In AA, step 5 is often looked at as one of the hardest steps that exists.
Why? Because the 5th step in AA is confession—and confession is incredibly humbling and humiliating.
If you’ve gone through confession before, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Talking about your deepest, darkest secrets isn’t exactly fun—it’s horrible. You feel small. You feel ashamed. You feel humiliated.
You feel dehumanized.
Is this meant to scare you? Yes—it should. Working the 12 steps is scary. It’s difficult. I won’t lie to you and hold your hand and tell you that this is going to be easy.
But it’s worth it.
Because after all that dehumanization and humiliation, you’re left with truth.
Truth about who you are.
And truth about what you can become if you stop doing what you’ve been doing.
Step 5 in AA is where you shed all those horrible secrets that are holding you back from relationships. Sure, this might mean a relationship with a higher power, but it’s much more than that.
Secrets hold us back from relationships with each other.
It doesn’t have to be about a relationship with a higher power. It’s possible to work the 12 steps without god. It’s common that we talk about the 5th step of AA being the method by which we clear out the things that are blocking us from a god, but I think it blocks us off much more from people.
It blocks us off from ourselves.
The 5th Step in Alcoholics Anonymous Freed Me
When I was in my addiction, my defining feature was my lies.
I lied constantly and to everyone. I lied about everything. I lied about things it didn’t make sense to lie about.
I did this because a) I was used to it, b) it was comforting, and c) it kept people out.
It was comforting because, as long as I lied, no one could know the real me.
And given that, before the 5th step, I didn’t know who the real me was, it was certainly helpful to lie to myself alongside everyone else.
What I found when I did this step with my sponsor was that I finally had to get past the lies. I had to look at truths.
And I couldn’t see them by myself.
I had done a 4th step, but all that really showed me was how angry I was at the world and how horribly I believed I had been treated.
It was just another set of lies, to be honest. Sure, I was forced to look at my side, and I found that helpful, but it wasn’t until I discussed this with my sponsor that I was able to really see the truth.
In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous in the section on step 5, it talks about how a solitary self-appraisal is insufficient—step 4 is insufficient to stay sober.
That’s why we need step 5. Step 5 is where we talk about what happened outside of our heads, and we get another person’s perspective on what we are actually like.
And that can be painful.
AA Step 5 — How It Works
Here’s how step 5 works.
First, we must have finished step 4. That means we have a resentment list, a fear list, and a sex inventory.
Then, we have to be willing. We have to be willing to talk through these lists with our sponsor.
We also have to be willing to share our secrets. We have to be willing to tell our sponsor the worst things we’ve ever done.
The things we’ve never told anyone.
If you’re not willing to do this, don’t bother to do step 5. It won’t work for you. It will just be another set of lies.
You won’t have unburdened yourself.
You’ll keep the burden.
It will be as though you did nothing.
In AA, step 5 is all about removing the burden of the pain we’ve caused and been caused.
If we’ve been hurt, we need to get it out.
If we’ve hurt, we need to get it out.
Here’s what my 5th step looked like.
My 5th Step
I was living in a sober house with my sponsor. We sat down in my room alone and got out my 4th step.
My 4th step was large, a giant set of notebooks with page after page of writing. It had hundreds of resentments, hundreds of fears, and a sex inventory that was only long because of all the harm I had caused.
We started going through the list of resentments, my sponsor reading them one by one. I had so many resentments that we focused on the big ones. We talked through each one.
Here’s where things started to become miraculous. In every resentment, I felt justified in my actions and felt like I was the victim.
My sponsor showed me that I wasn’t.
That’s not the case for everyone. I’ve done a lot of 5th steps with a lot of men I’ve sponsored. It’s been the case on many occasions that they were harmed and that the harm was legitimate.
It just wasn’t in my case.
I was almost never the victim, if not ever the victim.
I was the perpetrator.
My sponsor showed me my character defects. He showed, me, in case after case, how I was not the victim, but often the one causing harm.
For the first time in my life, I was able to see the biggest lie of my life—the lie I told myself.
That I had always been a good person.
And it finally became clear that I hadn’t been—that I had been causing harm.
We went through my fear list and my sex inventory. We identified harm after harm that I caused. He helped me to see through the lies. He helped me to see that I owed apologies—a lot of apologies. Hundreds.
I told him my secrets. I told him everything.
I had felt good walking into the 5th step because I had worked so hard to write down all the things that were stuck in my head—all the anger, all the fear.
I felt better afterward.
Someone finally understood me. They knew what I was.
I knew what I was.
I knew that I didn’t want to be that ever again.
It prepared me for steps 6 and 7—prepared me for change.
Step 5 was transformational.
But it was also only the beginning.
Step 5 of AA Isn’t Sufficient Alone — There Has to Be More
Once I did my 5th step, I was ready for more. I prayed and asked my higher power—which I didn’t really know or understand—to help me be a better man.
I never wanted to do those horrible things that I had done ever again.
I wanted to stop lying.
I wanted to stop stealing.
I wanted to stop cheating.
I wanted to stop hurting people.
I was ready to look at my character defects.
I was ready for more.
Have you done step 5?
What was it like for you?
I’d love to hear your experience.
Tell me about it in the comments.