Making Amends to Ourselves — a Path to Self Forgiveness

Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of self forgiveness lately. I think that self forgiveness presents a challenge for many people, in and out of recovery. As humans, we often judge our own actions through an unrealistic lens and are particularly hard on ourselves.

According to Freud, we all have three parts of our personalities — the id, the ego, and the super-ego. The id being the part of our personalities that is responsible for our animal instincts, sexual desires, and aggressive drives. The super-ego is the part of our personalities that functions as the moral compass and the ego is the part that mediates between the id and the super-ego. Perhaps it’s the ego that can’t accept that we might say or so something that falls outside out ethics governed by the super-ego.

Now, I am not a psychologist, and I’m not sure that Freud got it all right, but this model may be somewhat useful as we explore the concept of self forgiveness.

When we do something that we regret, the idea of forgiving ourselves can be difficult. We act as the prosecutor (super-ego), defense (id), judge and jury (ego) in our own minds. Rarely do these disparate roles agree about an action that we regret. In fact, this internal conflict that arises between these three parts of our personalities may be the very essence of regret.

When this conflict is strong within us, forgiving ourselves may seem impossible. Perhaps the strength of the voices of our internal judge and jury make us feel that we are unable to forgive ourselves. But, I’ve learned it’s important not to confuse ability with willingness. We can always forgive — even ourselves — the question is are we willing to do so or not.

Steps 8 and 9 are all about making amends and hopefully receiving forgiveness. When we get to step 8, we often look back at step 4 to make our list of people based on our moral inventory — it makes sense that we would look to address our amends to the people who were affected by the items on the list. This list may include our friends, spouse, children, other family members, business associates or supervisors, former lovers, and even former friends or others to whom we are estranged because of our behaviors while drinking.

There is one person that I think is excluded from the list more often than not and I believe this is unfortunate. That person is ourself.

How often does the amends list include ourselves? Why should this list include ourselves? Don’t we owe it to others to make things right first? What does making amends to oneself even look like?

While it may appear egotistical to make amends to oneself at first glance, I believe that it is foundational to making amends with others. I believe it is foundational to loving oneself. Just as one can’t truly love another without loving oneself, I believe that one must make amends and forgive oneself in order to truly grow in the program.

If we go about our lives regretting the past and thinking horrible thoughts about ourselves then we can’t truly change as a person. Brené Brown says, “we become the stories we tell ourselves.” If we are constantly telling ourselves that we are no good because of our past or that we are defined by our past, we come to hold this as a core belief about ourselves. And if we believe in our core that we are unworthy, then we will live as if we are unworthy. We will act as if we are unworthy. We will hold in to and repeat those old behaviors.

One of the promises is, “we will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.” When we are newly sober this promise may seem the most extravagant of them all. How on earth could we not regret our past? It’s exactly what got us here. Our past is defined by problems, poor choices, misbehavior, and pain. How do we get to a point where we don’t regret it? The magic that makes this possible exists in self forgiveness. And self forgiveness begins with making amends to ourselves.

So, how do we do this? It starts, as all amends do, with an assessment of what when wrong and how it could have been handled differently — the core difference between an empty apology and an amends being that an amends tries to make things right, by fixing the mistake of possible and by ensuring that it doesn’t happen again. So in order to make an amends to ourselves we need to know how we hurt ourselves and how we might fix it, as well as have a plan not to do it again. Then we tell ourselves that we are sorry for what we did, acknowledging how it was hurtful, and explaining how we will avoid it in the future. That is what making an amends to ourselves looks like.

Suppose that we hurt ourselves emotionally and spiritually by putting ourselves and others in danger by driving under the influence. We now see that our behavior was reckless and dangerous and we may feel bad about it. We may feel a deep sense of regret and fell like we can’t forgive ourselves. We need to make an amends.

