Why Do We Do Step Six?

Why Do We Do Step Six?

Step Six says, “[We w]ere entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

The step is briefly worded, and the Big Book offers a single paragraph of explanation, essentially instructing us to evaluate our willingness and to pray for willingness where lacking.

To newbies and the uninitiated, the purpose of this step may appear elusive.  It clearly addresses our willingness to have God remove negative character traits, but why an addict should be concerned with this isn’t immediately apparent.  The temptation is to think our proper focus should be upon removing the attachment to drugs and alcohol.  Step Six actually helps do this, as we explain below.

In 12 Step meetings, members will use various illustrations to explain the importance of Step Six for recovery.  Two popular stories involve “dropping the rock” and the “monkey trap.”

Dropping the rock in recovery is likened to a boat journey to an island called Serenity. One passenger struggles to swim to the boat, weighed down by a rock symbolizing fears, resentments, and other character defects. Urged to ‘Drop the rock!’ by those already onboard, she releases her character defects, reaches the boat safely, and finds lasting serenity.

In the monkey trap story, usually set in a forest or jungle, a hunter places a treat in a container with a small hole. The monkey eagerly grasps the treat but becomes trapped because its fist won’t fit back through the hole. The treat symbolizes our character defects, and our instinctive refusal to let them go leads to dire consequences.  (Our CEO Cary McKee tells a similar story about someone getting their hand stuck in a vending machine!)  

These stories are fine for what they are.  They illustrate that character defects are bad and letting go of them is good.  Still, they don’t fully satisfy everyone wanting to know how Step Six concerns recovery.  There still will be somebody who thinks such stories are more relevant if the rock or treat represents a pint of whiskey, or an illicit drug (i.e., drop the bottle!) 

For this reason, we’ll explain the relevance of Step Six to recovery more fully here.  Hopefully, our explanation also will illuminate the genius behind the 12 Steps, and why the world’s leading journal for systematic medical reviews has found that the 12 Steps are more effective than any other recovery therapy in existence. 

While addiction is a complex disease involving a myriad of factors, one thing common to every addict and alcoholic is that they are selfish and self-centered.  They prioritize their own desires over those of others.  Their addiction is an insatiable hunger that cannot be satisfied.  The addict and alcoholic ends up devoting all of their waking hours to assuring their appetite is provided for.  They will neglect or become completely indifferent to the regular concerns of life – spouse, children, family, friends, career, home, health, and other matters.  In time, they will lose these relationships along with every good thing in their lives, and possibly life itself. 

Selfishness—self-centeredness,” the Big Book says, “that, we think, is the root of our troubles.”

This observation not only is insightful but it also suggests the remedy.  Insofar as the heart of the addict and alcoholic is selfish and self-centered, the 12 Steps together operate to perform a heart transplant on the sufferer.  For real, lasting recovery, we have to become others-centered.  

The Big Book is emphatic about this, saying that “Helping others is the foundation stone of your recovery.”  Even in a first meeting with a prospective client, the book directs us to “suggest how important it is that he place the welfare of other people ahead of his own.”  

If our personal experiences and our experience at CORE with thousands of clients teaches anything, it is this: the psyche of a caring, altruistic person is incompatible with the persona of a suffering addict or alcoholic.  They can’t co-exist.  It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole – it simply can’t be done.

Accordingly, at CORE we hear clients report that their obsession for alcohol and drugs – which may have hounded them for years – suddenly “lifted” or “evaporated,” or that they woke up in the morning and realized that their obsession was “just gone”.  It can happen that fast.  Once the internal switch flips, and the mental focus goes from self-serving to serving others, the obsession is gone.  It remains expelled so long as the individual is committed to obeying the Lord’s command, “love thy neighbor as thyself.” 

As the Reader undoubtedly has noticed, the 12 Steps are a spiritual program of recovery.  They facilitate a deep and fundamental change in our inner self that really is akin to receiving a new heart. The transformation goes far beyond simply abstaining from illicit substances, although complete sobriety certainly results from this process.  So long as we maintain this spiritual fitness, no person, or place, or thing can tempt us into a relapse, either.

To genuinely recover, however, the mere promise to be a better person won’t cut it.  And, while our personal effort is needed to accomplish this, by itself our effort is insufficient.  As the Big Book observes,

There often seems no way of entirely getting rid of self without His aid.  Many of us had moral and philosophical convictions galore, but we could not live up to them even though we would have liked to.  Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much by wishing or trying on our own power. We had to have God’s help.”

The idea of God changing human hearts and attitudes is an ancient one, confirmed by thousands of years of human experience.  We won’t belabor it here except to observe that God never fails.  There may be atheists out there who are uncomfortable with this idea.  They are the same people who scratch their heads wondering why the 12 Steps are so much more effective in treating addiction than any other evidence-based therapy.

Now we’re ready to talk about Step Six, although the Reader should note that, by the time we get to this important step, we’ve already begun seeking God’s help with matters raised in prior steps.  Importantly, we’ve also gone on a fact finding mission in prior steps.  We’ve done a deep soul-searching inventory to become well-acquainted with all of the specific ways in which we are selfish and self-centered.  That is, we already will have identified our “defects of character.”

The Big Book variously calls such defects “flaws in our make-up,” “shortcomings,” and “wrongs,” but they are one in the same. Character defects are the manifestations of our self-centeredness.  Self-centered people, moreover, practically wear character defects on their sleeves.  They encompass personality flaws like being resentful, fearful, dishonest, prideful, self-deluded, self-pitying, impatient, intolerant, and other obvious faults.  

Practically speaking, even as our self-centeredness fuels the inner obsession for illicit substances, many of its outer manifestations leads to our failures in life and makes our lives unmanageable.  To illustrate, we’ll make this simple.  We must admit that we’d have a hard time putting up with a spouse, family member, friend, co-worker, employer, or employee who embodies such defects, right?  As it turns out, so do they! 

Furthermore, by the time we get to Step Six, we should be well beyond self-deluded notions like, “I was a happy drunk and everybody loved me.”   In fact, “an alcoholic in his cups is an unlovely creature,” and our previous step work should have grounded us sufficiently to see how our character defects create only misery for ourselves and others.   At Step Six, we’re also beyond getting bogged down by guilt and shame.  We’re sensitized to our shortcomings and are free to stop doing them.  This is good news – we don’t have to live like this anymore.  God will change our hearts accordingly, if we are humble and willing.

Step Six is really a stop-and-think point, a moment of self-evaluation.  The Big Book asks, “Are we now ready to let God remove from us all the things which we have admitted are objectionable?”  If there is a character defect we’re unwilling to let go, “we ask God to help us be willing.”  Such instances happen under various circumstances.  One common sticking point is clinging to resentments.  We feel righteous indignation and declare we can forgive many things but never, not ever this or that person for what they have done. 

Character defects that we refuse to quit usually are the same culprits that keep us sick and make our lives unmanageable.  For the addict or alcoholic, they can be fatal.  Fortunately, a struggling client at CORE is surrounded by a large recovery community who can and will spot character defects from a mile away.  This is especially beneficial.  The client always finds sympathetic, patient, and interested peers standing by, ready to help. 

Over time the moment of self-evaluation described in Step Six becomes habit, part of our new way of thinking while living in the 12 Steps.  Personally spotting character defects means greater insights about ourselves.  We become accustomed to meeting the individual challenges posed by this step, seeing them as opportunities for personal growth.

Importantly, removing defects of character is only part of the recovery equation.  Looking ahead to next month, we’ll talk about replacing our character defects with virtues and making ourselves more fit to help others!