Step 5 AA: A Paradigm Shifting Twelve Step Deep Dive

We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
– Step 5 AA

aa step 5

Before I rush to explain why the 5th step is crucial for the alcoholic, I want to give a shout to the other “human being” on the receiving end. 

When we talk, someone needs to reflectively listen, a rare commodity in this world.

step 5 aa

As an avid believer that reflective listening can solve most of life’s difficulties, I deeply appreciate the interaction within the 5th step. 

The picture becomes remarkably sharper when we compare It to relationships nowadays, most of which consist of people seeking to be understood and simultaneously living in disbelief that nobody understands them. 

It’s disturbing and frustrating to witness let alone interact with. No one seems to move past themselves. Nobody appears to be listening!

Challenging this cultural disaster is part and parcel of Alcoholics Anonymous and perhaps its the organization’s small gift to the world.

To illustrate this point in a very practical fashion, consider that someone else’s twelfth step is what led to my first step admission. And once more, my fifth step is solely enabled through the twelfth step of another. 

This is the principle of reciprocity and it’s vital to success in AA.

By seeking first to understand, by engaging vulnerabilities with empathy and openness, we are set free from personal entanglements and simultaneously endow the capacity for others to do likewise. This is the process of breaking free from the restraints of colossal self-centeredness.

“Selfishness – self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles.” Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 62

*I refer to this dynamic as the power principle and it’s one of the first concrete blows to the pernicious nature of self-absorption. It does this by correcting what I term the self-loop.*

The Meat-N-Potatoes Of Step 5 AA

“Having made our personal inventory, what shall we do about it? We have been trying to get a new attitude, a new relationship with our Creator, and to discover the obstacles in our path. We have admitted certain defects; we have ascertained in a rough way what the trouble is; we have put our finger on the weak items in our personal inventory.

Now these are about to be cast out. This requires action on our part, which, when completed, will mean that we have admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of our defects. This brings us to the Fifth Step in the program of recovery mentioned in the preceding chapter .” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 72).

This paragraph provides a lovely synopsis for what the first four steps have been attempting to accomplish. I can break it down into three points:

  1. We have been trying to get a new attitude, or better defined as a psyche change or a transformation of heart.
  1. We have been trying to get a new relationship with our Creator, which is that which provides the transformation of the heart. Some have referred to this relationship as the grace that enables a change in perception. I can get on board with that. (Shout out to A Course in Miracles)
  1. We have been trying to discover the obstacles in our path or better yet attempting to understand the nuances of our current perception. Chuck C refers to as “uncovering, discovering, and discarding” everything defective.

To be honest, I’d rather listen to some tunes, bottle it up, and white knuckle it. But this is a luxury I couldn’t afford. 

The truth is before I ever got physically drunk I first got loaded on resentment, self-pity, dishonesty, jealousy, envy, fear, anger, and the like. This is real alcoholism. (Check out the book Stools and Bottles and how they beautifully demonstrate this reality)

In Step Four we identified precisely what these defects looked like in our lives, and now we are ready to let them go. Step Five is the process of casting these out of our lifestyle.

john maxwell quotes

The Casting Out Process From Dr. Bob

Dr. Bob, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, once concluded that recovery is essentially a threefold process:

  1. Trust God
  2. Clean House
  3. Help Others

This simple solution packs quite the wallop as it pertains to the fifth step. 

But what exactly does it mean?

Dr. Bob was undeniably a religious man. Whether this was nominal until the AA days is up for debate, but certain aspects of his spiritual development are not. 

For starters, his wife Anne was a devout Christian and was quite fond of ancient Christian formations and spiritual disciplines. She even has a book published that highlighted her various practices (check it out here). 

Additionally, Bob’s beginnings were in the Oxford Group, a fellowship that claimed to practice first-century Christianity. This also happened to be the initial launchpad for Alcoholics Anonymous (check out more on the Oxford Group here and here).

Therefore, when Dr. Bob professed the importance of trusting in God, his mind likely drifted to Proverbs 1:7 which declared, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.” 

This type of fear didn’t refer to being scared, as if God walked into a room and everyone hid in the pantry, fearful for their lives. 

It instead referred to a respect and trust for what and who God is. 

An oft repeated slogan in the rooms of A.A. is “just trust the process.” 

This is ultimately communicating the same sentiment. Namely, that life is designed with a purpose in mind, and one should learn to trust this purpose and design without fleeing from pains and automatically retreating to pleasures. 

It’s the belief that there is something “more” to this seemingly meaningless and messy world. 

Fear of God is reverentially placing trust in a Higher meaning; it’s  having faith that your life has a Higher purpose, a calling or vocation, as it were. And,  to put it bluntly, it’s respecting that this path isn’t necessarily candy drops and gumdrops. 

This understanding is the catalyst to the psyche change mentioned above. 

Yet, most likely, even with this understanding you’ll likely still have various conflicting and contradictory beliefs rocking your brain synapses like a wrecking ball. How could the world have meaning and be meaningless at the same time? In seemingly the same breadth? Am I not just following the gullible herd down the yellow brick road to the fictional land of Oz? Is this not just make believe? Or, less politely, a load of shit. 

