one staff member gave another said it all – Jerry wasn’t fooling anyone.

In Narcotics Anonymous Jerry finally stopped fooling himself. He acknowledged that his life was a mess and that drugs and booze were the reason. He practiced Step 1 with the profoundly simple idea that, since he couldn’t conquer or manage his use, he would no longer try. He admitted powerlessness and started on the long road to being straight.

In his recovery Jerry healed many areas of his life that had been painful long before he started using. His resentment subsided. He learned to respect himself and others. Jerry grew up and found emotional ease without drugs.

We Began At The Bottom

Connecting with real power begins in the ashes of our defeat, our admission of powerlessness. This is a place we have worked very hard to avoid. It takes honesty, courage and humility to accept this new start. But from defeat we can connect with life’s fresh energy and rise with real power, real purpose and real inner strength. It is natural and uncomplicated. All we have to do is let go and accept that we are not ultimately in control. It takes practice, but soon we know this is a happier way to live. We forget our powerlessness sometimes, but when we do, we collect ourselves and start again. Life is forgiving and life’s spiritual energy has no rules. It is available to us all, just because we are alive.

 • • • • • •

Admit we are powerless over other people, random events and our own persistent negative behaviors, and that when we forget this, our lives become unmanageable.

Today I will find ways to influence my life, while admitting I can’t control the outcome of my actions.

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The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery is available as a second edition at Amazon.

It is also available via Amazon in Canada and the United Kingdom and Europe.

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Chapters of the book have been posted on AA Agnostica and can be accessed here:

24 Responses

  1. Svukic says:

    “Serenity Wish” That’s cool Roger – better than both my suggestions!

  2. Roger says:

    You’re quite right! This used to be at the bottom of our homepage:

  3. Svukic says:

    Actually I should have said “ALMOST equivalent” since the Serenity Prayer is to do with life itself and the first Step specifically states our powerlessness over alcohol/drugs/compulsive behaviour, so in that way the 1st Step can be seen as an introduction to the Serenity Prayer (I hate keeping on writing that…maybe call it the “Serenity Affirmation” or “Serenity Meditation”?
    Whatever you call it it’s a prescription for maturity, and the 1st step really is THE FIRST STEP to accepting reality as it is and learning how to respond to it in the best way possible.

  4. Svukic says:

    After re-reading this (and enjoying it very much) I come to the realisation that the 1st Step is equivalent to the Serenity Prayer “…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” (I’m sure there is a version here on AA Agnostica which omits the “prayer” part) 🙂

  5. Cannonicus says:

    Why are theists so adamant on making nonbelievers second class?

  6. Cannonicus says:

    The short answer is there is no rational answer to your question. Which is why the 12-steps sell themselves as a “spiritual” not scientific pathway.

  7. Roger says:

    I’m not sure it is contradictory, Matt. Just sounds like one fiction replacing another fiction. Of course, that’s just the opposite of “rigorous honesty” and is probably be detrimental in the long run.

  8. Matt says:

    Could anyone give me a justifiable answer, as to why the AA book, tells me I’ve been lying to myself, then asks me to believe in a god, creative intelligence or higher power?
    I understand this to be contradictory.

  9. Duncan says:

    The problems is Russ that AA will continue to be Christian / Theistic in outlook. Atheists, like myself, have ignored the Steps that mention God. However that has not stopped the feeling that somehow we are 2nd class. Ok I have been sober almost 36 years and have gone through it all. However we must think of newcomers and how it feels for them.

    I think the fight has just begun and we must make AA change.

  10. Roger says:

    You’re welcome to do so, Svukic, if it fits in these comments. If it is more substantial, we might need to consider another venue or format…

  11. Svukic says:

    They say you are powerless, and that only with this mystical “higher power” can you get well, but since this is almost universally identified as God in the circles of AA that I have been attending (which are still better than some of the enforced dogma I’ve heard about in the US… I am from Sydney, Australia) it simply doesn’t answer why that same power doesn’t help the very people mentioned in the oft quoted phrase in meetings about the unfortunate bloke (the Big Book is relentlessly masculine except when talking to wives) that can’t get honest with himself…poor bloke, it’s not his fault!!! (Quote page 58 of the Fourth Edition). But that same bloke is (with a sorry countenance) condemned to the fires of hell (failure to get sober). There is no logic here. Where was this alleged magnanimous and all-pervading, mind-changing, moral-giving energy, the very same attributed to many of other AA’s constant or intermittent sobriety (what’s this with the sobriety date anyhow…we’re supposed to stay sober FOR TODAY… technically we should all have our sobriety dates TODAY).
    Thanks for the vent.

