About Those Steps

Today’s article is taken from a discussion in the AA Beyond Belief secret Facebook group. We are using first name and last initial to protect anonymity, and we edited the comments for the purpose of making them easier to read. The original intent of the comment and the personal style of the commentator was left in tact. 

Nye R: For those atheists and agnostics who have done the Twelve Steps, how did you do those steps that don’t have concrete actions in them? Particularly two and three, six and seven. I’ve read the chapters in the book The Alternative 12 Steps – A Secular Guide to Recovery, and there’s a lot of talk about what Steps Six and Seven are about, but no talk about what you DO.

Kate W:  You’re smart to have noticed the action verbs. I often look at the verbs in the steps.

2. “Came to believe” means believing that recovery is possible.
3. “Made a decision” means to make a commitment.
6. “Were entirely ready” just means to let go of all the preconceptions, previous experiences and coping mechanisms that I developed to survive my alcoholism.
7. “Humbly ask” means to ask. Don’t think I have all the answers.

I have often viewed the steps this way. I ignore all the mumbo jumbo and just focus on the actions.

Nye R: Thanks for the answer. So how did you know you were done with each step? With steps two and three, my sponsor and I agreed that with my willingness to change and seek help that I had done them. I suppose it could be the same with Steps Six and Seven? 

I am the first sponsee of my sponsor who I met at one of the atheist/agnostic/freethinkers AA groups. We’re learning how to do the steps in an atheist way together—she did the steps the traditional way.

Kate W: I’m never done. Part of the process is to recognize that I’m always in process. You’ve probably heard that the first step is the only one you can, and must, do 100%. I believe that the result of each step is to change something in myself. Changing my perspective even a little bit is enough. I completed Step Six and Seven in the time it took to attend my first secular meeting at 3.5 years sober. When I read the adaptation, my heart changed. I no longer hated the steps. I finally understood them.

If you can’t tell if you’re done and you feel like you’re beating a dead horse, you’re probably done already. Feeling bored and inadequate aren’t especially good for recovery. Perhaps the change is simply to learn to let go. If you’re not actually done, you can come back to the step later when you have more tools. AA is not a timed test. We have no graduation. It’s okay to not do everything completely or perfectly. My only goal is to get better, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.

James M:  I believe that drinking has a negative impact in my life. That not drinking will mitigate those qualities. I do Step Three by remembering those consequences(Step One) and then not drinking. Being sober is a better power than being drunk. I choose to be sober by believing that sobriety allows me many more options than not being sober. Being able to recall with sufficient force the absence of those options is vital to me.

John M: Six and Seven were some of the most enlightening for me. In Step Six, I listed some of the behaviors and attitudes I felt problematic. My sponsor asked me if I was ready to change them or let them go. For arguing, I said “not really.” Over the next 15 years I went from 90% not willing to stop arguing to close to “being entirely willing.” Step Seven for me was acknowledging this willingness and being open to new ways to change. In this example, I started meditating and practicing non-violent communication. It was a process over 15 to 20 years, and multiple journeys through the steps, also evolving in my concept of higher power, including identifying as an atheist.

Robert B:  To a large extent Steps Six for me became setting my intention to be honest, loving and kind, and Step Seven was doing my best efforts to act on my intentions. The first revision I made to Step Six was to identify character/personality/behavioral tendencies. Like many I am sensitive. I didn’t see that as a ‘defect’. What was harmful to myself and others is when I take things personally. Similarly, when I practice empathy, I am helpful to myself and others. Taking things personally and having empathy come from the same place for me, I think, my sensitivity.

Debbie H: I felt like Steps Six and Seven were more a decision to want to change my behavior. I actually did the 7th step prayer in the Big Book, trying to see if it would bring me to something. All it did was make me aware that prayer is a way to convince yourself, you want and need to change. I feel like these steps are also preparation for Steps Eight and Nine because we should be humble when we make amends. So, these steps prepare us for the next task.

Kate W:  I agree! To me, Steps Six and Seven are comfort steps. They teach me about trusting the process. I think it’s very useful to be comforted and empowered by those steps before making amends. It helped me keep my focus on the actions, not the outcomes. The steps really are in order for a reason.

Allan B: In Step Six, I’m tired of acting like a prick. It makes me unhappy and alienates my family and friends. In Step Seven, I stop acting like a prick.

John S: Not all of the Steps are actions, but instead are simply a recognition of an experience. Steps One and Two, in my opinion, are nothing more than recounting the experience of acknowledging the problem and finding hope for a solution. Step three is the experience of making a decision to do something. These three steps describe what happens naturally to anyone who decides to get help with their addiction. 

Steps Four and Five involve action. We actually put pen to paper and talk to another person about our lives if we choose to do that.

Steps Six and Seven can either be disregarded or looked at as continuing self-improvement. I recognize that I have some things to work on, and I make an effort to do that. In my case a lot of that work centers on mental health issues for which I receive professional help.

In Steps Eight and Nine, again we actually are doing something. We make a list and we go and set things right. Personally, I am not crazy about Steps Eight and Nine, and I tend to think it’s better to just change our behaviors and leave people alone if we had done them harm. 

