How It Works AA: Big Book Chapter 5 (pp. 58-71)[PDF included]

How It Works AA…a reading guide (PDF at the end).

How It Works AA

How It Works AA

Understanding “How It Works”

If the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous could be summed in one chapter, it would be the venerated chapter 5 – “How It Works.” 

The section above is a celebrated passage within its pages and is usually read at the beginning of AA meetings. 

I imagine this is due to newcomers asking, “well, how does it work?” 

When old-timers no longer found humor in the response, “great! It works great!” They decided to pitch reading the section of How It Works to answer some of these introductory questions. 

Why out of all the potential passages choose one from How It Works? Some sponsors even start step work with this chapter – an error in my opinion. 

This is likely for two reasons:

  1. It makes sense. If you want to know how it works, read How It Works.
  2. It provides a further explanation of Step Three and Step Four. It explicates their meaning and provides critical step-by-step instructions.

Application: How It Works Begins The Action Steps

Whereas the previous chapters – There Is A Solution, More About Alcoholism, and We Agnostics – mainly explore and interact with ideas (very important ideas and concepts, mind you).

How It Works ushers in the work, it begins to outline the application of these ideas and concepts. 

This is why Steps 4-9 are referred to as the action steps.

It’s when the rubber hits the road and most addicts/alcoholics just want to get the ball rolling! 

Warning: caution shouldn’t be thrown to the wind. Nobody wants a case of cart-before-the-horse syndrome. The 12-Steps are in order for a reason!

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recovery if they have the capacity to be honest.”

Honesty Mentioned Three Times In The First Paragraph

The first paragraph of How It Works is telling.

It doesn’t hold it’s punches.

It mentions the importance of honesty three times. 

Nothing short of stringent honesty will prove this program of action fruitful.  

Usually when the 12-Steps fail to be effective it’s due to the individual’s lack of honesty. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean they are holding dirty little secrets that they need to let out, though it often does. 

Sometimes it’s as simple as procrastination.

The lack of urgency is a form of self-deception.

The person is lying to themselves regarding the severity of the issue. 

We have to be willing to examine ourselves with damn near total abandon.

How It Works AA Honesty

Recovery Is Possible

It also goes on to explain how this type of militant honesty enables one to recover through the power of the Twelve Steps.

This doesn’t mean the road will be all lollipops and gumdrops. It will likely be long and difficult at times. This is what it means to be human. 

The goal is progress, not perfection

Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t ask you to carry the cross of sainthood or go on mission trips converting potential alcoholics to the program. 

Rather, they seek to exemplify the fact that the road may be strenuous at times, but traveling with God and company makes it less painful. 

How It Works AA spiritual

AA asks the newcomer to embrace the truth that emotional sobriety cannot be achieved in isolation

We all desperately need one another, to not just meet our most basic needs but our more sophisticated emotional needs as well.

If you’re HONEST with yourself, you’ll discover this is true.

This first paragraph of How It Works comments that those who fail to acquire this honesty, cannot survive life’s road. 


It’s interesting, once we accept that we need sober support and begin to rely on others, the burden of life is lifted significantly. 

Once we stop trying to control everything and distribute the weight of stressors, we start getting relief and this is before we even start doing the heart work. 

Without Community You’re Left Trying To Control Everything

The idea of controlling the world in order to be happy is an illusion, but it’s often the only recourse for those who live wildly self-centered.

As Michael Neill once remarked, “if you’re doing things in order to be happy, you’re doing it in the wrong order.”

Even in the kids film, Kung Fu Panda, this truth is communicated. If you’ve seen it you’ll recall when master Oogway admonishes a stressful Shifu to lose his illusion of control.

The concept is so simply a child can understand it. It’s so obvious we miss it; it’s so in plain sight we overlook it!

kung foo panda

Sober Support & Identification

We miss it because our attention is elsewhere.

As the old adage states, “where your attention goes, your energy flows.” 

