Apr 7, 2015 | By Tim Powers

Simplifying The Steps: Step One And The Concept Of Powerlessness

12 Step Recovery

step 1 - powerlessness

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

For those who decide to use the 12 steps in their quest for recovery, there is a lot to learn. Not everyone uses the 12 steps, but those who do generally are very passionate about their program.

With that said, there is often some confusion about apprehension towards the steps and the concept of powerlessness.

For every addict who starts their journey of recovery, admitting and truly believing they are powerless over their addiction provides the motivation they need to make the profound changes needed to bring forth long lasting sobriety. The above statement is the First Step of AA, NA and other Twelve-Step support groups and is considered to be the most important. If the addict cannot complete this initial step, truly recovering from the devastating effects of substance abuse and addiction will not be possible.

The Concept of Powerlessness: Why Do People Struggle?

For those who are new to recovery, wrestling with the concept of powerlessness can be troublesome and can drive them away from the help and support they need. For some addicts who struggle with this concept, they may associate powerlessness with being weak or helpless while others may feel it brings forth a victim mentality.

As human beings, it is within our nature to feel we have control over the people in our lives, as well as any situation or thing that crosses our path. The thought that a substance can have the power to completely take control of one’s life to the point of dysfunction seems inconceivable. Addicts rationalize their behavior or engage in substantial denial that a problem even exists. Rationalization, denial, and other defense mechanisms provide a smokescreen to obscure the truth that is in plain view.

Looking Past Words: Searching for a Deeper Meaning

For many who are new in recovery, they can get hung up on the language that the Twelve Steps are written in and will miss the deeper meaning that these Steps are truly conveying to the addict who seeks recovery. As stated earlier, powerlessness doesn’t mean that the addict is a weak individual as a whole.

Instead, the powerlessness that is referred to in the First Step centers on the method that addicts choose in order to feel happiness or to address pain in their lives. Using drugs and alcohol creates feelings of pleasure and comfort that are short-lived. It gives the user the illusion of feeling better, but in reality the use of substances are a symptom of deeper issues that continue to spiral out of control. Without acknowledging and addressing these deeper issues on a realistic level

Additionally, the powerlessness referred to in the First Step also refers to the fact that the addict will continue using drugs and alcohol despite the consequences they may encounter. These consequences can be physical, emotional and psychological in nature, and can also include economic and legal consequences as well.

A Simpler Way to Look at The First Step

In its simplest terms, the First Step centers on the addict being able to truly admit their lives have become dysfunctional due to their substance use. By admitting powerlessness, the addict acknowledges there is an obsessive/compulsive nature with drug and alcohol use.

The obsessive nature pertains to the overwhelming desire to pick up a drink or a drug and the lengths that the addict goes through in order to getting their next fix. The compulsive nature–where the unmanageability comes into play–is the continued use of substances despite the consequences. In many respects, being able to fully grasp the First Step is the best defense against relapse, because it clearly reminds the addict of what we are inviting back into their lives if they choose to use again.

7 responses to “Simplifying The Steps: Step One And The Concept Of Powerlessness

  • David McCarty

    9 years ago

    Thanks, Tim. I’m currently struggling with Step One myself. Sober for almost 100 days, but I can’t shake the constant thoughts that I need to pickup to feel normal or to address a painful issue. Trying to use my guitar playing, cycling and fly fishing – not to mention a new granddaughter – to keep me focused. Appreciate your column, it came at a good time.

  • Hey Tim,

    Thanks for the post. The first step is the hardest for some because of one character defect active in the human being and that is pride. We are to prideful to admit we need help especially from someone who we feel is inferior to us, or does not relate to us. As a practicing practitioner in the field most people I work with are to prideful to admit help. Sometimes a new bottom needs to appear for the person to admit defeat.

    All the best,


  • Good article.

    I admitted that I was a drug addict and a slave to the drug far before I even got to the program. It still took me a few more years to get help because my addiction was so strong.

    But after 7 months of sobriety and having worked all 12 steps to some degree, my life is still unmanageable. I don’t have the proper income to be a fully self-sufficient adult. I won’t have the money for my insurance this month. Plus, I’m sleeping on a couch.

    Without God and the faith that I have in Him to bring me to a more stable life, I would have relapsed by now. Life is still good despite what I listed above. If I didn’t work the twelve steps, read the book, go to meetings, and get a sponsor, I would be back out there tempting death. It’s amazing the kind of peace/serenity can bring me.

  • I believe that I am powerless over my addiction. But I have a problem being told to list things I am powerless over. I believe that it is quite a contradiction, because though I am powerless over my addiction, I am instilled power to resist through God and the tools of AA. So I do not completely embrace that I am powerless. I cannot disregard what the Bible has taught me from a child, II Timothy 1::7 “For God has not given us the spirt of fear, but of POWER, and of love, and of a sound mind. But that is for me, I will not impose my belief on others.

    • We are powerless.However if we stay connected to the vine which is God we will have power.apart from him we can’t do anything.

  • Matthew Hall

    4 years ago

    Powerlessness has been a difficult word for me in recovery. Why do I struggle with this concept? Because I don’t want to be reminded of how powerless I felt in those moments when I didn’t have the money to use for example. It is an extremely intense and powerful feeling.

    Another take on a specific type of powerlessness might be one of the motivations and intrinsic part of using in itself. Before I use I am lacking in social power, when I am using I have the illusion of social power and then afterwards I have no social power again.

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