March Newsletter: Core Principles in the 12 Steps

SteinbergBy John Steinberg, MD – The Bergand Group

Continuing our discussion of the core principles embodied in the twelve steps of AA, NA, and similar programs, we come now to Steps 6 and 7. The essence of these two steps, the core principle they embody, is change. They seem so simple and easy at first glance, don’t they? They are anything but simple. They are, far from being easy, the work of a lifetime. From the perspective of just over thirty years in recovery, with thirty years of experience working professionally in the field of addiction medicine, I assure you, these two steps, so innocuous in appearance; these two steps are at once the most difficult and the most rewarding of the twelve steps. To be fair, what follows is merely my opinion on this subject, but, one might consider that it is an opinion founded on decades of personal and professional experience.

Let me lead in by presenting a diametrically opposite interpretation of these steps that I once heard espoused at an NA meeting. The member stated as follows:

“I get so upset whenever I hear someone saying he has trouble working Steps Six and Seven. You’re not supposed to do anything. These steps are for God to work. All you have to do is to be ready and to ask.”

Well, that’s a rather passive approach, isn’t it? After all, the NA Step working Guide notes 22 bullet items in Step Six and 21 bullet items in Step 7- which is quite a bit of work if one is supposed to merely prepare for God to work these steps upon you!

Let’s also consider the evidence of long term recovery as exemplified by the members of the AA, NA, and like-program communities. If you participate in these meetings, you will meet any number of men and women who have twenty, twenty-five, thirty, and more years of sobriety/clean time. Have you EVER met anyone who was completely free of “character defects” or “shortcomings?” What does that mean with respect to the passive approach suggested above? At minimum, it implies a rather severely long waiting time.

With these two premises in mind:

  • The Steps are to be actively worked;
  • No one is ever entirely rid of character defects and shortcomings;

let’s dig a little deeper into these subtle steps. We’ve set the foundation in the five previous steps for the work that is to be done in these steps. Our identities as addicts/alcoholics are firmly established. The landscape of our moral nature has been identified and vetted by a trusted person- most often our sponsor. We are now at a critical turning point, a crucial juncture in our recovery. Are we absolutely ready to let go of character defects that we had once viewed to be the core of our personalities, our necessary coping skills? Are we willing to ask that our shortcomings be addressed- by our Higher Power, by God, or by ourselves? Are we willing to become fundamentally new people? That, and more, is asked of us in Steps Six and Seven.

My current thinking on these steps was triggered when I heard a fellow in an AA meeting say the following:

“My sponsor and I read and prayed on Steps Six and Seven. After this, I felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from me. I then went to bed that night and slept more restfully than I had in any time I could remember. Imagine my surprise when, the next morning, I woke up and all my character defects were back!!!”

I reflected upon this and realized, that, as noted above, no one EVER becomes perfect; no one ever is entirely free of defects of character and personal shortcomings. And I had for so long thought these the easiest steps of all. They seemed so simple when first approached so many years prior. I was forced to look at them in an entirely new light.

It is axiomatic in psychiatry (bear with me- I’m but a humble internist) that personalities, once set, do not fundamentally change. Yet, as I once asked a colleague- who is a bona fide psychiatrist- isn’t it clear that we see a greater change in people recovering from addictive disorders than in virtually any other psychiatric diagnosis? Doesn’t the AA Big Book imply that fundamental personal change is needed if we are to stay sober? Don’t folks in NA note that, “Change we must or die we will?” So what exactly is going on here?

After reflecting on this for some weeks- and further working on this for another year- I have come to the following conclusions and their implications for working Steps Six and Seven:

  • Our personalities are indeed set.
  • Our character defects and shortcomings are but aspects of our personalities.
  • They will always be with us.
  • They no longer have to be dominant or acted upon.

When discussing Steps Six and Seven with patients or with those I sponsor, I ask the following, as an illustration of the above iterated concepts:

  • “Do you have- or do you know anyone who has or has had little children, say, under ten years of age?” The answer is uniformly YES.
  • “Do you- or does the person you know- ever take his/her kids for a ride in the car?” The answer is, again, uniformly YES.
  • “Do you- or does the person you know- ever let those little children drive the car?”
    The answer is ALWAYS an emphatic, “NO!!”

And there you have the essence of the steps. Our character defects and shortcomings are truly parts of our core personalities. They used to be the parts of our personalities that defined us; the ones that were so evident they formed the basis by which all who knew us defined us. But, in our inventories, we also identified our assets- the positive features of our personalities. In recovery, we now have a choice. As addicts who no longer use; as alcoholics who no longer drink; we can be people with character defects and shortcomings who no longer choose to act out on them. They never again have to be allowed to rule our lives. They are like our little children, always a part of the family, welcome to come for a ride with us through our lives, but, never, never, ever allowed to drive! When they make a little noise and try to resurface, we simply tell them to stay in the back seat, sit down, be quiet, and enjoy the ride. The sober adult, the mature and clean addict will be the one driving from here on out.

Of course, as we are never entirely rid of our negatives, we must always be on guard against their resurgence. As one of our country’s founding fathers is said to have noted (most often attributed to Thomas Jefferson- check Wikipedia for some interesting history on this quote), “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” We need not worry or be paranoid, but, our primitive addict/alcoholic natures remain with us, always ready to make a reappearance should we neglect our continuous growth in recovery or fail to work the programs that keep our diseases in remission. And of course, should we ever feed them- with a drink or a drug- they’ll be back up front, hands on the wheel, driving our lives into a ditch.

In summary, (in this one person’s opinion) Steps Six and Seven are at once simple and profound, easy to do the first time, necessary to keep doing our entire lives. As we grow in recovery and learn more about our natures, we see more work to do with these steps. It never ends. But, it is a joyous adventure. These two steps more than any others are, as I see it, the means by which we become happy. And that is the ultimate goal of life: to know ourselves, to have confidence in ourselves, to enjoy being ourselves. On page 132 of the AA Big Book, it states, “We absolutely insist on enjoying life.” Steps Six and Seven allow us to become people who are capable of enjoying life. Work these steps with a passion and, ENJOY!

John Steinberg, MD
Medical Director, The Bergand Group