It’s May, which means that summer is just around the corner. More importantly, it’s time for our fifth installment of our series on the Twelve Steps. Step Five is directly related to Step Four, so those who are either on Step Four or about to begin it should benefit quite a bit from the advice contained herein. This is also a crucial step for a number of other reasons, which we will naturally cover below. For now, suffice to say that many addicts and alcoholics in early recovery have expressed a great sense of relief upon reaching and completing this step.
When we wrote about Step Four, we noted that the “action” contained in that step was arguably limited. And while this may be true, the Fourth Step was still leading somewhere. That “somewhere” is Step Five. This is the step where you will take the self-exploration you performed during your previous step work and apply it toward something greater. Aside from a thorough undertaking of the Fourth Step, Step Five will also require a great deal of trust. Whether this is trust in a sponsor, a therapist, a religious leader or some other member of your sober support network is irrelevant. All that matters is that you truly trust them enough to expose your deepest secrets.
Upon completion of Step Five, you can expect to gain a great deal of humility. And in many ways, this is almost directly responsible for the relief that many feel when they are done. It can be stressful to maintain a false sense of pride, convincing ourselves that we are in the right when we know deep down that we are in the wrong. And while some people will have to redo their Fifth Step periodically from time to time, the first time will be the most difficult. We wish you luck, and we hope that the advice below will help to get you through that first hoop.
What Is Step Five?
Step Five, as written in AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, is as follows:
“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
This sounds relatively simple on the surface. And in many ways, it should be easy. For years, we have been building up excess reserves of guilt through our actions while fueled by the temptation of alcoholism and addiction. We have experienced a lack of inhibitions that has driven others away, and we may find a fair number of our former infractions to be quite reprehensible. But even if we are internally bursting at the seams with the desire to tell someone what we have done in the hopes of receiving absolution, we may find it difficult to actually follow through.
A great deal of this is due to fear. We have not reached a point of acceptance, have not learned to stop regretting our past. As such, we believe it is impossible that anybody else could accept us as we are. We may intuitively know that this is illogical. We might know that our sponsors have committed their own misdeeds, that any therapist or religious leader to whom we might deliver our Fifth Step has probably heard it all. But there is a warped amalgamation of pride and self-loathing at play, telling us that our own experiences and transgressions are uniquely unforgivable.
Those with particularly severe legal issues may be especially reticent to complete this step. Some of us have committed major infractions while either under the influence or in an attempt to acquire funding to feed our addictions. Our transgressions stem far beyond a simple DWI or possession charge. We believe that our very ability to commit crimes of the nature that we have committed is indicative of deep-seated character defects that cannot be resolved. But there is a reason that we must admit them anyway. As noted in the 12&12:
“This practice of admitting one’s defects to another person is, of course, very ancient. It has been validated in every century, and it characterizes the lives of all spiritually centered and truly religious people. But today religion is by no means the sole advocate of this saving principle. Psychiatrists and psychologists point out the deep need every human being has for practical insight and knowledge of his own personality flaws and for a discussion of them with an understanding and trustworthy person. So far as alcoholics are concerned, A.A. would go even further. Most of us would declare that without a fearless admission of our defects to another human being we could not stay sober. It seems plain that the grace of God will not enter to expel our destructive obsessions until we are willing to try this.”
If you’re hung up on the “G” word, fear not—we will discuss this below. What you must understand immediately, however, is that Step Five is not an option. The Twelve Steps may be mere suggestions, but Step Five is a big part of our recovery. It develops within us a sense of honesty while also enabling us to receive guidance as to how we can reconcile our past as we move forward and try to make something better of ourselves. Our ability to demonstrate vulnerability through the undertaking of Step Five is what will eventually allow us to become stronger people than ever.
What It Means
Step Five tells us to admit the exact nature of our wrongs. What does this mean? Well, it essentially means that we cannot leave anything out. It is true that many of us may have forgotten entire nights of drinking. This cannot be avoided. But forgetting something and intentionally disregarding it are two very different matters. We cannot leave out any past transgressions that we are able to remember. Not only will our sponsor (or whoever is receiving our Fifth Step) not be given a full profile of the manner in which drugs and alcohol affected us, but we may even succeed in deluding ourselves.
