The 12 Traditions of the AA Study Guide

The Principles That Define 12-Step Program Internal Operations

The 12 traditions are the principles that keep 12-step support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and the Al-Anon Family Support Group, 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."

Empty chairs in a circle for AA meeting
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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 A.A. unity.
  2. 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.
  3. The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
  4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.
  5. Each group has but one primary purpose: to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  6. An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
  7. Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
  9. A.A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
  10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
  11. 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.
  12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles above personalities.

The 12 Traditions Explained

Here we discuss each tradition and what it means for people in 12-step support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.

Tradition 1: 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 one 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 2: Leadership

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. Tradition two 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.

Tradition 3: Eligibility

Tradition three states that the only requirement in A.A. is a desire to stop drinking. For members of Al-Anon, the only requirement is that you have a relative or friend with an alcohol use disorder. This tradition 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.

Tradition 4: Autonomy

Tradition four 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, the program content and topics discussed, and how to spend funds as needed. At the same time, it also cautions against straying too far from the program's basic tenets.

Tradition 5: Carrying the Message

While individual members bring their own needs into the 12-step rooms and progress at their own pace through the journey of recovery, the group should have but one purpose. According to tradition five, the group's primary purpose is to carry its message and give experience, strength, comfort, and hope to others inside the rooms.

Tradition 6: Outside Enterprises

Tradition six seeks to preserve the integrity of the 12-step program and maintain the 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, the charitable or civic organization they wish. As a group, such endorsement could lead to misunderstanding and confusion, particularly as many outside organizations attempt to use the name of Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon Family Groups to promote their treatment programs or therapeutic approaches.

Tradition 7: Self-Supporting

By being self-supporting and declining outside contributions, the group protects its basic fellowship structure and basic spiritual foundations. Tradition seven makes it clear that members of each local group can choose whether or not to place money in the basket for contributions but also ensures that the fellowship does not become involved with outside issues or conflicts by accepting "outside contributions."

Tradition 8: Giving It Away

There is a saying in the rooms, "In order to keep it, you must give it away." Tradition eight allows contributions to be used for support services while the groups provide only non-professional, mutual support, ensuring A.A. 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.

Tradition 9: Organization

By not being highly organized, support groups keep the emphasis on true fellowship and their primary purpose. There may be committees or a secretary to help with handling contributions. Unlike many other traditions, tradition nine does not require much from its members.

Tradition 10: Outside Opinions

By choosing not to express opinions on outside issues such as politics, alcohol reform, or religion, A.A. and Al-Anon avoid controversy, both publicly and within the fellowship itself. Tradition 10 helps members to maintain focus on their common purpose.

Tradition 11: Public Relations

Anonymity in the media protects not only the individual member but the fellowship as a whole. It is A.A.'s public relations policy to attract rather than promote. Part of the eleventh tradition is not using full names or naming groups. For example, if a member wishes to discuss the benefits of being a member of A.A. with the media, they should identify themselves by their first name only.

Tradition 12: Anonymity

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.

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.

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