  12. Svukic says:

    Good for you!!! You are lucky to be agnostic/atheist and not have a problem with it…one less agony of translation (if you know what I mean). 🙂

  13. Svukic says:

    Can other people (for example I) contribute suggestions for the commentary? If not the actual wording of the “secular 12 steps”… AA’s “12 Steps & 12 Traditions” provide much that is worth discussing and it would be good for a secular version to do so too.

  14. Stephanie says:

    Yeah, I hear you. I don’t work the steps, don’t want to, and don’t like this version of step 1 (or anything that insists on powerlessness as an ideal). I appreciate that people are digging out some of the principles that work for them under all that Christian penitent awfulness, though, and that for a lot of folks a structured program of work is the best way to go.

  15. Alyssa S says:

    I will continue to grow from interpreting my own steps. I am amazed to learn how many different pathways to recovery exist. It’s a truly empowering experience to widen this lens 😉

  16. Russ H. says:

    By “anything goes” I meant that I have no objections: to alternative steps for anyone finds them useful; to the traditional steps if that’s what works; or to no steps at all. The notion of “doing work” to achieve sobriety simply doesn’t resonant with me. It’s not how recovery happened for me. My sobriety is not a result of something I did. It is a result of something that happened to me. I’m not a huge Big Book fan but that whole paragraph starting on bottom of p86 is exactly what happened to me…including, but not limited to “We will see that our new attitude toward liquor has been given us without any thought or effort on our part. It just comes!”

  17. Duncan says:

    I tend to agree with Russ’s comment in that we do not need the Steps but we do need to stop drinking. I wanted help from people not a lot of smart promises. With the help of people within AA I have remained sober for almost 36 years.


  18. Roger says:

    I don’t think it’s so much “anything goes,” Russ. People need a shit load of support in recovery. In AA, they are offered the suggested 12 Step program. These can be hard to understand, at the best of times. We scramble. We access the resources available to us. Maybe we have never heard of motivational therapy or CBT. I view this book, The Alternative 12 Steps, as a supplement, if you will, to the original Steps. Explained in simple, down-to-earth language, without the mysteries of theism, as a step by step path to “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism.” It’s not so much “anything goes” as “what have we got in hand and how can we make it work” to help this desperately sick human, who otherwise stands a real chance of ending up dead because of her/his alcoholism.

  19. Russ H. says:

    Yeah. Of course, anything goes. Cheers.

  20. JHG says:

    Rejecting some or all of the steps can create a void that needs to be filled. For example, I might not find the first three steps to be helpful as written, but I’m not sure that moving straight to a fourth step is advisable.

    The steps aren’t sacred. If it is OK to reject them, why would it not be OK to take a less drastic path and rework them? I like Roger’s take in his “Little Book,” which is promoted on this website. Personalizing the steps can be a valuable exercise for many of us. If I don’t like someone else’s revision, I can create my own.

  21. Russ H. says:

    So many people seems to miss the obvious option. Ignore the steps that are not relevant to your experience. That may mean ignoring all of them. I don’t understand why people who find the 12 Steps of AA to be unacceptable feel compelled to create a new version of them. Sobriety isn’t found written on some window shade hanging in a meeting place – regardless of what words may be written there. Sobriety is found within ourselves and is transmitted from one person to the next in the form genuine loving kindness and living examples of recovery.

  22. JHG says:

    As an atheist, I find AA’s dogma around powerlessness to be problematic. It’s not that I don’t experience powerlessness or that powerlessness is not an experience that goes along with alcoholism. The problem I have is how the word functions in the context of the twelve steps. The reason the first step insists on an admission of powerlessness is to set us up for the power greater than ourselves in the second step.

    The “twelve and twelve” equates admitting powerlessness with hitting bottom and admitting defeat. For me, the experience of hitting bottom, facing reality, and admitting defeat was the crucial event that initiated my sobriety. I had to be convinced I was done with alcohol. That is not the same thing for me as saying I’m powerless.

    I suspect that the theological baggage that comes with stressing the admission of powerlessness at the outset is one of the reasons AA is not more effective than it is. The obvious link between admitting powerlessness and turning our will and our life over to God is unpalatable even to a lot of people who have some sort of belief in a deity.

  23. Mike S. says:

    Thanks!! Great article and what I needed today. Once again proving AA Agnostica is the best secular recovery site on the internet!! (IMHO)

  24. Russ H. says:

    There are some things about traditional AA that don’t need to be changed. Step 1 is among them. This rewritten version is far less powerful and meaningful to me than the original.

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