The Alcoholics Anonymous authored book, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, famously calls step six “the step that separates the men from the boys.” What the AA folks mean by this is that compiling a list of one’s character defects and then becoming completely, absolutely, and totally willing to let go of those defects requires a lot of fortitude. After all, some of those character defects can be pretty fun and exciting – lust, sloth, greed, etc. And who wants to let go of that stuff? Especially when some of those supposed defects are actually necessary to life.
The trick here is to realize that these life-sustaining natural instincts (for sexual congress, eating, security, and the like) are good things until they spiral out of control. When these instincts begin to drive us blindly into regrettable behaviors, that is the point at which they become character defects. So if lust is ruining your marriage (because you are routinely cheating on your spouse, for instance), it has become a character defect that you might like to be rid of.
The first part of working step six, of course, is figuring out what one’s character defects actually are. Luckily, having worked step four, most addicts have a pretty good idea at this point. Often it is helpful to re-read your step four inventories, looking for patterns of fear, dishonesty, greed, lust, jealousy, grandiosity, willfulness, sideways anger, and the like. As you go along you can write down each individual character defect you spot. Once you have compiled this list, you can write, next to each character defect, a corresponding trait that you’d like to replace it with. For instance, if you identify “lust” as a character defect, you could choose “marital fidelity” as something you aspire to. If “lying” is a character defect, you might choose “honesty and transparency” as things to shoot for. Etc. There is no set number of character defects that you should be trying to identify. Your list will be as long as it needs to be.
At this point, addicts typically ask: How do I become entirely ready to have God remove these defects? The answer is that you probably don’t. The best you can really hope for is to try to become entirely ready. If you make an honest effort in that regard, and continue that effort on a regular basis, the process eventually gets easier. But no recovering addict has ever worked step six to perfection, and nobody ever will.
For some recovering addicts, it helps to realize that in letting go of their character defects they are not “giving something up.” Rather, they are learning to behave differently and in ways that better serve them. Compiling a list of affirmations can be useful in this regard. A good exercise for this is taking each character defect and writing three to five positive statements about living differently. These affirmations should be worded as if you’ve already conquered the defect. For instance, with “lying” you might write:
- I am telling the truth in all matters.
- I no longer keep secrets from important people in my life.
- I feel better about myself when I tell the truth than when I am dishonest.
Repeating these affirmations aloud at the start and close of each day is a great way to realize that letting go of character defects really will result in a better life. And that realization inevitably creates much of the willingness needed for step six.
For some recovering addicts, one final question remains: If and when I become entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character, will he? Happily, the answer to this question is a resounding “Yes!” Any addict who’s achieved lasting sobriety is proof of this fact. However, those same addicts will also tell you that God is not exactly in the business of rendering addicts pure as the driven snow and keeping them that way without their active and relatively constant participation in the process. In other words, overcoming character defects is an ongoing affair, and God will return them to you any time you wish.