What is Step 4 of the 12 Steps Program?


Step Four of the 12 Steps: We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves

The use of the qualifier “fearless” acknowledges that Step Four of the 12 Steps is frequently approached with sweaty palms and trembling legs. Not only because of what we dread finding, but because this is the transition point, the place where the 12 Steps cross from mental assent to physical action. And lest anyone think the action might still be kept in the purely-mental zone, some programs specify “a … written moral inventory.”

Step Four of the 12 Steps: A Fearless Moral Inventory

Even where it’s not precisely stated, participants in any organized group soon learn that they’ll have to pick up the notebook or open the word processor.

There are good reasons for this. Mental inventories swirl helter-skelter, changed at every turn, minor points ruminated for hours and crucial points quickly forgotten. All-mental is the mark of laziness or cowardice or both, the cop-out that hopes the solution will jump out on its own without hurting too much. So long as the nature of one’s faults is kept in the head, it feels safely hidden from accusing eyes; once it finds its way into a visible medium, however private, the threat of others finding out feels uncomfortably real. Even while it’s kept where you alone can see it, it sits there as a tangible part of reality, no longer a fleeting thought that will vanish if ignored. Your treasured denial defense has taken a hard blow to the stomach.

Alcoholics Anonymous itself (Big Book) acknowledges of Step Four of the 12 Steps that “it must seem to every newcomer that more is being asked of him than he can do. Both his pride and his fear beat him back every time he tries to look within himself. Pride says, ‘You need not pass this way,’ and Fear says, ‘You dare not look!’ But the testimony of [those] who have really tried a moral inventory is that pride and fear of this sort turn out to be bogeymen, nothing else.”

Anyone who’s had physical surgery can relate; when first told they need it, they are gripped by terror as the “unexpected new experience” reflex kicks in, perceived comfort zone rushing away to leave a vacuum, imagination rushing in to fill the space with visions of agonizing pain and mortal danger. After the plunge is taken and the operation completed, however, they recognize emotionally as well as intellectually that it was for the best.

Step Four of the 12 Steps Requires Hard Work

That’s not to say that surgery is free of discomfort–or that making a searching inventory isn’t long, hard work. Typically, participants are asked to set aside at least one full afternoon, if not an entire day, for this project. Especially if you’re like me and specialize in being thorough to the extreme, a serious moral inventory can take up enough space to fill a small book. You don’t have to, and probably shouldn’t, do the whole thing mind-dump-style, though; the more organized the final product, the easier the remaining steps will be.

What Your Step Four Outline Should Look Like

Many formal 12 Step recovery program settings provide their own notebooks or outlines for participants, but if you find yourself designing your own outline, it should include the following points:

  • A timeline of significant events in your life, including the emotions each aroused, the lasting effects on yourself and others, and how you personally contributed to the situation.
  • A list of your personal strengths. This is the good-news part, one frequently overlooked in the assumption that since the purpose of a 12-Step program is to overcome a bad habit, the full focus should be on the faults and shortcomings that keep us in the habit. While it’s important to know the specifics of what needs to be overcome, it’s even more important to understand that every weakness is a strength twisted through selfishness, and capable of being reshaped for something positive. Sometimes, it takes more courage to face this part than to admit what we did wrong–as Marianne Williamson said, “It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us”–but it’s essential to keep us from defining ourselves by our faults and thus feeding the fear that real change is impossible.
  • A list of your primary life values (honesty, spirituality, family, health, etc.), noting which ones you have held to in spite of everything; which ones you have neglected (especially if the neglect precedes the substance-abuse problem); and what could be done to change the latter situation.
  • A list of the flaws that you need to overcome. Try not to make this longer than your “strengths” list; it needn’t be, since every fault is really a misdirected strength. When you finish the “weaknesses” list, check it against the “strengths” list and make sure that each of the former has its counterpart on the latter.
  • A list of “triggers,” or situations/provocations that most predispose you to take a drink, a snort, a pop, etc. This will be needed in deciding how to modify your life for lasting change.
  • An overview of your primary relationships and how these have affected your life and, where relevant, your habit. You needn’t go into extensive detail on whom you owe an apology or restitution; that will be covered thoroughly in Step 8.
  • An evaluation of the fears and uncertainties that are holding you back, noting what might have caused these, where they are unreasonable, and how often they have proved unfounded.
  • A detailed vision of yourself in a clean, recovered future where, as the person you were truly made to be, you are achieving your full potential. No judgments allowed as to what’s “practical” or “impossible” or “would give my mom/wife/boyfriend a fit”–the purpose here is to clear your vision so you can better see your own hopes and dreams, irrespective of what “everybody else” tries to obligate you to. People who follow their own inner leading are far less likely to have substance-abuse problems than are those who let others plan their lives for them; so you’ll find it far easier to stay clean once you have a firm, long-term, and passionate grasp on a vision that feels challenging yet achievable.

Remember, the moral inventory during Step Four of the 12 Steps is not intended as a beat-yourself-up or put-yourself-down exercise. The idea is to understand, as completely as possible, who you really are and where the “ideal you” got off track–so you can clarify what needs to be corrected, yes, but also so you can move forward into realizing your true potential as a force for good in the world.

About Kemah Palms Recovery®

Kemah Palms Recovery® offers comprehensive Houston substance abuse treatment programs centered around the 12 Steps. Blending evidence-based addiction therapy services with beneficial holistic approaches, our goal is to meet clients where they are on the road to recovery. To learn more about Kemah Palms, call our addiction treatment admissions office today at 855-568-0218.

More About the 12 Steps