To do this, we could write ourselves an apology letter explaining that we can’t change the past, but we can ensure that we never drive under the influence again, which should be easy since we are not drinking. We could even take it further by promising ourselves that we wouldn’t drive under the influence even if we did have a slip. If writing a letter to ourselves seems strange, we could record ourselves making the amends and listen to it, or even say the words to ourselves with a mirror. And while this all sounds a little strange, there is something powerful about making this concrete rather than simply thinking about it.

After making the amends to ourselves, we are in a better position to forgive ourselves. Again, making it concrete is valuable. Actually saying the words “you’re forgiven” is invaluable. Repeating them to ourselves when we are triggered about the past is also valuable. We become the stories we tell ourselves.

While it’s certainly not required, I believe that when we’ve forgiven ourselves for our past mistakes — when we believe the story that we are making changes and living a better life — then we are in a better position to make amends to others. Our belief in ourselves inside shows on the outside and we carry ourselves differently because we have a new found sense of self respect. Our self respect builds and becomes love of self and we are able to show others that we have changed, and it is per cicely these changes that enable us to make amends.

And what are amends, if not an act of love?

1827 — Five Years, One Day at a Time

One thousand, eight hundred, twenty-seven days without a drink — one day at a time. But who’s counting?

Well, I am.

Five years is a long-ass time without taking a drink, considering that I drank daily for seven years, and at least weekly for 25 years, leading up to September 23, 2015.

It has been a rough road, especially in the first year and in the last two years. The first year was, well, the first year. I spent months walking around in a fog. I sometimes forgot what I was saying mid-sentence. I craved booze, especially in the first six months. Everything was a trigger. Having a good day, I wanted to drink. Having a bad day, I wanted to drink. The weather was cold, the weather was warm…you get the picture.

The last two years have included family and societal trauma. I went through some things that no parent should ever go through. I watched my son suffer and he showed me what resilience looks like. I’ve been living in the same pandemic as you are and 2020 has been a shit-show with one hit after another. But I’ve always held on to hope and faith that things will get better. And I’ve stayed sober through it all.

These last five years have also been a time of self reflection, rediscovery, growth, and joy. I uncovered the root of my addiction. I discovered that I could let go of the God of my childhood and embrace an understanding of the universe that made room for the mystery without subscribing to a particular dogma. I began running at the young age of 45.

I am grateful that I am now living a life that I couldn’t have imagined back in 2015. I am safe, secure in who I am, have a loving family and a wide circle of friends. I’ve traveled and enjoyed making new friends. I’ve been a better dad and a better husband. I have truly discovered a new freedom and a new happiness. I don’t regret my past; I can look at it honestly and openly. I’ve found peace and I know that my experience can help others. I do not fear people or economic insecurity. My whole outlook on life has changed. These are only a few of the AA Promises, and I am here to tell you that they do come true.

I couldn’t have gotten here without help and hope. Hope and faith that things would be better. Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” I came into the rooms with only a grain of a mustard seed of hope but I had a why. My reason to live was for my son and may family, quite simply, I wasn’t ready to die and I knew that dying was on the agenda.

I often think about the darkness and despair that I felt as I walked into that 6:00 AM meeting in 2015. I think about the newcomer, and all those out there who are struggling, often in silence — our stories may be different, but we have a kinship of common suffering. We also have a kinship of a common solution.

And so I want to leave you with this as I celebrate my fifth anniversary of choosing to live —

If you are struggling,
If your world feels dark and lonely,
If you look in the mirror and hate the person you see there,
If you can’t imagine living without alcohol or drugs,
If you can’t imagine another day of drinking or using,
If you know that you’re killing yourself with your addiction,
Know that this is how I felt,
Know that others have been right where you are,
Know that you are not alone,
Know that there are ways out,
Know that people want to help,
Know that they can help,
Know that you can accept their help,
Know that you are worthy,
Know that you can overcome this,
Know that you can not only make it, but thrive.

It all starts by surrendering, accepting the fact that you can’t continue to live like you have been, and asking for help.

