This is blog number 5 in my series examining the different steps of the 12 Step Programme, which is the programme used in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and other drug addiction programmes.
As I suggested in my “Step 4 of the 12 Step Programme” blog, when you want to change your habit from drinking to not drinking, it’s vital to get honest with yourself. To dig below the surface and to find what’s driving you. When you understand more about your motivations, your beliefs, and your identity, you have more power to be in control and to change things.
I also suggested that people who have developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol have often also developed an unhealthy relationship with themselves. They don’t have an awful lot of self-love. They tend to believe their “inner critic” and judge themselves harshly. In order for sobriety to become easy and liberating, this relationship with self needs to be improved so that there is more self-love and less of a need to reach for something outside of the self for relief or escape.
Step 5 seems to be about “confession”. It says that one should admit “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
As with all of the steps, there is potentially something valuable here: when we get honest with ourselves we open the door to growth and change. By sharing any shameful secrets that we’ve been carrying around, it’s possible to release a burden and to feel relieved that there is no judgment from the person we’ve shared with. When we recognise that there doesn’t have to be judgement, it kind of gives us permission to be less judgmental of ourselves.
This sharing with another person or people can also be hugely reassuring – finding out that you’re not alone in this and that many other people have been going through a similar experience is very empowering and again, adds to a sense of relief.
However, although the action of the step, in terms of acknowledging some of your issues, beliefs, actions, thoughts and feelings to yourself, to something outside of you (be it a God, a universe, Mother Nature, your own “Higher Self”) and to another person can be a very healthy one if no judgment comes back to you, the way this step is worded is problematic and could potentially scupper any positive impact from the action itself.
Accompanying the word “admit” is a sense of the confessional and even perhaps of guilt and shame. To me, “admitting” something suggests a naughty child provoked into an ashamed and reluctant acknowledgement of some kind of sin. The phrase “the exact nature of our wrongs” seems didactic (again, fuelling the concept of a childlike confession being extracted) but it is the word “wrongs” that causes the most disturbance here.
Whose notion of wrong are we to use here? And, even if it’s our own definition, and it’s up to us to judge what things we have done or said that we are unhappy with, the concept of being wrong is yet another stick to beat ourselves up with when what is more helpful is to build a healthier and more loving relationship with ourselves.
Some people might argue that it doesn’t really matter what language is used and all this picking apart of the wording of the steps is just semantics. However, when you understand that the unconscious mind responds very directly to the language that is used and you’ve seen first hand the power to elevate or crush that words can have, the matter of how the steps are phrased takes on immense significance.
If I’m already feeling shit about myself and I believe all sorts of limiting things about myself (like “I’m not good enough”, or “I’m a failure” or “I’ll never amount to anything”), when I start to reflect on all the “wrongs” I have done or caused, it’s simply confirming an already embedded limiting belief or it’s adding a new one.
Being honest with yourself about what you’d like to change, what you like and don’t like and how you’d like to behave differently is a really important step in the journey from drinking to not drinking. But you don’t have to re-live past traumatic experiences to free yourself from them and loosen their hold on you. You certainly don’t have to re-live all the situations where you did or said something that you’ve been feeling guilty or ashamed about, unless you think it will help you.
Communicating your reflections with something outside of yourself, something bigger than you, and connecting in some way with this energy or force is also really strengthening and helpful although it might be a step too far for people who don’t subscribe to these kinds of beliefs.
And, definitely, sharing your experiences and reflections on yourself with other people is a key part of relieving yourself of a burden, gaining reassurance, strength, motivation and inspiration. What is necessary here though, is that when someone shares something personal and even disturbing (that the rest of society might judge harshly) the person or community they’re sharing with needs to give a non-judgmental and supportive response – anything else might just confirm any limiting beliefs they’ve been holding and could cause them to shrink away from the process.
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