Understanding and Practicing Step Four

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Step Four begins an important new chapter of our recovery, so pay close attention. (igor.stevanovic/Shutterstock)

Step Four begins an important new chapter of our recovery, so pay close attention. (igor.stevanovic/Shutterstock)

Now that we have entered the month of April, it is time to introduce our fourth installment in our series on the Twelve Steps. This is an important one, as it begins a new chapter in our step work. Step One, Step Two and Step Three are all strongly connected as the three primary steps that must be taken before our true works in recovery can begin. Upon reaching Step Four, however, we have instilled the necessary values and are ready to begin taking action.

That said, the “action” in Step Four is relatively limited. We are, in essence, simply building to the next step in our recovery. This step is something of a transition between the first three steps and Step Five, as we are still in a period of necessary reflection yet are ever aware that this reflection will soon lead to a test of courage. The undertaking of Step Four will not be successful if we do not maintain trust in our sponsors, or any others within our support network to whom we might turn for guidance as we seek to develop a stronger sense of honesty.

If we have not taken the first three steps in earnest, our work in Step Four will prove futile. For this reason, we strongly encourage you to spend some time reflecting upon whether or not you have truly reached a point of acceptance when acknowledging your powerlessness over your addictions. You must consider whether or not you have identified a Higher Power that works for you, and if you are truly ready to turn your will over to this power for the sake of your recovery. If you can answer “yes” to all three of these concerns, you are ready to continue.

What Is Step Four?

We are like the cat, and everyone hurt by our instincts is like the butterfly. Our addiction is the force that sends us crashing through the window every time we decide it’s okay to treat others as prey. (Maryna Konoplystska/Shutterstock)

We are like the cat, and everyone hurt by our instincts is like the butterfly. Our addiction is the force that sends us crashing through the window every time we decide it’s okay to treat others as prey. (Maryna Konoplystska/Shutterstock)

As written in AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Step Four is:

“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

To some, it would seem as if this is when we inventory our character defects. And there is certainly no rule against doing such a thing. But more importantly than that, we are looking for the aspects of our lives that have caused us the most harm. Like all human beings, we are driven by many wants and needs—sexual desire, hunger for power, and financial or emotional security. There is nothing wrong about having such desires, but we have often allowed them to hurt us because we took our greed and selfishness in obtaining these things too far.

But wait…how does that hurt us? Surely we are talking about harm to others, which is an entirely different set of steps. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Our desire to obtain more than life has given us will also result in the formation of resentments against anyone we deem to have stood in our way. These resentments have created within us a great wealth of anger and depression, often driving us to substance abuse.

In other words, we have more or less spent years in active addiction suffering from one long, ongoing emotional disturbance. Much like any other mental obsession, this disturbance will not clear away as soon as we have gone through the detoxification process. Step Four is our first step toward truly acknowledging the harm that our resentments have caused. We must also look at other emotional disturbances that have crept up in our lives, often based on the same wants and needs mentioned above. Fear is a big one, as we are often terrified that we will not get the things for which we yearn so badly. As noted by the 12&12:

“Alcoholics especially should be able to see that instinct run wild in themselves is the underlying cause of their destructive drinking. We have drunk to drown feelings of fear, frustration, and depression. We have drunk to escape the guilt of passions, and then have drunk again to make more passions possible. We have drunk for vainglory—that we might the more enjoy foolish dreams of pomp and power. This perverse soul-sickness is not pleasant to look upon.”

Nonetheless, we must look upon our illness if we wish to recover from it. This is why Step Four requires a searching and fearless moral inventory, and this is why we must truly embrace all that is required of us if we are to perform Step Four correctly.

