Recovering addict looking at his fractured reflection in a mirror.

The Fourth Step To Sobriety

Last Updated: Tue, January 23, 2024

“Work the steps” becomes the go-to phrase for anyone in recovery, and it’s great. Instead of saying, “I’m sorry” or “I shouldn’t have” or “If only,” you focus on your forward motion: working the steps. Of course, no one said working the steps would be easy. One of the most challenging steps is the fourth one (until the fifth one).

Alcoholic Anonymous Fourth Step

In AA, the fourth step is creating a moral inventory of ourselves. This means identifying behaviors and why we do them. It means taking a hard look in the mirror and recognizing that we are responsible for our behavior, not spouses, not institutions and not other people.

Some examples can be:

  • I am angry and I have taken that anger out on the people I care about.

  • I am selfish, focusing on my own needs instead of the needs of my loved ones.

  • I am fearful, and lie to alienate my friends and family. Many people begin this step by making a list of people we carry resentment towards: friends, family, judges, police officers, store clerks, everyone.

From there, we can start to identify why we feel such resentment and start to open ourselves up to the bigger picture. For instance, if you recognize that you still hold ill-will to a police officer that pulled you over, then figure out what made you upset. How were you treated? Was it unfair? How did this impact your self-esteem? Your relationships? Your finances?

Once you’ve identified those first two parts, it becomes clear what the real wrong was and, more importantly, how you are responsible. If you receive a DUI, resulting in a fine, a suspension of your license, a night in jail, and an inability to continue to commute to your current job, then you may be resentful to the officer that pulled you over. It hurt your finances, your self-esteem, and overall quality of life. But on a second look of that situation, it becomes clear that it’s not the officer that caused that sequence of events, it’s your behavior. It’d be easy to blame someone or something else, but when you make the decision to drink and drive, you accept those consequences as the risk. For many in step four, that’s another crucial component in compiling a moral inventory, it’s seeing the objective wrong. In this case, the wrong was, you broke the law and didn’t want to be punished; ultimately that’s selfish behavior.

Misconceptions About Step Four

Step four is not without its misconceptions, many of which are geared to feed on your insecurities and fears. Because of this, it’s important to address what step four is not.

Step Four Is Not…

An Excuse To Beat Yourself Up

Building our a moral inventory of your behavior should be enlightening, not humiliating. You’ve already made the decision to be better by choosing to get sober. What this list does is enables you to see how you’ve acted in the past and why so that you familiarize yourself with your behavior and strive to do better. People who complete step four typically walk away feeling more confident and secure. They see the room for improvement and, as a sober member of society, see that it’s not that hard to overcome those obstacles.

By making a list, you’re also able to see where you came from and what that darker side of yourself did. An important element to note is that, no matter what your past resentments hold, you probably didn’t take the time to actually see how you could improve. By taking inventory, you’re already leagues ahead of where you’ve come, so it should inspire you.

A Time To Sugar Coat Your Behavior

Step four is not about tearing you down, but that doesn’t mean you should be lenient with your past behavior. Trying to downplay the impact of your behavior will not lead to continued recovery, it will lead to irrational rationalizing that you “weren’t so bad” when you were high or drunk. So while you should not beat yourself up for past deeds, you also shouldn’t try to defend or sugar coat your actions.

When you make a moral inventory list, be honest with yourself. This is a chance to view your life and behavior from an outsider’s perspective and you should address all the skeletons in your closet. For instance, one area many recovering addicts shy away from is sexual encounters. In compiling an inventory of people they’ve hurt of wronged, they put up blinders to sexual acts that may have hurt someone, such as lying about calling them the next day or cheating on a loved one.

By removing the substance you were addicted to, the frequency of these behaviors are likely to change, but battling addiction is a lifelong battle. As a result, you need to be honest with yourself if you’re going to overcome these behaviors. They won’t disappear if they’re not addressed and much like addiction, to solve a problem, you have to admit you have one.

A Time To Isolate Yourself

When doing a personal moral inventory list, it’s easy to feel alone and start to get depressed. Some people struggle because even if they’re not beating themselves up, they are having a hard time visualizing how they’ll solve or repair all the damage they’ve done. It can feel overwhelming, insurmountable, even impossible, but it’s not.

First of all, you’re not alone. Many people in recovery work the steps, so while the inventory is a list that’s for you, it doesn’t mean others haven’t been through it. You don’t need to give specifics as to who you’ve hurt or what mistakes you’ve made, but know that other addicts have made mistakes and hurt others too. Do not feel as though you need to make this list and bottle it up inside. You can share the challenges, the emotions you go through cataloguing it, and others will help you through it.

Secondly, you have to remember that many of these issues feel so huge because you have rewired your reward system. As a result, you want an immediate fix to the problem, but repair takes time. That feeling that it’s impossible to overcome the wake of your addiction is residual from a rewired brain. So while your instinct may be to run out and apologize, that’s why we use the phrase, “the best apology is changed behavior.” Change your behavior and the problems will be resolved. It just takes time.

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