Well, this depends which position you currently operate from. Perhaps you’re not seeing the big picture. It’s likely you’re failing to understand the various stages of consciousness that enable the wide angle viewing. Ken Wilber, in Integral Vision, noted three primary stages of consciousness development:

  1. Egocentrism – this view cannot see past itself. The world revolves around I, me, mine, and more. If something goes wrong it’s either entirely someone else’s fault or entirely my own. It’s either against me or proceeding from me. We can call this the “either/or position.” Not much meaning in this sphere, one is basically at the mercy of circumstance. One becomes the dog tied to the cart, a product of a merciless fate; a victim.
  2. Ethnocentrism – this view begins to see others. The world now revolves around us. I start to see how my actions affect others. This is the arena of personal responsibility and community action. This position is very tribal and is a great manufacturer of cliques. We are no longer at the mercy of the cart, instead our cart becomes better than your cart. One becomes either inferior or superior; a constant power struggle.
  3. Worldcentrism – this view is connected to others. I begin to revere diversity and the idiosyncrasies that define us. My sense of self is broader, and I find my fulfillment invested in the world around me. One no longer envisions a cart but is instead enjoying the ride with whoever the other passengers may be. 

All of us fall within one of these stages. We can add a fourth one: Kosmocentrism, which is basically the highest ideal we could possibly embody. But for our purposes let’s stick with the three. (For more on these stages read Ken Wilber’s Introduction To Integral Vision)

It’s hard to discover meaning in life when you’re stuck at the egocentric stage. The goal of the 12-Steps is to produce the developmental change necessary to remain sober. Or, what the Big Book describes as a psychic change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism. This psychic change obviously refers to a shift in consciousness, and the above stages are simply stages of consciousness. So they go hand in glove. 

We cannot simply move from one stage to another without an authentic change of heart.

“If your man accepts your offer, it should be pointed out that physical treatment is but a small part of the picture. Though you are providing him with the best possible medical attention, he should understand that he must undergo a change of heart. To get over drinking will require a transformation of thought and attitude. We all had to place recovery above everything, for without recovery we would have lost both home and business.”
— Chapter To The Employers, Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 143

That’s not how it works. To move to a new position we must first abandon our current one entirely. (See my article on the non-option)

Examine the famous optical illusion below titled “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law”.

step 5 imagery

See if you can spot the wife. 

Now try the mother-in-law. 


Here is some advice: you cannot see both images at the same time. In order to see the young woman you must release the old woman from your vision and vice versa. 

This is damn near identical to the casting out process of the fifth step but the edges will be filled out in the subsequent two steps. So don’t put the cart before the horse.

The confession of Step 5 is simply the process of abandoning your current position. Well, it’s more like radioing a rescue team your coordinates so you can be extracted. 

At any rate, Dr. Bob referred to this entire process as cleaning house. 

Bearing in mind his religious bent, he likely had this verse in mind:

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed (James 5:16).”

“In Eastern Christianity sacraments are called ‘sacred mysteries’. The obligation to confess may be less rigid and this may include only one’s most regrettable sins, to experience God’s forgiving love. The practice of absolution or of a given penance varies greatly. The emphasis is on conversion of heart rather than on enumeration of sins.” (Wikipedia)

This is what the Big Book demands for lasting sobriety “a transformation of heart,” a new stage of consciousness to reside on. 

Therefore, we remove the obstacles by first identifying what they are (Step 4) and then casting them out via confession (Step 5). This requires humility, vulnerability, empathy, connection, relationship, love, compassion, and an unmasking of shame, all of these virtues belong to a worldcentric position.

Moreover, as I noted in my article on Step Four, “if you are an expert in the art of rationalization, which if you’re doing a Step Four I can only assume you are, then how do you know you won’t just rationalize and justify the entire inventory.” It’s remarkably clear to everyone else involved that a different set of eyes is needed to examine this character catalog, except perhaps to you. At least, this was my experience. 

One more point to drive the point home…

aa step 5 authenticity

The Ultrasound 

I recall my spouse and I going to an ultrasound to see our baby for the first time. It’s certainly difficult to articulate the excitement and sheer terror that accompanies such an event. 

At any rate, once the initial screening was over, they asked if we would like to see the baby in 3D.

I assumed we would be relocated to another room, with a super-advanced piece of tech that can show us this miraculous image. 

But when I asked “where to next,” the nurse simply responded, “oh, we don’t need a different machine, instead, it’s basically multiple pictures in rapid succession from this one machine.” 

Intrigued, I stated, “you’re telling me all you need is multiple shots to pick up that extra dimension?”

“That’s a big ten-four, bud,” she concluded.

Isn’t this a perfect analogy for the necessity of another person for a thorough self-examination. That extra dimension of our self – you know that one we are blind to – is identified by a multitude of perspectives or if you’re not there yet at least one other perspective. 

This may be hard to digest but it’s actually common sense. When the big picture is examined the conclusion that it takes a community to know an individual becomes Inescapable. Consider the words from the pen of C.S. Lewis when discussing the loss of his dear friend Charles and how that will affect his relationship with Ronald – his two closest friends:

“In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald…

In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.”

Do you want to see the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God? 

Time to get honest.

Find an ear willing to listen and start talking.

If you’re still hesitant, I’ll conclude with a paragraph from the Big Book, I pray you find it convincing. 

alcoholics anonymous step five