Just as the 12 Steps represent the spiritual path to 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 above their own primary purpose of the community.
The 12 traditions began in 1939 in the preface to the first editions of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Due to the rapid growth of the group, many questions pertaining to public relations, religion and finance came up. In 1946, co-founder Bill Wilson published “Twelve Points to Secure 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 define the internal workings of the 12-step programs...
- Our common well-being should come first. Personal recovery depends on the unity of AA.
- There is only one ultimate authority for our group purpose – a loving God as He can express himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are only trustworthy servants; they don’t rule.
- 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 only one main purpose: to get their message across to the alcoholic who is still suffering.
- An AA group should never endorse, fund, or lend the AA name to any related entity or outside company, lest issues of money, property, and prestige distract us from our primary purpose.
- Each AA group should be fully self-sufficient and reject outside contributions.
- Alcoholics Anonymous should remain unprofessional forever, but our service centers may employ dedicated staff.
- AA as such should never be organized; However, we can set up service boards or committees directly responsible for those they serve.
- Alcoholics Anonymous have no opinion on external issues; Hence, the name AA should never be drawn into public controversy.
- Our PR policy is based on attraction rather than advertising. We must always maintain personal anonymity at the press, radio and film level.
- Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all of our traditions and always reminds us to put principles above personalities.
Tradition 1: unity
“Our common welfare should come first. Personal progress depends on the unity of AA.”
Many people try to recover from the addiction on their own, but isolation often makes it harder to give up drugs or alcohol. Tradition 1 is based on the fact that in-group unity allows members of 12-step support groups to make further progress. The underlying message: while you want to achieve your individual goal of sobriety, putting yourself above others can become rudderless to your journey.
Tradition 1 also helps to ensure cohesion and at the same time to honor all voices in an open dialogue. Both AA and Al-Anon are structured to provide a platform for everyone, including those with minority views.
As a group prepares for a decision, all sides must be given the opportunity to speak without judgment or ridicule. If the group is controversial or dominated by individuals, the unity of the group is compromised. This is especially true for members who feel broke or minimized. These are the ones most likely to drift off or leave the program altogether.
With this in mind, all members of the group must be willing to accept majority opinion and work together to turn decisions into action. This helps prevent the division that can undermine not only the group but every member of the group.
A free exchange of ideas is considered healthy as long as all members work to protect the principles of tradition 1.
How to apply it to your life
Tradition 1 can be applied to both your family and your group. By putting your family’s common interests first, you can achieve more and benefit from unified support. This requires that every family member be heard, that their opinions be respected, and that a consensus be reached on whether you or someone else in the family are completely disagree.
Tradition 2: leadership
“There is only one ultimate authority for our group purpose – a loving God as expressed in our group conscience. Our leaders are only trustworthy servants; they do not rule.”
Tradition 2 ensures that no member has authority “over” the group, which gives all members a sense of “belonging” regardless of their background, education or expertise. In 12-level groups there is no individual authority or governance, but there are group leaders who have the responsibility to serve the group and not make decisions about it.
In this way, the community reaches out to all who seek solace and gives all members a “sense of belonging” atmosphere.
But there are leaders …
Tradition 2 has often been misquoted as “We have no leaders”. But it clearly states that every group has its leaders – they just have no authority over the rest of the group. Whether they are the group’s representative in the region or district, or the secretary or treasurer, they have been given the responsibility to serve the group and not make decisions about it.
Groups clearly have different types of “leaders”. There are those who, by sharing their wisdom and strength in the gatherings, are tacitly recognized by the group as “spiritual leaders.” There are members who are sufficiently well versed in the principles and traditions of the program that the group will turn to them if questions arise regarding possible violations of those principles and traditions. These are leaders too, but neither do they rule.
Tradition 3: Eligibility
“The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
Tradition 3 was created to protect the community from outside influences and to ensure that the meetings keep their primary focus and are not watered down by the influx of other topics 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 meets the entitlement described in Tradition 3, generally leaving that determination to the individual. Basically, those who attend these 12-step meetings either feel “belonging” or they don’t and move on.
Some classic cars today believe that the community has actually been watered down by the inclusion of those who deal primarily with issues other than alcohol problems like substance abuse. They feel that the program has deviated from its spiritual foundations and primary purpose and can be watered down to the point of ineffectiveness.
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 sessions, including where the session will take place. whether it is open or closed; how to start and end meetings (for example, close with a prayer or a moment of silence); the content of the program and the topics covered; and how to spend money as needed.
Limits of freedom
At the same time, it also warns against deviating too far from the principles of the program. The autonomy provided for in Tradition 4 does not mean that a single group has the authority to reformulate the 12 steps or traditions, or to create their own literature. Nor does this mean that groups should present, discuss or sell external literature at their meeting points.
