Step Ten: Crossing the Sea of Life

The Twelve Steps are the opposite of "self-help"

Excerpted from Drop the Rock. . .  The Ripple Effect: Using Step 10 to Work 6 and 7 Every Day by Fred H.

You may be familiar with some version of the Drop the Rock parable, where a group of people in recovery cross the sea of life. If you're not, you can read it here.

In recovery, for the newcomer and veteran alike, it is our own thoughts and behaviors that demand ongoing vigilance. Our character flaws, sharp edges, and shortcomings are as toxic and damaging to ourselves and the people in our lives as the substances once were to our bodies. When we stop using, these flaws don't simply disappear. There they are, to be recognized, confronted, and then neutralized, if not outright removed—and not just by ourselves alone. Our effort requires the help of others, including our Higher Power. This remains true as the days turn to months, the months to years, and the years to our lifetime of commitment to staying well. This is the power of Step Ten, to remind us that we only have to turn to that help one day at a time; when we do, the lifetime will take care of itself.

We move from hearing each Step resonate in our head to feeling it in our guts, bones, and blood. We move from learning the Steps to living them. Most of all, we move from a focus on our own growth and transformation to a focus on how our behavior affects others. This change in focus is what I call the Ripple Effect. Drop the Rock—The Ripple Effect focuses specifically on Steps Six, Seven, and Ten:

  • Step Six: Were entirely ready to have God remove all our defects of character.
  • Step Seven: Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
  • Step Ten: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

As beloved AA speaker Chuck C. has observed, when we first began working the Program, we thought that alcohol (or drugs, or overeating, or whatever) was our problem, because we have a body that can't tolerate it, coupled with a mind that can't leave it alone.

But when we first used alcohol, it wasn't a problem for us— it was an answer. That's why we drank—or shot up, or overate, or gambled away our savings. This means that our foundational problem existed before we began drinking or drugging or overeating.

By the time we reach Step Ten, we clearly understand what that foundational problem is: overreliance on self. That was our single biggest character defect, and for much of our life, it blocked us from having a spiritual experience.

I smile when I hear people refer to the Twelve Steps as a self-help program, because it's exactly the opposite. Our "selves" need help. The Twelve Steps teach us how and when to ask for help from a Higher Power—not how to rely more on the self and self-centeredness.

When we reach Step Ten, we are no longer drinking or using or overeating. But something much greater has also occurred: we've sobered up to our humanness—to our limitations. We've also sobered up to our need to grow and serve on an ongoing basis. We know that we cannot simply settle for chemical relief. We know that if chemical relief is all we focus on, we have taken the first step toward relapse.

As we work Step Ten, we also come to understand some subtle aspects of the Program that are not generally visible to newcomers. Our attitude toward the Steps has shifted—and continues to shift—in profound ways. Let's look closely at some of these shifts.

From Dependence to Service, and from Domination to Assertiveness

As we work Step Ten and it becomes integrated into our life, we let go of trying to control the world—or other people.

We see that our former strategies of demanding, dominating, manipulating, wheedling, flattering, and people pleasing were all forms of overreliance on self. We also come to see that these strategies were the source of most of our (and anyone's) defective interactions.

Now, as we practice Step Ten, we stop looking to others to fulfill us. Instead, we focus on how we can be of service—while also noticing and acknowledging our own needs.

Being of service doesn't mean becoming a doormat. It's exactly the opposite. We learn to become assertive instead of aggressive or dependent. Instead of trying to get others to do what we want, we do whatever is compassionate, or just, or most appropriate for the situation.

We also speak the truth about who we are and what we're feeling. We learn what our real needs are, and we learn to express them clearly and directly, without trying to manipulate others into fulfilling them. We understand that assertiveness is our perfect right—as well as the antidote to the demands we used to make of others.

We are also aware that we can never know exactly how others will respond. When we express ourselves and our needs clearly and directly, they might happily accommodate us. Or they might say "Not gonna happen," or "Not interested," or "Screw you for asking," or even, "Screw you for needing that."

Throughout my drinking years and during the first few years of my recovery, I was a compulsive people-pleaser. I would do whatever I felt would make others happy and comfortable, in the hope that they would think favorably of me. This was one of my biggest character defects. It was also a subtle form of domination, because I was trying to get everybody else to do my bidding. Through my people pleasing, I demanded that others meet a need in me, which was to be liked. I was focused on myself, and I compulsively tried to get others to focus on me as well.

Bill W. had the very same character defect. In his 1958 Grapevine article, "The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety," he observed that his own painful dependencies caused him to demand that other people in AA meet his needs. Repeatedly, he tried to get others to do his bidding and depend upon him. Eventually he recognized that he lacked emotional sobriety. From an emotional standpoint, he was still acting like an addict.

During those years when I too lacked emotional sobriety, I radiated an essence of neediness and unsteadiness that blocked me from having a spiritual experience. Now imagine the essence you radiate when you simply show up as yourself in a spirit of compassion and service, and let other people know exactly who you are and what you feel.

Over time, as we work Step Ten, one of the things that changes is the essence of what we radiate. Some people call it a vibe or an intangible influence. This is the energy behind the Ripple Effect.

Fred H. has worked in the field of addiction and recovery for thirty-seven years and is the director of the retreat center for a leading addiction treatment program. He is a popular international speaker on the Big Book and the principles of the Twelve Steps.

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