It’s the first day of June, so it seems like the perfect time to continue our monthly tradition of covering each of the Twelve Steps. This month is naturally Step Six, a seemingly simple step that many people tend to misinterpret when not provided with the guidance of a decent sponsor. Step Six is a lifelong journey, and it is one of the most important journeys on which we will ever embark. As such, it is highly desirable that we understand the meaning and practice of this step before we actually get there.
To many, Step Six seems rather simple. It doesn’t even state that we have to make a change, only that we must be ready to do so. But readiness can be an elusive concept. How do we truly know when we are ready to begin treading a brighter path? Unless we have undoubtedly undergone our spiritual experience, there are likely few signs that we are ready for the Sixth Step and all it represents. Fortunately, this step is not so much about waiting for signs as it is about making a decision regarding where we want to go in life and who we would like to be once we get there.
Below, we will discuss the meaning of Step Six and how to practice it. To newcomers, this may feel as if it is worlds away. Trust us, however, that those who are committed to their recovery will be more than ready to undertake Step Six by the time they get there. It takes a lot of work and a lot of faith, but the rewards are well worth the effort. We hope that you will bear that in mind as you continue your 12 step recovery program toward long-term sobriety.
What Is Step Six?
As written in AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (also known as the 12&12), Step Six states:
“Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”
Those who have read our articles before are quite familiar with the concept of removing our character defects. But the way Step Six is written, it certainly sounds as if the work is put on our Higher Power rather than ourselves. And to some extent, this is true. As we said—it takes a great deal of faith to begin the Sixth Step.
When we talked about spiritual experiences in an article linked above, we noted that Appendix II of the AA Big Book suggests that our spiritual experience is more or less the unlocking of an inner resource that has always existed within us. This is something that we should endeavor to keep in mind when working this step, as our most trying times will be those in which we lose faith in ourselves. We may be burdened with guilt or depression over the actions we committed while in active addiction, and giving in to these negative thoughts might convince us that we are incapable of overcoming our shortcomings. But we are here to tell you that we have met no patients within our programs who were incapable of such a feat if they were truly committed to the prospect.
In some ways, the 12&12 will convince those who lack faith that they are wrong to doubt themselves. We are told at the beginning of the Step Six chapter that this step “separates the men from the boys.” As troubling as this might be, it is worth understanding what it means. The problem is not the step itself, but rather the fact that we must learn to surrender our own will and aim toward a higher state of being. We are no longer striving to be the best versions of the people we once were. We are striving to become something better, perhaps even better than we were before our addiction started.
We are told on the very first page of this chapter that Step Six will require three things—willingness, honesty, and a lack of reservations. No matter which character defects we are trying to overcome, we will make great strides in Step Six if we can accrue these three fundamental characteristics. Those who believe in God should try to lead a life that is truly worthy of being created in His image. Those who do not should simply try to regain touch with their moral principles. Either way, such individuals will have taken the first steps toward a truly better life.
What It Means
One might ponder why the removal of character defects—many of which are seemingly unrelated to our drinking—is so integral to sobriety. The 12&12 provides an answer:
“When men and women pour so much alcohol into themselves that they destroy their lives, they commit a most unnatural act. Defying their instinctive desire for self-preservation, they seem bent upon self-destruction. They work against their own deepest instinct. As they are humbled by the terrific beating administered by alcohol, the grace of God can enter them and expel their obsession. Here their powerful instinct to live can cooperate fully with their Creator’s desire to give them new life. For nature and God alike abhor suicide.”
In other words, our character defects are usually crimes against nature. They offer us nothing but pain, whether we wish to admit this or not. When we become stubborn, selfish, angry and argumentative, we begin to push people away and doom ourselves to lives of isolation. Yes, our words and actions often hurt others. But the harm done to those we love nearly pales in comparison to the harm we do unto ourselves.
Of course, many of our defects actually stem from natural instincts. We need to eat, but we do not need to exhibit gluttony in doing so. Our race must reproduce, but this does not excuse lust—especially when it reaches the point of sex addiction. We cannot work all the time, yet sloth will keep us from success. And while success is important, greed and pride are most certainly not. Furthermore, while it is acceptable to express ourselves when we feel wronged, we must be able to separate this from the manner in which we express ourselves when fueled by wrath or envy. When you see things in this manner, you begin to realize that each of the Seven Deadly Sins is simply one instinct or another taken to excess.
Unfortunately, these excesses became confused with natural instincts at one point or another during the course of our addiction. This is why we must be ready to have these character defects removed, while accepting that it likely will not happen overnight. As human beings, readiness is the best we have to offer. This is why Step Six is a lifelong journey, and this is why Step Six is integral to our sobriety. If we give it up at any time, we just may be dooming ourselves to repeat a cycle of self-destruction that nobody should ever have to relive.
How to Practice
We should say right off the bat that there is no such thing as perfect practice of Step Six. As written in the 12&12:
“Even…the best of us will discover to our dismay that there is always a sticking point, a point at which we say, ‘No, I can’t give this up yet.’ And we shall often tread on even more dangerous ground when we cry, ‘This I will never give up!’ Such is the power of our instincts to overreach themselves. No matter how far we have progressed, desires will always be found which oppose the grace of God.”
It is easy to think that we are doing well if none of our defects have caused us to hit rock bottom in and of themselves. But that does not mean that we have perfected the principles. There is a reason that men and women in recovery strive for spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection. To strive toward the latter is a fool’s errand, for it is to begin a journey toward a destination that can never be reached. Those of us who practice Step Six earnestly must accept that this destination cannot be reached, and must be okay with this fact.
So, yes…we will have setbacks. And we may not even necessarily regret some of them. We may take a job for the money rather than the enjoyment, and we may fall in love with a person who we only noticed out of lust. We may gossip, lie, cheat, steal and manipulate our way into situations with little virtue whatsoever. This does not necessarily make us bad people on the whole, but it is something we should realize if we truly care about Step Six.
Step Six can be practiced in many ways. The most common is to list out our character defects and to try to work on at least one per day. We may write each one on a slip of paper and draw from a hat at the beginning of the day, or we may simply work our way down the list (although this is a bit dangerous, as we may be inclined to list our worst defects at the bottom). Over time, we will find that even this level of effort does great wonders for us. After all, how often did we ever try to address these defects while we were intoxicated? As long as we can accept that we are not perfect while striving to at least be better, we can work Step Six successfully. It may be a lifelong journey, but it’s well worth the effort to take that single step to commence the greatest spiritual expedition we will ever experience.