Step 12: Give Others Hope

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Fundamentally, the 12 Steps are a roadmap for change as well as a guide for living a rich and full life. Whether one calls it a spiritual awakening or something else is immaterial. Some folks do feel that they have undergone a monumental psychic shift as the result of working through the steps. Others feel that the change is more subtle.

I personally suspect that the degree to which one feels a change is highly dependent upon how circumstances of their active addiction. For an addict who found himself or herself living on the street, steeling to survive, and living in constant fear, the shift is undoubtedly monumental. But for others who managed to keep their outward lives together while they suffered existential dread internally the shift may seem less dramatic, at least from outward appearances.

Personally, it took more than the 12 Steps for me to feel a fundamental shift in my outlook on life. Specifically it has taken the support of friends and family as well as trauma therapy. I began trauma therapy about nine months ago and as I’ve learned what triggers me, how to recognize with these triggers, and how to be with these triggers in the moment, I have felt a calmness that I’ve never known before in my life.

Many people do find this calmness through the 12 Steps. I didn’t. I felt just the opposite for a long time because the 12 Steps tripped my triggers. I am triggered by the word God. I am triggered by the the notion of an omniscient, omnipresent, and benevolent deity. The root of these triggers are in my life experience. I suffered spiritual trauma when I was told that my birth father could never go to heaven because he died of suicide. Additionally, my life experience is at odds with the idea that there is a benevolent deity directing the world — my direct experience is the opposite. The universe is chaos.

And yet, I’ve learned to accept this. I’ve learned that even if the universe is chaotic, it can still be a power greater than myself. I’ve learned that the mystery of the universe shows me that there is something more out there. Something that deeply connects us to all other things in the universe.

Recently, I was reminded of the scientific Law of Conservation of Mass, which states that matter can not be created or destroyed. When I consume food, that matter gets converted into either cells in my body or waste. For my rational brain, this is proof enough of the interconnectedness of everything in the universe.

For the past few months, I’ve been attending a Unitarian Universalist church and have found in this church a welcoming of my skepticism. It’s as if I suddenly found a bunch of people who think like me. Who suspect that there is something out there but who may not always be sure. The church is welcoming of theists, non-theists, atheists and agnostics. There is very little dogma. They don’t tell me how to believe. And that’s what I needed. This is my spiritual tribe, at least for now.

Importantly, I couldn’t have considered attending this church without going through the therapy process. I needed to deprogram old thinking and old patterns of behavior that no longer served me.

In the 12th step, we are asked to carry the message to other alcoholics. I believe the message is simple. There is a way out of the horrors of addiction and we can have a happy, healthy, and full life without the bondage of addiction. In short, it is a message of hope.

That is what I felt when I came into the rooms in 2015, a great sense of hope. Hope that I could turn things around. Hope that I could feel better. Hope that I could get the monkey off my back. Hope that I could be free. Hope that I might live past fifty years old.

Interestingly, when I was in high school I knew the importance of hope. In a very dark time I scrawled out a short poem that likened life to a matchstick. It shines bright and strong. Intense and dramatic after being lit. And then it’s over. The poem asked the question, if there’s nothing more than this life “why even spark the match?” Years later, one of my teachers found this poem tucked inside my old social studies book and got it to my mother.

And so, when I was confronted in therapy with the question, “what does a God provide to people who believe?” I knew the answer even if I wasn’t ready to accept it. The answer is hope and meaning.

And hope was vital. Without hope, my recovery would not have been possible. And so, even if I don’t like the words, I’ve had what one might call a spiritual awakening.

We need to be able to see that there is a way out of the things that we struggle with. We need to see that our struggles are part of the human condition. All humans struggle with “character defects.” All humans have problems with their egos. All humans have thoughts that if given voice might cause others to pause, to be taken aback. There is nothing unique or special about alcoholics and addicts that predisposes us to these things. The difference is how we have attempted to cope. Alcoholics and addicts have attempted to numb the pain of being human. But numbing the pain doesn’t make it go away.

