AA Challenges: How To Tackle The Daunting 4th Step

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an international, mutual aid organization that is dedicated to supporting men and women to achieve sobriety from the use of alcohol and to stay sober. It was founded in Ohio in 1935 and currently is estimated to have over 2 million members. In this article, we'll take a close look at the 4th step of recovery as outlined in the AA program.

The AA program is based on 12 steps of recovery, which guide members far beyond merely giving up drinking. They are intended to help the recovering addict make fundamental shifts in his or her thinking with the aim of permanently changing his or her thoughts and behavior. The recovering alcoholic tackles the 12 steps in order and relies on a sponsor and usually a group for support in completing them.

What Is The 4th Step In Alcoholics Anonymous?

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The main text of Alcoholics Anonymous is the book written by the founders, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith. It is calledAlcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism, but it is usually referred to as “The Big Book.” The book fully describes the 12 steps. The 4th step is described as “made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.

Step 4 has the reputation of being the hardest, scariest step of the 12. It is natural to feel some anxiety about a searching and fearless inventory, but as we'll see, it is a very important step in the process of recovery. If you take it slow and rely on your AA sponsor, you'll soon see how vital your honesty is. Step 4, according to the AA manual, is the first tangible evidence of your willingness to move beyond your addiction.

The step 4 inventory is based on the core idea of AA that alcoholism is a symptom of deep spiritual, mental, and emotional patterns. The inventory is designed to help you become more aware of those deeper patterns. The real problems in an alcoholic's life don't lie in the conditions or the surrounding people, but lie in the person's character, and step 4 is intended to uncover those roots.

Let's look at what it means to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of oneself.

What Is A Moral Inventory?

The AA moral inventory is a list or catalog of the alcoholic's character weaknesses and assets. It is a document you create that lists and analyzes all the places you have been selfish, angry, prideful, greedy, or jealous. The document also includes the answers to any deeper questions that arise in your mind as you look at these traits.

Here's an example of the type of questions that you will examine in your moral inventory:

  • How have I been selfish in my life?
  • Why did I behave that way?
  • What was my thought process?
  • Who did I hurt with my behavior?

Why "Searching?"'

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You want your inventory to be ‘searching' because your full recovery depends upon your recognition of underlying thought patterns and on uncovering secrets you have held deeply buried in your mind.

Alcoholics often indulge in justifying their behavior or in making excuses or in blaming other people or circumstances, not only for their addiction, but for their behavior. Your inventory needs to be searching because you need to understand the underlying fears and resentments that fuel your addictive lifestyle.

Your inventory also has to be searching because you need to uncover any secrets you have been hiding. It is common to try to hide behavior, thoughts or feelings that we feel ashamed about. And yet, secrets have a toxic effect on our self-esteem, our spiritual development, our relationships and on our sobriety. The 4th step will help you discover any inner places where you have been hiding from the truth.

Why "Fearless?"


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Fearless does not imply that you will never feel fear while doing step 4. Fearless means that you will forge ahead despite your fear in looking at yourself. Fear is a potent driver of behavior. In fact fear is one of the main underlying factors in alcoholism. But in your inventory, fear can be your ally, showing you the places where you can discover more about yourself. Facing the fears that come up while doing the inventory will help you develop new patterns of dealing with your fears that will serve you for the rest of your life.

What Kinds Of Things Go Into This Inventory?

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The inventory will include descriptions of incidents in your life—up until now—where you behaved badly. You will look to find the underlying instincts or needs that drove your hurtful behavior. You will ask yourself deep questions about what you were thinking and feeling at the time.

You will also look at your deeper feelings. You'll include descriptions of where you have strong feelings that you have not fully processed. Are there events in your life that hurt, shamed or upset you? Do you have hidden fears that you have not confronted?

You will also be taking a close look at your judgments of other people. What do you blame others for? Have you used or abused people in your life? Are you aware of anything you might have done that was hurtful to another person?

Why Do I Need To Do The 4th Step?

You may be asking yourself at this point, do I have to do this 4th step? This is a natural reaction as you begin to understand what the inventory entails. The 4th step is the crux of the program, however. The rest of your steps, and your recovery, will be based on what you discover in this step. You will discover which character traits you want to keep, and which you want to shift.

How Does Step 4 Fit In?

Before you begin your inventory, you will have completed the first three steps in the AA program: admitting that your life had become unmanageable and turning towards a power greater than yourself for help. These steps lead naturally into step 4. After asking for help, it is important to define exactly what changes you want to make. The inventory provides that information.

Afterward, in step 5 you will begin the process of making amends to others. The inventory provides the blueprint and information you need to know what to make amends for.

What Will I Gain From The 4th Step?

