Shadow Work: Dreams and Steps 6-7 of 12

An earlier posting covered the relationship between dreams and the first 5 steps of the Anonymous programs. For readers who work with clients in recovery, this post addresses the “forgotten” steps, 6 & 7, about which very little is said in the original 12 step recovery literature. It is not surprising that as the book Alcoholics Anonymous was published with the most senior members of the fellowship being sober only four years, and no more than ten members with two years clean or more, that there was limited experience in the fellowship about how elements of the shadow emerge over years of recovery. So there is no surprise if people get better at the rate of a step a year, there were just two paragraphs on steps six and seven in the original edition (1939). So here’s a long post on a short subject . . .

Brain Ennor photo credit
Brain Ennor photo credit

It has been said that “No matter what step someone is actually working on, people in recovery get better at the rate of a step a year.” If that’s true, it would be clients in advanced recovery, their second five years, where we see dreamwork active in these areas. Yet  clients with substantially less time seem to experience dream content around the principles behind these for steps: Willingness & Humility.

When treatment programs proliferated in the 1980s (after new insurance coverage and before the onset of managed care,) many treatment programs operated a 30 day program taking clients through the first five steps. They left off at the nebulous step six, which is described in a single paragraph of the original 12 step textbook but which someone could spend a lifetime working: “Became entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character.” This refers of course to the less desirable qualities dredged up in the steps related to admitting a problem and committing a written introspection shared verbally with another recovering person. When I think of steps six and seven, I think of instincts, often survivor skills, that worked at one time and no longer work for the person in recovery.

One client who struggled with authority – for good reason early on – could not outgrow this shortcoming later in life. She had a dream of running from the police, and “I had a garden I had planted and someone wanted me to do something different with it but I was very stubborn about it.” She was actually in  relapse for about a month before she admitted her stealing and drug using to staff in her continuing care environment. She recreated some months later the struggle with authority represented as an instinctual exercise of her will against authority.

Instincts and Mediation

That’s “Mediation,” not “Meditation,” and certainly not “Medication.” However, meditation is an artful balance toward the instincts that seem to be at the heart of steps six and seven, and these days many people in recovery are on medications they rightfully need and should not abruptly stop without physician advice. What we are talking about here is “mediation” of the instincts, the “mediator” often being an observer consciousness in the dreamtime. That sounds complicated, but what it really says is that sometimes a dream figure can help us not damage others by instincts flowing unfiltered into our actions. In fact, Sigmund Freud so based his dreamwork on sex drives, and made a bulwark of it, that it took half a century for psychiatry and psychology to look at anything else. John Barth, inspired at rebellion in his novel, End of the Road, wrote quite a humorous riff on this dynamic, if Freud were correct, then:

End of the Road ~ John Barth
End of the Road ~ John Barth

this one simple yen of humankind, poor little coitus, alone gives rise to cities and monasteries, paragraphs and poems, foot races and battle tactics, metaphysics and hydroponics, trade unions and universities? Who would not delight in telling some extragalactic tourist, “On our planet, sir, males and females copulate. Moreover, they enjoy copulating. But for various reasons they cannot do this whenever, wherever, and with whomever they choose. Hence all this running around that you observe. Hence the world?” A therapeutic notion!

While sex without restraint is ultimately the undoing of the characters in Barth’s novel, most people in recovery have a wider range of impulses to navigate or to mediate. Sex and aggression, sure, are present. Several clients lately, well beyond the fourth and fifth steps, have had dreams involving a devil or the devil – and not always as an adversary. Shelley Marshall, in her book, Your Dream of Recovery” relates a 6th step dream of a client dancing with the devil. To some degree, every human has to dance with the devil of instinct – when cut off by a driver in traffic – when attracted to someone, when tempted to overindulge. These are examples of what step 6 in the recovery literature of Alcoholics Anonymous refers to in this way: “At this point in our development, we are under heavy coercion to do the right thing. We have to choose between the pains of trying and the certain penalties of a failure to do so.” (12 and 12, page 76).

What connects Shadow Work and these steps?

First, the Shadow can be explained as repressed material that unconsciously affects our decisions, moods, and relationships. Robert Bly calls it “The long bag we drag behind us.” Connie Zweig, Editor of the Tarcher Putnam book “Meeting the Shadow,  and author of Romancing the Shadow, says that Jung had in mind that everything which stands in the light casts a shadow. The concept comes from Jung’s dream in which he was carrying a lamp outside, and he was increasing unnerved to the point of desperation with fear of that which crept up behind him – his own shadow. In the end, the shadow for all of us is what we have chosen to repress, including aspects of self which may be instinctual in nature. Shadow work begins with the introspection of step four (personal inventory) and brings dark material into the light in step five.

Fight or flight impulses in school aged children sometime mean the difference in riding on the bus in peace of falling under the wheels of it. At certain times, it is not cool to show fear, weakness, vulnerability (mostly in men) or intelligence, competency, or sensuality (mostly in females.) The phenomenon of girls “dumbing down” is well documented in the literature with an onset around age 8-10. Appearing too smart may be a social disadvantage. Early sexual development, considered an advantage for boys (socially, interaction with adults) is a disadvantage to girls. Layer on top of this a variety of family or social messages, like “Be thin,” “Be nice,” “Don’t cry,” “Hurry up,” “Shut up,” “Don’t tell anyone what goes on in this house,” or “Toughen up,” and you have the makings of some very valuable survival skills that do not serve us as the adults we would like to be.

Dreams sometimes express conflicts between those instincts that kept someone alive in a key dysfunctional relationship but which endure beyond the life of that relationship in an unhealthy way. In the example dream above, the dreamer had suffered significant abuse from an adult at a key point in her life; her problem in part was that she persisted in her rebellion long after her family member got help. Change in viewpoint or change in mode of acting and reacting is appropriate not only for substance users, but for those who grew up in a dysfunctional home or who found an alcoholic partner (ACA and Al-Anon), or for someone who engages in a behavioral addiction or process addiction (for which Overeaters Anonymous or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous or Sexaholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous might be a solution).


Another way steps six and seven make themselves known is through the Complex. That is the person you cannot stand and can’t say why; the things that go wrong without reason; the stunted relationship or the day everything you pick up seems empty or broken. In the complex lies a secret: something about us has gone awry and keeps replicating itself. It looks like the fault lies with others, but responsibility is closer at hand for the dreamer. A complex is usually a set of circumstances in which a person falls into a familiar and undesirable pattern without being able to see her role in creating the situation, often asking, “How did I wind up her again?”

Here is an example of a person stuck in a victim complex – for good reason, but stuck nonetheless. This dreamer, actually in the same group as our less successful first example, had a series of abusive boyfriends. It would be easy to stop there, but a key dream for her revolved around an image of her journal, which was kept in a safe, in Journalinga lingerie store. What could seem more private than that? Looking with courage at her role in the dynamics of her relationships was key in this woman moving forward through her “character defects” into more responsibility for her behavior with transparency and a desire for help. By safeguarding her recovery, and by holding closely what she was learning through journalling and therapy, she did not have to act on impulse. At last contact, she was clean 18 months and active in her recovery program. There’s power in the action of talking things out and writing things out; it keeps these defects of character or distorted thinking from caroming around the mind unchallenged!