Step 4: Searching and Fearless Moral Inventory

“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”

Alcoholics Anonymous, 12 Steps

Being human means, we are imperfect. Alexander Pope, 18th century English poet, inscribed forever “To err is human, to forgive divine.” These proverbial words succinctly describe the human condition. We are a people with a tendency toward making mistakes, causing harm, and acting in ways contrary to personal and public interest. Pope’s words evoke the essence of recovery, forgiveness for human failings. 

Up to this point in our exploration of the steps we have admitted the exact nature of our addiction problem – powerlessness and unnameability. We could not solve our addiction of our own devices. We relied on the fellowship, sponsors, higher power, and other recovery supports to keep us grounded in affirmative action and spiritual solutions. Our task moving forward is to clean house and identify where in our lives we missed the mark. 

Bill Wilson’s commentary on AA’s 12 Steps and 12 Traditions highlights the power of the human mind to abuse and/or misdirect basic desires and instincts. No human on earth is exempt from these troubles. Rich or poor. Young or old. All who share our human condition have potential for acting in ways that hinders healthy growth and development. Our addictive mind, body, and spirit finds maladaptive ways to experience and express emotional and material security, companionship, and sex relations. 

In the fourth step we take stock of how our resentments, sexual relationships and conduct, and fears impede our spiritual progress. We face the collective unhappiness caused by others and our self. We confront self-pity, unwarranted pride, and victimhood. This step marks the beginning of a new page in our recovery journey. The fourth step helps us assume responsibility and integrity for what has, could have, and did not happen. 

Recovery presents us with the challenge to redefine our lives and heal wounds. We are challenged to grieve a life we thought we deserved. We grieve opportunities missed, unfairness and injustice. Resentment is defined as in recovery literature and 12-step communities as “the number one offender. It destroys more alcoholics (addicts) than anything else.” Resentment often evolves from painful life experiences and inadequate emotional expression. Relapses happen when the unresolved trauma and pain underpinning addictive acting out, using, and drinking goes untreated. In more colloquial terms the term connotes bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly. The word grudge also works as a perfect substitute.

Resentment is not always easy to recognize. It is subtle and evasive. In my own recovery experience, I had difficulty acknowledging my resentments. I was too close to the subject matter. Addiction is dissociative. Our addictive minds move us away from responding to painful stimuli. Anger becomes the primary mode of emotional expression. Working with a sponsor, attending meetings, and step work have helped to gain insight into resentments and grudges. 

Common symptoms of harboring grudges or resentment include the following:

  1. Continual or reoccurring feelings of strong emotion when thinking about a specific interaction or experience
  2. Inability to stop thinking about the event which triggered the strong emotion. 
  3. Feeling regret 
  4. Fear or avoidance of conflict 
  5. Tense relationship dynamics 
  6. Feeling less-than, inferior, inadequate

The fourth step is a formal process that may feel overwhelming. A wise recovery-seeker, Jamie Marich, suggests we “start by starting.” Each day add something to your inventory. Do not over work your nervous system. Our addictions did not develop overnight. Neither will recoveries manifest at the speed of light. Remain patient, compassionate toward self, and persistent. Trust your instincts, the recovery process, and the millions of miracles in other people before you who completed this difficult work. 

A trauma-informed written searching and fearless inventory necessitates recovery seekers to take natural pauses. The process of writing down resentments, fears, and issues of sexual conduct may activate you. This response is normal and valid. Our bodies do not forget events of the past. Listen to what your body is saying. Most importantly, stay in your window of tolerance. Remember to ground yourself in the present moment. Practice what works. Reach out to support systems.

Well-meaning sponsors often insist that sponsees complete the 4th step in a short window of time following entrance to 12-step programing. The problem with rushing through the inventory is you could re-traumatize yourself. Have honest conversations with your sponsor about how this work affects your psychological, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. 

I recall early on in my recovery process doing this inventory my own way and not following the directions. I started by listing all my character liabilities. Negative qualities of self. I had pages full of negatives. I was grateful for a sponsor who met me at a local coffee shop.  We talked about the intense emotions brought up by step work. He affirmed my feelings and gave me permission to take a pause from the work. Recovery is about balance. When we look at our character liabilities, we must also consider strengths. Accountability does not mean we need to beat on ourselves with a mental bat. The inventory is about taking stock so we can decide what direction to go next. 

The 4th step requires us to explore our part in every situation. People with complex trauma histories often feel at fault for their wounds. While we did not cause our abuse, neglect, and traumas many of us lived in fear of completing trauma therapy, losing our identity, and exploring the past. Recovery invites us to own what is and heal. 

Sponsors are not therapists. Sponsors are people who have lived out the 12 steps and traditions. They understand what it takes to recovery from “a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.” Sponsors are our guides through the steps. 

Do not rely on meetings or sponsorship for qualified professional psychotherapy. As a person in long-term recovery and a practicing trauma specialist I believe it is critical to seek out a licensed therapist to repair trauma and psychological wounds. We are not to blame for our trauma. Integrating the feeling with the understanding and moving to a healthy mindset requires therapy with professionals who understand the complexities of trauma, dissociation, addiction and recovery. 

Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) helps move stuck maladaptive negative thoughts, images, emotions, sensations, and behaviors from the past into a resolved state. Perhaps, you might consider targeting grudges or resentments in a reprocessing session. Your body and brain know what is needed to heal. Trust the process and go with surfaces. If you have struggled to get through the inventory process and recognize the impact trauma has had in your life, consider finding an EMDR therapist in your community. 

Bring up the topic of moral inventory at a meeting. Listen to the experience, strength, and hope of others who were once in your shoes. Remember you are not alone. There is space for your voice and recovery story. 

Your first time through a 4th step is not your last. As we will continue to see the steps are circular. There may be a time in the future when the past re-emerges into the present. A resentment may resurface in a new way or with new charge. If this happens, do not be afraid. 

Go with it. 

Recovery is a lifelong journey. Welcome to the ride of a lifetime!!! Buckle up…….

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