The 4th-Step Blues: Separating Myth From Reality


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Any alcoholic or addict who has been to a few meetings or spent any time in the rooms of recovery has likely heard about the 4th-Step. The problem is, we’ve likely heard a lot about it. Not necessarily everything we hear is accurate or even the truth. Much of it gets said in meetings, is overheard during fellowshipping, or misunderstood in passing. It’s one of the most talked-about of the 12-Steps, but sometimes the messages can get mixed, and this step gets placed in a bad light. It’s not uncommon for newcomers to dread, neglect, or avoid the 4th-Step altogether, just based on things they’ve heard about it.

This is a real problem. Alcoholics and addicts like us need the 12-Steps to find recovery and live our best lives. Having hearsay and misinformation potentially keep people from joining us on the road of happy destiny just won’t do. So let’s get this cleared up right now.

What Is the 4th-Step?

The 4th-Step is a vital and freeing one. As alcoholics and addicts, if we want to find lasting recovery and joy in our lives, it very likely means that we will need to work the 12-Steps to achieve those things. Freedom and recovery from our disease are nearly impossible without all 12 of the 12-Steps. At some point, we are going to come face-to-face with the 4th-Step. When that time comes, we should be glad that we are progressing and working with our sponsor and our higher power to achieve lasting and fulfilling recovery.

The 4th-Step is this: “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” To learn exactly what the 4th-Step entails, please read Chapter 5 (“How It Works”) from the book Alcoholics Anonymous. That text is the absolute authority on the 12-Steps and the program of recovery. Of course, we are working the program with our sponsor, so we will likely want to follow their advice and input.

What Does This Step Mean?

You’re going to need to read about it in the recovery literature, but we can take a quick look at what the 4th-Step means here. It is simply a personal house cleaning, with the aim of facing and getting rid of the things that block our recovery and our happiness. Putting it that way sounds kind of great, right? It is about taking stock of our lives: our resentments, our fears, and our conduct in intimate relationships.

Everything we put into the 4th-Step has already happened, so it’s not news to us. However, it can be pretty tough emotionally sometimes. We are asked to be searching, honest, and thorough. It can be challenging to revisit past resentments, mistakes, fears, and hurtful behavior. But facing these things so we can be free of them is seriously worth the effort. We have to remember that we aren’t alone. Almost every alcoholic or addict who is happy in their recovery has done the 4th-Step. It can get tough at times, but there are so many in our recovery community who we can turn to if the 4th-Step takes an emotional toll on us. Simply put, if we want to change and want our lives to change, we have to inventory the past and get rid of the stuff that’s killing us.

We must work all the 12-Steps, and this one is really no different. It gets a bad rap, but that loses sight of just how freeing it can be. Often in hindsight, the most dreaded of the 12-Steps (4 and 9) are the ones that people with lasting recovery turn to most often to find freedom.

What’s All the Bad Press Really About?

If it isn’t written in the books Alcoholics Anonymous or Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, we need to take what we hear with a grain of salt. The 4th-Step often gets bad press because many people experience some difficulty writing about their resentments, fears, and poor conduct. Sometimes we end up reliving an experience we’d rather forget, but in sobriety, we’re only as sick as our secrets. Writing those things out is what helps us heal and move past them.

Another likely cause is the 5th-Step following when we discuss what we identified in our 4th-Step with our sponsor or trusted friend. Most people don’t want to do this, but again, we’re only as sick as our secrets. This is commonly called “dropping” our inventory, and that’s exactly what it is. We can drop our inventory and all the heavy items that are on it. As soon as we do, they stop weighing us down and running our lives. We take our first significant steps into lasting recovery and freedom as new people. Almost everyone with long-term recovery has likely done more than one 4th-Step and 5th-Step, so we’re certainly not the first to go through it.

When one alcoholic is helping another, there is never any reason to fear, and only harm can come from being dishonest. That harm is usually done to ourselves, though. No one else will suffer if we keep our resentment, fears, and poor conduct to ourselves. Only we will. What a shame, given that recovery, is so close at hand.

Do Your 4th-Step

You deserve to live a life of happiness, joy, and freedom in recovery. There’s nothing to fear in the 12-Steps and everything to gain. The book Alcoholics Anonymous says this about finishing the 4th-Step: “We hope you are convinced now that God can remove whatever self-will has blocked you off from Him. If you have already made a decision and an inventory of your grosser handicaps, you have made a good beginning.” A good beginning indeed, and the best is yet to come!

Alcoholics and addicts are often people who feel deeply. Our inner lives are dominated by anger, resentment, blame, fear, guilt, shame, and hopelessness. It can be challenging to face these emotions and grow and heal beyond them on our own. Luckily for us, there is a solution: the 12-Step program of spiritual action. If we engage in this process, we will be coached through each Step by our sponsor, our community, and the Big Book. Throughout this process, we will find healing, growth, and the tools and attitudes that can not only prevent our resentment, fear, and guilt from killing us but help us be free of them. It truly is worth the effort. You are worth the effort. If you are ready to find lasting recovery and work the 12-Steps, Jaywalker Lodge is ready to help. Our vital community of alumni will stand by you every step of the way. Call Jaywalker Lodge now at (866) 529-9255.

author avatar
Stefan Bate, MA, LAC, CCTP Chief Clinical Officer
Stefan Bate, BA, MA, LAC holds a Master's Degree in Applied Psychology from Regis University and is a Licensed Addiction Counselor in the state of Colorado. Stefan has wide-ranging experience in the field of addiction recovery including: working as a recovery coach, therapist, and program director.

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