The 5th Step: Facing Our Wrongs?  Or Feeling Sorry for Ourselves?

The 5th Step: Facing Our Wrongs? Or Feeling Sorry for Ourselves?

Grandparents like to give advice, probably because they want us to make good choices.  They have lived longer than us and want to spare us the pain of making mistakes.  Any grandparent worth their salt has said, at one time or another, “there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about things.”  This is good advice.  Here at CORE, while not all of our staff are grandparents, we’re pretty much all Old-Timers.  We’ve been in recovery for a long time – long enough to give this same advice about the 5th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The step itself seems straightforward enough.  It reads:

Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

As far as directions go, this one unambiguously calls for a confession of wrongdoing.  Notwithstanding, there are some in the recovery world who seem intent on publishing misinformation about it.  They can be found online, in the field, and in print.  They paint this step as an opportunity for a gripe session, or a time to get things off our chests, or even a chance to have a good cry.  

According to these gurus, we addicts and alcoholics have been holding onto our pent-up emotions for our whole lives, and we need relief.  It’s all that negativity weighing us down that prevents us from achieving our true potentials.  We need catharsis, a powerful emotional release.  So, using the 5th Step to vent about our complaints in life is just what the doctor ordered.  We’ve got to turn those frowns upside down, and we have to be fearless and thorough in the process.  But be forewarned: while we may be moved to tears, we’ll leave completely satisfied and be free to move forward.

It’s not just the recovery crowd saying these things.  We found an addiction recovery center that confidently tells its readers, “The purpose of Step 5 of the 12-Step Program is to unload all your past burdens, let them go, and start moving on from them.”  

Not to be outdone in this pity party, there’s a publication for sale that goes even further.  The author tells readers to turn their 4th and 5th Steps into something positive.  All of their talk about sadness, losses, and painful, even shameful events, should end with a so-called Reconciliation Rite.  To do this, you make a cup with your hands and think of a word that symbolizes your 5th Step.  Imagine this word resting in your cupped hands while slowly pouring it onto the floor like water.  Whereupon, the person who heard your 5th Step should say, “That which has kept you divided within yourself is gone.  You are whole.”  And you say, “That which has kept me divided within myself is gone.  I am whole.”  The ritual is completed once “you feel your feelings and meditate” for a few minutes.

All of the foregoing is very curious.  The cry-fests produced by this advice aren’t difficult to imagine, either.  We envision two people sitting privately, with one of them successively voicing his resentments against all of the people, institutions, and principles that failed him, all while cycling through the emotions found in the classic stages of grief.  For his own part, the listener intermittently interjects encouragement like “Face your pain and draw strength from it!” The whole drama ends once he instructs the sufferer to release his pain forever, or something to that effect.  They might do the Reconciliation Rite together, too, perhaps.

Sadly, it appears that newcomers are being encouraged to play the victim while doing their 5th Step.  Self-pity, however, plays no part in actual recovery.  

To the contrary, in working the 12 Steps we’re on a road to take personal responsibility for ourselves in both word and deed.  This step begins with “Admitted,” which implies we divulge matters against our otherwise selfish interests.  We’re making a confession, in fact, because the matters we discuss come straight out of our 4th Step moral inventories.  They concern “our wrongs,” not those of others.  

In fact, Step 5 is part of a progression to which we’ve already devoted considerable time and energy.  In Step 3 we asked God to be relieved of the bondage of self.  So, in Step 4 we naturally looked for our own mistakes in dealings with others – where we had been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, or frightened.  In Step 5 its time to acknowledge the exact nature of our wrongs – and out loud.  We are taking full ownership of our own mistakes, shortcomings, and misdeeds.  We can’t change until this happens.  

Our taking personal responsibility also excludes all of the ways we might deflect responsibility.  Whether making excuses, blaming others, minimizing our actions, self-justification, changing the subject, or playing the victim, such items are not proper assertions of a 5th Step, except insofar as they are to be found among our personal faults. 

So, why the popular trend to downplay and even ignore the need to take personal responsibility?  Because it seems hard, and there are newcomers who will procrastinate this step, refuse to tell certain matters while doing it, or even fail to undertake the 5th Step at all.  The Big Book recognizes the fear and hesitation about this step, saying “We think we have done well enough in admitting these things to ourselves.”  The market for recovery sees this, too, and is trying to give consumers an easier, softer way.     

Now, it is true that the prospect of telling somebody intimate details about our lives initially may seem like an embarrassing, even terrifying, undertaking.  We are making ourselves vulnerable, i.e., somebody will know our dark secrets.  Yet sharing our lives with another human being is indispensable if we are to live free.  The Big Book observes that “In actual practice, we usually find a solitary self-appraisal insufficient.”  We at CORE agree.  Any undertaking of this step must be fearless and thorough.

For one, confession to another person gives us a perspective and appreciation of our life history that we wouldn’t have otherwise.  Simply put, it makes our own wrongs more real to us.  Left to our own devices, we’re susceptible to selective attention and inherent biases.  We’re free to minimize, distort, or ignore matters that disturb us.  Stating them out loud announces that, one, this happened and, two, that I did it.  There’s no turning back from that.  We’re taking full ownership.  We’ll understand our need for change, and decide to make it happen, too.  Not coincidentally, our guilt and shame also recede upon making this commitment.

Additionally, telling our dark past to another person pierces a veil of secrecy which had separated us from everyone else, for our entire lives.  As the 12&12 observes, “There was always that mysterious barrier we could neither surmount nor understand.”  We felt it even before finding a community of recovery like CORE.  While being in a recovery community helped our isolation, it still didn’t fix it.  These people understood us, which was tremendously exciting, but until we sat down with somebody and talked with complete candor about our lives, a barrier still remained.  This step turns out to be the answer to our separateness.  It is “the beginning of true kinship with man and God” according to the 12&12.  This also is our experience at CORE.

Importantly, there also is the practical matter of maintaining sobriety itself.  The Big Book observes, and rightly so:

Time after time newcomers have tried to keep to themselves certain facts about their lives.  Trying to avoid this humbling experience, they have turned to easier methods.  Almost invariably, they got drunk.  …they never completed their housecleaning.  They took inventory all right, but hung on to some of the worst items in stock.    

This observation is now more than eighty years old, which means that today there is now more than eighty years of experience by legions of newcomers to prove it.  The 5th Step is confessional.  Trying to fulfill it by airing our grievances in life is one of the “easier methods” that the Big Book warns about.  We strongly caution the newcomer from pursuing such an approach.  

Finally, doing this step properly grants a very rare gift, of humility.  Our CEO Cary McKee recently reminded us of his own 5th Step, saying that he emerged fully understanding “who and what he truly was apart from God.”  He was humbled, understood his need for change, and realized that he needed God’s help to do this.  His heart was in the right place to work the next step, being entirely ready to have God remove all of his defects of character.

Cary recovered, and you can too.  If you still need to do your 5th Step, join him and the rest of us who have recovered.  Be fearless and thorough.  Ask God’s protection and care with complete abandon.  Find a trusted person at CORE, your sponsor or another member of our community.  This step is a powerful tool for personal growth.  It’s indispensable for living sober and being helpful to others while you build a new life for yourself.