Incredible Benefits of AA's 5th Step

For many newcomers to sobriety, the steps look like a tall order. I remember, at a very young age, reading the steps where I went to church. Too young to understand their purpose, I remember thinking whoever practiced those steps must be pretty extreme. Even as an upcoming alcoholic and drug addict in grade school, I knew the steps sounded a little…well… cultish.

Even the Big Book addresses the neurotic newcomer exclaiming, “What an order! I can’t go through with it.” Truth be told, the steps are extreme. Unfortunately addiction is, by its very nature, exceptionally extreme. And alcohol addiction is no exception. To arrest an extreme illness, a treatment that employs drastic measures must be taken.

A lot of sober newcomers bounce out of the program after the 3rd step. The ones that do make it through the 4th step hit snags on the 5th step because it demands rigorous honesty. That’s rigorous, not partial honesty or mostly honest… rigorous honesty!

Fifth Step - Incredible Benefits

In his book The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, Bill Wilson explains the benefits of thoroughly completing a 5th step. The fifth step of the 12 step recovery program states that we, “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” This vital exercise begins to provide emotional, mental and spiritual relief. By sharing wrong with a trusted confidant, guilt and shame start to melt away. Newcomers begin to realize their troubled past isn’t as unique as once thought.

Both painful and rewarding, the 5th step is essential to the fundamental change of personality required to overcome alcohol and drug addiction. In its simplest form, the fifth step is simply a confession of personal wrong-doings. Confession is a long standing practice in the Judeo/Christian tradition, and alcoholics usually store a vast collection of closet skeletons. By sharing the depths of their conscience with another person, alcoholics allow fresh air to enter their soul’s closely-guarded closet of shameful skeletons.

Repentence, similar to confession (and equally painful), is also espoused in the Buddhist verse found in Practices and Vows of Samantabadra Bodhisattva (chapter 40):

“For all the evil deeds I have done in the past,
  Created by my body, speech and mind,
  From beginningless greed, hatred and delusion,
  I now know shame and repent them all.”

The original architects of the 12 steps wove the powerful, spiritual tradition of confession for a reason. It is effective. It is healing. It is one of the most valuable tools to alleviate past burdens. As Bill Wilson notes:

“If we have swept the search light of Step Four back and forth over our careers, and it has revealed in stark relief those experiences we’d rather not remember, if we have come to know how wrong thinking and action have hurt us and others, then the need to quit living by ourselves with those tormenting ghosts of yesterday gets more urgent than ever. We have to talk to somebody about them.” (12x12, pg.55).

This is precisely what the 5th Step of the 12 step process requires of those who genuinely desire sobriety - a candid discussion in light of a 4th step inventory. Although the word “required” repels many an alcoholics or drug addicts, Bill Wilson further warns that “without a fearless admission of our defects to another human being we could not stay sober.” (12x12, pgs. 56&57). Obviously, staying sober is a prerequisite for meaningful, fulfilling recovery.

The Fifth Step is More Than Just Relief

But personal admission of one’s checkered past offers more than mere relief. The Big Book states that the fifth step, if conducted fearlessly and thoroughly, produces unhealthy patterns of behavior. Destructive behaviors reflect underlying character defects, the engine that drives off-the-wall actions. Before freshly sober members can begin to address these core issues, they must undertake an identification process to understand their precise nature.

Of course, personal admission of a rag-tag past is sobering in and of itself. As Wilson points out, however, meaningful insights offer the potential to initiate a purging of core issues that drive alcoholics to drink. Incredible emotional and mental relief, coupled with profound personal insight, makes the fifth step a valuable exercise for anyone. Successful completion marks a return to sanity, or a clear recognition of who and what we are.

For most with a truly self-addicted mind, the 12 step recovery process provides an invaluable method to rid oneself of self pity, emotional entanglements, delusions of grandeur and ‘playing the victim.’ Step five initiates the change. But remember, there are seven to go!

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