  • Where’s our attention? 
  • It’s on our insecurity.
  • Why are we insecure? 
  • Because we are lonely. 

What’s loneliness?

It’s an emptiness of sorts, a fear of not being able to connect with anyone or anything.

Carl Jung defined loneliness as the feeling of being misunderstood and an inability to communicate feelings. 

How It Works AA

Feeling misunderstood generates loads of insecurity.

Not being able to communicate feelings only beefs up that insecurity.

The need to incessantly control everything is to combat this insecurity.

How It Works AA

The problem with the approach is that it doesn’t work. The focus ends up on things outside of one’s control which then reinforces and strengthens the initial insecurity. 

It’s a freaking death trap.

It’s what I call the malfunctioning control loop or the MCL.

How It Works AA

What are the other options? One path is to simply zoom in on everything that’s within your control. This can be called “the empowerment method.”

It’s honestly a hyper-focus on one’s circle of influence (what can be controlled) in an effort to expand its reach to also encompass most of if not all of one’s circle of concern (what cannot be controlled).

This truly does work.

Tons of techniques and strategies can be found within psychology and the self-help world to help you achieve this end (e.g. Neurolinguistic Programming, Cognitive Therapies, etc.)

However, it’s tedious, time-consuming, and a recipe for burn out.

Alcoholics Anonymous offers an easier and softer way.

A Death Blow To Insecurity

The best route to combat insecurity is group identification.

How It Works AA

Once we vulnerably open up and get honest about our addiction – share our true feelings with others in Alcoholics Anonymous – we find they have done and felt the same things. 

We go from feeling terminally unique to a sense that people get us.

The moment we see that people did the same things we did and felt the same way we do, something magical happens.

That feeling of identification coupled with the realization that those same people found a new way of life creates the experience aptly called hope.

With that hope we receive our first taste of security.

This first epiphany that trying to control everything won’t fix anything followed by a second insight that a need for others is a properly basic ingredient to being a happy human, serves as the lynchpin that will enable us to navigate the rest of our recovery – but this requires honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness.

The Daily Meeting Reading

As mentioned early in this article, one of the hallmarks of an AA meeting experience is the recitation of How It Works before the launching the actual meeting.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I think this is because it clarifies one of the most important factors in recovery: the ability to be honest. 

If you can’t be honest, you can’t recover. End of story. Credits roll.

Your conscience is the measure of the honesty of your selfishness. Listen to it carefully. how it works aa

Conversely, once we start being honest with ourselves and others there is no ceiling to the things we can do and accomplish. 

This is ultimately Step One and Step Two in a nutshell: 

  1. Being dishonest with yourself and others will render you powerless to create unmanageability and security in your life (see malfunctioning control loop – MCL).
  2. Believing that being honest with yourself and others can give you the power to cultivate security and manageability in your life.

Emphasis on Step Three: Admitting We Are Unmanageable

The belief that honesty will produce such incredible results usually only follows when the results of dishonesty have become utterly painful and disastrous.

The admission that the current course of action simply will not yield the desired results is the beginning of the journey.

Once you can see the MCL, you can’t unsee it. 

If you are wearing asshole glasses everyone will be an asshole 2 how it works aa

No longer will you be able to use the wrong methods in an effort to produce the right results.

This is when things become utterly hopeless. 

In this stage, usually people remark that drinking is no longer possible and sobriety is unthinkable.

So, they begin to drink to oblivion. 

Of course, some begin to break the MCL by losing their need to incessantly control everything and vulnerably finding identification with the group, as noted above. 

The Big Book refers to the MCL as “self-will.” I’ve changed the terminology to avoid confusion with religious and psychological views on the human will. In any event, when they use that term the malfunctioning control loop is fundamentally what they mean.

“The first requirement is that we be convinced that any life run on self-will can hardly be a success. On that basis we are almost always in collision with something or somebody, even though our motives are good. Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased.”

