AA’s Step 6

Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

“Lord, help me to be pure–but not just yet. ”  St. Augustine

(before sainthood, no doubt)

If the Steps were puppies, Step 6 would undoubtedly be the runt of the litter.

The book Alcoholics Anonymous (the Big Book) glosses over it in one paragraph of 66 words, and 13 of those are lead-in.  If you blink while reading, you might miss it all together.  The gist of the instruction is to ask ourselves if we are ready; if the answer is no, we ask God for help.  That’s it.  Not much to work with even for those who believe in an interventionist deity, less for those of us who don’t.

Not a Step?

“Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”  I mean, come on already, it’s not even a step!  Or is it?  When someone in the fellowship relapses, Steps 4 and 5 are the usual suspects, and the person is advised “You need to do Steps 4 and 5 again to find what you left out.”  I submit that more relapses occur due to a misunderstanding of Step 6 than any other single step.

I had identified many (not all) of my defects in Steps 4 and 5.  Early in the process, I thought that having done that I’d have no reason not to let them go.  I was desperate and serious about the program.  Why would I not want to get rid of all my baggage?  It turned out to be not so black and white as that.  Many of my defects had been with me for so long, had become so much a part of who I believed I was, that I couldn’t see myself without them.  How would I be able to function at work, at home, at all, without this or that ‘defect’, who would I be, were the questions, fears really, that were running around in my head.

It helped when I read (in the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions) that these defects we’ve been talking about are actually natural instincts either misdirected or gone wild–“exceeded their proper function” as Bill W. wrote.  Since they’re natural instincts, they cannot be completely removed.  Pride gone wild can run from arrogance to narcissism; yet properly positioned, it is self-esteem.  Fear and anger are necessary survival instincts, but when they are operating at inappropriate times, in the wrong situations, or left unchecked to swell out of proportion to the time and circumstance, they overpower our ability to take the appropriate actions for our survival.

Not God

Bill W. goes on to explain that while the obsession to drink seemed to be removed by a higher power for the early members of AA, that wasn’t the case with these character defects, and he suggests this is because, while they cause us problems, they do not cause us “excessive misery.”  I would add also that the cause/effect is not as obvious as it was (is) with our drinking.

I know now that my defects lose their power over my actions not through denial or divine intervention, but through my:

  1. accepting that they exist,
  2. awareness of positive values and behaviors, also known as virtues, that can replace them, and
  3. replacing the old with the new.

When the defects lose their power over areas of my life where they have no place, they are effectively ‘removed.’

This is a lifetime effort for me.  I still have issues, but as they present themselves I do what I can to deal with them.  From my personal experience, and from hearing others share their experience with this Step, it is probably universal that our defects come into our awareness one at a time for attention and removal.  Even the Bible points to the fact that one’s defects are not instantly and permanently removed by God; there are things one has to do and keep on doing.  As my defects come to my awareness, I look inside myself to see their exact nature and what benefit I may still be getting by keeping them, such as comfort and security, ego strokes, a perverse pleasure even.  When I can do that, then I can begin to let them go, and replace them with compassion and loving-kindness toward myself and others.

“One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that.”   Joseph Campbell

What has your experience been with Step 6?  Let us know by leaving a comment!

  1. I am working on another 4th Step, which my sponsor asked me to do, because I didn’t identify a specific character defect I have had since I walked into the rooms back in the late 1980’s! Yes, I agree that we are told to go back and do Steps 4 and 5 again because we have to know where it came from, how long we have had it, and what it is affecting in our life. When I am upset, it is because something is wrong with ME not them (whoever them might be). I have to go through the questions in the Big Book and/or the 12 & 12 on Step 4 to get me to a place where I can actually see what the pattern and my part actually is.

    I have a lady I sponsor who has to work on some of her defects of character and when I asked her the other day what Step she was on (if you aren’t working on a Step you are working on a drink!) she said the 6th Step because of her shortcomings. I haven’t asked her to do anything more than see what it is that makes some people bristle when she talks to them, myself included. I haven’t asked her to go back and look at the relationships individually (which is what you are doing in 4 & 5), I want her to see what she still needs work on and then I would like her to actually work on those things. But I can’t make her do that; only she can do that.

    I am going to have some form of character defect going on for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t be human without it. But when it affects my relationships with my fellows, then I need to see what is going on and why I refuse to let go of that defect. I am a work in progress, but I have to actually progress to get the benefits of the AA program at all. Everything that Bill W. talks about in the literature is true: if you don’t work (and I really mean work) on yourself, you run the risk of falling into one of those black holes we are all warned about in the rooms. Complacency can work for awhile, but when you hurt and are hurting others, then you know it is time that you work the Steps or leave the program.

    I have watched many people do the revolving door syndrome where they come for six to nine months, feel better physically, but then don’t work on themselves and go out and relaspe. A man at my home group has gone out again and this time the consequences are far more serious than he imagined. Yet, in talking, it isn’t him that has the problem, it was everyone else! Unless we get to the root cause of our spiritual malady, we will drink again. Being dry and being sober are two completely different feelings; I know I have run into both of them in my own sobriety.

    My first foray with Step 6 was me writing down the defects of character and sharing them with my sponsor. Then we did the 7th Step prayer. About six months later, I was cleaning out my purse and there was the list: the defects I had listed were still there, but they were much milder than before I did the 6th Step.

    I am not the woman who walked into an AA meeting in the late 1980’s hoping to get someone else sober. I am here for me and to stay alive, I have to work on those defects of character that keep me from the Sunlight of the Spirit.


    • You’ve brought up some good points, Mary. Some food for thought and maybe a future blog post or more. I might be misunderstanding what you wrote, but when I’m upset, all I really need is to recognize that a defect is present and have the willingness to let it go. Whether or not I know where it came from or how long I’ve had it won’t do me any good without the recognition and willingness.
      Maybe others will join in here with their thoughts. Thanks!


  2. I wanted to let you know that your blog was chosen as one of the top 15 blogs on alcoholism by Healthline.com. Here’s the blurb:
    Ron, a 57-year-old reformed alcoholic, used self-taught principles from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to successfully recover. He created The Spirit of Recovery as a source of inspiration and motivation for those suffering from alcoholism.

    Ron offers a series of writings on his own experience with the 12 Steps in addition to posts on alcoholism, getting sober, and books and links of interest.

    No one let me know, so I thought I’d spread the word to others who were selected. They didn’t let us know last year, either. I see some people have chosen to put the badge symbol on their site. Still thinking about that.


    • Once again, thank you, Heidi. My computer has been dead in the water for the past few months until I can find someone to remove the virus that’s infected it. Hopefully by the end of this month.