What is the Importance of Step 5 of the Twelve-Step Program?

Life Coach Having a Counseling Session with a Female Client

An increasing number of people are now working through and living the Twelve Steps. This is either through one of the many Twelve Steps groups or therapy.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was the first Twelve Steps group, starting in the 1930s. But there are now dozens of different groups helping people with all manner of addictions, including drugs, sex, the internet, gambling, exercise, overeating, cluttering, and work.

More people than ever are realizing, as Bill Wilson, the creator of the Twelve Steps, put it in the 1950s: “Many people, nonalcoholics, report that as a result of the practice of AA’s Twelve Steps, they have been able to meet other difficulties of life.

They think the Twelve Steps can mean more than sobriety for problem drinkers. They see in them a way to happy and effective living for many, alcoholic or not.”

In fact, it is believed that more than 70 percent of treatment centers introduce people who attend to the Twelve Steps. We offer this at Tikvah Lake as part of our fully personalized treatment program.

What is Step 5?

All the Steps in the Twelve Steps play their key part in helping people to overcome their addiction and other emotional problems. Each one needs to be worked through under the guidance of someone who has also done the Twelve Steps.

But there are some of the Twelve Steps that seem to be of particularly significant importance. Step 5 is often cited as one of those.

As originally written by Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker struggling due to his alcoholism, Step 5 reads: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

One thing that immediately puts some people off the Twelve Steps is the mention of the word “God”. But even in the 1930s, when they were written, and most people attended church, Bill Wilson and others who discussed them understood this could be off-putting to some people.

So they went to great lengths to explain this concept of God or a Higher Power was for each individual to decide. It could range from God standing for “a group of drunks/druggies” – that is, other people at a Twelve-Step AA or NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting – to the universe, Mother Nature or quite simply whatever the person can realize is a greater force than themselves alone.

What is the principle behind Step 5?

woman in counseling

Step 5 is an emotional stock clearance. It is an offloading of resentments and secrets that have been carried around like a load of rocks and boulders weighing someone down.

As outlined in the book Alcoholics Anonymous (nicknamed the “Big Book”) and later in the book Twelve Steps And Twelve Traditions, people will write down their resentments and secrets using three columns. This is Step 4.

The first column will name who or what the resentment or secret is with or about; the second column explains succinctly why there is resentment or what the secret is; and the third lists the emotional “defects of character” that the person who is writing the list acknowledges are behind their negative feelings about it.

It is empowering to learn that we play a part in these negative feelings and, in fact, we “decide” to have them. As the AA literature puts it: “It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us.”

Learning about this means people understand they have a choice in how they react. It is a factor behind one of the Promises of the Twelve Steps: “We will comprehend the word serenity, and we will know peace.”

Letting go of resentments and secrets

It’s essential for a “happy and effective” life to let go of resentments and secrets. Resentment means someone is re-feeling negative emotions around something – and that could be something from decades ago.

A secret is something held deep down that someone avoids revealing or sharing due to fear of judgment and shame. But when we keep secrets, it makes us feel disconnected from others.

That’s why the recovery phrase: you’re only as sick as your secrets. Keeping secrets is emotionally exhausting – and the supreme court that we set up in our heads condemns us to being guilty, and it duly punishes us.

Secrets and resentments can be behind isolation, anxiety, depression and anger. As can be worked out from this process originally being devised to help with alcohol addiction, they also play a huge part in addiction.

How does Step 5 actually work?

blurred image of man in therapy

There is something magical about this process. As someone reads out loud their resentments and secrets “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being”, it really is as if they are taken away from them.

People doing this process say how frequently they will barely recall many of them afterwards. Those they do recall have lost any power they once had.

Of course, it’s extremely important that whoever the list is read out loud to is someone who can be fully trusted. As well as someone who knows the Twelve Steps process, ideally from doing it themselves.

How it all works is extremely difficult to explain. This is because it’s a spiritual process.

Part of the reason it happens, though, is because by admitting these and the person naming their part in the negative emotions behind it, the ego is reduced. When the ego is reduced, we grow spiritually.

It is also clear that letting go of so much negativity creates room for new positive emotions to come in. It’s like needing to knock down an old building to build a new one in its place: the old one must be demolished first to make room for the new one.

For anyone who does Step 5 thoroughly, fearlessly and honestly, as the AA literature suggests doing, there is a great feeling afterwards of freedom, lightness and peace that has not been felt for years. It is a huge life-changing moment.

As described so well in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions book: “All of AA’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 Step Five. But scarcely any Step is more necessary to longtime sobriety and peace of mind than this one.”

The Tikvah Lake Recovery Center, set in the heart of Florida beside a beautiful, tranquil lake, is created with absolute comfort in mind. We are in the perfect natural setting to encourage and enhance well-being and relaxation.

Our expert team has years of experience in treating all types of mental health conditions, including addiction. We absolutely understand the importance of careful listening, and we have several proven treatments that can help anyone in need of emotional and mental rehabilitation.

Contact us today to discover how we can help you or someone you love.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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