Step Four

"Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves."

You don't need to be around the rooms of AA very long before sensing that the fourth step is usually approached with a little trepidation if not outright reluctance. Should you do a moral inventory early in recovery so you can make a fresh start or do you wait until you have "good sobriety" under your belt -just in case it strikes some heavy emotional blows? My quick answer: do it when you've done the first three steps, you have a sponsor, and you feel strong enough to honestly look at the mess.

I felt ready from day one. You see, I've been a bit of a self-help junkie over the years. I have an interest in personal growth and I'm introspective by nature so much of my inventory had already been done -in my head at least. It wasn't daunting unless I jumped ahead and considered the sharing part. (Not recommended.) The sheer volume of stuff that came out while I was writing my inventory surprised me but the content didn't. Those who suffer from ostrich syndrome haven't honed their self-observation skills and may find the fourth step much more intense or be overwhelmed by the process.

Even though I felt ready early in recovery I waited until I had a sponsor and did the first three steps thoroughly, which meant I had over a year sober before actually writing it out. I think this worked out really well for me because having a year between me and my drinking meant I was healthy enough to recognize just how sick my behaviors were and I was ready to be fearless. Well, almost fearless. Some things caused me to wince as I wrote it out but I forged ahead despite my repulsion. Earlier in recovery I wouldn't have had a clear head or much perspective on my issues. We may not even be aware that something is a character defect until we start to get healthy.

Usually, the basic inventory involves writing out resentments, fears, harm done to others and sexual conduct as described in the Big Book. Sometimes it's recommended that we examine our childhoods to uncover the root causes for our dependencies. Occasionally we're told to include our good qualities to bring some balance to the picture.

I was also told to write down anything that caused me embarrassment in the past or is an ongoing source of shame. Some of the things we did may not have been immoral or caused harm to others, but if they make us feel inadequate or regretful we should get them out on paper. If "silly" little things play over and over in your head, like a dark thought or bad memory, write it down. It doesn't matter if you were sober or drunk, a child or an adult when it happened. Our inventory isn't limited to things we did while intoxicated. Nor is it limited to our own actions. If someone crossed a line, violated, hurt or shamed you and there is still an emotional charge attached to the offense then be sure to include it as a resentment.

It's not necessary to nitpick or wrack your brain trying to uncover long lost memories about lies you told as a child or every foolish thing you did while drunk. If something bothers you, include it -otherwise don't worry about the neighbor's doll you broke in second grade. I'm sure she's over it. If you spend too much time focused on the specifics you won't see the forest for the trees. Instead, try to become aware of trends in your behavior. What character defects are popping up again and again? What things have you done that violated your moral principles? If someone could peer into your life, like a fly on the wall, what would they consider to be dysfunctional about you? Has there been domestic violence or infidelities? Are you a chronic liar? Easily offended or victimized? Critical of yourself or others? Do you frequently ignore personal boundaries or have control issues? Can you hold down a job? Do you avoid intimacy? Deeply ingrained behaviors need to be recognized before they can be challenged.

If you have committed overt or violent crimes they should be easily identified but if you are having trouble getting started or digging deeper then try searching online for a list of character defects or consider the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. Personally, I found pride to be one of my major, recurring defects and this list containing 50 Fruits of Pride helped me realize many of my shortcomings.

Don't worry about getting it perfect. I know that's easier said than done, but trust me when I say you are bound to forget some things and be unaware that other things are even considered defects of character. When these oversights surface they can be addressed as part of an ongoing personal inventory (Step 10).

There are a variety of methods and worksheets available online that you can find with some simple searching. I didn't use worksheets but I did browse through a lot of them online to see if they stirred something up. This shouldn't be approached like a classroom assignment. It is a time for self-reflection and soul-searching. Be alone with God and pour out your heart. Ask your Higher Power to show you the truth about yourself. Take off all those masks you use to hide from the world. Allow yourself to acknowledge all your brokenness. Mourn for your mistakes and pray for healing.

The fourth step can be life-changing stuff. It takes a brave warrior to travel the journey into Self. Be fearless! It just might save your life.

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