Step 7

This is a chapter from the pioneering book: The Alternative Twelve Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. It was originally written by two women, Martha Cleveland and Arlys G., and published in 1991. As valuable today as it was then, a second edition of this exceptional work was recently published by AA Agnostica.

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Work honestly, humbly and courageously to develop our assets and to release our personal shortcomings.

Principles: Personal responsibility, Involvement in change, Courage, Humility, Self-discipline

• • • • • •

We can’t be a changed person unless we are willing to make changes. Step 7 actually involves us in personal change. As we use this Step, we go further than becoming willing to risk change. We do risk and we do change. We risk, we try, we fail, we start again. We act and our actions change our lives. In Steps 4 and 5 we discover our assets and our shortcomings. In Step 6 we become psychologically prepared to deal with these qualities. Step 7 finds us ready to act.

Humility Comes First

When we become entirely ready to make changes, our abiding strength is stronger than our shortcomings. And humility is a crucial part of this spiritual readiness. We know we have learning to do and we undertake our lessons with humility and self-reverence. We measure our progress in relation to who we have been, instead of measuring ourselves against other people. We are taking our own journey. We acknowledge our strength and use it with humility, looking only for an honest way of living in an honest reality.

Then Work. . .

First we accept humility. Then we begin to work. So let’s be sure we know what we mean by “work.”

All of us can identify an action as work when it’s deliberate or physically strenuous. Splitting wood is work. So is consciously gathering our courage to say no to the request of a friend when our guilts insist that we say yes. It may be harder to realize that we are doing important work when we let down old barriers and open our minds to new ways of thinking. It’s work to allow ourselves to fail. It’s work to stand up for ourselves. It’s work to be patient. It’s work to put up with the emotional discomfort of new ways. We can’t judge something as work by whether it feels like work. We can’t judge it by whether it results in the outcome we hope for. To work simply means to use our energy to be disciplined and committed in pursuit of our goal.

Effort And Action Bring New Freedom

We begin to change by actively letting go of our shortcomings, our actions and feelings that are liabilities. We cut our losses and start again. We begin by discarding old patterns of acting and old ways of thinking. We let go with slow, cautious and reluctant moves. No one lets go of shortcomings all at once. They disappear as we become aware of them, one at a time, over a period of years.

Our new rule becomes, “If it feels familiar, watch out. I’d better stop and look at this.” When a friend hurts us, we stop before we try to comfort her and relieve her guilt. When our mother complains she hasn’t heard from us for a week, we stop before we make a million excuses and try to make it right with her. When our wife is inconsiderate, we stop before we flare up and deliver the usual lecture. Whenever a reaction feels involuntary, it may be something that needs changing.

Change requires thought and planning. It also requires effort and action. Sometimes we work at changing a thought and then a changed behavior follows. Sometimes a thought just won’t change, so we risk a new behavior anyway. Often, after we’ve used our new behavior long enough, changed thought will follow. We reinforce our new ways with practice, but mastery takes more than doing something over and over. It takes a high level of interest; it takes desire, thoughtfulness, commitment and constant vigilance. Step 7 requires us to be honest, courageous, humble and willing to do what it takes, even if it hurts.

Some of our shortcomings will stick with us despite our best efforts. Each of us is born with a genetic temperament. We can modify these traits but we can’t lose them. Some of us have quick tempers. It takes others a long time to get angry. Some of us are inherently loners, while others would rather be in a crowd. Some of us are natural fighters, some natural lovers – it’s just the way our genes work. Learning a healthy respect for the power of these traits is important, because then when they appear, we can collaborate with them instead of letting them take control.

As we let go of our shortcomings, we discover that we do not collapse. We expand. We are not left defenseless against life. Instead, we become less fragile, less explosive and less rigid. We gain breathing room. A wise person said, ‘Departure is the mother of hope.” As we depart from our old ways, we have hope for a happier way to live.

We Exercise Our Freedom By Developing Our Assets And Making New Choices

Assets don’t make us powerful over other people. Their only purpose is to empower us. We develop them by drawing on our inner strength. Assets are the things about us that make life richer, fuller and happier – things that give us a sense of well-being. They can be physical, mental or emotional qualities.

A high level of confidence is an asset. So is a special aptitude or talent. Attitudes and ideas can be assets, as are positive ways of behaving or an innate ability to get along with other people. Sensitivity to others is an asset, and so is an instinctive sense of self-survival. Assets can be deliberately learned or part of how nature made us. They may be hidden or obvious to everyone. Whatever form they take, each of us has a huge stock of them just waiting to be put into use.

We learn about real choice as we work Step 7. We finally comprehend that we have actual choices about how we act and think and feel. It’s exciting to know we don’t have to be the way we don’t want to be. We develop our ability to see choice and to exercise choice. We can actually change who we are by developing our assets, making new choices, and following through with action.

The Downside Of Change

Change is risky. The 12-Step program doesn’t guarantee specific outcomes to the changes we make. Some outcomes produce new problems. Self-respect and more independent behavior may make a spouse angry. When we stop trying to run our daughter’s life, she may go wild for a while. When we refuse a friend’s invitation to lunch, she may not call again. When we stop drinking in a favorite bar, we may spend many evenings alone. We always risk when we make changes, but with the tools we learn in the 12-Step program we can keep our perspective and deal with whatever happens.

