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Step Five

"Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs."

All of A.A.'s Twelve Steps ask us to go contrary to our natural desires . . .
they all deflate our egos. When it comes to ego deflation, few Steps are harder
to take than Five. But scarcely any Step is more necessary to longtime sobriety
and peace of mind than this one.
A.A. experience has taught us we cannot live alone with our pressing problems
and the character defects which cause or aggravate them. If we have swept the
searchlight of Step Four back and forth over our careers, and it has revealed
in stark relief those experiences we'd rather not remember, if we have come to
know how wrong thinking and action have hurt us and others, then the need to
quit living by ourselves with those tormenting ghosts of yesterday gets more
urgent than ever. We have to talk to somebody about them.
So intense, though, is our fear and reluctance to do this, that many A.A.'s at
first try to bypass Step Five. We search for an easier way--which usually
consists of the general and fairly painless admission that when drinking we
were sometimes bad actors. Then, for good measure, we add dramatic descriptions
of that part of our drinking behavior which our friends probably know about
But of the things which really bother and burn us, we say nothing. Certain
distressing or humiliating memories, we tell ourselves, ought not be shared
with anyone. These will remain our secret. Not a soul must ever know. We hope
they'll go to the grave with us.
Yet if A.A.'s experience means anything at all, this is not only unwise, but
is actually a perilous resolve. Few muddled attitudes have caused us more
trouble than holding back on Step Five. Some people are unable to stay sober at
all; others will relapse periodically until they really clean house. Even A.A.
old timers, sober for years, often pay dearly for skimping this Step. They will
tell how they tried to carry the load alone; how much they suffered of
irritability, anxiety, remorse, and depression; and how, unconsciously seeking
relief, they would sometimes accuse even their best friends of the very
character defects they themselves were trying to conceal. They always
discovered that relief never came by confessing the sins of other people.
Everybody had to confess his own.
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.
What are we likely to receive from Step Five? For one thing, we shall get rid
of that terrible sense of isolation we've always had. Almost without exception,
alcoholics are tortured by loneliness. Even before our drinking got bad and
people began to cut us off, nearly all of us suffered the feeling that we
didn't quite belong. Either we were shy, and dared not draw near others, or we
were apt to be noisy good fellows craving attention and companionship, but
never getting it--at least to our way of thinking. There was always that
mysterious barrier we could neither surmount nor understand. It was as if we
were actors on a stage, suddenly realizing that we did not know a single line
of our parts. That's one reason we loved alcohol too well. It did let us act
extemporaneously. But even Bacchus boomeranged on us; we were finally struck
down and left in terrified loneliness.
When we reached A.A., and for the first time in our lives stood among people
who seemed to understand, the sense of belonging was tremendously exciting. We
thought the isolation problem had been solved. But we soon discovered that
while we weren't alone any more in a social sense, we still suffered many of
the old pangs of anxious apartness. Until we had talked with complete candor of
our conflicts, and had listened to someone else do the same thing, we still
didn't belong. Step Five was the answer. It was the beginning of true kinship
with man and God.
This vital Step was also the means by which we began to get the feeling that
we could be forgiven, no matter what we had thought or done. Often it was while
working on this Step with our sponsors or spiritual advisers that we first felt
truly able to forgive others, no matter how deeply we felt they had wronged us.
Our moral inventory had persuaded us that all-round forgiveness was desirable,
but it was only when we resolutely tackled Step Five that we inwardly
knew we'd be able to receive forgiveness and give it, too.
Another great dividend we may expect from confiding our defects to another
human being is humility--a word often misunderstood. To those who have made
progress in A.A., it amounts to a clear recognition of what and who we really
are, followed by a sincere attempt to become what we could be. Therefore, our
first practical move toward humility must consist of recognizing our
deficiencies. No defect can be corrected unless we clearly see what it is. But
we shall have to do more than see. The objective look at ourselves we
achieved in Step Four was, after all, only a look. All of us saw, for example,
that we lacked honesty and tolerance, that we were beset at times by attacks of
self-pity or delusions of personal grandeur. But while this was a humiliating
experience, it didn't necessarily mean that we had yet acquired much actual
humility. Though now recognized, our defects were still there. Something had to
be done about them. And we soon found that we could not wish or will them away
by ourselves.
More realism and therefore more honesty about ourselves are the great gains we
