Step 5

Step 5

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 published by AA Agnostica.

Will talk to another person about our exact nature.

Principles: Trust, Personal Integrity

When we commit to the Fifth Step, we agree to “talk to another person about our exact nature.” We agree to reveal to another human being the things we have found in our Fourth-Step search. This is not something most of us do easily. We would rather pick and choose among the things we tell others – we would rather carefully control the image we show the world. Step 5 requires that we change this. Talking with another person breaks down our emotional and psychological isolation, and we stop anxiously hiding our secrets. Working a Fifth Step is a safe way to allow our internal and external worlds to meet.

Most of us are afraid that if someone really knows who we are, they won’t like us, they’ll turn away. Step 5 teaches us this doesn’t have to be true. Another human being can actually know all about us and still accept us. When our guide hears about our “bad” behavior and our “awful” thoughts and doesn’t judge us, our shame lessens and its power fades. We no longer have to hide, protecting our secrets and problems. A guide’s non-judgmental feedback helps us break through denial and decreases the probability of self-deception and helps us examine our values and explore new options. Finally we listen to our guides, really hear what they say and then have to confront our mental backtalk that instantly contradicts the good things others tell us about ourselves.

Our guides are important and we must choose them with care. A therapist, AA sponsor, spiritual advisor, physician – any of these will do. The only criteria are that the person . . .

  1. Must have true objectivity (which rules out family, friends or anyone with whom we have or might have a social history)
  2. Understand the Fifth Step, its purpose and his or her role in it
  3. Be trustworthy
  4. Know how to listen with non-judgmental respect.

Fifth Steps happen in many different ways. They can be emotional, mental or spiritual exercises. A Fifth Step can be liberating or seem to make little difference. It might have an immediate emotional or physical impact or have a delayed effect. The crucial thing about this Step is that we can do it and actually come out with our trust intact – we can trust ourself with another human being.

The way we do Fifth Steps will probably change as we become more comfortable with ourselves and with others. Early Fifth Steps are apt to be formal. We select a specific time to do the work with a chosen person. We may do this once or several times. As time passes and we become familiar with the process, we find that working this Step changes. It becomes increasingly informal and we do lots of “mini” Fifth Steps.

Our criteria for the people we choose as guides change, too. We may discuss a particular vulnerability with a spouse or trusted friend. We may tell a group of people about a particularly courageous thing we did. We never strip ourselves bare for the world to examine, but we discriminate, choose appropriate situations and talk. We have learned to identify with others and let them identify with us. With relief and joy, we have joined the human race.

Step 5 is a way station. It’s a place to off-load painful memories that haunt and hurt, to leave behind things that hinder, hamper or slow our journey. It’s a place to repack other things that will make our lives safer, richer, happier and more productive. Its a place to pick up a ticket to our potential. Our guide helps us be certain that, as we shake out and repack our helpful things, hurtful feelings and troublesome behaviors don’t hide in the creases. We get back on the train and carry on with our journey, lighter and more free.

Will talk to another person about our exact nature.

Today I will make an open and unpretending connection with another person, being faithful to myself in the process.

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The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery is available as a second edition at Amazon.

It is also available via Amazon in Canada and the United Kingdom and Europe.

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Chapters of the book have been posted on AA Agnostica and can be accessed here:

15 Responses

  1. cannonicus says:

    Religious or secular where is any shred of evidence that the whole 12 rituals have any validity at all beyond placebo? If they were the key to recovery, why are we told to find a group / meeting that we can feel comfortable with? Aren’t the 12 rituals the same no matter what group we attend?

    • Larry B. says:

      Maybe they’re not the key to recovery. I think there are only two steps: talk (honestly about yourself) and listen (to learn how others have dealt with stuff). I don’t usually talk about a step at meetings, but others do and I can learn from what they say about it.
      I’m not in AA. I’m in Al-Anon, but it’s the same 12 steps. In Al-Anon, the meeting ends with a suggestion: “Take what you like and leave the rest.” I do.

  2. Svukic says:

    I wouldn’t trust anyone that wasn’t one hundred per cent reliable as far as confidentiality. Since the Fifth Step implies that the person can’t be someone that has a social history with me, it means I must pick someone I don’t know very well.