Step Ten is being aware of my behaviors and making changes when necessary.

Step Eleven is seeking serenity and peace so I can live a productive life. There are things that I can do to achieve that, whether it be meditation or going for a bike ride.

Step Twelve is helping others and being of service, and for me that is not just being of service to other addicts, but to have the attitude of giving back and doing so when I can.

Val B:  I like your interpretation of the secular steps (or any steps for that matter). Even the way the Secular 12 steps are written, it still demands giving your life over to AA, that we have shortcomings or character defects because of a spiritual malady, and that spiritual awakening is still the goal. That is something I completely disagree with. 

You put the steps in terms that make far more sense to me.

Glen G: I don’t necessarily see it as “giving my life over”, but as making a commitment that I reaffirm with every action. Intention and commitment are fundamental for me.

John S: Val, it depends. I think the Steps mean different things to different people. If someone wants to see it as turning their life over to a higher power or AA, that is their right, but it’s not how I see it. There was a time when I made a decision to change and I took action to help myself. This includes resources other than AA. 

I have mixed feelings about the Steps. In some ways I think they are dangerous, because they set up an expectation that we get a result for doing things just the right way, or that we all have to align ourselves to what they mean. Essentially, they are nothing more than how some religiously oriented men in the 1930’s described their recovery. They thought it was supernatural and that they were turning their will over, but in fact they weren’t because in my opinion there is no god and there is no way to turn over one’s will. I think I am sober today because I don’t drink, and I took and take actions that help me with that. The Steps are a side dish.

Val B: Yes, Steps are a side dish. Good way of defining that concept. I have gone back and forth on this for the last 25 years. I am not active in my addiction. I am not lying anymore about believing in a Higher Power, and not having that stress is actually doing a lot for my emotional growth.

John S: At one time it would shock me to hear someone say that, but now I say it myself. I was very traditional and slightly brainwashed for about 25 years. I know that’s not completely true to say I was brainwashed, but one day it seems I woke up and realized that I just don’t buy it anymore.

Starr J: Thanks for asking the question. I’m still working through the steps as an atheist and love hearing how others work them. I likes Kate’s view.

Sal N:  For me, Steps Six and Seven are always connected. One of my sponsor’s concept of it has worked well for me. My character defects are like my alcoholism, I can only strive to be in remission of them. I’m human and I will always have them. My shortcomings are qualities I have very little of, and I should take action and try to attain them. So, if I am angry, I need to practice more tolerance. If I’m greedy, I need to practice generosity, etc. Dependence on my taking action as opposed to asking for supernatural help. The more tolerant, the less angry. The more generous, I am less greedy. Underlying them all, the more unselfish, then I am of more help. 

Jennifer S: What to do? Get humble – as long as I remember that I am not the Ruler of my Universe, and have everything I need today. I am aware of my place in the universe, and grateful. My ego wants me to go back to self-centeredness, and keeps trying to justify my fears and desires—living sober means being objective about life. Low expectations = higher serenity.

Glen G:  Reprogramming, changing the story, developing workarounds.

John L: Each Step has a human principle. They are not godlike principles. The Steps are “tools not rules”. I use the tools that are the Steps to bring those principles into my life. As a lifelong atheist/agnostic, I looked at the Steps as written and said, “WTF is all this then?” After a little help from those who went before and I was fine. I do not “wonder” about “god” or bother with the attempt to reconcile my ideas with the theistic steps. There seems to be no useful point in that.

The AA god is a senseless construct borrowed from an inappropriate world view which offers me nothing at all in comfort or knowledge. Prayer is a placebo. It has analogs I can use. If god was real there would only be one and it wouldn’t have human fingerprints all over it.

Lisa F: Here are my Steps: 

Step 1: Admit I can’t do this on my own.
Step 2: Believe that AA/12 Steps can help me.
Step 3: Decide to trust the process.
Step 4: Do inventory.
Step 5: Tell Sponsor my inventory.
Step 6: Acknowledge how my behavior and decisions have caused problems in my life.
Step 7: Agree to work on the problems that I’ve identified.
Step 8: List of people I’ve hurt.
Step 9: Amends to people.
Step 10: Continue to do a mini-inventory / review of my day each night.
Step 11: Meditate and mantras each day for mental health balance.
Step 12: Help others.

Tim M: This is a great discussion. I am also working the steps for the first time and I just completed Step Five with my sponsor who is a Christian. I am his first atheist sponsee, so it’s been a learning experience for us both.

Bobby V:  Step Two is “I think these people can help me.” Step Three is “I think I’ll ask them for help, and try to do what they suggest.” Step Six is “Did I get rid of ALL the shit? Is there something I didn’t tell somebody? Is there ANYTHING about me that at least one other person doesn’t know?”  Step Seven is “I’m ready to start cleaning up my mess.”

Robert M: Steps Six and Seven are about setting goals for improvement. With an inventory, I see what issue is at hand and in these two steps, I set goals as a metric to see how I am doing on a daily and long term basis.

