In the twelve-step program alcoholism/addiction is symbolically represented in three dimensions: physical, mental, and spiritual. The problems the groups deal with are understood to manifest themselves in each dimension. For addicts and alcoholics, the physical dimension is best described by the allergy-like bodily reaction resulting in the compulsion to continue using substances after the initial use. The statement in the First Step that the individual is “powerless” over the substance-abuse related behavior at issue refers to the lack of control over this compulsion, which persists despite any negative consequences that may be endured as a result.

The mental obsession is described as the cognitive processes that causes the individual to repeat the compulsive behavior after some period of abstinence, either knowing that the result will be an inability to stop or operating under the delusion that the result will be different. The description in the First Step of the life of the alcoholic or addict as “unmanageable” refers to the lack of choice that the mind of the addict or alcoholic affords concerning whether to drink or use again.

The illness of the spiritual dimension, or “spiritual malady,” is considered in all twelve-step groups to be self-centeredness. The process of working the steps is intended to replace self-centeredness with a growing moral consciousness and a willingness for self-sacrifice and unselfish constructive action. In twelve-step groups, this is known as a spiritual awakening not a religious experience. In twelve-step fellowships, “spiritual awakening” is believed to develop, most frequently, slowly over a period of time.