Tools for Living

Honesty and the 1st Step

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


The original 1st Step, as published in 1939 in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, reads: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-and that our lives had become unmanageable.” In the years since, numerous words have been substituted for “alcohol” by individuals and other groups adapting it to other purposes: cocaine, gambling, spending, compulsive eating, smoking, sex, emotions, and so on. But regardless of the different addictions or compulsive behaviors that it’s used to address, the fundamental spiritual principle underlying the step is always the same: honesty.

The critical importance of honesty is addressed three times in the first paragraph of the Big Book chapter that introduces the Steps. The authors’ experience, confirmed time and again over the ensuing decades, taught them that people who cannot be honest with themselves have a poor chance of success — even worse than folks with “grave emotional and mental disorders” but who nonetheless have the essential capacity for honesty.

The 1st Step requires that we take a hard, unflinchingly truthful look at the role alcohol-or whatever we’re addicted to-plays in our lives and admit to ourselves that it’s controlling us and not the other way around. The admission must be complete, with no equivocation or reservations of any kind. And while admitting it to someone else might be helpful, it’s not enough. Chapter 3 of the Big Book says that “we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholic.” What counts is that we admit it to ourselves, in the very core of our being-and that we know that it’s true.

How do we know if it’s true? By the rigorous self-examination of the 1st Step. We go back over our lives, looking at the pattern of our use: at our thinking about it, how we’ve organized our lives in service of it, how it has conditioned or determined choices we’ve made about where to live, the kind of work we do, the people we associate with, the activities we participate in. We look at what happens to us physically, mentally, and emotionally when we use: do we experience momentary relief and elation, followed by numbness, discouragement, and despair, until all we can think about is seeking relief by doing it again? And finally, we also examine what the consequences have been: to our health, our relationships, our finances, our freedom, and to our self-respect.

If we’re not convinced-if a rigorously honest examination of our lives does not prove to our satisfaction that we are in the grip of something destructive that we’re powerless to control- then the Steps are probably not for us. Without the desperation that comes from knowing we’re enslaved to something that owns us, body, mind, and soul, few of us are willing to surrender completely to the process that the 12 Steps require.

This is what’s mean when we say that self-honesty is essential for success in recovery. If we are being controlled by some addiction or compulsion that’s ruining our lives, we simply must stop deceiving ourselves about it. We have to face the facts and stop believing the lie that we’re still in control, that we “can quit any time we want to.” Until we do, we haven’t a chance. If we’re in the grip of a deadly compulsion, it will keep lying to us until the bitter end.

But once we accept the truth about our powerlessness, and face the facts about the mess we’ve made in managing our own lives, that humble admission ironically turns out to be the first step toward discovering the power that can free us and help us to recover our once lost lives.

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Questions about Honesty and the 1st Step:

What does honesty mean to you?

Do you think it’s possible to be dishonest with others and yet honest with yourself?

What would it take for you to be able to face the truth about yourself, no matter how difficult or painful it might be?

Are you willing to be as honest with yourself about your condition as you would be with a beloved friend who’s blind to the way he’s killing himself?

Have you “fully conceded to your innermost self” that you are powerless? That your life has become unmanageable?

If you have reservations, what are they? What would it take for you to be convinced, one way or the other?

Links to more information about Honesty and the 1st Step:

Father Martin on Honesty and Step 1

From, “The Principle of Honesty”’s “Step 1-Honesty”

“Five WaysTo Become More Honest in Daily Living” from


Recommended Books:

Susan Campbell, Getting Real: Ten Truth Skills You Need To Live an Authentic Life
Psychologist Susan Campbell is a specialist in healthy relationships and communications. Getting Real teaches how to apply ten skills that are vital for healing ourselves and our relationships with others.

Daniel Goleman, Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception
A modern classic about how we lie to ourselves and create psychological blind spots that prevent us from seeing ourselves, others, and the world as they really are.