A lot of people say "the first step is admitting that you have a problem!"
It's a good shorthand, but I don't think it really covers the whole step. Because it's not just admitting that there is a problem - it's getting a reality check about how much damage it's causing in our lives and also admitting that we can't fix it all by ourselves.
A lot of people run away from twelve-step programs because the wording of the first step terrifies them. Generally it says something like, "We admitted we were powerless over (other people, or pot, or debting, or what-have-you) and our lives had become unmanageable." Like all the steps, it is a tiny little sentence holding very profound and complex concepts. And that first concept - the idea of being powerless over something - is one with which most addicts and survivors struggle tremendously.
You see, the way we're generally taught to think of power is pretty messed up. It's a way that allows, even condones, a lot of abuse. Think about work, at least work in a big corporate bureaucracy. I'm thinking about a job I had in a department with all of thirteen people. The way I saw it, we were all pretty much equals. Some of us had specialized knowledge or experience in our jobs, but we were all bringing in experience and perspectives that no one else could offer. The way the college I worked for saw it, though, we were all ranked carefully in an elaborate structure of power-over. I was the newest person in the department and the bottom of the chain of command because the work I was doing was just (huge amounts of very detailed and complicated) data entry. Therefore, it was okay for my boss (who was great with computers but monumentally horrible at supervising or even interacting with other human beings) to shut down any ideas I had, find ways to claim my work for her own, or require me to tell her anything I wanted to raise in a business meeting ahead of time so she could say it for me (or order me not to say it).
It is no wonder that being powerless is a terrifying idea for many people. We can't stand to think of being powerless over anything, that there is anything that we can't somehow manage to control. Many of us go through our lives spending tons of futile energy on trying to control the uncontrollable: what people will think of us, whether we will die, what our children will do, what our parents will do, what happens to us at work. And in our fear, we miss the crucial distinction that twelve-step programs teach.
The distinction is the one described in the Serenity Prayer, which does not come from twelve-step programs but is casually used in pretty much all of them because it is so relevant and powerful. The basic message of both the serenity prayer and the first step is that there are things we can change and things we can't. There are ways in which we have power in our lives, and ways in which we don't. In the serenity prayer, we just ask for help figuring out which is which. In the first step, we look at one area of our lives (our relationship with food, or money, or sex, or alcohol, or...) and face all of the ways that that relationship is out of whack.
That's the "unmanageable" part. It's all of the things that we try to do over and over to control stuff, like binge-cleaning to control clutter that just seems to pile up overnight, or drinking to make ourselves feel happy and outgoing, or always having someone lined up in our heads who will want to date us if this relationship crashes and burns. These patterns don't really fix anything; they are temporary solutions that have negative effects of their own. But if we can stay checked-out, keep up the denial, tell ourselves that this is normal and fine and good enough for now, we can pretend for a while.
The first step is awesome because it means acknowledging a lot of the ways that our lives could be better. It is where we start to identify the things that we don't have power over. Because when we stop trying to control things that are uncontrollable, we free up all that energy for the amazing things that we can change. Right around when you are doing the first step, that seems incomprehensible. It seems like there is no way that you could be doing more than you are. It is hard, maybe even impossible, to imagine how amazing life can get. And it is, in my opinion, the hardest step, because it comes before all the ones that teach us new life skills. We have to understand, on a deep gut level, how our choices affect us, before we can be willing and ready to take all the steps that change them.
I really love the way Survivors of Incest Anonymous puts it: "We admitted we were powerless over the abuse, the effects of the abuse and that our lives had become unmanageable." I like that because it's not just the fact that we were abused (or compulsively overeat or are always in trouble with money or any of the other effects of abuse for which there are programs) but it's also about all of the effects of it in our lives. It can be tempting to just work on things till we're "not bothered by" the fact that we're abused anymore. But that's like being an alcoholic and just not drinking anymore. It's not really about the drinking or the abuse - it's about all of the shame and fear and rage and control issues behind the drinking, or which resulted from the abuse. It's about all of the developmental milestones that we missed out on, the information we need to have healthy happy lives that we never got, the self-worth and joy that we really deserve.
The best part about the first step is that it's an ongoing thing. I have to commit to giving myself regular reality checks, to raising my standards for myself, to being rigorously honest about the effects of all my choices and actions and to seeing where they are connected to the abuse, and in that process I get to develop a better and better understanding of how great my life can be. And make it more and more awesome, the more committed to myself I become.