What helps in times of struggle is the belief that the present reality won’t always be the reality. That things can and will get better. It doesn’t matter what the struggle is — it may be addiction but it may be something else — the message of hope is the answer.

I carry the message of hope with me in my daily life. Through my words and actions, I share it with others who are struggling. Sometimes in one on one conversations, sometimes in tweets with the RecoveryPosse on Twitter, and sometimes here on this blog.

Step 11: This Too Is Prayer

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

“Seriously? We haven’t talked about God for a while so we better bring Him back into the picture.” This was how I felt when I looked at Step 11 for a long time. The only saving grace for me was that the payer recommended in the Twelve and Twelve was the Prayer of Saint Francis, which despite being a Catholic prayer, has always been a personal favorite and that peculiar word “meditation” in the step.

I really couldn’t imagine myself praying. Certainly not to an omniscient, interventionist deity who had fixed me and now had a plan for me. I struggled with this step. As a way to make this work, I tried to get comfortable with ignoring all the theistic overtones and focusing on meditation.

I’ll be honest, my success with meditation has been less than stellar. I have tried doing it in my own. I’ve tried to do it with the help of apps. I’ve read about it to the point of recognizing that reading about it isn’t actually doing it.

Where I struggle with meditation is making it a ritual. I’m just not a very ritualistic person. The only ritual that I adhere to is the ritual of making coffee in the morning. That happens every day, right after getting up.

But when I do make time to meditate, something happens to my monkey mind that is hard to explain. It never stops. The thoughts keep coming. But I’ve learned that this is not actually the point of meditation. By recognizing the thoughts, noting the thinking and not judging it, over and over and over again, I come to a more peaceful state of mind.

I do a fair amount of walking, running, and in the past cycling. I’ve always found that cycling by myself is meditative, and the same is true of walking and running. It’s time for me to slow down the thoughts, focus on one thing, get moving, and just be in a state of flow. Time passes effortlessly.

Still, I wondered if I was doin this step wrong since I was so adverse to praying. I worried that I needed to actually be praying — on my knees, hands folded, eyes closed, saying some rote words to a deity that I knew in my bones does not exist. And so I did a lot of reading. One book that really helped me is Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, by Marya Hornbacher.

In the chapter on Step 11, I came across some words that would totally change my perception of prayer on page 114:

“November morning. The sky turning from indigo to violet blue, the curly oak sketched in black on the sky. Steam rising off the lake. I sat in absolute stillness, absolute peace.

This, too, is prayer.”

These words encapsulate what I’d sensed all along in my life every time I’d stood in awe of the natural world. The sense of finiteness in the infinite that I feel when I’m alone on the beach looking at the ocean. The feeling that everything would be okay when I’d hike up to the top of the ridge at Shingletown Gap and look down in the campus of Penn State when things felt overwhelming. The sense of peace that comes when I can no longer hear the sounds of cars as I walk down a trail in the woods.

Those words also showed me that prayer need not be directed to a specific deity. That you could simply send prayers out to the great mysterious universe. My uncle gave us a small Buddhist prayer bowl for Christmas. The bowl came with the instructions to write our prayers on a small piece of paper, to put them in the bowl, and to set it near a window. When the suns rays hit the papers the prayers are carried out to the universe. This gift reinforced the notion that prayers need not be directed to a specific deity.

Today I think of many things as prayer. My silent walks in the woods can be prayerful. My time writing these words can be prayerful. Simply closing my eyes and noticing the breath is prayer. There is something centering about prayer. Something contemplative. Something quieting.

It all comes down to intentionally making time to refocus, to find a small amount of peace in an otherwise chaotic world.

That’s what prayer is for me.