make under the influence of Step Five. As we took inventory, we began to
suspect how much trouble self-delusion had been causing us. This had brought a
disturbing reflection. If all our lives we had more or less fooled ourselves,
how could we now be so sure that we weren't still self-deceived? How could we
be certain that we had made a true catalog of our defects and had really
admitted them, even to ourselves? Because we were still bothered by fear,
self-pity, and hurt feelings, it was probable we couldn't appraise ourselves
fairly at all. Too much guilt and remorse might cause us to dramatize and
exaggerate our shortcomings. Or anger and hurt pride might be the smoke screen
under which we were hiding some of our defects while we blamed others for them.
Possibly, too, we were still handicapped by many liabilities, great and small,
we never knew we had.
Hence it was most evident that a solitary self-appraisal, and the admission of
our defects based upon that alone, wouldn't be nearly enough. We'd have to have
outside help if we were surely to know and admit the truth about ourselves--the
help of God and another human being. Only by discussing ourselves, holding back
nothing, only by being willing to take advice and accept direction could we set
foot on the road to straight thinking, solid honesty, and genuine humility.
Yet many of us still hung back. We said, "Why can't `God as we understand Him'
tell us where we are astray? If the Creator gave us our lives in the first
place, then He must know in every detail where we have since gone wrong. Why
don't we make our admissions to Him directly? Why do we need to bring anyone
else into this?"
At this stage, the difficulties of trying to deal rightly with God by
ourselves are twofold. Though we may at first be startled to realize that God
knows all about us, we are apt to get used to that quite quickly. Somehow,
being alone with God doesn't seem as embarrassing as facing up to another
person. Until we actually sit down and talk aloud about what we have so long
hidden, our willingness to clean house is still largely theoretical. When we
are honest with another person, it confirms that we have been honest with
ourselves and with God.
The second difficulty is this: 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. It is worth noting that people of very high
spiritual development almost always insist on checking with friends or
spiritual advisers the guidance they feel they have received from God. Surely,
then, a novice ought not lay himself open to the chance of making foolish,
perhaps tragic, blunders in this fashion. 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.
Our next problem will be to discover the person in whom we are to confide.
Here we ought to take much care, remembering that prudence is a virtue which
carries a high rating. Perhaps we shall need to share with this person facts
about ourselves which no others ought to know. We shall want to speak with
someone who is experienced, who not only has stayed dry but has been able to
surmount other serious difficulties. Difficulties, perhaps, like our own. This
person may turn out to be one's sponsor, but not necessarily so. If you have
developed a high confidence in him, and his temperament and problems are close
to your own, then such a choice will be good. Besides, your sponsor already has
the advantage of knowing something about your case.
Perhaps, though, your relation to him is such that you -would care to reveal
only a part of your story. If this is the situation, by all means do so, for
you ought to make a beginning as soon as you can. It may turn out, however,
that you'll choose someone else for the more difficult and deeper revelations.
This individual may be entirely outside of A.A.--for example, your clergyman or
your doctor. For some of us, a complete stranger may prove the best bet.
The real tests of the situation are your own willingness to confide and your
full confidence in the one with whom you share your first accurate self-survey.
Even when you've found the person, it frequently takes great resolution to
approach him or her. No one ought to say the A.A. program requires no
willpower; here is one place you may require all you've got. Happily, though,
the chances are that you will be in for a very pleasant surprise. When your
mission is carefully explained, and it is seen by the recipient of your
confidence how helpful he can really be, the conversation will start easily and
will soon become eager. Before long, your listener may well tell a story or two
about himself which will place you even more at ease. Provided you hold back
nothing, your sense of relief will mount from minute to minute. The dammed-up
emotions of years break out of their confinement, and miraculously vanish as
soon as they are exposed. As the pain subsides, a healing tranquillity takes
its place. And when humility and serenity are so combined, something else of
great moment is apt to occur. Many an A.A., once agnostic or atheistic, tells
us that it was during this stage of Step Five that he first actually felt the
presence of God. And even those who had faith already often become conscious of
God as they never were before.
This feeling of being at one with God and man, this emerging from isolation
through the open and honest sharing of our terrible burden of guilt, brings us
to a resting place where we may prepare ourselves for the following Steps
toward a full and meaningful sobriety.


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