Step Five

Step Five

From the Twelve and Twelve

“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another

human being the exact nature of our


ALL OF A.A.’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 Five. But

scarcely any Step is more necessary to longtime sobriety

and peace of mind than this one.

A.A. experience has taught us we cannot live alone

with our pressing problems and the character defects which

cause or aggravate them. If we have swept the searchlight

of Step Four back and forth over our careers, and it has revealed

in stark relief those experiences we’d rather not

remember, if we have come to know how wrong thinking

and action have hurt us and others, then the need to quit living

by ourselves with those tormenting ghosts of yesterday

gets more urgent than ever. We have to talk to somebody

about them.

So intense, though, is our fear and reluctance to do this,

that many A.A.’s at first try to bypass Step Five. We search

for an easier way—which usually consists of the general

and fairly painless admission that when drinking we were

sometimes bad actors. Then, for good measure, we add dramatic

descriptions of that part of our drinking behavior

which our friends probably know about anyhow.

But of the things which really bother and burn us, we

say nothing. Certain distressing or humiliating memories,

we tell ourselves, ought not be shared with anyone. These

will remain our secret. Not a soul must ever know. We hope

they’ll go to the grave with us.

Yet if A.A.’s experience means anything at all, this is

not only unwise, but is actually a perilous resolve. Few

muddled attitudes have caused us more trouble than holding

back on Step Five. Some people are unable to stay

sober at all; others will relapse periodically until they really

clean house. Even A.A. old timers, sober for years, often

pay dearly for skimping this Step. They will tell how they

tried to carry the load alone; how much they suffered of irritability,

anxiety, remorse, and depression; and how,

unconsciously seeking relief, they would sometimes accuse

even their best friends of the very character defects they

themselves were trying to conceal. They always discovered

that relief never came by confessing the sins of other people.

Everybody had to confess his own.

This practice of admitting one’s defects to another person

is, of course, very ancient. It has been validated in

every century, and it characterizes the lives of all spiritually

centered and truly religious people. But today religion is by

no means the sole advocate of this saving principle. Psychiatrists

and psychologists point out the deep need every

human being has for practical insight and knowledge of his

own personality flaws and for a discussion of them with an

understanding and trustworthy person. So far as alcoholics

are concerned, A.A. would go even further. Most of us

would declare that without a fearless admission of our defects

to another human being we could not stay sober. It

seems plain that the grace of God will not enter to expel our

destructive obsessions until we are willing to try this.

What are we likely to receive from Step Five? For one

thing, we shall get rid of that terrible sense of isolation

we’ve always had. Almost without exception, alcoholics are

tortured by loneliness. Even before our drinking got bad

and people began to cut us off, nearly all of us suffered the

feeling that we didn’t quite belong. Either we were shy, and

dared not draw near others, or we were apt to be noisy good

fellows craving attention and companionship, but never

getting it—at least to our way of thinking. There was always

that mysterious barrier we could neither surmount nor

understand. It was as if we were actors on a stage, suddenly

realizing that we did not know a single line of our parts.

That’s one reason we loved alcohol too well. It did let us act

extemporaneously. But even Bacchus boomeranged on us;

we were finally struck down and left in terrified loneliness.

When we reached A.A., and for the first time in our

lives stood among people who seemed to understand, the

sense of belonging was tremendously exciting. We thought

the isolation problem had been solved. But we soon discovered

that while we weren’t alone any more in a social sense,

we still suffered many of the old pangs of anxious apartness.

Until we had talked with complete candor of our

conflicts, and had listened to someone else do the same

thing, we still didn’t belong. Step Five was the answer. It

was the beginning of true kinship with man and God.

This vital Step was also the means by which we began

to get the feeling that we could be forgiven, no matter what

we had thought or done. Often it was while working on this

Step with our sponsors or spiritual advisers that we first felt

truly able to forgive others, no matter how deeply we felt

they had wronged us. Our moral inventory had persuaded

us that all-round forgiveness was desirable, but it was only

when we resolutely tackled Step Five that we inwardly

knew we’d be able to receive forgiveness and give it, too.

Another great dividend we may expect from confiding

our defects to another human being is humility—a word often

misunderstood. To those who have made progress in

A.A., it amounts to a clear recognition of what and who we

really are, followed by a sincere attempt to become what

we could be. Therefore, our first practical move toward humility

must consist of recognizing our deficiencies. No

defect can be corrected unless we clearly see what it is. But

we shall have to do more than see. The objective look at

ourselves we achieved in Step Four was, after all, only a

look. All of us saw, for example, that we lacked honesty

and tolerance, that we were beset at times by attacks of selfpity

or delusions of personal grandeur. But while this was a

humiliating experience, it didn’t necessarily mean that we

had yet acquired much actual humility. Though now recognized,

our defects were still there. Something had to be

done about them. And we soon found that we could not

wish or will them away by ourselves.

