What is Step 5 of the 12 Steps Program?
Step Five of the 12 Steps: We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Some religious traditions still practice formal “confession,” where a parishioner unburdens his or her conscience before a spiritual director who then assures the person of God’s forgiveness and recommends action to make up for wrongdoings. These days, people of all and no religious backgrounds also have the option of talking with a professional therapist. And many people, perhaps feeling that private confessions are the coward’s way out or simply forgetting how large the potential audience can get, have unloaded the dirty details through social media sites, television broadcasts, and published books. (That last option is definitely not recommended for those still in the middle of a 12 Step recovery program. Perhaps it shouldn’t be recommended for anybody, given the number of online posts that have been used against their writers by employers and courts of law—not to mention the number of public confessionals that carry an air of bragging rather than remorse.)
The Goal of Step Five of the 12 Steps:
In any case, the goal of Step Five of the 12 steps is to pinpoint one’s wrongdoings as noted in the completed “searching and fearless moral inventory” from Step Four, and complete the act of bringing those misdeeds out into the open where they can be dealt with. No more pretending they don’t exist. No rationalizing “it’s not that big a deal” or “I’m not hurting anyone but myself.” No excuses or blame-shifting or claiming it’s not really related to your chemical habit. If you did something deliberately, and if it hurt you or someone else or society or all three, it belongs on the list of wrongs to be admitted.
Now, look closely at the four key points in Step Five of the 12 Steps:
“We admitted to God …”
You can use whatever form of prayer you feel most comfortable with, although many people find it helps to pray out loud or to go to an official prayer center or chapel. If you’d rather not pray in the standard sense, confess your sins to the universe by reading your list aloud (out of other human earshot) from an open overlook or quiet park space. Or make a copy of the list and burn it, visualizing the smoke carrying your confession to the higher realms.
“We admitted … to ourselves …”
One would think that all the self-admission necessary would have already come out through Step Four and the “admitting to God” part of Step Five; but it doesn’t always. Many people can recite just about anything on near autopilot, hardly hearing the words coming from their own mouths. The way to really admit something to yourself is to go to the nearest mirror, look yourself straight in the eye, and say loud and clear, “You have a drinking problem,” “You’ve neglected your family,” or whatever else; this usually removes any lingering resistance that kept the full reality from standing out clearly in your mind. (Don’t use the mirror method too often with your shortcomings; for everyday purposes, it has greater lasting value with affirming statements such as “You’re going to make it,” “You can stay sober today,” or “You’re a valuable and love-worthy person.”)
“We admitted … to another human being …”
This is likely to be the confessional session you dread most—and unless you choose the “other human being” carefully, it does happen that the fallout can create a problem as serious as the original addiction. People who can genuinely keep a secret—to the point of understanding that “just one person” is all anyone needs to tell to start an avalanche rolling—are extremely few and far between, and, sadly, may not include your closest loved ones. Even someone who could be trusted to seal her lips under torture can be a bad risk if you have something to confess that involves a previously unknown wrong against her or a mutual loved one. The kindest-hearted people can be capable of being horrified to the point your relationship may never recover—or of interrupting with premature and ineffective advice.
If you’re a formal 12-Step participant, you’ll usually be directed to the safer (and more experienced) option of a counselor or longtime member. If you have a psychiatrist or church counselor you trust, you may want to include them as well. In any case, choose someone who has experience hearing such things; who knows how to gently draw out details when you falter; and who (very important) has the discretion to refrain from offering “how to fix it” advice at this stage. (You still have a few steps to go before you reach the point—Steps Eight and Nine—of being ready to take action on making up for your wrongs. When you get there, and have to come clean about certain things to those who were emotionally involved, you’ll appreciate the “admitting” practice you had here in Step Five.)
“We admitted … the exact nature of our wrongs.”
“Exact” means exact. Not “I haven’t been completely honest,” but “I stole $200 from my mother’s bank account to pay for more drugs.” Not “I got careless about my work,” but “I missed five days last month due to hangovers, and it cost the company a thousand dollars in sick pay, plus a two-day delay in the sales proposal I was responsible for.” Yes, being specific hurts more—like having a root canal versus a quick surface filling. But would you want your dentist to stop at the latter if it meant the whole tooth would continue to rot?
Once you’ve gotten things out in the open, you’ll be freed to make real change.
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