The following is my fourth entry in a series about the 12-step spiritual program of recovery.
Step 4: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Step 4 is found in Chapter 5 (How It Works) page 63, last paragraph, through page 71 of The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. We are to take a personal inventory in order to “face, and be rid of, the things in ourselves which have been blocking us. Our addiction is but a symptom. We had to get down to causes and conditions”. Searching and fearless means thorough and honest. We cover our entire life, past and present, leaving nothing out, exhausting everything we can bring to consciousness. Having set a firm foundation in Step 3, we now have the courage and strength to look within and shine light on the true causes of our problems. What we discover we write down. We search through every emotional aspect of our lives, resentments (anger), shame/guilt (I am a bad person/what I did was bad), fear (stress, tension, anxiety, terror) and all of our life situations: relationships (sex/people/institutions), work/career (people and institutions), finances (beliefs and fear around money), spiritual (God/religion), health (physical/mental health problems). We look at our life events, real and imagined, how and why we were threatened by what we believed was happening, and how our actions and reactions created or contributed to the destructive outcome for ourselves and others.
This step is very frightening for many because we are being asked to fully face our beliefs about ourselves (who we think we are), life, the world, and God that are based on shame, guilt, threat, fear, and terror. It can feel like we are facing Death itself! This is why I have witnessed many return to their addiction at this point and why it is vital that we have found the needed courage and strength in step 3.
When I first did step 4, I felt like I was having to show the world that I was a horrible, disgusting, failure of a human being. I had many things in my past that I had vowed to never let see the light of day, of which I had deep shame, guilt, and fear. I lived 24/7 with a deep terror that the world would discover what a truly awful person I was and so my experience of life was that of constant fear, tension, threat, and pain. My addiction to alcohol and drugs was my medication because it had provided relief at one point in the past. But it had betrayed me long ago when it started adding to my shame, guilt, and fear. Even with its betrayal, I kept desperately hoping it would one day, again, relieve, even for a moment, the terrible pain and threat life had become. Step 4 was the beginning of the end of all this shame, guilt, and fear I believed was my lot in life and thus a vital step in my freedom from addiction. As I have grown spiritually, I discovered that Step 4 provided me with the objectivity to see that I believed a lie about myself, life, the world, and God. For those who shy from this step, I want you to know that it is a discovery of what you are not, a lie that you only believe is true. When seen this way, step 4 is a little easier.
There are a wide variety of step 4 formats and worksheets which can be used. The book gives some examples as well. The key is to start writing. Some people set aside a weekend (or several weekends) where they can devote all their time and focus to this work. Others may spread the work out over time, devoting a few hours on certain days until done. Fear may tempt us to skip some things but this will leave us vulnerable to returning to our addiction. To help bring things into your consciousness look for things in your past and present that you feel shame or guilt, resentment (burning anger), or treated unfairly. It is important to see how your action or reaction to your feelings and beliefs about the situation created or contributed to the outcome.
Here is a real world example (not from my 4th step, my mother is still alive and well).
Situation: My sister is angry at me and told everyone that I did not come home for my mother when she was dying.
My feelings: shame and humiliation (I am a terrible person and others think so too). Anger and resentment at my sister because she says bad things about me to other people and didn't lie about where I was like I asked.
Beliefs about myself/life/world: I am a terrible son/daughter. I hate myself and cannot forgive myself for not being there for my mother and family.
How does this affect my life: my relationship with my mother/sister/family. I avoid my mother’s memory out of shame. I don’t talk to my sister because of my shame and anger.
How does this Threaten me: self-esteem (everyone thinks I am a horrible person), financial security (family might cut off financial help).
What I did to create or contribute to this situation: I got drunk and high instead of going home to help out with my mother's death.
In this example, notice how this persons reaction (not going to dying mother) to the event (death of parent) created a chain of harmful events ending with estrangement, hurt, and resentments for themselves and their family members.
Step 4 is hard work and a vital undertaking. It is well worth the effort for you are now actually “doing” what it takes to be free.
How do I know if I did step 4?
You have exhausted everything you can bring to consciousness from you past and present. You have left nothing out and have written everything down. You have covered all of your life to date. Everything and everyone for which you feel shame, guilt, resentment, anger, fear, and threat is now in writing as well as how your actions and reactions contributed to the outcome.
How should I feel after doing step 4?
I actually felt exhilarated for accomplishing such an arduous task. You may feel emotionally exhausted, as well you should. At this point, many begin to notice that their addiction is losing power over their lives.
Next we will do Step 5.
David Saffold is a Professional Life Coach and student at the Estuary. He has been helping people use the 12 step spiritual program to recover from alcohol and drug addiction for over 25 years.