More realism and therefore more honesty about ourselves

are the great gains we make under the influence of

Step Five. As we took inventory, we began to suspect how

much trouble self-delusion had been causing us. This had

brought a disturbing reflection. If all our lives we had more

or less fooled ourselves, how could we now be so sure that

we weren’t still self-deceived? How could we be certain

that we had made a true catalog of our defects and had really

admitted them, even to ourselves? Because we were still

bothered by fear, self-pity, and hurt feelings, it was probable

we couldn’t appraise ourselves fairly at all. Too much guilt

and remorse might cause us to dramatize and exaggerate

our shortcomings. Or anger and hurt pride might be the

smoke screen under which we were hiding some of our defects

while we blamed others for them. Possibly, too, we

were still handicapped by many liabilities, great and small,

we never knew we had.

Hence it was most evident that a solitary self-appraisal,

and the admission of our defects based upon that alone,

wouldn’t be nearly enough. We’d have to have outside help

if we were surely to know and admit the truth about ourselves—the

help of God and another human being. Only by

discussing ourselves, holding back nothing, only by being

willing to take advice and accept direction could we set foot

on the road to straight thinking, solid honesty, and genuine


Yet many of us still hung back. We said, “Why can’t

‘God as we understand Him’ tell us where we are astray? If

the Creator gave us our lives in the first place, then He must

know in every detail where we have since gone wrong.

Why don’t we make our admissions to Him directly? Why

do we need to bring anyone else into this?”

At this stage, the difficulties of trying to deal rightly

with God by ourselves are twofold. Though we may at first

be startled to realize that God knows all about us, we are

apt to get used to that quite quickly. Somehow, being alone

with God doesn’t seem as embarrassing as facing up to another

person. Until we actually sit down and talk aloud

about what we have so long hidden, our willingness to

clean house is still largely theoretical. When we are honest

with another person, it confirms that we have been honest

with ourselves and with God.

The second difficulty is this: what comes to us alone

may be garbled by our own rationalization and wishful

thinking. The benefit of talking to another person is that we

can get his direct comment and counsel on our situation,

and there can be no doubt in our minds what that advice is.

Going it alone in spiritual matters is dangerous. How many

times have we heard well-intentioned people claim the

guidance of God when it was all too plain that they were

sorely mistaken. Lacking both practice and humility, they

had deluded themselves and were able to justify the most

arrant nonsense on the ground that this was what God had

told them. It is worth noting that people of very high spiritual

development almost always insist on checking with

friends or spiritual advisers the guidance they feel they have

received from God. Surely, then, a novice ought not lay

himself open to the chance of making foolish, perhaps tragic,

blunders in this fashion. While the comment or advice of

others may be by no means infallible, it is likely to be far

more specific than any direct guidance we may receive

while we are still so inexperienced in establishing contact

with a Power greater than ourselves.

Ou0rating. Perhaps we shall need to share with this person facts

about ourselves which no others ought to know. We shall

want to speak with someone who is experienced, who not

only has stayed dry but has been able to surmount other serious

difficulties. Difficulties, perhaps, like our own. This

person may turn out to be one’s sponsor, but not necessarily

If you have developed a high confidence in him, and his

temperament and problems are close to your own, then

such a choice will be good. Besides, your sponsor already

has the advantage of knowing something about your case.

Perhaps, though, your relation to him is such that you

would care to reveal only a part of your story. If this is the

situation, by all means do so, for you ought to make a beginning

as soon as you can. It may turn out, however, that

you’ll choose someone else for the more difficult and deeper

revelations. This individual may be entirely outside of

A.A.—for example, your clergyman or your doctor. For

some of us, a complete stranger may prove the best bet.

The real tests of the situation are your own willingness

to confide and your full confidence in the one with whom

you share your first accurate self-survey. Even when you’ve

found the person, it frequently takes great resolution to approach

him or her. No one ought to say the A.A. program

requires no willpower; here is one place you may require

all you’ve got. Happily, though, the chances are that you

will be in for a very pleasant surprise. When your mission

is carefully explained, and it is seen by the recipient of your

confidence how helpful he can really be, the conversation

will start easily and will soon become eager. Before long,

your listener may well tell a story or two about himself

which will place you even more at ease. Provided you hold

back nothing, your sense of relief will mount from minute

to minute. The dammed-up emotions of years break out of

their confinement, and miraculously vanish as soon as they

are exposed. As the pain subsides, a healing tranquility

takes its place. And when humility and serenity are so combined,

something else of great moment is apt to occur.

Many an A.A., once agnostic or atheistic, tells us that it was

during this stage of Step Five that he first actually felt the

presence of God. And even those who had faith already often

become conscious of God as they never were before.

This feeling of being at one with God and man, this

emerging from isolation through the open and honest sharing

of our terrible burden of guilt, brings us to a resting

place where we may prepare ourselves for the following

Steps toward a full and meaningful sobriety.