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By Kristin Snowden MA, LMFT

In previous posts to this site, I have explored how Step 1Step 2, Step 3, and Step 4 of the 12 Steps of recovery can help non-addicts live a better life. This post is focused on Step 5. Step 5 reads as follows:

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

Every aspect of the 12-Step model creates a dynamic and challenging journey of self-discovery and positive change, and Step 5 is no exception. That said, I believe the most work-intensive steps are Steps 1 through 4. Steps 1 through 3 ask us to rigorously explore and identify what, exactly, we’re struggling with, to humble ourselves with the realization that we cannot solve our problems alone, and to the perform most vulnerable act of all – to surrender our will and lives to a higher power (to accept that we are not the ones in control in this uncertain world). Step 4 continues this arduous process by asking us to examine every facet of our lives and personalities, especially the parts we truly don’t want to look at or revisit, and then to create a searching and fearless inventory of our wounds, strengths, scars, failures, and successes.

After all of that exhausting and painful exploration occurs, Step 5 commences the healing process. And the healing starts by admitting (or confessing, if you prefer that word) all that we’ve learned from the previous four steps to our Higher Power and a supportive team around us.

It’s a brutal process to identify all the ways we’ve been harmed, all the ways in which we’re capable of harming others, and all the shame we carry around. And it’s not the sort of stuff we want to share. Yet the worst thing we can do after all that soul-searching is to keep it to ourselves.  Shame – otherwise known as the intensely painful, unconscious belief that we’re “not enough” and we don’t deserve to be loved – festers in the dark depths of our brains. But, as Brené Brown notes after years of researching shame and shame-resiliency, if we share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame cannot survive. Shame thrives in darkness; it withers in sunlight.

After digging up all the darkness that surfaces from Steps 1 through 4, it’s imperative that we bring this information to the light. It’s even more important that we share it with people who can welcome our darkness with compassion and without judgment. Speaking our shame to a safe, supportive group and a Higher Power does a number of important things to ignite healing and change. These changes are discussed below.

Step 5 is about more than just acknowledging our pain, trauma, and shame. There’s an accountability component that comes with admitting our struggles and problems to a Higher Power and other humans. When shameful secrets are dancing around in our head, we can deny, minimize, distract from, and change our history and reality. When we speak our truth to others, it makes our truth more real, more concrete. Sharing our shameful secrets with others pushes those secrets out of our mind and into the light, where we can see them, fully acknowledge them, and deal with them in a healthy way.

Clarity and perspective are gained when we speak our story to others. Of course, sharing our flaws, pain, and trauma may at first feel extremely shaming – like obvious evidence of our unrelenting deficiencies. But sharing our story with others who empathize with and understand the struggle overcomes this. Our perspective and experiences can feel very different when they’re sitting unchallenged or unprocessed in the back of our brain versus when they shared with empathetic, understanding others.

You may have noticed my use of the words “empathetic” and “understanding” when describing who should hear our Step 5. That is intentional. The person or people with whom we choose to share our painful secrets is important. Choosing the wrong confidante can lead us deeper into shame, rather than out of it. The Alcoholics Anonymous Book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, best explains the role of those who bear witness to our Step 5:

They comfort the melancholy one by first showing us that our case is not strange or different, that our character defects are probably not more numerous or worse than those of anyone else in AA. This the listener promptly proves by talking freely and easily, and without exhibitionism, about his or her own defects, past and present. This calm yet realistic stocktaking is immensely reassuring.

A natural response to acknowledging our shortcomings and trauma is to become caught in a shame spiral of feeling we’re less-than, broken, and unworthy. Shame spirals lead to unhealthy coping skills and disconnection from others. Shame sparks pain and suffering, not healing. Shame drives addiction, manipulative behaviors, mental and emotional struggles, and general unhappiness. Admitting our flaws to empathetic others can start us down a path toward understanding, acceptance, and shame resiliency. In this way, Step 5 is a vital step in self-discovery and the healing process. In fact, when shame is brought into the light, we often find that we’ve been yearning to be fully seen and accepted by others and ourselves for a very long time.

Our trauma, shame, and flaws sit in the back of our brain, in the fight/flight/freeze region. This is the same “lizard brain” that was wired eons ago for survival and impulsive, caveman-like instincts. (In other words, it is not the well-thought-out, complex-minded thinking that occurs in the more evolved parts of our brain). The longer that our trauma, shame, and flaws remain hidden in our lizard brain, unacknowledged and unchallenged, the more likely they are to unconsciously bleed into every behavior we engage in. Working Step 5, speaking our wrongs and our shame to others, helps bring this information to the higher functioning parts of our brain, where rational thought and good judgment can filter our thoughts and actions. Peter Levine, a trauma expert, explains in his book Waking the Tiger:

Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the “triggering” event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits. The long-term, alarming, debilitating, and often bizarre symptoms of PTSD [Posttraumatic Stress Disorder] develop when we cannot complete the process of moving in, through and out of the “immobility” or “freezing” state.

You share your wrongs with a Higher Power with hopes that this Higher Power (as you understand it) can meet your wrongs with unconditional love and forgiveness. In his book Breathing Under Water Richard Rohr asserts, “God doesn’t love us if we change, God loves us so we can change.” Our society espouses retributive justice over restorative justice. Retributive justice is the idea that when we make a mistake, we are punished, and that response will lead us to want to change and be better. Retributive justice supporters believe that punishing mistakes and wrongdoing (or fearing punishment) is the best tactic to drive the transformation of our soul and choices. Restorative justice is the opposite. It is the idea that when we make mistakes and bad choices we are loved anyway, shown forgiveness and grace. When a Higher Power can love and forgive us in spite of and even because of our trespasses, we are then moved by grace to transform and change our behavior.

The practice of sharing our story with a Higher Power and others is the foundation of the 12 Step community. It promotes connection and the desire to be of service to others. We share our stories in the belief that we will be transformed when we share our story with others, and others will be transformed by our story. This will also happen when others share their story; they will be transformed, and so will we.

When stories are shared in a supportive setting, new neuropathways are developed and we can change the habits that led to our struggles. We and our community work toward self-love and self-acceptance as we gather and speak the full, authentic truth to one another. Our shame is wiped away as we share the dark debris of our lives, receive support from others, and then return the favor for individuals who are equally imperfect and struggling with their own darkness.

Step 5 may be the most significant step in the process of healing in terms of gaining long term joy and contentment. Step 5 is a core step in developing shame resiliency. It is when we learn that we can identify and face the brutal truth, learning from it and becoming better for it. But it is only when we willingly share our deepest, darkest secrets with supportive, empathetic others that we begin to release our shame, build true connection, and move forward into healing.