AA’s Fourth Step (part 1)

“An unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates

I’ve been aware of the above quote since my early teens.  It took Steps 4 and 5 of AA’s Twelve Steps to show me just what Socrates meant.  Together, those two steps are a stumbling block for many of us new to the program.  If our pride isn’t telling us we don’t need to do it, our fear jumps in to tell us we’d better not look.  They were in my case for a long time.  Yet Steps 4 and 5 were the key that opened up the first three steps for me.  I thought I had Step 1 wrapped up, and after much soul-searching I had put Steps 2 and 3 on hold due to a sense of urgency, the “gift of desperation,” that I wouldn’t live long enough to get a handle on those two.  So I plowed ahead into Step 4.

What’s this all about?

Step 4 is about discovering what there is in our make-up that is blocking us from a power that we all have within us, shading us from the sunshine of the spirit.  In the words of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, “…it [our decision in Step 3] could have little effect unless at once followed by a strenuous effort to face, and be rid of, the things in ourselves which had been blocking us.  Our liquor was but a symptom.  So we had to get down to causes and conditions.”

Once we identify these things, then we can face up to them, own them, and let them go.  We can’t let go of what we don’t know we have, nor can we give up what we do not own.  The founders used several terms for what we’re trying to identify, such as ‘faults,’ ‘defects of character,’ ‘shortcomings,’ ‘flaws in our make-up.’  I suggest picking a term you are comfortable with and forget about the those that may cause misgivings.  A rose is a rose is a rose*, after all.

How thorough is thorough?

The step itself tells us it is to be a searching and fearless inventory.  A little later in the book, on page 65, they say “We went back through our lives.  Nothing counted but thoroughness and honesty.”  I like to throw in ‘rigorous’ from page 58 and say that this needs to be a searching, fearless, thorough, and rigorously honest inventory.  As to how far back we need to go, I suggest as far back as we have memories of anger and resentment, early childhood for most of us.

What’s in it for me?

Glad you asked!  When the inventory is made according to the instructions in the book, we begin to see patterns in our thoughts and reactions.  This, in turn, allows us to go beyond the surface and get to the root of any problem we may find.  We come to understand our part in the conflicts of our lives, and how to “disconnect the buttons” that turn on our anger and other negative feelings.  We discover ideas and behaviors that need to be unlearned, such as defense mechanisms that may have served us well in the past but are now counterproductive.  We begin to reconnect with our true values, our true self.  We begin to understand out interconnectedness with the human family, and gain serenity, self-respect, and compassion.

And all it takes for us to get there is a willingness to be honest and thorough.  What a bargain!

“Without a willing and persistent effort to do this, there can be little sobriety or contentment for us.”  Bill W.

Please leave a comment, or send me an e-mail, if you have other thoughts on the subject, questions, even complaints!

*– Gertrude Stein

  1. My alcoholism had helped me conjure my flawed way of being into something unrecognizable, (morphed into a way of being that had a direct relationship with my coping ability, my alcoholism). Starting here on the surface with brutal honesty I had torn myself down enough to see what was underneath. At the root of some of my most f**ked up behaviors where the eyes of the innocent child I once was. Interpretations of cataclysmic events perceived in childhood from the eyes of independence for me have made some of the changes almost automatic.

    Looking back to looking back from now, I know that what was on the surface was, (outlandish feats of idiocracy under the influence) my protector my camouflage, my coping mechanism.

    I would say we all have our place of innocence if we look deep enough inside ourselves. I look on myself and know it was worth all of the misguided shame it took to get to where I am.

    Thank you for the original post.

  2. My first 4th Step was done out of sheer desperation and the fact that I wasn’t willing to look that deeply into myself. I continued to believe I had some kind of control over my life and told my sponsor that I didn’t understand what the instructions in the Big Book said. Made no sense to me. So she asked me to write down about the Seven Deadly sins. I did 18 pages on them and yet, in doing that first 4th Step, I didn’t see the patterns of my life or my part in any of it. And of course, I relapsed because I wasn’t willing to see who I was rather than blaming everyone else for what ‘they’ had done to me. About a year after I picked up my last white chip, I did another 4th Step with the same sponsor, but it was quite different and much more thorough in looking at my part in things. I found that I never felt secure, that I was constantly fear-filled and that much of what happened in my life was of my own doing. I also began to see the patterns that ran through my life and the behaviors that I did because I knew no better ones.

    I have tried to do an annual housecleaning with a 4th Step and when something specific comes up, I work on that. I find that looking at who I am and wanting to be willing to change the things I can change, gets me closer to my Higher Power and in turn with those human beings around me. I will never be perfect and I am so grateful that I have the 4th Step to look deep within to see what is hiding in a corner that I missed before. Sweeping clean that which doesn’t work for me has taught me to live a better life and AA was my teacher.