The 4th Step in Alcoholics Anonymous asks members to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” This request is not an arbitrary one but has been proven to be essential in establishing a sound foundation for recovery. What this step really asks of the member is much deeper and thorough than anyone may realize at the outset, but with a little diligence and support from a sponsor, the benefits are well worth the effort.
First Things First
As you may have heard already in the program: “first things first.” Be sure that you are properly set up to work on your 4th Step by having fully gone through the first three steps with another program member. Only after this initial work in the program is the process of creating a workable 4th Step possible. There may also be some fear of the 5th Step, in which a member must divulge the contents of their 4th Step to another individual (ideally their sponsor), that inhibits the work of the fourth. First, worry about executing the 4th Step in a thorough manner, and then work through your fears about having to share it with someone else.
A Fearless Inventory
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous specifically mentions the importance of putting the aspects of the 4th Step down in “pen and paper.” That is, this inventory cannot and should not be an oral inventory. The program member must see his or her inventory on paper in front of them to ensure thoroughness and coherence in their thoughts about themselves and others.
The 4th Step inventory should contain three critical parts: resentments, fears, and sexual conduct/harm done to others.
List any thoughts, experiences, memories, ideas, beliefs, or observations from your entire life that currently cause you negative emotional or mental experiences. This does not necessarily include the negative mental or emotional impulses that cause you to drink, but the thoughts you harbor that cause detrimental emotional or mental experiences from the past to the present. Usually, resentments are oriented towards a person, object, place, or thing and, in this sense, having a specific list via pen and paper is essential for listing these items. Don’t forget that part of this process includes taking an honest look at resentments towards yourself, as well as resentments or reservations that you may have about things relevant to the program, such as the program itself or a Higher Power.
Listing your fears may feel like an endless task. However, you may be amazed at how they seem to dissipate the moment you jot them down. Of course, there are some fears that are not as easily removed or even identifiable, but that is why you have a sponsor to help you in the process. Some helpful thoughts when considering your fears include asking yourself, “What do I fear today?” Then move forwards and backward and ask yourself, “What do I fear from the past?” and “What do I fear about the future?”
3. Sexual Conduct/Harm Done to Others
Depending on your temperament, this section can prove somewhat unnerving. However, experience has shown that sexual conduct is intimately linked to our views of ourselves and our views of others. In this sense, a thorough exploration of our sexual conduct in the past, especially as it relates to exposing character flaws or blemishes in us is essential. Many program members suffer from long-standing and repressed resentments, shame, and insecurity due to prior sexual experiences, which lingers for years below the surface. The 4th step is all about bringing these lingering fears, worries, shames, and elements of anger to the surface for an honest examination. The goal of ridding ourselves of these harmful pieces of our emotional and mental lives makes this process very worthwhile indeed.
The biggest challenge for those engaging in a first 4th step is relinquishing the notion of righteous anger, justifications for their harmful actions or rationalizations that minimize the harms caused. What we desire above all is honesty, thoroughness, and a completely critical look at ourselves, which refuses to excuse the harms that we may have caused to ourselves or others.