Bill Wilson’s book of essays Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions seeks to broaden and deepen the understanding of the Twelve Steps as written in the earlier book Alcoholics Anonymous. 12 step programs for alcohol and drug addiction use these two texts (or modified versions) almost exclusively.

In his essay on the 5th step, the AA co-founder notes that, “scarcely any step is more necessary to longtime sobriety and peace of mind than this one.” A portion of the essay is also dedicated to the mechanics and the rational benefits of the step. However, most of Bill Wilson’s examination, and especially the conclusion, is dedicated to the emotional impact of the fifth step – the desired outcome of “the feeling of being at one with God and man”.

Why Work a 5th Step?

Wilson’s essay describes a feeling of connectedness that results from a process of personal identification and confrontation of deep-seeded fears. By admitting these fears to another person, reunion with oneself, humanity and the world begins in miraculous fashion. The fifth step’s electric result is related in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:

“Once we have taken this step, withholding nothing, we are delighted. We can look the world in the eye. We can be alone at perfect peace and ease. Our fears fall from us. We begin to feel the nearness of our Creator. We may have had certain spiritual beliefs, but now we begin to have a spiritual experience.”

Bill Wilson deepens our understanding in his later narrative in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:

“Provided you hold back nothing, your sense of relief will mount from minute to minute. The damned–up emotions of years break out of their confinement, and miraculously vanish as soon as they are exposed. As the pain subsides, a healing tranquility takes its place. And when humility and serenity are so combined, something else of great moment is apt to occur.”

Not everyone who works a 5th step with a qualified sponsor receives a spiritual experience with this almost incredulous emotional effect. Sometimes the instructions to pause, reflect and pray at this critical moment in the 12 step journey are overlooked or minimized.

But most who carefully complete and share a 4th and 5th step walk away with intense relief from personal isolation, a taste of freedom through integrity and newfound strength. They discover invigorating power which comes from fearless personal honesty and the transparent admission of exactly “what and who” they genuinely are. Fifth steppers realize true integrity is closely aligned with humility. More importantly, they find a reality offered through humility which establishes a “firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives can be built”.

On a new footing with their Higher Power and relieved of the burden of guilt, 5th step participants find themselves at the fulcrum of the 12 step program of recovery. As the 5th step concludes and the 6th step approaches, the direction of the 12 step process abruptly shifts.

Participants are urged to join their fellows in sobriety by making “a sincere attempt to become what we can be” and trying “to grow in the image and likeness of our Creator”. The long journey towards successful implementation of the middle steps (five-seven) cultivates personal transparency, honesty, humility and strength.

The Joy of Experiencing Steps 5-7

Few, if any, of those brave individuals who earnestly approach the 6th step can doubt that they have indeed come a long way from the person who entered the 1st step of the process. Gone is the man or woman who “bled of all self-sufficiency” and were “bankrupt” as a human concern. In a very real sense, by faithfully completing the 4th and 5th steps and persistently practicing steps 6 and 7, they transform into an entirely new person.

Those of us who have travelled the 12 step path know the acute growing pains of the first seven steps. We clung to perseverance like a life preserver. We floundered in an ocean of uncertainty. And we emerged to break ground on a new life.

Thus we discovered ourselves well-prepared to meet the skeletons of days past, and the sunlight of days ahead.

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