Step 10: Pay Attention, Admit When You’re Wrong, And Fix It If You Can

Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

At this point in our journey we’ve presumably learned how to identify patterns of behavior and how they lead us to make mistakes as well as how to make amends for our failures. Step 10 asks us to practice these skills as we move through life.

The Big Book suggests doing this at night, before going to bed. Perhaps that works for you, but this doesn’t work for me. First and foremost, at the end of the day I need to let my mind rest. I have a routine that I already practice around bed time. It includes turning off screens, reading, perhaps listening to a relaxing podcast or meditation.

The idea of making a list of the things that I did wrong during the day and then resolving to fix them the next day sounds onerous. I don’t know about you, but I can’t settle down and go to sleep after that exercise. My monkey mind gets activated and I stress about how to fix things. That leads to a less than stellar night of sleep.

I find it much better to be conscious of my words and actions moment to moment during the day and to make my amends as soon as I recognize that I’ve made a mistake. This takes work. It takes awareness. It takes practice. In short, it takes mindfulness, which is a big part of how I approach the next step.

I’m not always great at this. There are times when I don’t recognize that I’ve hurt another person. There are times when I let my emotions get the better of me and go on the attack, forsaking the feelings of others. There are times when I feel justified in my anger and hold in to it longer than I should. But with practice, I’ve come to recognize when I’ve caused harm more quickly than I did in the past.

I find it interesting that this step doesn’t say anything about making amends. It simply says we should promptly admit that we were wrong. This seems strange. The Big Book explains that’s amends are implied, “Step Ten, which suggests we continue to take personal inventory and continue to set right any new mistakes as we go along.” — Alcoholics Anonymous page 84.

Why not make it explicit rather than implicit?

At any rate, one cannot have a clean conscious unless one tries to right a wrong. If we do this as part of Step 10, if we make it a habit — part of our existential being, our ethos — the we will never build up a long list of failures like we had in Step 4. We will be living more in harmony with ourselves and the others in our lives.

Step 9: It Must Be More than an Apology

Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Most of us are taught from an early age that we must apologize when we do something wrong. We hear the words of a parent to a toddler:

“You shouldn’t take toys from your friends, say you are sorry.”

“That hurts! Don’t pull mommy’s hair. Say you’re sorry.”

“Daddy doesn’t like it when you talk back to him, please apologize.”

In our modern society, apology frequently never amounts to change. We see it at the micro and at the macro levels. People in our everyday lives apologize to us and move on to their next affront. Think of the person who rudely brushes past you to get into a better position in the line. Chances are they’ve done it before and will do it again, even if they apologize. At the macro level, we see this behavior from large corporations that make apologies when they are caught skirting the law, but they’ll do it again if it means better P&L numbers and a higher stock price. We see it in our world leaders who make embarrassingly insincere statements or even deny any wrongdoing whatsoever only to continue to support policies that enable their wrongdoing and insincerity, over and over, again and again.

It’s as if we’ve been conditioned to think that saying we are sorry is all that matters. And so, upon first glance at the steps it’s easy to read this step as “apologize for your wrong doings.”

This reading misses the mark.

Fundamentally, the steps are a guide to living that revolves around changing our patterns of behavior. Apologies without change are meaningless. If we don’t course correct, and do better in the future, we are still acting like the toddler, the chairmen, or the world leader.

It is the resolve to make a change, to do better, that moves an out words from an apology to to the action of making amends. We are trying to right our wrongs rather than seeking forgiveness so that we feel better like a petulant child.

I’m not good at this. There are patterns of behavior that are deeply rooted in my life experience. They are my “go to” behaviors. I have learned that some of them are part of my trauma response. They are defense mechanisms that are almost instinctual, originating deep in my “lizard brain” — the amygdala. Changing these reactions is a big part of my personal work. I work with practicing the pause daily, with varying degrees of success.