    To trust a member of a group of people as gossipy as the bunch I used to regularly witness in the “meetings after the meetings” would horrify me. That’s anything but “objectivity”.

    This only leaves the professional sector, which are bound to be confidential by law. I am still searching for a psychologist that suits my needs, after rejecting a counsellor who would not affirm confidentiality even verbally.

    As far as “external capital” is concerned (as discussed in Recovery Capital), this Step makes it essential to find a human force outside ourselves that we can trust with our deepest selves. This form of external capital is very scarce and precious indeed for anyone who intends to work it honestly.

    We all have a dark corner, a shameful secret, a fear of exposure: the partner we must choose in order to work the Fifth Step must be chosen very carefully indeed. The consequences of trusting the wrong person can be disastrous.

    Two examples that come to mind:
    A woman who was sexually and physically abused as a child whose confessions caused her sponsor to vomit;
    A man who had thoughts of a pedophile nature but had never acted on them – his sponsor made sure he was never invited to the family home again.

    The hardest part of the 5th Step is finding the right person.

    • kevin b says:

      I will add two more to that pile:

      3) A woman who had recently become widowed, had sex with her (male)sponsor sometime during or very soon after the 5th Step. She went back out and never came back and was dead within two years.

      4) Someone was told that because they didn’t experience what I call the “bombs bursting in mid air” feelings at the end of the 5th Step (inline with the BB) was told by his sponsor that maybe he hadn’t experienced that feeling because he wasn’t through drinking. The person went back out and drank that same day I believe. He was lucky enough to make it back and has now been sober for some time.

      The second one, I feel, was entirely due to the dangers of BB fundamentalism.

      Many people feel great after the 5th Step (in line with what the BB says). Many people don’t feel great after the 5th step, and some people feel awful after doing the 5th step; there is no one thing that anyone feels.

      To state that someone may not be finished drinking if they do not feel exactly the way the BB says they should feel after completing a step that really makes you feel vulnerable… that’s tantamount to abuse.

  3. Michael says:

    I’m a believer in the 5th step and I never felt that the higher power aspect was necessary for it to be effective. I didn’t approach it as Catholic confession, it wasn’t difficult for me to not view my sponsor as a priest and to leave god and a few Hail Marys out of the picture. I rejected that nonsense in my youth in Catholic school.

    Seems like simple psychology, ‘we’re as sick as our secrets’ turned out to be true for me. I felt much calmer and more comfortable in my skin after the process. Issues that seemed really huge to me turned out to be not that big of a deal and issues that weren’t on my mind much turned out to be bigger than I thought. Things became right sized. This happened by way of my own psychological process, it wasn’t about putting blind faith in a sponsor’s feedback. He just listened. Just telling my story out-loud to someone helped me to put it in perspective. The same process can happen with a good therapist but why pay for it if you don’t want to? I’ve found that therapists who aren’t recovering addicts themselves don’t quite get it.

  4. Dave J says:

    Having been on both sides of the fifth step in my forty years of A.A., I’ve concluded the only thing more boring than my “story” is someone else’s. Information is not realization. Confession is not good for the soul it’s ego driven clap trap. There is nothing wrong with anyone. But how do we find that out. Ah the rub.

  5. Lech L. says:

    Within a couple of months of my first meeting, I concluded AA dogma was largely nonsense.

    I agree with Lance Dodes. AA ‘works’ because it is a fellowship of like-minded people.

    It still boggles my mind that anyone can take the Sacred Steps seriously.

    Much of what goes on in meetings reminds me of religious fundamentalism. People spouting accepted doctrine without a shred of evidence that it is valid.

  6. Denis K says:

    Thank you Brian, it’s always great to hear from a newcomer. Keep us posted on your progress!

  7. Brian says:

    I have only worked the steps with myself, pen, paper and A LOT of worksheets I have found on the internet.

    I am a very open book. I have no skeletons left in my closet anymore and have a very easy time opening up to people; sometimes to a fault.

    This has always prevented me from making the move to get a sponsor, because, quite frankly, I get tired of talking about me and my story.

