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The 12 Steps and Mindful Parenting: Steps 4 and 5

The vulnerability of these steps opens the door to self-acceptance and healing.

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

"The blessing lies close to the wound." —African proverb

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of recognizing and celebrating beauty in broken things. Broken ceramics (bowls, cups, vases) are put back together with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. Rather than trying to hide it, practitioners visibly incorporate the repair into the object’s restoration, honoring and revering the damage rather than using it as an excuse to discard and replace the object. The process frequently results in something more extraordinary and precious than the original.

The process of 12-step recovery has much in common with Kintsugi in both intent and effect. Twelve-step recovery helps people who dedicate themselves to the process become strong in the places where they have been damaged. The 12 steps create a framework for practicing new ways of relating to thoughts and emotions, generate healthier behaviors, support the application of spiritual principles, such as acceptance, tolerance, open-mindedness, perseverance, humility, and gratitude, and prompt additional opportunities for conscious contact with that which is beyond oneself—of belonging to a greater whole, of connection to others, as well as to the world.

All these benefits have spillover benefits for the quality of one’s parenting.

Step Four: We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. 

Step four is instrumental in understanding how your past influences your present, further establishing healthier ways of relating to yourself, others (notably your kids), and the world. As it relates to parenting, it’s a process of reconciling your past with your present by looking at habitual patterns of thinking and acting that interfere with your capacity to be a more attuned and skillful parent.

It takes strength and courage to go through the process of doing a step four inventory—to identify and come to terms with the harms you’ve caused and the damage you've perpetrated during active addiction. It takes tremendous love, humility, and commitment to your kids to take an unflinchingly open and honest look at the entire history between you and consider how you’ve contributed to conflicts and challenges with them.

Recovery helps you grow the ability to handle the truth about yourself. This process of self-examination may evoke feelings of guilt, regret, sadness, and perhaps shame. Using mindfulness practices, including meditation, to enhance the capacity to remain calm and anchored in present-centered awareness will help you observe, tolerate, and make peace with those emotions.

The fourth step also involves identifying your strengths, along with the ways others harmed you. Ironically, many people find it easier to discuss the harm they perpetrated rather than the harm perpetrated upon them and their own pain and suffering.

Although feelings of hurt, fear, and inadequacy are normal and natural to the experience of being harmed by others, disclosing those situations and the emotions connected to them can seem weak or even shameful. Through mindfulness practices, however, you can be present with and observe this vulnerability and allow and coexist with the emotions it brings up for you.

Step Five: We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Steps four and five are basically a package deal, designed to fit together, hand-in-glove. Step five involves going over one’s step four inventory with another person, usually a twelve-step program sponsor. As it relates to parenting, this activity expands upon step four's examination of the ways in which our parenting has been insensitive, unattuned, and unskillful by bringing our conscious awareness to the specific harm it caused our kids. In this way, steps four and five inform the later work of step eight.

Step four uncovers distressing actions and events that were carefully guarded, sometimes for years, with the assistance of unconscious defense mechanisms—and studiously avoided admitting to ourselves, never mind anyone else. Secrets thrive and exert more influence when shrouded in psychological darkness, where they can affect us in indirect, unhealthy, and self-defeating ways.

Putting emotionally painful experiences into words reduces their power. Speaking those words aloud and to another person further diminishes the grip of those experiences by demystifying them and making them smaller and less intimidating, bringing them into the light where we can see them clearly. Step five generates that light.

As children, many people have had the experience of going into a poorly lit attic or basement at night and being terrified by a silhouette or shadow of something. When they saw only the silhouette or shadow, their imagination ran wild with possibilities of what that something was or could be. But when the light of the following day revealed a pile of boxes or clothing or a coat rack with a hat on it, they learned their fears were unfounded, and they had no reason to be afraid.

Through sharing the results of the step four inventory of wrongdoings, sufferings, liabilities, strengths, and patterns with the right individual (again, most often a sponsor), most people experience a deep form of acceptance. This experience opens the door to self-acceptance—even with all your past mistakes and imperfections. And self-acceptance is requisite for healing.

Copyright 2019 Dan Mager, MSW

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