Many meetings have broken away from the look and feel of AA’s primary purpose by using unapproved literature, showing videos of popular self-help speakers, or allowing treatment professionals to speak about the latest therapy techniques in open meetings.
There is a saying that there is no right or wrong way to hold a meeting, but the group can stop delivering the message if it strays too far from its traditions and concepts.
Tradition 5: Carrying the Message
“Each group has only one main purpose: to get their message across to the alcoholic who is still suffering.”
The main purpose of each 12-level group is to get their message out and give comfort to others who are still suffering. This is set out in Tradition 5.
Individual members bring their own needs to the 12-step rooms and each progresses at their own pace on the path to recovery. Everyone is different. Each member has a personal reason to come back week after week.
But when group Their only purpose is to reach out to others who are still suffering. Their goal is to share with others the experience, strength and hope they found in the rooms.
A classic car was once asked why it kept coming back after all these years. His answer was simple: “Because someone was there for me when I came through these doors.”
Tradition 6: Outside of companies
“Our groups should never endorse, fund, or give our name to any related entity or outside company lest issues of money, property, and prestige distract us from our primary purpose.”
Tradition 6 seeks to maintain the integrity of the 12-step program and maintain its primary spiritual goal by preventing groups from supporting external organizations and causes. As individuals, members of 12-step support groups can support, fund, or join any organization, religion, political party, charity, or civic organization. The Al-Anon version adds, “Although this is a separate entity, we should always work with Alcoholics Anonymous.”
Given that in recent years so many outside organizations have tried to use the name of Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon Family Groups to promote their treatment programs or therapeutic approaches, it is more important than ever that Tradition 6 is followed .
Although individual members may recommend or even be employed by such organizations, the group as a whole should avoid associating their name with these outside companies, namely professional treatment facilities or therapists.
Even worthy projects like starting a 12-step club or helping a shelter for abused spouses should be carried out not as a group project but as an effort by members as individuals if they so choose. Without exception, these situations can lead to financial and control battles, and distract a group and community from their primary focus on recovery.
Why tradition 6 is important
Members come to the rooms every week and seek help based on the experience, strength, and hope of other members. This process can be interrupted if the group spends some of the allotted time discussing external activities. When a group’s discussion is dominated by external issues, individual members are deprived of their meeting time. In short, Tradition 6 creates unity within the group.
Tradition 7: Self-supporting
“Every AA group should be self-supporting and reject outside contributions.”
Tradition 7 makes it clear that members of any local group can choose whether or not to add money to the cart for contributions, but also ensures that the scholarship does not get embroiled in external problems or conflict by accepting “external contributions”.
One of the principles of 12-step support groups is that each member is responsible for their own recovery. The first part of Tradition 7 makes it clear that responsibility is extended to the members of any local group when they pass the basket for contributions towards paying rent and maintaining their literature library.
Tradition 7 says that 12-step groups are self-sustaining through their own contributions. These contributions are used to employ specialized labor and maintain the district, area and global structure. That tradition is reflected in the history of AA when John D. Rockefeller Jr. declined a large donation as it would “spoil the thing” and they will have to support themselves to be successful.
If the group collects more than is necessary to cover their expenses, they can contribute to their World Service Office, which also follows this tradition by not accepting outside contributions. Although such contributions have decreased in recent years, they are important in getting the message across around the world.
Reject external contributions
The second part of this tradition addresses the problem that the community does not deal with external issues or conflicts that might arise from accepting “external input”. If such contributions were accepted, the group and its members might feel obliged to make concessions to the individual or organization making the donation.
By rejecting these contributions, the community remains independent of external influences. It also removes the need to constantly track donor funding and government grants.
As the internet became a part of everyday life, members of 12-step groups naturally gathered online to support one another. Many (but not all) 12 tier online support groups have been able to stick to Tradition 7 and stay self-sustaining by keeping outdoor advertising off their websites and online meetings.
Tradition 8: giving away
“Alcoholics Anonymous should remain unprofessional forever, but our service centers may have dedicated staff.”
Tradition 8 allows contributions to be used for support services while the groups only provide non-professional, mutual support to ensure that AA or Al-Anon remains an unpaid, non-professional organization. Every time a newbie asks for help, they get it for free. When members freely share their own experiences, strengths, and hopes with the newcomer, they will help themselves and strengthen their own recovery.
Not professional mutual assistance
That’s not to say that members can’t be doctors and professionals, but they leave those external affiliations at the door. This is how the 12-step programs work. There is a saying in the rooms: “To keep it, you must give it away”.
Going to a professional counselor is different from going to a group of others in recovery. Twelve-tier groups are different from professional recovery services and provide the assistance members find in sharing and hearing each other’s stories. There is no authority that the member can rebel against.
Hiring of specialist workers
Twelve-tier organizations at the national, state, and regional levels may have service centers that serve the fellowship as a whole by printing and distributing literature and creating schedules, maintaining response services, and performing other duties.
