Defects or Defenses? A Woman’s Way Through the 12 Steps


At Sanford House at Cherry Street, we are not a 12 step based program, but we do take women to meetings in the community daily and incorporate 12 step wisdom in our programming.  Each woman receives a copy of A Woman’s Way through the Twelve Steps, by Dr. Stephanie Covington, along with the companion workbook. Both books invite the reader to interpret the 12 steps in exactly the way that works best for her. The books take into account the differences in the way men and women recover.


The twelve steps are a simple, spiritual, non-religious program of recovery.  When a woman completes the steps, she has a “spiritual” awakening.  Steps 1-3 involve recognizing that she is powerless over addiction, developing faith that something (or someone) will help, and choosing to take part in that help.  In steps 4 and 5 she completes a personal inventory and shares her new understanding of herself with others. Today, I’d like to write about what happens next: when she starts to change her life in deep and profound ways through steps 6 and 7.


In my work with my clients at Sanford House, I have found that with steps 6 and 7 the real work on personal growth and recovery begins in earnest.


There are two different concepts in steps 6 and 7.  In Step Six she becomes ready for a Higher Power to remove her “defects of character” and in Step Seven, she humbly asks Him to remove her “shortcomings”. In the original AA steps, it’s implied that a “defect” and a “shortcoming” are one and the same. The Woman’s Way brings in a third term, asking, “Will you refer to them as defects or defenses?”


What’s so important about the phrasing anyway?


Coming Up Short…

If we have a shortcoming, we are coming up short in some spiritual principle.  Shortcomings are not traits. They are room for growth.  When we take the step to ask our Higher Power to remove a shortcoming, we’re asking to no longer come up short.


Rather than ripping away a sometimes needed and wanted coping skill, in the absence of a healthier one to take its place, our Higher Power gives us a strength to fill the void. For example, the strengths of honesty and courage.  Until this happens, the void is filled by unhealthy coping skills. Like lying or hiding. In filling the void of a shortcoming, rather than taking away a defect, we ask for more skills.


So we don’t say “God stop me from lying,” but we say “God give me the courage to be honest”.


What Skills Do We Need?

First we have to figure out what kind of skills we need. Some situations are easy, like impatience vs. patience. You simply catch yourself being impatient, pray slowly, “Patience, patience, patience,” until you calm down. And that’s it. Repeat.


Asking for other skills requires us to get to know ourselves better. Lets take “lust” for example.  It would be easy to ask, “Lust’s good cousin is love, so God bring me love.”  But c’mon…that’s not really a clear, workable plan.  So instead of saying, “God please make me STOP being so lustful”, or “God make me LOVE this one instead of using him/her,” we start to dig deeper. And we need to ask, “What would happen to me if I stopped acting on this lust?  What am I using this unhealthy coping skill to avoid or deal with?”


More than 12 steps? The excursion up to Empire Bluffs, Empire, Michigan.


Each Woman Has Her Own Answer…

Each person has their own answer.  One woman might realize (or admit) that the lust helps her avoid the grief of an empty bed. While another woman might see that she’s simply avoiding the feeling of discomfort. The discomfort that comes with not having what she wants, when she wants it – instant gratification.  Oh, the frustration!


From A Woman’s Way, “defense” implies that our defects are there to defend ourselves from something. Be it a threat from the past that lingers as fear, or something we just don’t have the strength to face yet.  Some women find it more empowering or insightful to call them “defenses”, because “defects” can dredge up feelings of shame.


When we do Step Six, and become entirely ready for our Higher Power to remove the lust, we are ready to lay down those defenses. Our Higher Power won’t take them away until we don’t need them anymore.  Because we’ve made a commitment to go through those uncomfortable feelings in order to reap the rewards.


What Recovery is Not

Recovery is not about feeling good or better, more often. That’s what drugs and character defects are about.  Recovery is about learning to deal with feeling bad, so that we can ultimately feel fulfilled. Fulfillment drowns out the uncomfortable feelings in the end. We choose to have faith that the universe, or God, or love in the fellowship (or whatever your Higher Power is), will give us what we need to soften the blow.


It will give us the ability to expand our comfort zone. We get to lengthen our spiritual ability, in our own time, by taking responsibility for inviting that spiritual help in, when we’re ready. A Womans Way Through the 12 Steps, is an excellent, evidence based, tool for clinicians to use. The 12 steps themselves, are simple, safe, loving, and ultimately life-saving.

Author Carlee Whitcome (MA, LLMSW) is a counselor at Sanford House. Carlee has a natural calling and talent for counseling - beginning as early as high school. In addition to leading 12 step discussions, Carlee supports all paths to recovery, modeling and empowering a variety of new ways of thinking including secular, religious, or spiritual. She is well seasoned in the spiritual paths of Yoga and Tai Chi, which she studied at GVSU and elsewhere, offering a unique experience of these mind-body-spirit practices integrated with counseling therapy.