By Kristin Snowden MA, LMFT
In previous posts to this site, I’ve explored how Steps 1 through 5 of the 12 steps of recovery can help non-addicts live a better life. This post is focused on Steps 6 and 7. Steps 6 and 7 are in many ways connected, so I’m covering them in a single post.
As we examine these two steps, it’s important to understand that the path through the 12 steps is not an arbitrary one. The steps are in a particular order, and that order serves a valuable purpose. Step 1, Step 2, and Step 3 help us identify our problem(s) and lean into the discomfort of owning that we need help from others to fix our issue(s). Step 4 asks us to dig deep and explore all aspects of our lives – our character and every facet of our story, especially parts that may have contributed to our struggles and strife. Then the healing begins with Step 5, when we share our story with a safe group of others and our Higher Power, and we find that our story is met with empathy, compassion, and nonjudgmental acceptance. This provides relief from the shame of our trauma, hurt, and mistakes. However, the healing impact of Step 5 will be short-lived if we do not follow it with Steps 6 and 7.
Steps 6 and 7 read as follows:
We were entirely ready to have our Higher Power remove all of our defects of character.
We humbly asked our Higher Power to remove these shortcomings.
Up to this point, we’ve done a lot of work to put a name to our pain, poor choices, trauma, and shame. Now it’s time to stop the insanity by ceasing the unhealthy patterns in which we’ve engaged. The first five steps we worked helped us realize that sometimes our best intentions and thinking fall short and create rather than get us out of our struggles and pain. Therefore, we must now humble ourselves and invite a power greater than ourselves to ignite meaningful change.
We cannot engineer this transformation on our own because it will end up being self-centered and flawed, per our usual, courtesy of our many defects of character. Changing based on our own thinking and will would be like an alcoholic defining his own rules for sobriety. (Perhaps something like, “If I don’t drink before 5 p.m., I’m OK.”) Such actions might work temporarily, but eventually these faulty efforts to control and manipulate will fail, putting us back at Step 1. So we must ask for help with our character defects from a power greater than ourselves.
The fact that this process is broken down into two steps highlights two things: (1) accomplishing this task is incredibly difficult and work-intensive, so we must take it piecemeal, and (2) accomplishing this task is incredibly important, so we must do it purposefully and as completely as possible.
To begin the process, Step 6 asks us to become entirely ready to have our defects of character removed. The fact that this step asks us to become “entirely ready” suggests that our struggle with our various shortcomings will be lengthy. In fact, it is usually a lifelong effort rather than a one-and-done experience. Therefore, we must be patient with the process. We must also understand that this step doesn’t ask the people around us or our Higher Power to bend our will for us. This is something we must do on our own.
Once we are entirely ready and willing to let go of our character defects, Step 7 suggests that we “humbly ask” our Higher Power to help us. Sometimes this request takes place in the form of a prayer or meditation. Other times, it’s a written or verbal request for help from a power outside ourselves. Whatever our interpretation of Step 7 happens to be, it’s a process of humbleness and surrender that allows a Higher Power, in whatever form we envision that entity, to help us with the parts of our lives need to be changed, altered, or transformed. Step 7 can also be viewed as an act of faith, an act of opening our hearts and minds and letting go of our need/desire to always be in control.
Generally, our Higher Power’s process of removing our shortcomings is a process of replacing them with other more satisfying traits and ways of being. That way, our character defects aren’t controlled or pushed away as much as they are exposed and identified as a false program for happiness. That’s the difference between superficial behavioral changes and deeper, more permanent soul changes.
Removing character defects and shortcomings should not be confused with the pursuit of perfection. Addressing character defects is not externally motivated or shame-driven, as we see with perfectionism. The change we’re humbly requesting is the pursuit of spiritual and moral excellence that involves the expulsion of thoughts and behaviors that create problems in our lives, such as telling white lies, judging others, self-righteous indignation, gluttony, and manipulation. These are behaviors that we’re all capable of that often feel as if they are external, but that, in reality, are internal and drive our shame.
Every day we stand trial against our shame voices – the voices that are constantly trying to convince us that we are not good enough, not smart enough, not attractive enough, not successful enough, not worthy of love and affection, etc. Steps 6 and 7 help us fight these voices by helping us see who we really are and to keep our side of the street as clean as possible. When our shame voices start to whisper (or scream) in our heads, telling us all the reasons we’re ‘not good enough,’ the dose of reality we get from Steps 6 and 7 can shut those voices down.
Step 6 and 7 are extremely difficult asks because oftentimes our character defects and shortcomings feel like our best friends, talents, and superpowers. At the very least, they have provided us with armor against the vulnerabilities of life and relationships. However, they have also disguised our authenticity and true self, hindering our connection with our spiritual selves and with others.
For instance, I am a masterful liar. I can weave a believable story to spare myself awkward moments or organic consequences for my decisions and actions. I’ve even caught myself mindlessly lying about stupid, meaningless stuff. If it was up to me, I would never choose to be honest and accountable all of the time. I would choose to be honest when it served me, and to lie when it served me.
For me, consistent honesty is extremely inconvenient and uncomfortable. However, I know that any form of lying or manipulating steers me away from my goal of living authentically, vulnerably, and with accountability for my actions. So lying is a shortcoming (and superpower) that I must surrender to my Higher Power. I must do this because my default state in difficult and vulnerable moments is to lie. Even ‘white lies’ that seem harmless on the surface are, for me, harmful because I know that I lied. Any time I lie, even with good intentions, I know that I have fallen short of being the best person I can be. And those moments allow my shame voices to become louder, causing me to question my value and worth.
It is only with a constant tenacity and humble state that I stay on track with my character defects and shortcomings. Every day I must work with my Higher Power to keep my side of the street clean and to not give my shame voices any type of evidence that proves I’m unworthy, unlovable, and not good enough.
I want to acknowledge here that Steps 6 and 7 can be especially difficult for those who struggle with spirituality, especially those who’ve been harmed by religious people or establishments. I’m hoping that this article and my previous writings will help you understand that there can be a significant difference between religious practices and spiritual connections with a Higher Power. And usually, by the time we’ve come to the 12 Steps for relief, we have tried everything of this world and in this world to bring us joy and contentment (relationships, therapy, medication, substances, buying things, achieving things, etc.), and we have still not found the answers we’re looking for. So maybe we can find some willingness to look outside of ourselves and outside of our material world for assistance.
In summary, Steps 1 through 5 have walked us through an extensive study of our problems, flaws, trauma, and pain. Step 6 and 7 are invitations to build on Step 5’s shame resiliency and to remind us that there’s something greater than ourselves to help us along the path of healing. That said, Steps 6 and 7 may be the ultimate act of surrender and faith, requiring us to keep our egos in check so we don’t attempt to retake control of any and every situation. A Higher Power, in whatever way that entity is conceptualized, can help us with this. But that Higher Power cannot do anything for us until we ask it for assistance.