This is part four of a twelve-part series wherein we will take a closer look at each of the twelve steps of recovery. This post was originally published on AA Beyond Belief. Reposted with permission.
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
by John S.
Introduction: A few weeks ago, I had another interesting conversation with my friend Benn B. as we continue to record podcast episodes examining the Twelve Steps. Today, we are posting the podcast about Step Four and with it, the following essay about my experience with the step. Thank you Benn for providing me with the inspiration to write this.
Over the years, I’ve frequently heard in meetings that there’s a reason the steps were written in order. The implication being, that to do them correctly, one must work them sequentially, from one through twelve. I think to a certain extent this is true because the steps are based on our actual experience with recovery — and recovery is a process of steady personal growth. We start at the bottom, and through a series of actions that include getting honest, asking for help, and making an effort to change — we learn about ourselves and our relationships with other people. I think Step Four in particular requires some preparation, a process to follow. There were a few steps I needed to take before I was ready to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself.
The Big Book helped guide me through this process, and though I repeatedly read and studied the book, this wasn’t entirely an intellectual exercise. In fact, a lot of what happened in my recovery was based more on actual experiences that I had than anything I learned in a book. The Big Book simply helped me understand and learn from those experiences.
A good example of this was my experience with the first two steps. Other than acceptance, there wasn’t any particular action that I needed to take. I simply reached a point where I accepted and admitted that I was an alcoholic, and I came to believe that I could find help in the rooms of AA.
Admitting that I was an alcoholic and coming to believe I could be helped in AA were important, life-changing events, but I think the effect would have been short lived had I not made a decision to follow through with the suggested program of recovery — the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. That, to me is what Step Three was all about, a decision to work the rest of the steps, a decision made easier through the convenience of having them presented as an ordered list. This allowed me to read ahead, and to view the steps in their entirety, as an interconnected and interdependent set of principles and actions that build upon and feed into one another.
The decision in Step Three was critical I think, because it involved coming to understand that drinking was indeed only a symptom of my problem. If I were to truly recover, then “I must get down to causes and conditions”. (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 64).
Looking at that numbered list of suggested steps, I could see exactly what that decision would entail.
I would need to take a personal inventory and share it with another person.
I would need to build character.
I would need to make amends.
I would need to check my motives on a daily basis.
I would need to seek serenity and peace.
I would need to help others.
Of course, there would be no reason to do any of these things unless I believed it was necessary for my full recovery, and this is where the Big Book was instrumental. It helped me understand exactly what was at the root of my problem. In Chapter Five, which is titled “How it Works”, the authors clearly lay out the problem:
Self-centeredness, at least in my case, was dangerous and destructive, and all the more noticeable after I stopped drinking. It seemed that during the first two years of my sobriety, I was almost always in conflict with other people. I was frequently angry and depressed, and it was during this time that I came the closest to a relapse. Although things had certainly improved, I wasn’t really in full control of my emotions and life wasn’t as good as it could have been.
Finally, I reached a point where I just couldn’t stand it any longer. I felt a need to dig deeper and to gain a better understanding of the causes and conditions of my alcoholism — the various manifestations of self.
Convinced that I needed to change, I was now ready for Step Four.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
I started drinking at an early age, and alcohol became my medicine. It numbed my emotional pain, it masked my fears, it hid my insecurities, and it helped me forget — at least for a while. However, in time, the very elixir that I discovered as a child began to turn on me in adolescence, and by the time I was a young adult, it made life absolutely impossible. Most striking of all, and unbeknownst to me at the time, alcoholism had warped my thinking so that eventually I was divorced from reality altogether. It was Step Four that helped me find my way out of the fog and haze of alcoholism, and gave me enough clarity to at least make a beginning in understanding the truth about myself.
So how does one actually do a personal inventory? As far as I’m concerned, there is no right or wrong way to practice this step. I think what’s important is that we follow the general principle of self-honesty, and that we are willing to be searching and fearless in the pursuit of truth. Some will take the approach of reviewing the seven deadly sins as laid out in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (12 x 12), others will simply write out their life story, and still others will review a sampling of the more significant events from their lives. I used the process outlined in the Big Book, and reviewed my resentments, fears and sexual conduct.
Re • sent • ment
In AA, I learned that resentment is a condition or state of mind whereby one relives some past event, and feels the emotion from that event as if it were happening now. Resentment is literally to feel (sentire) again (re), and it was the fuel that fed the fires of my alcoholism. The original members of AA who wrote the book Alcoholics Anonymous believed “resentment was the number one offender, and that it destroys more alcoholics than anything else”. (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 64). I don’t know where they got this idea, whether it was from psychology or religion, but I think there’s something to it. In my case it seemed to make sense.
I learned that though resentments were based in fact and arose from actual events, over time I added to the story so that eventually I no longer knew what was true or not. I relived these painful memories over and over again, using them to explain my failures and to justify my drinking. Between the bouts of drinking, I was frequently living in the past — a past of my own creation. I was deluded.
Paradoxically, the resentments that were killing me were also the key to my recovery. They provided an easy and simple way to constructively review my past. Following the suggestion outlined in the Big Book, I took pen to paper and I listed my resentments. I should say in the interest of honest disclosure, that this occurred only after a long period of time had passed that might have appeared to some (including my sponsor) as procrastination. Perhaps to a great extent it was, but it was also during this time that I was contemplating and preparing myself for what I believed would be an important and transformative experience.
