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What to Expect When You Start the Twelve Steps

So you asked someone to be your sponsor, and you started the steps. It is likely a confusing time if this is your first time working the steps.

Most people aren’t sure what to expect. It doesn’t help that there are a variety of ways that people work the steps, and you may be wondering if your sponsor’s way is “the right way.”

However, you can expect general goal posts along the way. Additionally, you don’t have to know the entire process the first time. The first time is a leap of faith, and you have to trust that the process will work.

I outline below common concerns and milestones that you may have. These are:

How Long Does It Take to Finish the Steps?

This question comes up a lot. The length of time it takes you depends on the way your sponsor performs the steps. The duration also doesn’t imply that you are doing them “better.” The main goal is to not stop at a step, become stagnant, and fall off the path.

I’ve seen some step work methods on either extreme. My experience was somewhere in the middle. Some linages have the technique of doing a majority of the steps in a few days, with step 9 (making amends to those we harmed) taking place outside the formal sit-down with the sponsor.

The more common method is doing each step over a few weeks or months. Over this time, you meet regularly with your sponsor for a sit-down. The sponsor gives guidance on how your step work is going. You share any problems or questions along the way as you push forward.

Doing the Steps in Order.

Though the AA Big Book, namely Doctor Bob’s story, shows examples where members didn’t follow the steps in order, it is generally wise to do so. The steps have a numbered sequence. Most sponsors generally follow this rule.

Doing them in order is a good idea because they build on each other. For instance, it helps to take a written inventory in step 4 before step 5 because it prepares what you’re going to discuss in step 5. Step 8 then Step 9 have a similar pattern.

Though it may sound obvious, many new members try to do the steps independently in an erratic fashion. That’s why it is essential to have a sponsor who has gone through the steps and can explain them more knowledgeably.

It isn’t easy to teach the steps to yourself when you have never had prior experience with them. Trying to do them alone may cause you more confusion and frustration.

Why Do Sponsors Have Different Styles of Doing the Steps?

Once you get to know people, you’ll soon discover that they finished the steps in unique ways. There is nothing wrong with this. You don’t need to assume that your sponsor is “doing it wrong.” Your sponsor is likely taking you through the steps the same way they did.

It may not feel comfortable when you come across members who think their style is the only way to do the steps. The main thing is to stay confident and not veered off an otherwise perfect journey through the steps.

We avoid acting on hysterical opinions and advice. We need not feel pressured to change course due to the comments by a few fanatics. There’s no one correct sponsorship lineage.

The Book Is the Truest Guide for Doing the Steps

The Big Book, or primary text, acts as the best information for step work. Ideally, your sponsor stays close to what the book says. The book contains tips for action. It shows exactly how the founders and early members did the steps for long-term sobriety.

In much the same way as the steps themselves are in order, the book’s core action content follows the same order, namely the “How It Works” chapter.

My experience is that my sponsor and I read the section of the book that aligned with the step I was on. Each week we read the applicable sections and discussed what they meant to me.

Don’t Get Stuck on a Step.

Sometimes known as the “1,2,3 shuffle,” many folks stop for an extended period on a step, especially the first pen-to-paper step 4.

Don’t let fear or shame stop you from going forward. Perfectionism, or the pressure to try to get everything right the first time, also acts as a deterrent from doing steps.

You’ll likely remember items you missed at first. There’s no problem with that. You can work with your sponsor to clean them up. The main goal is to get through the steps as fully as possible without getting hung up. Work with others in the program and your sponsor on any roadblock that has caused you to stop.

Why step 4 is one where a lot of people give up

As I mentioned above, I’ve noticed that step 4 is the most common step that stops people. They carry the fear that they have to inspect themselves and their disordered past, which can lead to shame. These feelings aren’t out of the norm.

The pressure to try and include everything also causes people to feel overwhelmed with the work. My experience is that I spent 20-30 minutes a day writing out the inventory. I tried not to spend more time than that so that I could avoid feeling inundated.

It was also hard for me to look back over my past without anxiety. Limiting that to a small part of the day was helpful for me. Eventually, I got the main chunk of it finished, and I moved on to step 5.

It won’t ever be “perfect” in your mind. Get the main parts down that have bothered you through your life, and then you’ve got a thorough enough picture that you and your sponsor can work with.

Keep Using the Steps to Navigate through Sober Life

The steps aren’t a “one and done” experience. The first pass is a valuable learning exercise. The skills and lifestyle guidelines that your sponsor teaches are an excellent foundation for a lifetime.

I found that the knowledge and principles behind each step weren’t new material for me. My upbringing and school taught these things, but they never clicked until I applied them through the steps. I became an adult for the first time with the material.

After doing the steps, I continue to practice them as needed. I don’t believe that we need to keep going through them formally over and over or once a year. Steps 10, 11, and 12 usually prevent me from getting too far off the course. I don’t need to do the exhausting exercise of continuous 1-12 step work.


Your experience through the steps will be uniquely your own. Your sponsor has a unique way of doing the steps, and there’s no defacto, correct way of doing the steps.

There’s no need to suddenly get a new sponsor just because yours has methods that appear different than other members’.

Continue steadily and ask questions. The steps contain rich tips for living the rest of your life content and sober.

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