Understanding Step 4 of the 12 Steps

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There is a saying in the 12-step programs that recovery is a process, not an event. The same can be said for Step 4: "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves."

Whether we come through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon Family Groups chances are we bring a lifetime of "stinking thinking" with us. Frankly, it takes a while for the "fog" to begin to lift, so that we begin to see ourselves and the world around us more clearly.

If we have sincerely completed the first three steps and have truly made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him, then it is time to put that principle into action. We must find the courage to take a fearless look at ourselves and become willing to clean up the garbage we find.

In order to proceed, we must identify the problems and get a clear picture of how our behavior affected ourselves and others around us. That picture is not always in focus for newcomers early in recovery, but as we continue to hang around the rooms, listening and learning from others, and keeping an open mind, we find more layers of the "onion" being peeled away.

No Graduating Services

We are not perfect, and never will be in this life. That is the reason there are no graduation services held at 12-step meetings! But if we continue to participate, carrying the message to others, and listening to what they have to share, we can continue to grow and make spiritual progress. That's why they say, "Keep Coming Back!"

Tools to Help With Self Inventory

There are tools available to help in the 4th step process. There is a 4th Step Guide available online for all 12-step members.

The online 4th Step Guide includes an exhaustive set of directions explaining how the guide works and a reminder that an inventory is simply a list: "Please keep in mind that the Fourth Step is not dealing with changing anything. An inventory doesn't change things, it simply lists things. Your inventory is only a story of your feelings and acts from the beginning until now."

The online guide then provides questions and suggestions to help with an inventory from childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, with a final conclusion section for "here and now."

The online 4th Step Guide is of course just a suggested guide that is intended to be helpful to those doing an inventory. It is not intended to be shared with anyone, it is for "your eyes only," according to the directions.

In addition to the online guide, Al-Anon Family Groups has its Blueprint for Progress: Al-Anon's Fourth Step Inventory workbook which can be ordered online.

But the greatest help available in doing Step 4 is available from a power greater than ourselves, as visitors to the bulletin board have demonstrated in their shares on this step, as our study of the 12 Traditions and 12 Steps continues:

Step 4: Daily Inventory

As many of you know from my sharing at the Thursday night 12 step meetings, it took me a long time to get to even work on the 12 steps.

I was told by my Sponsor that all I had to do was work the first step to it's fullest, keep attending meetings, do what I was told, and the rest will come in time. By doing this I was in some manner working on taking the 12 steps, and it was well over a year before I ever missed a meeting.

There finally came a time when I realized that I better get going on the 12 steps, by me attending so many meetings I knew who I wanted to help me with the steps. This very good friend of mine chaired a lot of 12 step meetings, (classes) which I started to attend. I went along just fine until I came upon the 4th step and I hit a wall.

I felt real bad about so many things that I had done in my life, that it seemed impossible to get all of this inventory down right. Finally, one day I was sharing this with my sponsor and he smiled and asked me where I was going. He told me to do the best that I can at this time and I will have plenty of time to do the rest. He told me not to be beating up on myself, (keep it simple) and this is just what I did.

It made it a lot easier and through time I was able to see better of how to take my moral inventory. Once we take these steps it doesn't mean that we are done, nor does it mean that we have to always do the 12 steps in order. I have to take a moral inventory of myself everyday of my life. I have to look back and make sure that I like what Skip has done.


Step 4: Being Honest

Here I am still on step 4. Been here for weeks and weeks it will take to complete. The only thing I can say that has really helped was obtaining the questions to the step on the internet.

There must be 100 questions there and I am still in the childhood part. It is a very hard thing for me to do but I must do this. Being in my 40's I asked the questions, why dear God? Why go back to the past, the painful past. The past is gone, today is here tomorrow is, my hope.

I see now why I must do this and continue to do so. My mother was an alcoholic and died at 49, my brother was an alcoholic and died at 48. Forty-seven is coming for me and I am not going. Looking in the past has made me understand now more than ever why I did marry an alcoholic.

This step is hard -- this step can be painful -- but I only ask that you do it. One hour a day is not that much time and write out the answers and be honest with yourself and remember God is with you if that pain goes right into your heart. And also remember we are all here for each other.


Step 4: A Journey

Step 4 started out for me as a very scary thing. "Moral" inventory? I struggled with questions of morality for most of my life. I came from a religious background that was strict, conservative, and self-righteous. And the self-appointed leader in the family was a woman disgruntled with men, so nothing I said or did, even at age 12, was even close to her moral boundaries. So when I was told that eventually I would take a searching and fearless moral inventory, I was quite reluctant.

Now to get through Step 4. My sponsor had asked me to do several things as a precursor to Step 4. First, I had to list ten physical attributes about myself that I liked. Then I had to list ten personality traits about myself that I liked. Another list was at least ten people that loved me. I had to read these lists every morning and every night for two weeks.

My sponsor continued: Take a sheet of legal paper. Draw a line down the center, and then put a mark in the middle of the line. This was my life line, the center was the middle of my life (at the time I was 32, hence the mark indicated age 16). He told me to start making marks on the line denoting major events in my life.

Once I had done all this, I was ready for Step 4. My sponsor flipped me Hazelden guides, but I couldn't do it that way. Then I attended a meeting one Friday night, largely attended by people rumored to be the graduates of Chicago AA boot camp (the dreaded residences). A woman stormed in, angry at some event that had just occurred, and made her comment, which included this: "If you are working the 4th step, the best way to do it is the way the Big Book explains it." Now why this stuck with me I don't know, but I decided to try it. And I found that yes indeed, this was the best way for me.

So I embarked on my 4th step journey. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. I made lots of progress, but one day I just couldn't write any more. I knew I wasn't finished, but for some reason I had reached a brick wall and couldn't go on. I talked about it in meetings. I talked to my sponsor, but he couldn't help me.

Then a friend in the program invited me to an ACOA meeting. I went to that meeting, and after only 10 minutes the brick wall had fallen down. I resumed writing my 4th step and completed it in just another week. ACOA had opened my eyes about many things that I had suppressed.

With my 4th step completed, I was ready (or so I thought) for Step 5.


By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.