See! This is the MCL at work! 

How It Works illustrates, ironically, why it never actually works.

We end up at odds with others, they fail to appreciate our little plans and designs, so we end up blaming them even though our illusions of control actually created the mess we find ourselves in. 

As noted, once the MCL becomes obvious we either become oblivion-seekers, or we begin to give up the control, also known as surrendering self-will or what I call breaking the malfunctioning control loop.

Alcoholics Anonymous provides a prayer for those who find themselves in the latter group:

Third Step Prayer:

“God, I offer myself to Thee—to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!”

the first step prayer 2 how it works aa

Not everyone will utilize the prayer, not all in AA get onboard with religious traditions, however this is usually the turning point (learn more about step three here). 

We begin to truly understand the Serenity Prayer’s “wisdom to know the difference.”

serenity prayer

This realization is usually the advent of a journey of self-reflection and self-improvement. It’s when recovery begins to elevate to higher levels of growth (see our article on Spiritual Experience, specifically under the subheading The Importance of Spirituality in Recovery)

Step Four: Taking Moral Inventory

Once we start to depart from the egocentrism of the MCL, we can begin to meticulously remove ourselves, piece by piece, from that state of mind. 

Steps 1-3 demonstrate how most of our troubles are self-created. As already stated, once you see the MCL you can’t unsee it. 

We see that our mindset and belief system has been the sole cause of our downfall. In Step Four we see all the damage and confusion the MCL has caused, we do this in an effort to replace the thoughts and behaviors with more profitable ones. 

Why spend time analyzing the negative? Well, consider Sutton’s Law. 

Willie Sutton was a bank robber. Upon questioning from a reporter it was discovered Willie robbed banks because “that’s where the money is!” 

We examine defects of character in Step Four because that’s where the money is.

We can’t change what we don’t know needs changing! So, we identify it first, then change it.

How It Works uses the analogy of a business to make it’s point. 

A business which takes no regular inventory usually goes broke. Taking a commercial inventory is a fact-finding and a fact-facing process. It is an effort to discover the truth about the stock-in-trade. One object is to disclose damaged or unsalable goods, to get rid of them promptly and without regret. If the owner of the business is to be successful, he cannot fool himself about values. We did exactly the same thing with our lives. We took stock honestly. First, we searched out the flaws in our make-up which caused our failure. Being convinced that self, manifested in various ways, was what had defeated us, we considered its common manifestations.

Some primary manifestations of self-will or the MCL at work are resentments, fear, pride, guilt, anxiety, depression, and shame. 

It’s All Fear-Based

The MCL is all fear-centered.

patrick carnes 5 how it works aa

It’s operates from a perceived lack, as if there are not enough resources to go around.

I call this the “scarcity worldview.”

It leaves you in a constant state of irritability, restlessness, and discontent.


Because as Chuck C observed, you always have to “out-think, out-perform, and out-maneuver” the next person.

It’s an endless state of competition and anticipation that maybe today is the day everything goes to hell. 

We attempt to combat this fear with the MCL, but we know how that ends up!

Once we grow in this awareness we become more gentle and loving with ourselves. This brings us to the next point. 

What About Wrongs Done To Us?

Once we see that the damage we’ve done to others is the result of our own MCL, we quickly understand the harm done to us is likely the result of another person’s MCL.

When you’re able to recognize this, forgiveness makes far more sense than vengeance. You transition from a place of resentment, to a place of compassion. 

Growing In Self-Awareness

Once Step Four is complete we’ve learned a great deal about ourselves and others (learn more about the fourth step here).

Nevertheless, How It Works is very adamant that we’ve simply made a good beginning here. 

As long as we continue to put one foot in front of the other, continue striving for progress, with a willingness to continue to challenge the self-will through step work and group participation, we will have done incredibly well. 

In fact, we likely have put on some new and fresh lenses.

Indeed, we likely catches glimpses of an entirely new world.