Episode 27: Steps 6 and 7 with Benn and John

By John S.

Introduction:  A few days ago, Benn and I recorded this podcast on Steps Six and Seven. We never know where these conversations will lead, and we are often surprised at the interesting twists and turns we take as we talk about the Steps. I always learn something from Benn, and our conversations inevitably inspire me, and leave me feeling a renewed sense of respect and admiration for the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. I hope you enjoy the podcast and the accompanying essay. A special thanks to Steve K. for his essay Humilty — A Right Sized Ego. His description of humility and its importance to our recovery was invaluable, and was always in the back of my mind as I wrote this.

There are many people in Alcoholics Anonymous for whom an interventionist God has nothing to do with their sobriety. Certainly as an atheist, I fall into that camp, so my perspective on Steps Six and Seven is much different from those early AAs, who experienced recovery within the context of the Christian evangelical movement known as the Oxford Group. Grateful for the experience of our founders, and building upon their work, I rephrased these Steps within the context of the time in which I live, and the belief system that I hold.

Steps 6 and 7 as written in 1939

Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Steps 6 and 7 as I wrote them in 2014

Were entirely ready to be rid of all these defects of character.

Humbly and persistently worked for the removal of our shortcomings.

In my view, Step Six was simply a recognition that I acquired a new attitude as the result of experiencing the previous five steps. Those steps prepared me for the hard work necessary for improved mental and emotional health. I was ready to change the way I think, feel, and behave—to build character. Humbled by the task at hand, I realized that I needed help.

Step Seven, on the other hand, is and will be an ongoing process of continually seeking help, by persistently taking whatever action is necessary to become a healthier, happier and more balanced person.

By the time I arrived at these Steps, I reached a point in the recovery process where I possessed more self-awareness than at any other time in my life, and I learned that I needed other people who supported me in my desire to stop drinking. It became important that I abandon a life based solely upon self-sufficiency, and that I do away with the obstacles that blocked me from forming honest and open relationships with others. This to me, is what Steps Six and Seven are all about.

I look at the term “character defects” without attaching a negative connotation to it. I don’t believe that I am or was defective, nor do I think that my character is much better or much worse than the average person. I see character defects as nothing more than unhealthy behaviors I need to change, because they impede my development and ultimately threaten my sobriety. Though, I may never entirely rid myself of these character traits, I do think I can overcome them to the degree necessary that they no longer dominate my personality or put my sobriety at risk.

When writing the book, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. made the case that our character defects arise from allowing our “natural desires to drive us blindly” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 65). I think this is a valuable insight and that it’s helpful to understand that we evolved over millions of years with certain instincts that aided our survival as a species. Often, our bad behaviors are nothing more than a natural reaction to feeling threatened that our needs aren’t being met. As we frequently hear in meetings, “We are afraid that we are not going to get what we want, or that we are going to lose what we already have.”

The Seventh Step reads, “Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings”, which may lead one to believe that no action is required other than asking a deity to remove our shortcomings. That is a false assumption. This step is an action step that requires we continue to develop and practice humility, a concept that has always been difficult for me to fully understand. Recently, Steve K. wrote an article at his site 12StepPhilosophy, in which he brilliantly examines humility and its importance in practicing all of  AA’s Twelve Steps.

Being humble is having a realistic view of oneself as a limited, imperfect human being and being honest in the portrayal of oneself to others. Humility acknowledges the need for others and reaches out towards them; whereas false Pride/ego denies this need and results in an inner emptiness, it cuts one off from others due to its sense of being better than in comparison and therefore lacks identification and compassion for others.

Humility—A Right Sized Ego, Steve K. 

In my opinion, what Steve K. wrote captures perfectly the essence of Step Seven. It was my experience after completing a personal inventory and sharing it with another person, that I came to have a more realistic view of myself. My entire experience in AA clearly demonstrates that I cannot live in isolation— I need connection with other human beings. Humility is simply knowing this truth about myself. It is knowing my strengths and weaknesses, and knowing what I can and cannot achieve on my own.

Today, I practice Step Seven by persistently working at the elimination of my personal shortcomings, and as I do this, I am going through the process of building character. It’s a process that will take a lifetime, but I don’t have to go it alone. I can and do avail myself to many resources that have helped me in my personal growth. This includes mental health professionals, doctors, friends, sponsors, books, exercise, and the principles contained within the 12 Steps.

Character building has become a way of life and is a direct result of Steps Six and Seven. Though, we may laugh and proclaim that these are “filler steps” that take up a mere two paragraphs in the Big Book, there is really much more going on here. These Steps are in fact indispensable for me, and they play a vital role in my personal development, my recovery and the maintenance of my sobriety.

Podcast Transcript

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Thomas Brinson
Thomas Brinson

Again, John and Benn, the secular AA Joe and Charlie commentators about the 12-steps, an excellent podcast full of humor, insight and authentic, “right-sized” sharing from your shared experience in dealing with, understanding, and working these “filler” steps. Working on a major book project at present, but for the last several months I’ve been percolating an article about “Original Sin and AA.” Yesterday, Jill and I discussed co-authoring it, me writing about the theological aspects of a central tenet of Christianity —  especially evangelical Christianity from which the Oxford Group sprang — that we are all worthless sinners ever since… Read more »

John S

You are too kind, but thank you none-the-less! I love the concept of the book, “Original Sin and AA”. It always breaks my heart when I hear people beat themselves up and blaming their emotional/mental state of mind as having to do with their own failure with not working a particular step “just right”. This is the danger of fundamentalism in whatever form. People, hear others speak with such authority about the “right way” to do the steps, so they naturally assume they themselves must be doing it the “wrong way”, otherwise they wouldn’t be depressed or angry or whatever.… Read more »

Benn B
Benn B

Thank you for your kind comments Thomas! There is so much shaming and shame-based language that goes around the room. I have been taking a break from meetings around here and have felt a lot better of late for it. I think it can be good to keep reminding one’s self that there’s always room for improvement, but I think in certain places the tone is often that self-hatred, original sin, shaming that in my opinion keeps one stuck in the problem and in a bad place emotionally. I’m not giving up on traditional AA meetings, but for now I… Read more »

Steve K

Great article John and very well written. This is more or less the same way I view these Steps and their importance in my recovery. I’m currently undergoing a course of psychotherapy in an attempt to change some deeply ingrained emotional and behavioural patterns that stop me from living a full life. This therapy is helping me do something I cannot do on my own and has required a humble attitude and trust in another human being. A surrender of my ego to a degree. My recovery journey so far has given me the necessary awareness and willingness to seek… Read more »

John S

Thank you Steve. I think that’s what recovery is all about. We constantly work at becoming healthier, happier and more useful people. These two steps when you really think about them are all about that, at least from my experience. I will more than likely always have behaviors and attitudes that I need to change and I will always need help with it. Asking for help is much easier for me now-a-days and I attribute that to my experience in AA.

Benn B
Benn B

I too am participating in therapy as I make a life transition and am considering some other changes. It has helped greatly. It is amazing to talk to someone outside AA about AA at times. I know that it’s OK to not be so ingrained in AA at this time in my life, but it’s interesting to hear another person’s perspective and hear her tell me that there’s nothing wrong with “taking a break” from AA. I find myself playing the tape in my head of what I’ve heard at meetings over and over and feel like this “break” is… Read more »