    The main thing that has changed with me since my sobriety date of 11/11/14 is that I have been more open about my alcoholism with people, although it is a select few.

    Because I have never had a sponsor, or thoroughly worked the steps with one, I have been made to feel that I am headed for disaster.

    I am not white-knuckling it and have certainly experienced some sort of transformation that has freed me from the desire or temptation to drink. I am careful to not be overconfident and cocky about these past 7+ months. I’m an alcoholic, not a fool.

    This has been an amazing journey so far, knowing I can live without drinking and NOT thinking about it. I don’t know who is due the credit, but I have to thank this site from the bottom of my heart for helping me make sense out of this program.

    More than anything, this site made me feel I have permission to truly “take what I want and leave the rest”. Now, I don’t feel like I am compromising my sobriety because the steps are tweaked a bit or I’m on a different timeline than my fellow AA peers.

    I go to meetings. I read. I share. I’m open. I’m honest. I’m thankful.

    I’m neither happy, nor joyous yet, but the freedom from drinking and alcohol that I have felt, far outweighs the daily challenges I encounter. I do feel free!

    I’m sorry I don’t write as eloquently as the rest of you, but I have had the need to chime in for a while.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks for your comment. I have gained a great deal from AA but haven’t found anyone in my local groups who feels like a good fit for a sponsor, I have an online sponsor who keeps asking me to get a face to face sponsor. Because of this I actually put off doing the steps and started to have deceit in the last place I needed it, pretending I had a sponsor. An AA veteran shared about how AA is a broad church, I read some useful stuff on the web, and I used a workbook to crack on with the steps, and did Step 5 with my minister. I have a particular friend in AA who acts as my sponsor in all but name and it’s allowed me to move forward.

    • Johnny says:

      Keep coming back, do the next right thing, and don’t drink no matter what. It’s truly the easier softer way to a better life. I went out after 17+ years. Back now with 8+ months. I’m one of the lucky ones that didn’t burn their life to the ground. I like the free thinker approach.

  8. Joe C says:

    I like “The way we do Fifth Steps will probably change as we become more comfortable with ourselves and with others.” I have gone through this process a few times in recovery.

    To echo JHG, my first 5th Step was a confession. I needed to get stuff off my chest. I felt bad, wrong, guilty, ashamed and facing my greatest fear that “If you truly get to know me, you will reject me,” my fear dissipated as I was accepted and loved, flaws and all. Future inventories were more about challenging my own narrative and digging deeper into my modus operandi.

    The original 12 Steps are quite moralistic but more modern interpretations are more behavioral. Teen Addictions Anonymous was only formed in 2007 and not only did they drop the explicit God talk, they left the religious morality out of it to: I admit to a “Higher Power”, to myself and to another human being, what was wrong with my choices.

    TAA’s Step 4 is: I will make a fearless and honest review of my life, my values, and my goals.

    If you buy into needing to change, needing to modify our behavior, attitudes and/or self-image, then an inventory makes sense. There’s no need for it to be a morality test.

    Not to pick on the language to harshly, honing in on my “exact nature” is a bit of a high bar to reach but to better understand the cause of my destructive behavior and self-talk, how could that be a useless activity? I don’t want to be a slave to my defenses and automatic thoughts.

    Nice post, useful discussion. Best to one and all.

    • Michael says:

      Nicely put. I don’t think morality needs to come into it. I look at it from a Buddhist perspective, there is no sin and no god, just cause and effect. If I act like a selfish jerk I’m going to feel like crap in the long run and there are undeniable consequences. That’s been my experience. Getting my history on paper and discussing it helped with my clarity and my ability to change things I didn’t like about myself. That is an ongoing process that leads to the 10th step.

  9. JHG says:

    The problem I have with AA’s fifth step is that it feels too much like a confession of sins. I prefer to focus on the connection that breaks down the stigma, isolation, and loneliness that accompany alcoholism and other addictions. That would still inevitably involve getting honest, becoming vulnerable, and disclosing secrets, but the connection comes first. The liberation from guilt, shame, and the fear of condemnation is a result of rather than a means to being fully restored to the human community.

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