February Newsletter: Core Principles in the 12 Steps
By 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 4 and 5. All too often these steps seem to be impediments to recovery rather than aids to recovery. It’s worth noting that these programs were created for drunks and drug addicts and are not designed or intended to overwhelm of frustrate people. As Dr. Bob would say so often, let’s keep it simple.
The key concept in these two steps is insight. It’s where we learn who we really are and confront what has gotten our lives so far off track. When I was in early recovery, I remember the old timers telling me that those who stopped at the first three steps were just doing the “AA waltz.” It went, one, two three- out; one-two-three-out; one-two-three-out; etc. One can also find in the AA literature, “the same man will drink again.” While the actual change required in recovery is the subject of the next newsletter, we must first gain a perspective of the landscape of our lives to determine what it is, exactly, that needs changing. When working with patients or those I sponsor, I remind them that Steps Four and Five follow naturally. After coming to grips with our core identity as addicts and as alcoholics, it is only natural that we want to continue in recovery. So why, then, do so many people hesitate at this critical juncture?
One problem may be that some people are reluctant to begin writing. While the steps can be written or talked through, it does seem that Steps Four and Eight will require some writing. After all, how is one to create an inventory or make a list without writing something on paper? it’s important to have a sponsor who can work with you in the mode in which you are most comfortable. Some prefer guidebooks, such as the NA step working guide. Others find the eighty-eight bullet point items in Step Four of that guide to be intimidating, if not overwhelming. Find what works for you, but, above all, find something!
Let’s now get to the essence of Steps Four and Five. All one is actually doing is making a list (of things already known to you) and sharing it with someone you trust. Put that way, it’s not so scary, is it? As we approach Step Four, we already KNOW the “exact nature of our wrongs” and we have been through the first three steps with our sponsor and come to trust him or her with our recovery. Anyone who has been through these two steps will assure you that none of us are so bad as to be irretrievable. We carry different burdens, but, the path to redemption and a new life in recovery is there for every single one of us if we commit to these steps, to these processes. In the early history of AA, one way to write Step Four was to look at the “seven deadly sins” and see how they applied to one’s life. These steps in AA are also discussed in detail in both the Big Book and in the Twelve and Twelve. Reading these texts with your sponsor can be helpful. The basic text of NA reminds us, in our inventories, though the step itself only addresses the “exact nature of our wrongs” to include as well our assets, or good points. I tend to agree with this. After all, a business inventory includes both damaged goods and stock in trade; both accounts receivable and those noted as bad debts to be written off. Our inventories are best done as completely as possible.
For those who are intimidated by writing, I suggest just making a few notes that will key you in to the essential aspects of each “wrong” and allow you to discuss this with your sponsor and/or a therapist/clergy member/etc. When working with sponsees, I’ll give the following instructions:
- Most of the “wrongs” are mirror images of our assets: generosity/selfishness; loyalty/betrayal; integrity/deceit; etc. I suggest that those working these steps look at every major character aspect they can identify, note the positive form and the negative form of that trait, and give examples of each in their lives. This helps build a more complete picture and shows us that we are complex individuals- neither all good nor all bad on any particular character aspect.
- Not to list every lie told or every item stolen, but to clearly note those acts and incidents which, when remembered consciously, still cause one to burn with shame. These are the ones that still have emotional impact on us and the incidents that will be crucial to address if we wish to move on.
In summary, all Steps Four and Five embody is making a list of things we already know about ourselves and sharing this list with a person we trust. Don’t get stuck in a three-step waltz. Use the tools of recovery to your advantage. Work with your sponsor to find a means by which these critically important steps can be worked. Recovery is a joy. Continue your journey forward- from Identity, through Insight, to Change!
John Steinberg, MD
Medical Director, The Bergand Group