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What the first step means and how to apply it

Step 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.

Without the first step, we have no reason to pursue recovery. We have to admit to ourselves that we have a problem. The foundation of step 1 is that we become honest with ourselves.

Let’s examine what the step says and how we can apply it. We’ll look at each concept of the step — powerlessness and unmanageability. Then we will look at how we can map our own experience onto the step and the clarity that act brings.

Powerlessness over Alcohol

The first part of the step — admitting we are powerless over alcohol — is a heavy statement. What does it mean?

It boils down to the truth that we can’t control how much we drink or what happens once we start to drink. We cannot both control and enjoy our alcohol, no matter how hard we try. It is an admission that our willpower is useless against liquor.

It’s a tough admission because we probably learned that we could conquer anything with enough willpower and effort. How many times has someone told you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get over it? How many times were you baffled you drank again despite sincere promises to yourself that you wouldn’t?

The powerlessness idea carries another connotation that is difficult to admit: we are mentally insane when drinking. No matter how many consequences alcoholics face, they rush back to the booze. They may be on the verge of losing everything, but the mental defense to leave alcohol alone doesn’t exist. Losing the power of will over drinking looks a lot like insanity when someone else is looking at our lives.

According to the twelve steps, admitting powerlessness is the first step to finding another power to keep us from drinking. We must accept that our power alone is no match for compulsive drinking.

Unmanagable Lives

Insane drinking leads to chaos, even though we might remain normal in other aspects of our lives, such as career and family relationships. Since we’ve lost control of drinking, it starts to cause harm in our lives. The goal is to get off the Ferris wheel before we lose more.

“The bottom” is different for many people. The bottom is usually the lowest point in someone’s drinking career, which makes them seek help. It could be homelessness or a missed birthday party because of a hangover. Regardless, the source of the unmanageability is compulsive drinking. It doesn’t matter how far down the scale that manageability has led to, but that it reaches a point where we suspect we have a problem.

Unfortunately, many people have to get very far down in unmanageability before becoming suspicious of their drinking. Others might seek help well before the more severe consequences.

Self Honesty: A Requirement for Accepting step 1

It doesn’t matter how many people have told us we have a drinking problem. For years we might have had parents, friends, or employers say we need to get help for drinking. However, Step 1 asks us to appraise ourselves honestly, and it requires admission to ourselves that we have a problem.

That’s why self-honesty is essential. The justifications have to drop, and we must look at our past through the lens of powerlessness. When were the times we drank against our will? When did we know we’d face loss if we drank but drank anyway? What aspects of our lives were negatively affected by our drinking when we had no intention for it, such as job loss, relationship loss, or financial loss?

Times of Control are not Reason to Think Step 1 Doesn’t Apply to You

Over our past, we may point to numerous occasions where we had control over the amounts we drank. We have situations where we may have drank only one or two beers and then gone to bed. Our past might include long stretches of sobriety where we didn’t think of drinking at all.

These periods of control have a way of justifying that we may not be alcoholics. They could give us comfort that we still have power and aren’t as bad off as step 1 describes.

However, we have to return to the concept of self-honesty. When our drinking sessions where we lose control outnumber the ones of control, that’s worth considering. If we are honest about the destruction of our drinking, does a few times of control reflect the reality of the harm alcohol has caused in our lives?

Looking Back Over Our Drinking Career to Get a Better Picture of Whether Step 1 Applies to Us

The important part of step 1 is an honest appraisal of our past to determine where we might stand. Our drinking careers all look a bit different. However, the common thread is that there’s a point where we begin to lose all control once we consume alcohol. We don’t know what we’ll do or where we’ll end up once we take the first drink.

Another common aspect is that most of us can’t determine the point at which we lost the power of will. It’s usually a fine line in our history, but we can honestly know what happens in our story after we reach it. It involves more insanity, more harm to our lives, and more bafflement at our behaviors. We no longer understand ourselves or why we do it. This mysterious point is what separates regular drinkers from alcoholics.

Letting Go — Having a hunch that there may be another option

It’s scary to admit powerlessness when we don’t think another solution is available. It’s as though we’ve cut anchor with the world and resign ourselves to a life of futility, where no human resources can help us. Nobody wants that. We’ll try as hard as we can to muster our defenses before we admit defeat like this.

Thankfully, there is another way through the twelve steps. They put you in contact with a power that can return you to sanity and remove the compulsion to drink. So the cause is not entirely lost — there’s a power you can tap into which will solve the drink problem. The twelve steps are a method of making contact and finding the source.

Step 1 is Painful because It Punctures the Ego

Step 1 is deflating. It punctures our ego when we have to admit that we can’t do the job ourselves.

This ego deflation is necessary. It gets us out of our way, and it gets us out of the vicious cycle of attempting to solve the problem with willpower, which invariably leads to failure over and over.

Keep an open mind that admission of defeat is a part of the process. The twelve steps don’t keep you in a state of hopeless failure all the time, and they provide a way out. Step 1 is the foundation for starting a new life.

Willingness to Continue the Steps without Knowledge of the Future

With a competent sponsor, you will move past step one and through the rest of the steps. You’ll learn how to live life sober and lose the obsession to drink. The twelve steps are a process. You don’t always know what the future holds as you work them, but it’s crucial to remain willing to see them through. A good sponsor will ease any fears and frustrations that crop up.


Step 1 is two-pronged in that it asks us to admit powerless over our drinking behavior and that we can no longer manage our own lives. We have to spend time with ourselves to honestly take stock of our past and what led us to seek help in the first place. It’s challenging to look over a painful past but necessary to see where we may fit into step 1.

Step 1 isn’t supposed to make us sit in hopelessness forever, though. It’s a way to empower us to seek out a strength that can solve the drinking dilemma. Step 1 is the foundation for working the rest of the steps, clearly understanding that we cannot solve alcoholism on our willpower. Staying willing with an open mind is essential as we progress.

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