Adlerian Interpretation of the Twelve Steps

Earlier this year, I gave a talk at Adler University for their “Transformative Empowerment” conference put on by the Center for Adlerian Practice and Scholarship. As part of my talk, I created a document that recasts the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous in Adlerian terms.

For a number of years, I have discussed both the strengths and the limitations of the Twelve Step approach. Many prople find the many references to “God as we understand Him” off-putting. Others don’t like the powerlessness inherent in the First Step and beyond.

In fact, at a conference focused on “Transformative Empowement,” I thought it would be very helpful to illustrate how an Adlerian frame of reference could turn the Twelve Steps into a series of actions geared toward transformative empowerment.

I present here a revised version of the handout I created for that conference. I hope you find it interesting and useful, whether you are a professional working in addictions, or a person struggling with addiction in your own life or that of a family member. Bear in mind that my position is that it would take a counselor who has some familiarity with Adlerian theory to help a client apply these principles in their own life.

Adlerian Interpretation and Restatement of the Twelve Steps

Paul Fitzgerald, PsyD, Director of Training, Adler University Chicago Campus

©2018 Paul J. Fitzgerald


Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. Adlerian technique: Paradoxical intervention. Help the client disrupt their ambivalence about their conflicting goals, both of which they want to continue to pursue indefinitely, and accept that only one goal is possible. Conflicting goals: I want to be able to drink/use as much as I’m inclined to, and also want to be able to manage my life and be functional. Adlerian restatement: I accept that I cannot have my cake and eat it too.

Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Adlerian technique: Recognizing the presence of one or both of the most glaring basic mistakes associated with addiction: The desire to always control everything and/or the desire to always feel good. Accepting that I have a responsibility to others and so must take others into account. The “power” is also another paradoxical intervention to eliminate the conflicting goals of “I want to be in control” (And/or “I want to get pleasure at all times and never experience pain at any time”) and “I want to live a life that is ‘sane’ – i.e., in cooperation with others.” Adlerian restatement: I accept that I cannot hope to always satisfy my selfish desires and still live sanely, i.e., in social cooperation.

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. Adlerian technique: Confronting the client with a choice and making the client accept responsibility for the choice. The “God as we understand Him” can be taken as the social world. The client’s choice is to continue to self-intoxicate and indulge selfish pleasures, or to accept that one has an obligation to others and to something or someone outside of oneself. Included is a trust in the social world in which we must all live: Since we cannot see or hear “God as we understood Him,” we must accept that the social world will be our guide to how to live sanely. Adlerian restatement: I accept that I must take responsibility for my choices and stop putting myself and my own pleasure first. I accept that there is an “ironclad logic of social living” that extends beyond myself.

Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Adlerian technique: Assessment and insight as a preparation for reorientation. The client must start to realize that some of their convictions and rules about life may be mistaken. They must take responsibility for examining each conviction and deciding (with the help of others) whether that conviction and its associated behaviors are socially useful or useless… In other words, looking at one’s basic mistakes. Adlerian restatement: I will look at my assumptions about myself, life, and other people, and figure out where they might be leading me astray.

Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Adlerian technique: Having the courage to be imperfect. “God” in this case once again represents the social world, or reality. “Another human being” represents the Adlerian model for encouragement and support. Accepting oneself as an imperfect human being means also accepting that one cannot always experience success, pleasure, or freedom from suffering. Albert Ellis would call this “letting go of low frustration tolerance.”  This means making a decision to live on the “horizontal plane” instead of the “vertical plane.” Adlerian restatement: I strive to have the courage to be imperfect: I accept that I can allow myself to acknowledge my imperfections and demonstrate my humanness while still connecting with others.

Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Adlerian technique: Setting realistic goals, and abandoning overdriven goals of perfection, superiority, or power. The client should feel encouraged by the invitation to make progress, not perfection, and to manage impatience on the journey toward happier and more effective functioning. Adlerian restatement: I am willing to set my goals realistically and work with others in my social world to be a better person, rather than fighting against them out of pride or stubbornness.

Step 7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. Adlerian technique: Reorientation. The social group (the fellowship) facilitates self-awareness and setting more appropriate goals, which revise the mistaken and self-defeating convictions identified already. “God” in this process represents an awareness of letting go of selfish goals and accepting socially useful goals. “God” also serves as a source of perceived encouragement, in supporting a revised self-concept that “I am a person who has value and to whom the gifts of living well can accrue.” Adlerian restatement: I will undertake the process of revising my basic mistakes, in order to function more effectively with and for others.

Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Adlerian technique: Recognizing the consequences of selfishness and the iron-clad logic of social living. The client is asked to confront the social (and other) impacts of their previous selfishness, and take on a sense of responsibility for their actions in the social world. Adlerian restatement: I consider what I need to do in order to practice empathy and social interest toward those whom I may have impacted by my lack of social interest.

Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Adlerian technique: Behavioral change, practicing cooperation and responsibility to others in the social world. The client puts the “iron-clad logic of social living” mentioned above into practice and actively makes a positive contribution, paying particular attention to those who may have suffered from the client’s previous selfishness. Adlerian restatement: I practice cooperation and responsible behavior toward the people in my life, as an antidote to my previous selfish behavior.

Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. Adlerian technique: Maintenance – Self-awareness and personal responsibility in the future. The client understands and accepts the need to continually monitor their thinking, behavior, and relationships to practice continued responsible behavior and to practice the corrective work they have undertaken. This includes self-awareness of emotional and thinking patterns that lead back to self-centeredness and pleasure-seeking through “cheating” life and slipping back into wanting to “have my cake and eat it too.” Adlerian Restatement: I am willing to use courage to listen to others and take responsibility for the effect of my behavior on the people in my life.

Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. Adlerian technique: Paying attention to Mosak’s and Dreikurs’s spiritual or existential task of life, and making it a priority, to prevent recurrent bouts of selfishness. Finding meaning in life within the context of living cooperatively and responsibly is a lifelong task, and the growth toward emotional maturity never ends. This helps the client to maintain correct convictions and empowerment to stick to them. Adlerian Restatement: I will keep my relationships to others and to the greater good in mind as I carry out my activities each day.

Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. Adlerian technique: Practicing encouragement and social interest by prioritizing social contribution and cooperation. Although the target for these efforts is prescribed as “other alcoholics,” it is the active contribution to others that is the important goal, so it could as well be done by working with children or others who need our assistance. The social nature of AA means that giving back within the fellowship is the most obvious way to do this, however; because doing so benefits both the giver and the getter of this support and encouragement. This keeps the awareness of the social web front and center in the client’s mind. Adlerian restatement: I will make a permanent commitment to cooperation and contribution by offering encouragement and support to others, while accepting encouragement and support from them.


CC BY-ND 4.0 Adlerian Interpretation of the Twelve Steps by Fitzgerald Counseling is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.