Acceptance and Surrender

It has become almost something of a cliche in society nowadays to use the adage that you cannot cope with a problem unless you first admit it.

Not that this is a new or novel idea, but it is probably true that this sentiment has become much more powerful and widespread owing to the nature of the growth of Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12-step recovery movement generally.

The first step of the AA 12-step program refers to an admission of being powerless over alcohol and is generally taken to mean that the person has to accept or acknowledge their reality of powerlessness to move forward.

This can often involve fairly mixed emotions, ranging from a deep sense of anger to a feeling of being in complete limbo.

There is often much debate about the intricacies of what various words and phrases mean in all of the 12-step programs, and unfortunately, this often misses the real point.

12 Step Programs

The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the book itself Alcoholics Anonymous, were written as a statement of experience. This means simply that the words and phrases were designed to reflect the broad understanding and experience of the original members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

This experience was codified and written down so that anyone interested, either for themselves or for other people, would be able to access this experience and use it in whatever way they found helpful.

It is worth realising that the word acceptance, and the more broad notion of accepting one’s alcoholism, has a particular slant in Alcoholics Anonymous that differs from other 12-step fellowships.

It is probably fair to say that Alcoholics Anonymous has in some ways a slightly more to-do-or-die approach, a more black-and-white perhaps rigid sense of 12-step recovery, and this is reflected in its attitude to getting and staying sober.

Acceptance in AA has quite an all-or-nothing feel about it.

The term surrender is quite often used in the same context as acceptance, and there is what is often a general sense that someone needs to surrender to the program, surrender to God, surrender to the 12-step fellowship, and sometimes even surrender to a sponsor to get sober and stay sober.


Dangers of Surrender

The package of surrender and acceptance in this approach to recovery is very much the do-or-die attitude mentioned previously.

It is a sense of almost having to accept the entire premise of what alcoholism and recovery are about, almost without any sense of understanding of the process. It is a very black-and-white attitude and can come over as being quite fundamentalist, quite rigid.

The very word surrender implies some level of defeat, often worded as the defeat of the individual’s ego, or the defeat of their self-will run riot life and their journey with alcohol.

For some people, this probably works, but equally, it is probably fair to say that a significant number of people get put off by such a hard-line point of view.

Interestingly, in other 12-step fellowships, the notion of acceptance is a much more gentle one. It is really about an acknowledgement of one’s reality, not such a strong sense of fundamentalism, but more a sense of the implications of what it means.


At any level, step one in the AA program is about an individual who is an alcoholic accepting that this is their reality. Whilst that is very easy to say, for many alcoholics it is an extraordinarily difficult concept to grasp, be they drinking or newly sober.

One of the main reasons for this is that acceptance of the fact that an alcoholic cannot drink any more is often a pretty terrifying experience.

To understand this, it is necessary to understand the mind of an alcoholic, which is hard at the best of times, but to understand that for many the idea of losing alcohol is a prospect too scary to countenance.

This may be completely at odds with the reality of alcohol has taken them, and often the need to drink, and the illusion of safety that it gives them is too strong for this reality to be allowed a place in their lives.

This is why an understanding of the term acceptance matters.

It is about giving people who are looking at AA a sense that the 12-step program is a very gentle one, albeit one that is quite demanding in many ways.

It is also one that is about helping people to acknowledge that in reality and move forward with it in a way that is non-threatening and healing.