Glenn G:  In Step One, I surrender daily to the idea that I can’t control alcohol and drugs. Step Two for me is the collective of the fellowship or more than one is a power greater than myself. Step Three is when faced with a major decision, crisis, or dilemma to be willing to accept suggestions given me rather than what I think I really should do. This has worked out for me many more times positively that negatively therefore, I have a basis for faith in Step Three.

In the Step Four inventory, I took a look at my part in everything. In Step Five, I work this step all the time by sharing EXACTLY what’s happening with a select group of men and women who I call or meet in person. In Step Six, I recognize my patterns of negative behavior from Step Four. I try to stay aware of when I’m acting that way. In Step Seven, I remain honest with individuals and I stay on guard with their help when I start these behaviors. In Step Eight, I continue to try to do the right thing and clean up my past. In Step Nine, I amend past behaviors or actions unless it causes more harm than good. In Step 10 if I wake up in the morning and something is bothering the shit out of me, I know I need to fix it. For Step Eleven, it’s meditate meditate meditate. Step Twelve is just finished doing that. 

Joe C: I take a pretty material approach to “Steps.” I don’t think they are exactly twelve ( it can be six, three, ten or twenty) and I don’t think they happened for me in a 1-to-12 manner or order. In answering the question, I have to be careful not to color my experience at the time with my view of the world, today. I certainly don’t think any of the words are sacred. Take “powerless” or “moral” out of it if you like, there are other words that will do. I like a lot of what’s been said. Step Three is about “care.” Where do I go, what do I do, who do I call to get the care and help I need? That’s what the Step means to me. It’s not spiritual or supernatural; it’s practical. I read, I go to meetings, there are people I trust, there are things I do, therapies and exercises I have needed and I sought them out.

Step Six and Seven for me are the fuzziest of all the steps. Most of the language is unworkable for me.  I don’t see myself as evil, deviant, flawed, inadequate. Truth be told, I can and do feel these things, but I don’t think they are true or right-minded. I also don’t think that procrastination, for example, can be prayed away. But I can see why there’s a process between realizing my manipulative, dysfunctional and hurtful ways in Step 4/5 and re-engaging with those I’ve hurt in Steps 8/9. Even with the best of intentions I can re-traumatize those I’ve betrayed if I pounce on them to confess my sins.

So, Steps 6/7 are, for me, about not being a dick, identifying my values and living by them. It’s not enough to want to be a good person, I also have to see how and why I rub people the wrong way, and come to terms with what extent I am going to take that on as my duty to correct or accommodate. Also, in 6/7 there are plenty of self-destructive tendencies I can work on. I don’t pray, although I tried just to be open-minded. I find meditation frustrating, at least the idea of clearing my mind, which feels like wishful thinking (I don’t/can’t control the feelings/thoughts I have). I eventually found mindfulness, some would call that a form of meditation. Taking time to be inquisitive about feelings/thoughts/sensations I’m experiencing does have a calming effect. I catch myself in states of flawed reasoning, positively, negatively, wanting to control, feeling overwhelmed, etc. Sometimes just shedding a light on my mental traps disables them.

Bob K: Steps One and Two, secular or otherwise call for conclusions of the mind. My current version of Step Two is: AA has helped millions of people; maybe it can help me. Step Three calls for a decision, whether traditionally or otherwise. “I make a decision to give AA a sincere try, albeit I will alter some terminology.” Steps Six and Seven are more interesting. In Step Six, I examine my attachment to “character defects” or negative behaviors. I used to see Step Seven as ANY path to self-improvement. Today I focus more on the letting go aspect.

Maria B: Steps Six and Seven for me just boils down to compassionately looking at the patterns of behavior that no longer serve me that were uncovered in Step Five and then taking opposite action. Over and over again.

Peter T: As an atheist/agnostic, I technically haven’t done the steps, because I haven’t been led to a god of my understanding.

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2 years ago

Thank you for posting this. A very interesting discussion, and many – many –  good points being made, even by that Bob K guy.

But it does leave me pissed over this seeming need to join facebook in order to participate fully in the world, something I refuse to do. Come to Jesus, or come to Facebook. I know there are great benefits to be had from both.

But thanks for posting it anyway, in fact I hope you do more of it so I don’t have to miss out.

Rachael O
Rachael O
2 years ago

The steps are leading to changes for me – I couldn’t do them without the Alternative Twelve Step book.   After @3 years of sobriety, I have been amazed at the changes in my behaviors and personality.  Neuro-circuitry is definitely being rewired.  Steps 6&7 seemed important, and I wanted to acknowledge and celebrate.  So, with the help of my (pagan) sponsor, we planned a ritual (I’m just a plain vanilla atheist).  I invited friends AA and otherwise last winter solstice, my spouse built a bonfire and a beautiful winter arch wrapped in twinkly xmas lights, I wrote down the stuff I’m… Read more »

Bobby Beach
Bobby Beach
2 years ago

Interesting discussion.

For me, that Bob K. guy really nailed it!! He’s my hero, and a genius for sure!