Step 4 – Taking A Look

Step 4 – Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves(*)

Today I chuckle at the word ‘fearless’ in Step 4. I don’t know a single person who has ever started an inventory with feeling at least some trepidation, and sometimes those feelings come close to downright panic. Given that fear and the 4th Step pretty much go hand-in-hand at least in the beginning, it’s not surprising that many try to avoid this step.

Most, however, find if they don’t do an inventory they are at risk of returning to their addiction. In fact many who skip the inventory do slip.

So the most obvious reason to do the 4th Step is because it’s part of how we stay sober or clean or learn to change our addictive behaviors. But there’s more to it than just that, although that’s quite a bit.

Coming to terms with our past

Somehow we’ve got to come to terms with the actions we took while we were in the grip of our addiction. It’s not enough just to admit we were nuts; we need to see, in some detail, how our actions, and our thinking affected others and ourselves. We need to take responsibility for what we have done.

Looking squarely at where we’ve been wrong is a crucial part of being able to let go of our central problem, our addiction, and moving on to a life that’s happy, joyous and free – one of the promises that’s made in the Big Book.

And looking at where and how we’ve been wrong is exactly whats meant by ‘moral’ The word is actually defined in part as “the distinction between right and wrong.” (1) It’s that simple really.

7 Deadly Sins oh my

Oh sure, the book, the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions suggests using the Seven Deadly Sins as a guideline. That sounds pretty awful, but when you look at them you may see that they make sense to you – they are pretty universal. They are:

  1. Pride
  2. Envy
  3. Lust
  4. Gluttony
  5. Anger
  6. Greed
  7. Sloth or procrastination

If those make sense to you by all means use them. Or keep it simple and use the guide in the Big Book. Or simply make a list of the things you remember today that you’ve done wrong in the past. Add the how-to information about the inventory in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions which some find easier to understand and do.

Some people just start with the things that are bothering them most. Others make an attempt to do it year-by-year, or grade in school, or relationship by relationship. Sure you can use the various workbooks that are around, or you can stick to the basics in the Big Book and the 12 and 12.

It’s about our part

It’s so tempting to write about what they did wrong to us! And an entirely human impulse I think, but just the opposite of what’s intended in Step 4. We are to look for our part in the issue or incident.

Sometimes our part can seem pretty obscure and hard to find. It may boil down to the idea that while we certainly weren’t at fault when the incident occurred, we’ve hung on to the anger or fear or blame much too long. That may be what we have to acknowledge for no matter what happened in the past, it’s our feelings about it now that really count, and it is those current feelings that are getting in our way, acting as an excuse, today.

It can seem tricky at first. We’re so stuck in our story of what went wrong. That story is familiar and in a peculiar way, comfortable. It may be worth noting that Dr. Bob, one of AA’s co-founders, apparently completed all 6 Steps – the ones that evolved into the 12 we have today, in what must have been a very long afternoon and evening.

Now the step does ask us to be thorough, but like all things in Program, there is no such thing as perfection – at least none we can recognize. I like what a mentor of mine said about this step:

“Anne, doing a fourth step is like weeding a garden. The day you weed you’ll work really hard and the garden will look weed-free. Come back a day or two later and there will be more weeds. That’s life, and those new weeds can be handled with step ten.”

In other words, write your inventory, and yes writing seems to have some magic to it. Do it well but do it. Don’t get caught up in a way that keeps you writing your 4th Step for a year or more, or even more than a week or two. Step 10, which is where we continue to take inventory, will help us with new issues and when old issues re-surface.

What’s been your experience with Step 4?

Love and blessings,

Anne W. Powerfully Recovered

(1) moral. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: July 19, 2011).


Ginger October 2, 2011 at 1:37 pm

FEARLESS and THOROUGH are extremely important. That means an HONEST inventory.
This is part of the “radiation-chemo treatment” that kills the cancer of alcoholic behavior. That which does not kill me has made me stronger…
This step was a powerful retrospective insight to what and why I did what I did.
You do not have to like it, just do it.
Thank you God

annew October 2, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Yes, self-honesty is the key.

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