This plays into those three major components listed at the beginning of Step Five in the 12&12. It may seem redundant to say that we must admit our own wrongdoings to ourselves. After all, we already know about them. But that does not mean we have not grappled with some level of denial. As soon as we make a verbal admission of our wrongdoings, they become real. Everything that we have neglected to say out loud in the past is suddenly laid out before our own eyes, and we can deny it no longer. It’s a bit like doing a First Step for our character defects.
As for the need to admit our wrongs to another person, this relates to the sense of accountability that we are trying to achieve in sobriety. The 12&12 touches upon this issue:
“…what comes to us alone may be garbled by our own rationalization and wishful thinking. The benefit of talking to another person is that we can get his direct comment and counsel on our situation, and there can be no doubt in our minds what that advice is. Going it alone in spiritual matters is dangerous. How many times have we heard well-intentioned people claim the guidance of God when it was all too plain that they were sorely mistaken. Lacking both practice and humility, they had deluded themselves and were able to justify the most arrant nonsense on the ground that this was what God had told them… While the comment or advice of others may be by no means infallible, it is likely to be far more specific than any direct guidance we may receive while we are still so inexperienced in establishing contact with a Power greater than ourselves.”
That last sentence brings us to the God concept, a rather touchy subject for many people. We’ll lay it on the table directly: you do not have to be religious to complete Step Five. You must, however, be open to the concept of spirituality. There is more to a human being than flesh and blood. There is a moral component, a sense of character. Many of us have seen our morals and values diminish over the course of our addictions. Step Five serves to bring us back in line with this side of ourselves. Whether you believe in Heaven or Hell does not matter, because Step Five is not about writing yourself a ticket to the pearly gates. Step Five is about clearing your conscience so that you can live more harmoniously with yourself and with whatever force you may believe to exist within this vast and fascinating universe.
How to Practice
Before beginning Step Five, it is vital to go over what you have written for Step Four and ensure to the best of your knowledge that nothing has been left out. Then, when you have chosen who will hear your Fifth Step and have arranged a time to meet with them, you will have to make sure that anything you have written down is not ignored. You may get the jitters once Step Five has actually begun, but you must not give in to fear. A good piece of advice for this is to identify which items on your Fourth Step scare you the most and then move them to the top. Once you’re on the other side of them, the rest of Step Five will seem easy by comparison. But if you leave them until the end, you risk allowing your fears to build throughout your Fifth Step until you ultimately decide to simply leave those items on the page without ever speaking them.
As we touched upon before, these fears really have no basis in reality. Not only should your sponsor be willing to accept you, but you may even find that they have committed many of the same wrongdoings that you were so afraid to share. When they tell you how they learned to cope, you should take this advice to heart. This is a person who did their own Step Five and has presumably remained sober ever since. This is one of the reasons we so strongly recommend using sponsors for Step Five in the first place. They will have a perspective that non-addicts may not possess.
When you are done with Step Five, take a few minutes to lie down and meditate. Do not watch TV, do not browse the internet—don’t even read a book. Simply spend some time in the quiet of your own self-reflection. Breathe in the relief of having gotten many secrets off of your chest. And when you feel that you have meditated for a suitable amount of time, call your sponsor to thank them for helping you. If you have realized during your meditation that you left something out, tell them immediately. This should become habit from this point forward, as you will discover when you reach Step Ten. We previously mentioned that some people redo their Step Five every so often, but it is far better to simply keep yourself in check at all times if possible.
Step Five can be a bit scary when you are first preparing for it, but you will find at the end that it is one of the most relieving tasks a person can undertake. With your conscience clear, you will be well on your way to accepting your past so that you might learn how to forgive yourself in the present. More importantly, you’ll find that the honesty it takes to complete Step Five will be absolutely essential as you look toward the future and prepare for the next four steps of your 12 step recovery program.