The final words of this step are potentially dangerous. “Except when to do so would injure them or others” sounds like an escape clause. Many of us are good at finding the escape clause, in fact people with addictions are often masters the loophole. We must be conscious of this when we evaluate whether or not making an amends would cause harm. In most cases, making amends will not cause harm. In most cases making amends will help a relationship.

It is important to ensure that we do not confuse things — that we don’t hide behind this clause as a protective mechanism for ourselves. Indeed, there are some cases where it genuinely would cause harm to make an amends, and care should be taken to do no further harm, but we must be careful to ensure that we aren’t simply avoiding the amends process.

The best way to figure out whether or not an amends would cause harm is to discuss the situation openly and honestly with someone who we trust and who will be honest with us when we are clearly looking for an excuse to avoid doing the difficult work at hand.

This step can be miraculous. Indeed it is within the discussion of the ninth step that we are introduced to the AA Promises:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

— Alcoholics Anonymous, Fourth Edition, Pages 83-84.

Despite what it says in the Big Book, these are extravagant promises, but it has been my experience that they do materialize just as the book says. In a few weeks I plan to begin a series on the Promises.

Step 8: Focus on What Matters

Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Let’s be honest, making a list of people who we have harmed can be a daunting task for anyone. No one wants to think about the mistakes they’ve made in life and how these mistakes have impacted others. Many of us have made poor choices in our active addictions.

For some of us, these choices led to severe consequences that we could not ignore. Others among us appear to have emerged unscathed because we never suffered severe consequences as a result of our drinking. But if we are honest, those poor choices weigh upon our minds, and often hold us back from making progress in our growth journey.

For me, personally, I still harbor a deep sense of guilt and shame for my failures during my active addiction. When I first got sober, I knew that my drinking was affecting my family, but I did not understand the extent of the damage. It’s only with some time, therapy, and perspective that I’ve been able to fully understand how badly I failed as a father when I was drinking.

I was there, but I was not fully present with my son or my wife. This is evidenced when I look back on those early years of my son’s life. I’m not in any of the professional pictures that my wife had made of our little boy. I have only vague recollections of important moments in his early life. I have vague recollections of family trips to the beach. And I have a few painful memories when I chose not to go in tips, because I wouldn’t be able to drink the way I wanted to.

Many people stress the importance of making a thorough list, starting in childhood and up through the present. I’ll be honest. I don’t see a point in this.

While, there are certainly things that I did in my early life that I regret, and I would make amends if I could, the reality of modern life is that I have no connection to many of the people from my childhood. But more importantly, these failures on my part were not caused by or causes of my alcohol addiction. The fact that I punched Jason on the playground when I was in 5th grade had no bearing on my future alcohol use.

So I focused my list on the people I hurt in my active addiction. This is what matters in terms of my recovery. This list is small because my drinking was a private affair. It basically comes down to my family. Thankfully, my drinking never got me in trouble at work or with the law. I never stole anything and I got into any nasty bar fights.

And I am quite willing to make my amends. In fact I do so every day by living my life in a manner that ensures that I am present both physically and emotionally for my family. I don’t do things perfectly, but I have made progress.

Step 7: Get to Work

Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

If you’ve been along for this ride with me, you probably know it was a foregone conclusion that I rejected the notion of a deity removing my shortcomings when I got to this step.

Much has been written about the word Humbly in this step and, in fact, this is often what people focus on in step 7. I won’t discount humility. I will admit that it’s a requirement for step 7, but to leave the discussion solely to humility misses the mark.

If step 6 asks us if we are ready to address our shortcomings, then step 7 is about getting to the work. What exactly does this mean?

There are many paths up the proverbial mountain. For me step 7 is about getting to work on the things that I know I need to change about myself so that I can live in better harmony with others in my life. It’s about working to live life on life’s terms. Both of these require humility and acceptance.

We have to be humble enough to admit that there are things that we don’t do well. We must be humble enough to accept that others may see things differently. We must accept that life isn’t always fair — that we don’t control the outcome. We don’t always win. And that sometimes we need to give a bit in order to win. Surrender to win.