These central offices and service centers often require more work than volunteer service workers can do. As a result, some hire full-time and part-time workers to do the necessary work to keep them running smoothly. Tradition 8 therefore allows the “specialist workers” to be hired and paid to do the work that volunteers cannot do.
Dedicated staff can be deployed to keep the AA message alive through printing, communication, and other technologies around the world. This doesn’t pay off for 12-step work, but for the services required to support them with literature and outreach. Members understand the difference between paying for support services and paying for professional advisors.
Tradition 9: Organization
“AA as such should never be organized; but we can set up service boards or committees directly responsible for those they serve.”
Support groups are not well organized and continue to focus on real community and its main purpose. Unlike many other traditions, Tradition 9 does not ask much of its members.
In the real world, corporations and other groups are “organized”. There is a hierarchy of authority such that some members of the organization have the authority to “direct” the actions of others.
But nobody in the 12-step group has that kind of authority. The groups are a “community of equals”. Decisions are made by the whole group and not by one or a few members. There may be committees or a secretary to help process papers.
By creating and maintaining this “true fellowship” atmosphere, 12-Level Groups ensure that even the newest members quickly gain a sense of “belonging”.
How are “executive” decisions made when no one has authority? Decisions are made by the entire group through what is known as a group conscience vote. Any member of the group can request that a “business meeting” be held to discuss any issues that affect the group as a whole, regardless of the group’s regular meeting time.
After a discussion on the topic, during which all members have the opportunity to express their opinion, the group votes on the topic and the majority decides on the question. In this way, the group maintains unity by creating an atmosphere where all voices are heard – from the oldest long-term player to the newcomer – and everyone has the same voice and voice.
Tradition 10: External Opinions
“Alcoholics Anonymous does not have an opinion on external issues; therefore the name AA should never be drawn into public controversy.”
By choosing not to express opinions on external issues such as politics, alcohol reform, or religion, AA and Al-Anon avoid controversy both publicly and within the community. Tradition 10 also helps members focus on their common purpose.
In Al-Anon’s preamble to the 12 Steps and Traditions it says: “Al-Anon is not affiliated with any sect, denomination, political unit, organization or institution. There is no controversy, no reason to support or reject.”
Similarly, AA does not give its name to external organizations such as professional treatment facilities. You may see ads for treatment programs that claim to be “12-step based”, but you won’t see any that say they are AA-related.
Application of the principle to personal life
If this tradition is followed, it prevents the community as a whole from getting into public controversy, but the principle can also be applied to “all matters” of individual members.
For example, when Al-Anon members apply this principle to their lives, someone else’s recovery (or, more importantly, lack of recovery) becomes an external problem that enables them to “break away” from the problems of others and focus on their own recovery process.
Tradition 11: Public Relations
“Our PR policy is based on attraction rather than advertising. We must always maintain personal anonymity at the press, radio and film level.”
The anonymity in the media protects not only the individual member, but the entire community. It is AA’s PR policy to attract rather than promote. Part of Tradition 11 is not to use full names or groups of names. For example, if a member wants to discuss the benefits of being a member of AA with the media, they should only identify by their first name.
For example, if John Doe uses his full name in an interview, he shouldn’t name his recovery group. He could just say he’s in a “recovery group”. If he wants to discuss Al-Anon or AA by name, he should only identify himself as John D.
This anonymity is more for the good of the community than to protect the member’s identity. The example shows a famous athlete or television personality – a role model – who is recovering and telling the world that AA saved his life. What if that person relapses? Then people may think AA is useless and less likely to seek it if they have to seek sobriety.
However, Tradition 11 was also developed by the founders of the 12-step programs to avoid other potentially harmful situations...
The purpose of 12-level groups is for one member to help another and be responsible for having the attraction to the program. A member does not pass this responsibility off to a spokesperson or an advertising campaign.
Tradition 12: anonymity
“Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions and always reminds us to put principles above personalities.”
A hallmark of 12-step recovery programs is the offer of anonymity to the participants. Anonymity helps protect the group and focus on principles rather than personalities. According to Tradition 12, personal anonymity should be maintained at all levels of participation in 12-step scholarships, including meetings, step 12 work, and even sponsorship.
Many newcomers to the program will go to their first meeting and expect to find trained professionals who are there to help them. What they find instead is a community of equals who have gathered for mutual support. There are no doctors, therapists or counselors, just other members who have or have had the same problem in their life.
Like any part of a 12-step program, following these 12 traditions requires work and dedication as you or someone close to your heart embark on the path to permanent recovery.
If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use or addiction problems, contact the National Drug Abuse and Mental Health Authority (SAMHSA) helpline at 1-800-662-4357 Information about support and treatment facilities in your area.
Additional mental health resources can be found in our National Helpline Database.