Change is tricky. Step 7 has a predictable pitfall. At one time or another, every single one of us will think we are letting go of a particular shortcoming when in fact we are expressing it in a different guise. For instance, switching from beastly outbursts of rage to rageful, covert manipulation is not recovery. It isn’t healthy just because we smile instead of scream. We must always stay aware of the power of our shortcomings to snag us. We are so practiced at self-deception that it sometimes takes even more pain before we understand our own games.

Change is slow. Deep and lasting change comes slowly, much more slowly than our impatient selves would like. Sometimes we have bursts of insight and rapid growth. We move along easily and are excited with our progress. We’d better enjoy these periods, because they certainly won’t last. Most change is a matter of everyday practice, everyday recommitment day by day, thought by thought, action by action. We will probably spend the rest of our lives increasing our excellence in developing our assets and releasing our personal shortcomings. It’s a grand way to live.

Assists For Working Step 7

Working the Seventh Step is like being in training. It lays out a lifestyle training regimen that builds inner spiritual strength and endurance. We make changes in the care of our body, the activity of our minds and the acceptance and expression of our emotions. We gradually bring the different parts of ourselves into a healthy balance as we practice new living skills.

In some cases our shortcomings will fade away as we practice. In others we need to make a conscious, deliberate effort to stop an old behavior and substitute another. The simple words “Stop,” “Think” and “Start” can save us a lot of misery. When a feeling or an action feels automatic, we Stop. Then we Think, which allows us to pull back and realistically look at the situation. Then exercising deliberate choice, we can either continue with what feels familiar or Start something else.

A common example is chronic worrying. Something happens and we start to worry about it. We worry and worry, even though we know we should be thinking about other things. So we Stop. Really Stop.

We make a conscious effort to step back, take time and Think about the situation. What good is the worrying doing? Is it going to make a difference in the outcome? Is it helpful to ourselves or someone else? Does it fulfill an emotional need? Then we Think about the answers to these questions and choose to either continue worrying or to Start doing something more interesting and productive. This sounds like a simple exercise. It’s really very complex, but with practice it works.

There are lots of methods to help us learn new ways and practice them. Mental rehearsal or visualizing how we want to behave is one of the most powerful tools. Listening to people in a 12-Step group provides good ideas on handling similar situations in our own lives. Going to workshops and classes provides information that helps develop skills and assets. Reading can stimulate us and provide inspiration for change.

These are only a few of the ways that can be helpful – there are many others. By being open to trying new things, by purposefully experimenting, any of us can find methods that both work and fit our particular personality.

A final comment. We cannot force change in ourselves. We simply cannot do it. Forcing change is a fight against self and most often leaves us wounded, defeated and despairing. A lighter approach is much better. This is a mortal struggle, but it doesn’t have to be deadly serious. Perspective, relaxation, a sense of humor, lots of love and forgiveness for ourselves – these are the qualities that are going to open the way. A useful slogan is, “Easy does it, but do it.”

To Set The Goal

In the past we have often set grandiose or inappropriate goals that condemned us to failure. Its important to set realistic goals we can actually attain. We are walking in a new way, perhaps in an altogether different direction and across unfamiliar terrain. We are likely to get lost or at least lose our footing now and then. When we are unsure, we take baby steps, keeping our goal in mind. We keep on going, but with caution. Every step, large or small, confident or hesitant, counts. And reinforcement is important. Again and again we tell ourselves, “Once is not enough,” “Every time counts” and “Practice is what it takes.”

Sometimes all of a sudden, after many tries, something we are working on clicks and we reach our goal. And sometimes we miss it by a wide margin. It’s okay to fail because we learn from our mistakes as well as from our successes. And even though we miss our goal we’re still on track, because we’re moving in the right direction.

Effort alone is progress, and we value our progress more than we value the perfection of the outcome. We learn not to judge our efforts in the short term because deep and lasting change for the long term takes a long time.

Little by little, step by step, stage by stage, we will reach a goal. And when we look back, we can’t really explain how we got there. So much depends on our willingness to “become entirely ready” and to work hard. So much depends on our willingness to be open to the spiritual energy that strengthens us. But for each of us it will happen, and we are grateful and we move forward.

Work honestly, humbly and courageously to develop our assets and to release our personal shortcomings.

• • • • • •

Today I will act on a plan to develop an asset and release one liability.

I will remember that I can freely change my plan as I move through my day.


The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery is available as a second edition at Recovery 101 and at Amazon. It is also available via Amazon in Canada and the United Kingdom and Europe.

EBook versions of The Alternative 12 Steps are available online in all formats. Click here for KindleKobo or NookAn iBook version for the Mac or iPad is available at iTunes.