Clearly steps 8 and 9 provide some guidance with the call to list out people we have harmed and work to make amends. Step 10 talks about a daily inventory, step 11, prayer and meditation, and step 12 talks of carrying the message. These are all important parts of the work to improve ourselves but when I looked at myself I found there was more to the story.

For me, a big part of the work to change myself has involved “external help.” It has involved medical professionals as well as therapists. There is no magic pill out there that makes me less of an asshole, but I am less of an asshole when I’m not caught in the depths of depression. Medication and therapy help me with that.

In my therapy I’ve learned a lot about myself, about how I react rather than respond. About how I carry trauma with me that informs my response. I’ve learned that my primary trauma response is to stand and fight rather than to flee. I’ve also learned that if I take a moment to pause, the triggering event usually fades and I can respond more skillfully. I don’t do this by nature. I don’t always do it well. But I practice this.

I’ve learned that meditation is a part of the work. When I meditate I am able to train my brain to respond differently to triggers. I am able to become mindful of the very real physiological sensations that come along with my emotions and feelings. And with practice I can notice these sensations and identify the feelings when I’m being triggered. And noticing them gives me the opportunity to respond differently.

So step 7 may be about humility, but that’s just the surface in my opinion. The rest of the steps are all examples of the work that we commit to doing in step 7 and that work is all about improving ourselves so that we can live fuller and richer lives.

Step 6: Willing to Work?

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

When I first read the steps, step six seemed to be the step that would cause me to go over the edge. On the surface this step appears to be pulled directly from a nineteenth century revivalist sermon. The language is extraordinarily troublesome for a guy like me.

It speaks directly an interventionist God who will remove our defects of character. How insulting?

Was I supposed to list my character defects in step four? It certainly didn’t sound like it.

Was my sponsor supposed to highlight my defects of character to me in step 5? That wouldn’t have ended well.

This step felt like a chigger under my skin.

Even so, I must admit that the idea of a deity that magically fixes me sounded appealing, but being a realist, I didn’t see that happening. If it really were that simple I could have asked a deity to make me sober. I could have asked a deity to make me thin. I can ask for all of those things, and none are just going to happen.

Every drunk is guilty of a foxhole prayer or two in which he or she asks God to make them sober. I’ve never seen that work. What works is when we make a decision to work at getting sober. Change takes work. There is no way around it.

And so, even with a few years under my belt, I saw this step and the next one as filler. Bill Wilson needed to have 12 steps to match the twelve apostles, or maybe it was the twelve months of the year — I wasn’t sure but I knew in my bones that these steps were meaningless.

Or so I thought.

Fortunately, this isn’t the first step, it’s the sixth step and eventually, after a lot of soul searching, therapy, and work to sort out the difference between spirituality and religion, I was willing to examine below the surface, beyond the words.

When I got past the poor grammar and the interventionist deity I came to understand that this step is about being willing to address our shortcomings.

The question step six asks us is, “Are you willing to make changes in your life that may be difficult so that you can have a better life?”

If we want to live happier and healthier lives, full with people who are our friends and who love us, then we must be willing to work on ourselves by changing our past patterns of behavior.

And let’s be clear, the work is often difficult and painful. And that’s precisely why we need to be willing to do the work. If we aren’t willing, then we’ll likely abandon the work. And when we abandon the work we are likely to go back to our old behaviors and patterns. And that means relapse.

The only words in this step that I didn’t bristle at were “entirely ready.” Even at a few months sober. Knew I could be entirely ready to work on myself. In fact, I’d been doing that from the first step.

I’ve written a lot about my struggles with the God Talk in the rooms. It took me a long time to make some semblance of peace with the very real trauma that gets triggered by that talk. I had to do the work around that trauma to be able to sit with the triggering language of this step. Once I’d done that I was willing to look past the words. I’d become entirely ready. I was willing to work on myself.