Working the 12 Steps of Recovery: Step 5

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By Scott Brassart

Last week, we discussed how to work step 4 of the 12 steps, along with the benefits of working that step. This week, our focus logically moves to step 5.

Step 5 reads as follows:

Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

In step 4, we compile an inventory of our wrongdoings, character defects, weaknesses, fears, and just plain crazy behavior. After completing this task, most of us find ourselves feeling more alone than ever – riddled with guilt, shame, and remorse. As we review our step 4 inventories, we are likely to feel as if we are the worst person ever, and the thought of sharing this information with God and another human being (working step 5) is downright frightening. That said, most of us find that we cannot successfully maintain sobriety while continuing to live a double life filled with secrets and shame. So step 5 must be worked.

Interestingly, the practice of admitting one’s character defects and bad behaviors is actually ancient, present from the beginning of time in almost every spiritual practice. That said, religion and spirituality (and 12-step groups) are hardly the sole advocates of this spirit-saving action. People ranging from ancient philosophers to modern-day therapists have argued for the need to develop meaningful insight into one’s personality flaws – insight that can only truly be gained through open, honest, and complete revelation with an understanding, trustworthy, nonjudgmental person.

Nevertheless, a lot of us tell ourselves that our most distressing and disturbing secrets should be taken to the grave. Many of us, no matter how desperately we desire recovery, embark on step 5 fully intending to leave certain things out. To follow through on that intention is both unwise and dangerous. Continuing to compartmentalize and hide from others the worst of ourselves creates anxiety, depression, fear, and shame – the very emotions that drove us toward addiction in the first place.

The remedy for this is to properly work step 5, holding nothing back.

Selecting the person with whom we will share our step 4 inventory is the initial action of step 5. As we do this, we need to remember that we will be sharing things about ourselves that should probably not become public knowledge, so the person we choose should be someone we trust. In all likelihood, we will decide to work step 5 with our 12-step sponsor. This makes a lot of sense, as sponsors are the people most directly involved in our quest for long-term sobriety. If, however, we don’t feel comfortable working step 5 with our sponsor (or if we don’t have a sponsor), a clergy member, a therapist, or even a trusted friend will do.

After that, the process is simple. We simply share our step 4 inventory with that other person, holding back nothing. Sometimes the person will ask questions or point out patterns of behavior that he or she sees. Other times that individual will just sit quietly and listen. Occasionally, the person will interject with an admission of his or her own; typically, this is to tell us that he or she has engaged in similarly shameful or troublesome behaviors.

The vast majority of us find that as we work step 5, a sense of relief sets in. Grudges, resentments, fears, and shame that have lingered and contaminated our soul for years miraculously vanish as soon as the underlying events are exposed. And the fact that the person who just heard the worst of our secrets will still talk to us afterward… Well, that’s just icing on the cake. In this way, step 5 is where the terrible isolation of active addiction finally starts to lift. After working it, we no longer feel as if we are alone in the world.


In next week’s post to this site, we will continue our discussion of the 12 steps with an examination of step 6.