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Patterns rule our lives and an alcoholic's life is run by negative patterns of fear, resentment, guilt, shame, self-pity, pride, and resentment. The inventory helps unveil these patterns. Once visible, the old patterns become the roadmap for the rest of your recovery process.

Substance abuse restricts your ability to see yourself accurately and to see where you are responsible and where you are not. The inventory provides an opportunity to see a bigger and more accurate picture of yourself. You can begin to take appropriate responsibility for your own life by shifting the blame for your troubles away from others, taking responsibility where appropriate and accepting things you cannot change.

Completing the 4th step will increase your self-awareness, improve your relationships (including your relationship with yourself, and with your Higher Power) and strengthen your hold on sobriety. The manual describes a light sense of confidence and relief that comes from completing step 4.

According to The Big Book, alcoholism arises from natural “instincts gone astray.” In other words, your addiction arises from normal needs (for example, the needs for food, sex and money) that, through fear, cause you to engage in abnormal behavior. The inventory will help you uncover the hidden fears that have led you into addiction.

How To Tackle The Daunting 4th Step

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You must write the Inventory down. Just thinking about these questions is not sufficient to achieve the benefits of the process. Dedicate a notebook (or computer file) to your inventory. Use your document only for your inventory, no grocery lists or other writing. This document may become one of your most prized possessions because it will remind you of how far you have come.

Express Yourself

Make it as individual as possible. The inventory is deep and honest, but it doesn't have to be dull. Use colored pens or markers. Colors can help you express yourself completely. You are also free to sketch or draw in your 4th step book. Drawing also may help you express your feelings more fully.

Be Free

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Write freely and write only for yourself. Don't worry about spelling or grammar or punctuation. No one will see your inventory unless you decide to share it, so give yourself the freedom to express even the deepest feelings and the darkest thoughts.

Don't Go Back

Don't erase anything. Use simple cross outs if you want to revise. You can learn a lot about yourself by seeing what you regret writing. And you can learn about your thoughts as you revise and make your expression clearer. There are no right or wrong entries or feelings or thoughts. Experiment with feeling words. Try to express yourself exactly. This builds self-awareness.

Take Your Time

Take your time; don't rush through this step. You can set aside a little time each day to work on your inventory, or set aside a weekend to immerse yourself in the process. Either approach is fine. Though you may be able to complete your inventory in a weekend or a week, the habit of inquiry is intended to be the beginning of a life-long practice. So you may find that you want to keep writing in your journal for a while—even years.

Face Yourself

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You may notice that some events or people occur repeatedly in your inventory. Don't censor yourself, just follow the path of your feelings and thoughts.

The Inventory will help you uncover your inner self. Some of your actions, thoughts, beliefs or feelings that you bring to light may be embarrassing, painful or difficult to face. Some of your previous thoughts or emotional patterns may seem unbelievable to you now. You may discover deeply buried secrets or events from your life that you have never had the courage to confront openly. You will be looking at all of your weaknesses and what seem to be character flaws.

You will also discover loving and self-supportive mental/emotional patterns. AA refers to these as character assets, and they are as important to discover as your weaknesses.


It is very important not to allow this process to mire you in self-pity or self-loathing. After all, you are doing the Inventory in order to improve. Don't forget that and keep going. Everyone has both character assets and character weaknesses. Anything you discover in your inventory process will not be a surprise to your sponsor. Nothing is so horrible about you that you cannot write it in your inventory.

Also beware if your mind is telling you that you don't need to do a moral inventory. Maybe you're thinking that it's the drinking that has brought you down, not any underlying patterns. This is no truer than the idea that it is other people who are the problem in your life. A fearless moral inventory can help anyone; it is essential for a recovering addict. You cannot proceed with the AA steps until you have completed your inventory. So try to recognize the denial pattern and move courageously through the exercise.

Don't Forget Your Sponsor

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Rely on your sponsor! He or she has heard it all before. Your sponsor will not judge you or your past actions and will probably be able to share some similar stories with you that will help you feel more accepting of yourself.

If you feel stuck, reach out and get some suggestions about how to proceed from your sponsor. Or reread The Big Book. It offers some penetrating questions for your inventory.

You can begin, as described in the AA manual, with looking at the seven deadly “sins:” pride, greed, sloth, gluttony, lust, anger and envy. Or you can begin with the most present or current upset you are feeling today. Don't let fear get in your way. Just start.


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The 4th step in the AA 12-step program can be a fundamental turning point in your recovery from addiction. Completing your searching and fearless inventory will highlight all the areas of your life as an addict where you can seek improvement. The deeper you go with your inventory, the more benefit you can receive from it. You are not alone and you can do this.

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