Step Ten: Living the Program

by James Knight

Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

The most precise description of the Tenth Step is found in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, which states:

“Continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear (4th Step). When these crop up (6th Step), we ask God at once to remove them (7th Step). We discuss them with someone immediately (5th Step) and make amends quickly (9th Step) if we have harmed anyone (8th Step). Then we resolutely turn our thoughts to someone we can help. Love and tolerance of others is our code.”

There are two critically important aspects to these instructions:

  1. First, it is clear that the purpose of the 10th Step is to incorporate into our daily lives that which has been learned in working the Fourth through Ninth Steps. As above noted, the directions include ongoing inventory, consultation with trusted advisers, identification and treatment of character defects, and making amends for harms done.
  2. Second, the well-known 12-step slogan of “progress not perfection” provides the framework from which the 10th Step is practiced. Notice that the language of both the step itself and the ensuing instructions anticipate future setbacks (or, what might be more appropriately couched as “learning opportunities”) — “when we were wrong” and “when (as opposed to ‘if’) these [character defects] crop up”. As such, while the spirit of the Tenth Step involves the turning of one’s intention toward certain virtues and ideals and acting along those lines as best we can, there must remain an understanding that attaining spiritual perfection is highly unlikely, if not impossible. And yet transformative spiritual progress which borders on the miraculous is to be expected at this point in the recovery process.

Ultimately, the work of the 10th Step provides a bulwark against the reaccumulation of resentments, self-pity, shame and irrational fears. Recovery may only be preserved and enhanced with vigilance and persistent effort. The temptation to rely on the work already done — though it has been significant and undoubtedly beneficial — must be avoided if happiness, joy, and freedom are to persist. As the Big Book warns:

“It is easy to let up on the spiritual program of action and rest on our laurels. We are headed for trouble if we do for alcohol [and other drugs] is a subtle foe. We are not cured of [addiction]. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent upon the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”

The more we work at the first half of the 10th Step, which requires ongoing and accurate self-appraisal, the less we will need to turn to the second part of the step (making amends for harm done). Furthermore, as a practical matter, fidelity to the amends process together with an emerging moral consciousness serve as powerful reinforcement against harmful action. Sometimes the only barrier between our scorn and the tranquility of another is personal disdain for what would be the required corrective action.

With that being said, little spiritual progress can be made if the same harm is repeated over and over notwithstanding any amends. Genuine amends include not only honest regret and restitution, but intent not to repeat the harm in the future. Inasmuch, the most important work of the 10th Step centres around the development of self-restraint. As noted in the Twelve and Twelve, “nothing pays off like restraint of tongue and pen.” Learning to avoid the hook by not taking the bait — no matter how tantalizing — is the fundamental challenge of this work. To this end, the focus now shifts to managing anger as it arises in the present moment. In active addiction, as life spirals out of control, the delusion of omnipotence combined with the reality of powerlessness fuel the anger response. From this perspective, the addicted person is caught in a cycle of “feeling-reacting” — leashed by the circumstances of life and the apparent whims of others.

However, through the practice of self-restraint, the individual learns the art of thoughtful response as opposed to mindless reaction. And while much progress will have been made in terms of achieving “emotional sobriety” by the time the 10th Step is reached, much work remains. In essence, what must be learned and practiced is non-action. This cardinal principle requires the exercise of reasoned judgement, and should not be confused with inaction which implies careless passivity. Non-action — known as wu wei in the Taoist tradition — transforms the power of choice into spiritual growth. While the spiritual principle of non-action usually implies the absence of unnecessary or harmful action, it can also include effortless action (eg. “second nature” or what the program describes as “intuition”) and lack of resistance (“opting out”). Lao Tzu described the principle in his philosophical masterpiece, Tao Te Ching, as follows:


The gentlest thing in the world

overcomes the hardest thing in the world.

That which has no substance

enters where there is no space.

This shows the value of non-action.

Teaching without words,

performing without actions:

that is the Master’s way.