What It Means

If we can be truly fearless in our efforts, we will unlock the door to greater self-knowledge and a stronger program of recovery. (BsWei/Shutterstock)

If we can be truly fearless in our efforts, we will unlock the door to greater self-knowledge and a stronger program of recovery. (BsWei/Shutterstock)

The meaning of Step Four can be found in those two little words: “searching” and “fearless.” Unfortunately, some will enjoy this search a little too much. The 12&12 states:

“If temperamentally we are on the depressive side, we are apt to be swamped with guilt and self-loathing. We wallow in this messy bog, often getting a misshapen and painful pleasure out of it. As we morbidly pursue this melancholy activity, we may sink to such a point of despair that nothing but oblivion looks possible as a solution. Here, of course, we have lost all perspective, and therefore all genuine humility. For this is pride in reverse.”

We noted this in our own recent article on humility. We must be thorough in working Step Four, but we also must be objective. We must recall all fears and resentments that have caused us harm, but we must also be careful not to get too wrapped up in them. Keep your search as objective as you can manage, not stopping at any point to dwell on the past.

Of course, not everyone will derive this sort of sick pleasure from their moral inventory. For many, Step Four is a very frightening prospect. Many of us have used substance abuse as a shield against this very sort of self-analysis, and seeing ourselves in cold, broad daylight will be a very raw experience. Nevertheless, we must not stray from the task that has been set before us. Remember that Step Four is the first step requiring anything close to real action. If we back out now, we may risk sealing our fate before we ever gave ourselves a chance to tread the right path.

Any number of things can cause this fear. Perhaps our pride will try and prevent us from believing that we truly possess any character defects, deciding instead that they were solely caused by our substance abuse and the resultant lack of inhibitions. Or perhaps we simply don’t want to admit that, on some level, we were not always the good people we wanted to be. The important thing to remember is that we can still be those people, but only if we are thoroughly honest with ourselves. This begins at Step Four. And if we are ready to tackle Step Four without fear, we will find that the practice is really not so difficult.

How to Practice

We must be thorough in making our lists, so be sure to give it some real thought. (Lolostock/Shutterstock)

We must be thorough in making our lists, so be sure to give it some real thought. (Lolostock/Shutterstock)

Resentments are the first thing we should list when doing Step Four, and we will find instructions for this on page 65 of “How It Works” in Alcoholics Anonymous. Some sponsors may vary in how they wish you to format this list, but the basics will always be the same. We start with writing down everyone we resent, making an honest endeavor not to leave a single name off the list. Then, we go down a second column, writing the cause of each resentment. We then write which of our instincts (sexual, social, security, self-esteem, etc.) is affected by this resentment. We may also state whether this resentment was caused by fear, hurt pride, or both. And while “How It Works” does not say this, it often helps to follow by expanding upon our part in the resentment, even if it is as simple as allowing ourselves to feel the resentment without attempting to let it go. We always play a part, so do not leave this blank.

For some, Step Four may end with the above list. But if we are attempting to be thorough, we may continue by doing the same thing with our fears. Again, we will take each column one at a time. We start by listing each of our fears, then make a second column elaborating on why we possess this fear. We may then do a column on the instincts that were affected. In this case, we do not need to note whether fear or pride is relevant, since the answer is obvious. We also do not need to put “our part,” since this is not quite relevant. We may, however, note how this fear has had a negative impact on our lives.

Very few sponsors will recommend this since it is technically a part of Step Eight, but some complete Step Four with a section on the harm we have done to others. We have even seen sponsors who issue a section specifically on harmful sexual conduct, since these are people we are often told to avoid when making our amends in Step Nine (not because they do not deserve amends, but because we may find ourselves making amends with selfish motives in mind). If your sponsor has you do this section, you will leave off the last column. All you will write is the names, the nature of the harm you have done, and which of your instincts (or even general character defects) drove you to cause this harm. There is no need to repeat names from your resentment list, since you will likely have noted the harm done to those people when you were stating your part in the resentment.

Step Four may seem simple, since we are essentially just making a couple of lists. For some, however, it will be difficult to maintain a fearless approach to this endeavor. Simply trust yourself to be honest, be as thorough as you can, and double-check multiple times to be absolutely sure that you are not forgetting anything. Even if you know a fear is irrational or a resentment unjust, you must still write it down if it is something that you feel. Step Four is for your benefit. Only through honesty will you be able to do right by yourself.

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