Have You Really Worked Step 1? – Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S

In today’s world, recovery from addiction typically starts in rehab, followed by addiction focused outpatient therapy, 12 step meetings, and step work. Most of the time, as recovering addicts grow comfortable with their sobriety, they rely less on professional help and more on 12 step support groups and continual working of the steps. This, of course, begins with step 1.

We admitted we were powerless over our addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable.

On the surface, step 1 seems relatively straightforward. And for many addicts it is. For these lucky individuals, simply walking into a treatment center, a therapist’s office, or a 12 step meeting and asking for help is a full and complete admission of powerlessness and unmanageability. However, other recovering addicts must continually battle with denial about their disease. These addicts must consciously and purposefully work step 1 if they hope to establish and maintain lasting sobriety. Often, they must work this step repeatedly, even as other aspects of their recovery progress.

If you’re an addict who finds step 1 difficult, the following tasks can help.

Task 1: Powerlessness

Being powerless means you have lost control over your addictive behaviors. You engage in your addictive behaviors compulsively, even when you don’t want to. Moreover, you have no ability to stop once you’ve started.

  • List 10 or more examples of your powerlessness over your addiction. Use the following format: “Even though I (list a particular consequence), I continued to (list a particular addictive activity).” For example, you might write, “Even though I had three DUI arrests, I continued to drink and drive.”

Task 2: Unmanageability

Unmanageability speaks to the consequences of your addictive behaviors, both direct (obviously connected) and indirect (less obviously connected). Many addicts have relationship troubles, reprimands at work, and even arrests that are very obviously connected to their addictions. Less obvious consequences may include depression, anxiety, feeling worn out, forgetting to pay bills, eating poorly, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, etc.

  • List 10 or more examples of unmanageability (consequences) related to your addiction. Try to include a mix of both obvious and less obvious issues. For example, you might write, “I was fired from my job for repeatedly showing up wasted,” and, “I was continually depressed and ashamed because of behaviors I engaged in while drunk or high.”

Task 3: Powerless and Unmanageability Together

An easy measure of both powerlessness and unmanageability looks at failed attempts to either cut back or quit your addictive behaviors. (People who are not addicted rarely feel a need to curtail or abandon a particular behavior, whereas addicts attempt to do this fairly often.) If you’ve tried and failed to control your addiction on multiple occasions, that is an excellent indictor of powerlessness over your addiction, and how your addictive behaviors have become unmanageable.

  • List any attempts you’ve made to either cut back on or quit your addictive behaviors. Note the approximate length of your success. For example, you might write, “After my girlfriend broke up with me because of my drug use, I swore to myself that I would quit and get my life on track. I stayed clean for about 48 hours.”

Task 4: Sharing Your Step 1 Inventories

Writing down examples of powerlessness and unmanageability is not enough for most recovering addicts. To increase the impact of step 1 it is important to share your inventories with your 12 step fellowship, your therapy group, or, at the very least, your 12 step sponsor. For many recovering addicts, sharing step 1 with their support network is the true beginning of recovery. Many say their life began to improve the instant they got honest with their support network by sharing their step 1 inventories.

If you’re like most recovering addicts, you are filled with shame, self-loathing, and remorse about your addictive behaviors and their consequences. Plus, you’ve gotten very used to keeping secrets from the important people in your life. Because of this, opening up about the nature and extent of your addictive behavior may feel both unnatural and uncomfortable. That said, sharing your history and consequences is always worthwhile.


The tasks suggested above are not the only way to work step 1. In truth, there are as many ways to work step 1 as there are recovering addicts. So rather than telling you that the exercises I’ve suggested are the way to work this step, I will simply restate the advice I’ve heard over and over in 12 step meetings: Take what you like and leave the rest. If my suggestions make sense to you, then use them. If not, that does not mean the 12 steps are flawed; it simply means you need to work them in a different way.

In truth, the way you work the steps is not important. What’s important is that you do work them.

Ongoing step-work is a proven route to lasting sobriety. So please go to meetings, please get a sponsor, please build a support group, and please talk with your fellow recovering addicts about their experience working the steps. Each and every one of these people will have something useful to offer, and before you know it you’ll be helping them, too. You will become as important to these folks and their recovery as they are to you and yours.

In future postings to this site, I will present suggestions for how to effectively work steps 2 through 12. For other general information about healing from addiction, check out my website. For treatment referrals, click here, here, or here.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health. In this capacity, he has established and overseen addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and Los Angeles, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. He is also the author of several highly regarded books, including Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction. For more information please visit his website, robertweissmsw.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s