Taxonomy of Inventories

Of course, the major “housecleaning” completed in the 4th Step need not be repeated so long as the prior work is maintained in the 10th Step. As stated in the Twelve and Twelve, “learning daily to spot, admit, and correct these [mistakes] is the essence of character building and good living” and is achieved through a variety of “personal inventories” including:

  • The Spot Check Inventory
    This inventory is taken at any point throughout the day, as necessary. The need for a spot check inventory arises when we notice that we are emotionally disturbed, when our behaviour is askew, or when we are engaging in negative self-talk. It is here, in the “real world,” where the practice of self-restraint and the principle of non-action become most important. The use of program slogans and personal mantras (e.g. “Let Go and Let God,” “This too shall pass,” “I can handle this” etc.) are indispensable at such times.
  • The Daily Review
    The daily review involves careful reflection upon the events of the day. It is during this daily review — often conducted just prior to retiring for the night — where we decide whether or not harm has been done to another, and if so, what amends are necessary. The Twelve and Twelve suggests that we visualize how we might have handled a difficult situation differently. It is also important to consider where we have done well and where we have successfully applied the principles of the program in our lives. Many utilize a questionnaire or checklist to aid in this ritual. The questions may be tailored to the particularities of the individual program, but often include such queries as:
  1. Did I start my day with conscious contact with my Higher Power?
  2. Did I act with patience, compassion, kindness, and love towards others today?
  3. What have I done to be of service to the people around me today?
  4. Did I resist the temptation to gossip and criticize others today?
  5. Did I make unreasonable demands upon myself, others, or life today?
  6. Did I label myself or others today (people rating)?
  7. Did I catastrophize any situations today (can’t-stand-it-itis)?
  8. Did I have contact with my support group and/or another person in recovery today?
  9. Have I contacted my sponsor recently?
  10. Did I do any step work today?
  11. Did I renew at any time today my conscious contact with my Higher Power?
  12. Have I been resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid today?
  13. Did I worry excessively today or dwell in the past?
  14. Am I taking myself too seriously in any part of my life today?
  15. Did I feel “stressed out” today?
  16. Did I experience any extreme feelings today? What were they and why did I have them?
  17. Did I exercise self-restraint today?
  18. Did I respond rather than react today?
  19. Did I harm anyone today? Do I owe an amends? What might I have done differently?
  20. Have I practiced unconditional self-acceptance today?
  21. Did I allow myself to become obsessed about anything today?
  22. Did I behave compulsively in any way today?
  23. What spiritual principles did I practice in my life today?
  24. Was I happy and peaceful today?
  25. Do I see any “old patterns” re-emerging in my life today? If so, which ones?
  26. Has there been any conflict in any of my relationships today? What?
  27. Did I allow myself to become too hungry, angry, lonely or tired today?
  28. What did I not do today that I wish I had done?
  29. Did I get physical exercise today?
  30. Have I kept something to myself that I need to discuss with my sponsor?
  31. Was I kind and gentle to myself today?
  32. What did I do today that I feel positive about?
  33. What are the areas where I need to improve most?
  34. What am I grateful for today?
  • Annual or Semi-Annual House Cleaning
    If in the Daily Review there appears persistent negative patterns or nagging emotional disturbances, it is advisable to take out pen and paper — as was done in the Fourth Step — and take a more detailed look at the concern. Some believe that a thorough, written inventory should be reviewed with a sponsor as a matter of course on an annual or semi-annual basis.

10th Step Promises

from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (pp. 84-85)

“And we have ceased fighting anything or anyone — even alcohol. For by this time, sanity will have returned. We will seldom be interested in liquor. If tempted, we recoil from it as from a hot flame. We react sanely and normally, and we will find that this has happened automatically. We will see that our new attitude toward liquor has been given us without any thought or effort on our part. It just comes! That is the miracle of it. We are not fighting it, neither are we avoiding temptation. We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality — safe and protected. We have not even sworn off. Instead, the problem has been removed. It does not exist for us. We are neither cocky nor are we afraid. That is our experience. That is how we react so long as we keep in fit spiritual condition.”

“It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause,
there is something wrong with us.”

~Step 10, Twelve and Twelve~

Reprinted from The Tao of Recovery with kind permission of the author. James Knight is a therapist in rural Western Kentucky at a community mental health agency. His passion is working with those who likewise suffer from addiction and their families. He is particularly interested in helping clients incorporate mindfulness practices and meditation into their recovery. Read more of James’ work here.

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Contributors to Renascent’s Blog share their stories of addiction and recovery and/or their professional expertise.