more on the 12 steps: step 5

it’s been almost a year that i last discussed a step from the 12-step programs a la AA. thankfully, someone made a comment on another 12-step post, and that spurred me on to another post.

while the 12 steps were originally intended to help alcoholics and addicts, they have proven to be a fine blueprint for any kind of recovery.

that last step i discussed was step 4, which is designed to help people make an inventory of all the burdens of the past, as well as of all their assets they want to keep.

step 5 says, “admitted to god, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

once again, if you see the word “god” and freak out, please read on – it doesn’t have to be the god of your childhood or george bush’s god – the word “god” just stands for something good in your life. another word for “god” in 12-step programs is “higher power”.

if this higher power is the highest authority in one’s life – allah, for example, or buddha nature, or one’s internal value system, or simply that power that is greater/other than the little ego that has run the show unsuccessfully so far – then the relationship with that higher power is one of the most important relationships. in that case, after having done all the work of the inventory, why wouldn’t one immediately check this out with this higher power?

it goes on “… and to another human being”. “confessing” to another human being is immensely powerful; the catholics knew what they were doing. that’s also why therapy is so useful. research shows that people who carry too many deep, dark secrets are more accident prone and are generally less healthy. this is corroborated by research that indicates that high concentrations of bodily secretions of people who carry a lot of hate and unresolved anger can kill laboratory animals.

yet this step is not about confessing “sins”. it is the logical continuation of step 3 – “made the decision to turn our wills and our lives over to the care of god as we understood him” – a decision to trust the goodness in your life. if a person is willing to turn their whole life over to this goodness, then it surely makes sense to turn over a handful of mistakes, fears, worries and regrets, even though (and maybe exactly because) they may have been held in secret for a long time.

what about this “other human being?” this really can be a life-transforming step so it’s good to choose that person carefully. i suggest to a) choose a person who understands the process, preferably someone who has been through it more than once, b) someone you can trust in all the different ways you need to trust them, and c) an environment where the precious nature of such a step can be honoured.

at the beginning of sharing, it’s helpful if there is a negotation about what the other person will do. do you just want to recite your list, with the other person simply as a “loving witness”? what type of feedback, if any, do you want, and at what point? do you want to hear the other person’s experience, strength and hope regarding similar difficulties they had?

many 12-steppers believe that “it is only through the process of discussing our shortcomings out loud with an understanding person that we can finally begin to know ourselves and accept ourselves” (from overeaters anonymous).

the “out loud” is really important. “out loud” doesn’t necessarily mean literally – this step has been done successfully over the internet or the telephone – but it does mean that you need to get all that junk out of your head, outside of your head and heart. you know when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep and you toss and turn with a gazillion worries? it’s because it’s all stuck in there, rattling around, like a bird trapped in your living room, banging its little head against the window. your living room doesn’t need the bird, the bird doesn’t need your living room, let it out!

this is all useless baggage. how can we know ourselves if we’re almost unrecognizable under a mountain of stuff?

something really beautiful happens in this sharing. i like to think of it as the breaking of the bread in christianity or the sharing of the pipe in native traditions. the sharing goes deep inside of us.

what about the “discussion?” a loving witness may not do that much discussing; most of it may come from the person who is laying her burden down. maybe that’s what’s needed, or at least for some of the things that are brought up. some of our baggage feels pretty darn raw, it’s difficult enough to bare one’s soul – maybe it’s a little early to actually engage in a discussion about them. you may need to have space to simply speak your piece, without anyone else’s perspective added to it.

in many cases, though, a bit of discussion is a good idea. it can be illuminating when after a while of talking, the other person begins to see some angles of your burdens that you hadn’t seen before. sometimes they are quite surprising. it’s very similar to what often happens in therapy – indeed, the very reason why many people enjoy therapy. i remember i client who talked a lot about not being focused and ambitious enough at university; it turned out that he simply was not the university type and would be much better suited to more hands-on work. you see, the interesting thing is that in talking about all of these supposed “defects”, a picture slowly emerges – often quite a beautiful picture that simply had never been seen in such clarity before.

towards the end of discussing step 5, one of the 12-step books says, “from this point on, we begin to leave behind the character defects which have caused us so many problems in the past.”

what a beautiful promise! leave them all behind.

fear, shame, self-delusion, procrastination, self-centredness, resentment, gossip, closed-mindedness, destructive anger, neglectfulness … all these can be left behind. imagine opening your hands and letting go of them … and then moving on … with your feet fully, squarely planted on a new path.

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