Up to this point, the Twelve Steps focused on teaching us the right principles to embody in recovery. Now, it’s time to put those principles into action on a daily basis. There is no point in working so hard to establish a decent moral compass if we intend to toss it by the wayside later in sobriety. Forgetting the principles now might easily result in relapse. After so much hard work, this would be a tragic risk to take. Much as we referred to some of the previous steps as a lifelong journey, Step Ten and the two that follow it cannot technically be completed. They require daily practice.
Step Ten requires us to continue learning and growing every single day. Recovery requires us to live one day at a time. But we can’t do this unless every day is a clean slate. It is our responsibility to keep this slate clean by ensuring that we do not let our character defects run rampant. Inevitably, we will create new reasons to make amends long after working Step Nine. And despite letting go of our resentments in Step Five, we’ll still form new ones as time marches on. In Step Ten, we become a bit better at recognizing these habits and doing what we can to nip them in the bud.
Below, we’ll outline Step Ten as defined in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, also known as the 12&12. We’ll also discuss a bit about the meaning of personal inventory and how one might practice this step. There is a bit of leeway here, as everyone’s sponsor might tell them to work Step Ten a bit differently. Just remember that the most important thing is for us to be honest with ourselves. We cannot recover if we willingly choose to give up our integrity. But with Step Ten, we need never make such an unnecessary sacrifice.
What Is Step Ten?
As written in the 12&12, Step Ten states:
“Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
In other words, the inventory we took in Step Four will not be our last. Many people say that they like to repeat the Fourth and Fifth Steps every year, in order to clean house. But technically, those who work Step Ten should never need to do this. Unless an inordinate number of character defects manage to slip through the cracks, they should be handled promptly on a regular basis.
The 12&12 notes that many addicts and alcoholics tend to suffer from a special kind of “hangover.” They describe it thusly:
“That is the emotional hangover, the direct result of yesterday’s and sometimes today’s excesses of negative emotion—anger, fear, jealousy, and the like. If we would live serenely today and tomorrow, we certainly need to eliminate these hangovers. This doesn’t mean we need to wander morbidly around in the past. It requires an admission and correction of errors now.”
The requirement that we perform this work promptly is of utmost importance. When we first became sober, many of us practically lived in the past. It seemed like every waking hour was consumed by the guilt we felt over our past sins. Many of us didn’t realize just how much we hurt the ones we loved until the wreckage was far too great to calculate in full. As such, we were terrified of trying to make amends. We simply wished that we could go back and erase the past from history. Unfortunately, we had no such powers at our disposal.
When we work Step Ten, we do not require such superpowers to set things right. We deal with problems to the best of our ability as they arise. And if we can’t summon the virtue to deal with a particular situation immediately, then we talk to our sponsor about how to proceed. After all, nobody’s perfect. Even when we try to handle situations on the fly, our character defects will often continue to stand in the way. But as long as we continue to recognize them, we find ourselves in a better position than we once were. Spiritually, we’ve come a long way since we first struggled with Step One in early recovery. And this realization serves to strengthen our resolve as we dig deeper into the heart of Step Ten.
What It Means
The 12&12 gets into the deeper meaning of Step Ten while talking about the exceptions that some of us might wish to make:
“It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us. If somebody hurts us and we are sore, we are in the wrong also. But are there no exceptions to this rule? What about ‘justifiable’ anger? If somebody cheats us, aren’t we entitled to be mad?”
This sounds fair enough, but it’s a bit of a slippery slope. For many addicts and alcoholics, anger is a drug in and of itself. Think about it. How much time have we lost to anger? Has our work suffered because our rage stood in the way of our focus? How many times did our families wish for our anger to subside so that they could spend quality time with us? The answers likely bear some similarities to the answers we might give if we replace anger with addiction. And the same goes for many other negative emotions as well. This is why we must stay on top of our feelings and monitor them daily.
Some people in the anti-AA crowd misconstrue this idea of staying on top of our emotions. They believe that the program is telling its members not to feel anything. But Step Ten doesn’t necessarily keep you from feeling negative emotions. Sometimes, as is the case with grief, our negative emotions are actually necessary for the maintenance of our emotional health. But sometimes our emotions go overboard. We must learn to recognize this, and willingly admit it to a sponsor or other trusted individual. And when anger is at the heart of the matter, we must show self-restraint for the time being. Nothing good comes of burning bridges on a whim.
Remember, however, that emotional disturbance comes in the form of both highs and lows. Yes, we must be scrutinizing in how we handle our negative emotions. But our positive ones may sometimes get the better of us as well. Many of us probably couldn’t count the number of times we held a resentment against someone because they appeared to think too highly of themselves. We must monitor this sort of thinking on our own part. And if we are guilty of it, then perhaps those against whom we practiced silent scorn may be deserving of forgiveness. Now, we simply need a plan for the manner in which we will take such inventory on a daily basis.
How to Practice
Nobody masters Step Ten on the first day of practice. It can be quite time-consuming to get a handle on this step. We might start with doing a basic inventory every day. Each night, before we get ready for bed, we look at our actions over the past few hours. We identify any resentments that popped up, and how they affected our outlook. Naturally, we do the same for other character defects that may have caused harm to ourselves or others. At the next available opportunity, we discuss our faults with our sponsors and seek counsel on how we might better the situation moving forward. We also discuss the moments in which our recovery was on solid ground, so that we might reinforce such behaviors in the future.
On some days, our nightly balance sheet will be in the red. Looking back on these days, we identify what we did right and try to maximize these moments. We perform more acts of kindness, treating our fellows with the love and tolerance with which we might like them to approach us. And in doing so, we realize that the faults of previous days can act as a springboard to something better. No emotional slip is too great to overcome, provided we make an honest effort to learn from it.
This gets easier as we begin performing a spot-check inventory. In those moments when we feel angry, sad, jealous or simply full of ourselves, we must stop and give the matter some consideration. Are we doing the right thing? Is there a better way to move forward? The sooner we recognize our dangerous thinking, the sooner we can do something to improve it. We can’t afford to rationalize our negative thoughts in an attempt to justify them, although the temptation to do so may be great. Instead, we stop and take a deep breath. Then, we make amends if necessary and try to identify a lesson that we may apply to similar situations in the future.
Step Ten requires us to focus on both the positive and the negative when reviewing our thoughts and behaviors. We don’t waste too much time berating ourselves for our faults or praising ourselves for our victories. Instead, every moment becomes an opportunity to learn. When we do right, we express gratitude for our spiritual growth. And when we do wrong, we admit this immediately and try to do better. In performing this work, Step Ten improves more than our recovery. It improves our very conscience, the voice that keeps our soul in balance. Compared to the life we led when abusing drugs and alcohol, this is a miraculous improvement. As such, we should be ever grateful that the Twelve Steps have taken us so far.