For newcomers, if initially this step causes you too much difficulty, it’s okay to step back for a while. There is no need to rush into it. I found that in those early days and months of recovery, I was learning the practice of self-honesty simply by attending and participating in AA meetings. When I listened to others share about their past, and the truth they learned about themselves, it helped me to do the same. During that time of seeming procrastination, I was garnering the willingness necessary to go through with this step, and I was drawing upon the experience of those who had gone before me. They were my inspiration, my hope and my strength, and it was they who ultimately prepared me for this step.
The Fourth Step, like the whole of recovery, is a process — not an event. When the time was right for me, it seemed as if the pen in my hand had a direct connection to my mind, and the memories of a lifetime just poured out onto the page.
I listed my resentments on paper, but not necessarily in chronological order. I started with what I knew was my most serious resentment and my most painful memory, and once I wrote down that resentment, the dam was burst. I wrote for hours in one sitting, resentment after resentment, and in every instance I asked myself how I was affected — and what I learned surprised me. In the third column where I listed how the resentment affected me, I had repeatedly written “security”. Up until that time, I never thought of myself as an insecure person, but there it was on paper, and I realized it was the truth.
Now, this is not a judgmental statement in the sense that I was somehow defective for being insecure or that I was wrong for allowing my security to be threatened, nor was this an indictment of the people I resented. This was nothing more than an inventory of events from my life and how they affected me. In fact, through the process of writing, I actually gained some understanding and compassion for the people I resented.
I had a difficult time with the fear section of the inventory. I followed the advice given in the Big Book, and if fear was connected to a resentment, I listed it in brackets in that third column. I went back to examine my fears and I asked myself why I had them. Did self-reliance fail me? Yes, I could see that self-reliance compounded my fears. No matter the crisis or problem, I never asked for help. I never trusted another human being enough to let them know I was afraid. I kept it all inside, all to myself and I think deep down, I knew that it was just a matter of time before the entire house of cards came tumbling down. I’ve since found a better way to live. I trust people and as a result, fear doesn’t dominate me like it did at one time.
I felt that I had done some serious thinking about my fears and that I gained some understanding of myself as a result. I was quite satisfied. Unfortunately, Roy was not satisfied and he was my sponsor. He seemed to think I did it all wrong, and I suppose technically he was right. After all, the book does suggest that we list our fears and ask ourselves why we have them. I started over and listed my fears, whether they were connected to a resentment or not. I can’t recall, but I bet I must have listed a hundred of them. It wasn’t a productive exercise to be honest, and Roy still wasn’t pleased. No matter what I did, Roy was insistent that I failed the fear part of the inventory.
I don’t resent Roy. He’s a good guy, but he was mistaken. There is no wrong way to do this step! Never tell someone who made an honest effort to review their fears that they didn’t do it right! In spite of Roy’s disapproval, this was a good experience. I learned that my basic fear involved not being accepted by others. Once again, it all tied into my overriding need for security.
I was terribly shy as a kid, especially during those awkward years of adolescence. I dealt with it through avoidance. I didn’t date, and with the exception of junior prom, I never went to a high school dance. Remarkably enough, a nice girl befriended me, and I was crazy about her. I suppose that I would consider her my first girlfriend. She was very different from me in that she was fun and outgoing and popular. I on the other hand was quiet and insecure. There’s certainly nothing unusual in all of this. It’s typical high school growing pains. The only problem is that this is when my drinking started taking over and I wasn’t growing. I had the pain without the growth.
When I inventoried my sexual conduct, I decided to include any romantic relationship, even if sex wasn’t involved. This was important because my sexual experience at that time was fairly limited, and drinking played such a huge role in keeping me distanced and detached from others. Had I not been drinking, my sexual life would have been healthier and more fulfilling. I suppose that would be true for many if not most of us.
I did what was suggested, and I reviewed my sexual conduct and relationships to ask where I was selfish, dishonest, and inconsiderate. I took a look at who I hurt and what I could have done differently. I found that I was selfish, dishonest and inconsiderate in every instance. I never harmed anyone physically, but I certainly did my share of emotional harm. In most of my relationships, I simply disappeared so I wasn’t around to see who may have been hurt. Only once was I present for the tears.
Reviewing my sex conduct and my past relationships was helpful, but I don’t think it made things easier as I started dating in sobriety. I was in my late twenties and early thirties going through what I should have experienced during those high school years. It was fun though. I still remember my first date in sobriety. I was two years sober and she was someone I knew either from an old job or from college. I believe it was the first time that I had ever gone on a date without needing a drink to get through it. I didn’t pursue that relationship because the time just wasn’t right. I was still rebuilding the basic infrastructure of my life, and I wasn’t ready for a relationship.
I continued dating through my thirties and I had a few long-term relationships. By the time I was in my early forties, I met the woman who is now my wife. I fell in love with her instantly and I asked her to marry me within six months of meeting her. Next month, we will have been married for ten years.
I can’t say that the sex inventory corrected all of my sex problems. It’s still a difficult area and I’m not always very good at communicating about sex. It is indeed progress not perfection that we are seeking and I’m happy with that.
Step Four provided me not only with some insight into who I was, but it also gave me some understanding and forgiveness of others. I felt at peace with the process and I was eager to get on with Step Five. I called my sponsor the night that I finished my inventory and we set up a time to meet the next day. As it turned out, it took me two days to go through the Fifth Step. Partly, because of the length of my Fourth Step, and partly because my sponsor was hard of hearing, making it necessary for me to often repeat myself. More about that later, as well as why one should never do the Fifth Step in a city park.
I assume that most people today use their computer and type out their fourth step, so I created these templates that might be useful for those who are ready for this step.
You can also listen to a podcast discussion of Step 4.