Tradition 1 of a 12-Step Program

Foundational principle aims to ensure AA group unity

Support group talking meeting in living room
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The 12 Traditions are the principles that keep 12-step support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Al-Anon, focused on their primary task of fellowship. The Twelve Traditions serve as the framework by which the internal operations of all 12-step programs operate.

Tradition 1 is the first of these guiding principles. It serves to create a sense of unity and fellowship within the group.

The Twelve Tradition philosophy started in 1939 with the publication of the "Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous." The concept was refined in the ensuing years as AA continued to grow, and greater emphasis was placed on maintaining uniformity among chapters. In 1953, co-founder Bill Wilson formalized the principles in the book "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions."

This article explores how Tradition 1 works and why it is so important to the functioning of a 12-step support group.

Understanding Tradition 1

The main principle of Tradition 1 is unity. As the Twelve Steps lay the spiritual path of recovery for individual members, the Twelve Traditions provide the principles that keep the group healthy and grounded. This is best exemplified by Tradition 1, which states:

"Each member of Alcoholics Anonymous is but a small part of a great whole. AA must continue to live or most of us will surely die. Hence our common welfare comes first. But individual welfare follows close afterward."

The underlying principle is simple: 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 individuals are most likely to drift away or leave the program altogether.

When people first try to recover from addiction, they often attempt to do so alone. While some people are successful, this approach means that people are less supported and more likely to feel isolated in their recovery. 

By building a connection with the group, people are better able to reach their individual goals while still benefiting from the cohesiveness of a unified group. Such unity benefits both individuals and the group as a whole.

Dissension and Agreement

The aim of Tradition 1 is 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. As a group prepares to make a decision, all sides must be given an opportunity to speak without judgment or derision.

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 One.

Applying Tradition 1 to Your Life

Newcomers to a 12-step group will often place their entire focus on the Twelve Steps and pay less mind to the Twelve Traditions. In some ways, it’s entirely understandable. As an individual, you want to reach your goal of sobriety. But unless you embrace the Twelve Traditions, your journey can become rudderless as you place “self” over others.

In the end, the Twelve Traditions provide the foundation by which individuals can navigate the Twelve Steps. Both are meant to provide you with the framework by which to live your life, not just stop drinking.

The underlying concept of Tradition 1 is that being of service to other people can help promote sobriety. One way to incorporate this concept into your own life is to work on doing things for others, even as you accept help toward your recovery.

Some ways to foster this sense of unity include participating in your 12-step group, sharing your experiences, and encouraging others in their progress. 

You can also implement these practices within your own family unit. Instead of placing your own needs at the forefront, make sure each family member is seen and heard. Work on reaching consensus within the family unit. Each person may not get exactly what they want, but working together ensures that each person's needs are respected.

A Word From Verywell

Living up to these principles takes work and dedication, but so does becoming a part of AA. Like every part of a 12-step program, the journey begins with the first step. Learning more about the Twelve Traditions can give you a better understanding of how the process works and how the well-being of the group as a whole can play a role in your individual recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between the 12 steps and the 12 traditions?

    Where the 12 steps are focused on individuals, the 12 traditions are focused on the group as a whole. The 12 steps describe each of the actions that a person will need to take as an individual in order to recover from their addiction. By contrast, the traditions help keep the support group functioning and healthy.

  • What is the Big Book in AA?

    "Alcoholics Anonymous" is the book often referred to as the Big Book by members of AA. The book was written by the founders of AA. It describes how the process works and what is needed to reach sobriety. It describes the 12 steps and explores personal stories and examples of how these steps can aid in recovery.

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.