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Step 7 — 8 Comments

  1. When those I sponsor reach step 7; I explain that, like step 3, a decision (or declaration) is being made. The process of changing behaviors is actually monitored and sustained by frequent self-examination as outlined in step 10. The humility principle here is expressed whenever I choose “character over comfort” and base by life on my true core values. If I no longer “value”, for example, avoiding confrontation, then by necessity I begin to take the risk of asserting myself. The idea here is that my focus is not on what maladjustments I’m giving up, but on what assets (which I claim to value)I seek to acquire. Step 7 is remarkably effective for we “frustrated idealists.” It is enormously empowering for an alcoholic to embrace his or her moral compass and letting that be the ultimate guide through life. Step 7 is the starting point.

  2. I’ve been in the traditional rooms for many years, and have had a long impasse about how step 7 works for me. I’ve shared and shared and have not found others relate to the struggle. I’m not struggling anymore thanks to this chapter and other related websites. I have validation that there is no superpower “out there” that magically makes defects disappear. It’s just work that, once we become aware, we can change. Pretty simple really. Or if we can’t change, we stop hurting ourselves and others. Buddhism says our only true possessions are our actions, the ground on which we stand. Whatever has resulted in my life is from my actions. Nonaction is an action too.

  3. I think there is a value in “letting go,” even though there be no “letting God.” We heathens are prone to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I have benefitted from a modified version of the 12 step process.

    Another fine resource for finding a secular path through the steps is Gabriel Segal’s book, “Twelve Steps to Psychological Good Health,” reviewed on this website. A very smart guy who shone at Oxford and MIT.

  4. Step 7 gets one lousy paragraph in the Big Book, and virtually all of it is the 7th step prayer. In the 12 & 12, step 7 is an essay on the joys of humility, tied intimately to God. “During this process of learning more about humility, the most profound result of all was the change in our attitude toward God.” (pg. 75)

    It is no wonder that for years I have heard people at meetings struggle with this step, or ignore it completely. Even to a lot of relatively religious folk, getting humble, getting more god, and magically having the obcession removed is a lot of smoke and mirrors. It really leaves us with nothing to do, except get on with steps 8 and 9. I know I never had a clue what it was all about until I got into the agnostic AA world.

    Yet as Martha and Arlys interpret it, this step is at the heart of the change we make in transforming from a drunken mind to a healthy one. It is the shop in which we work on reducing our recovery liabilities and strengthening our recovery assets.

    The BB and the 12&12 don’t even mention that we might have some good in us, or anything like assets we can use to help recovery. How biblical is that?

    For me humility does play a role, but not in the context of some original sin scenario. I don’t believe that in my 20’s, as a pre-alcoholic, I was a below average egotistical creep with all sorts of significant mental problems. But after 40-odd years of boozing, that would be a pretty good description. So was I going bad somehow and covering it with the booze, or did the booze do it to me because I have the alcoholic gene? It just dosen’t matter. If I now want to be sober and become a better person to myself and society, I have to change, to undo what I became as best I can. It does take humility to recognize what I had became, and to start the work to fix it. So humility, yes, but not “mea culpa, I’m so horrible”.

    I don’t take this chapter as the perfect solution to the change I want to achieve, but for me it sure is in the right direction.

    • Actually in step 10 in the 12×12 it talks of crediting ourselves with things well done. An alcoholic like me will always look for the good in myself, and dismiss the negative. I think the early members were telling us our assets never got us drunk, it was our lilabilities.
      Humility to me is being totally honest with myself and another and then working to have these defects removed, none of mine have been eliminated, but a lot have been diminished. Cheers Dan

      • Yes, I agree … in step 10. And it is hinted at here and there, but not in 7. I went back to read Step 7 in the 12 & 12 after reading the chapter above; it is really one of the more God-centered Steps in that book.

        I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that “your defects got you drunk” bit. I almost believed it for a time. And once I was well and truely a drunk, oh my how the defects multiplied. But I really think it was mostly genetic, for me, anyway the way it played out.

        And yes, we all are works in progress, aren’t we!

      • I think the early members were telling us our assets never got us drunk, it was our liabilities.

        It’s not just our early members; I’ve heard this exact statement a number of times in the rooms.

  5. The challenge of adequately secularizing the Steps is to dig down deeply enough to find what of any real value is actually there. It is not enough to excise the god language and regurgitate recovery platitudes extolling “spiritual” values like humility and leaving intact assumptions about tired concepts like shortcomings.

    Step 7 is obviously one of the most problematic steps for atheists and agnostics, but the problem goes deeper than that it requires praying. Take God out of it and you still have something that feels an awful lot like the Christian understanding of sin.

    So why bother with this step? If we don’t pray and don’t see ourselves as sinners, what’s left? For me, what’s left is the need to get as free as I can from whatever there is inside me that would threaten my ongoing sobriety. (And I don’t find it helpful to label whatever that is as character defects or shortcomings — the problem isn’t that I’m defective or that I fall short but instead is that I’m an addict — nor do I find it helpful to put so much emphasis on the need for humility.)

    As an atheist, my understanding of the seventh step requires at least as great a leap of faith as what is involved in praying for the removal of shortcomings. I have to let go of the security and comfort that my way of thinking and my cherished old identity still provides me in order to make room for a better way of thinking and a better way of existing — knowing that the in the interim, while I await the emergence of greater health, I just might be unbearably uncomfortable and insecure.