Wheat from Chaff: The Fourth Step.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves (Alcoholics Anonymous, pp 59)
In my recovery, the most important aspect of the program of recovery is the fourth step. This step is then reprised in our daily lives as the tenth step. Much as the first step is the foundation upon which our recovery must be planted, I believe that the fourth step represents the framework upon which recovery is hung. The fourth step is how we learn to look at the world in a new way, and begin to go forward in our lives making new choices. This is how we stop repeating our mistakes and learn to make new choices, healthy choices, going forward.
First, I want to briefly address something about which there is no consensus in the recovery community, and about which I don’t really have a strong opinion, but it is valuable to explain my own perspective. My opinion is that unless I relapse, I can only do the fourth step once. Many people in sobriety will talk about doing the fourth step, or many steps, multiple times. They’ll say they’re “going through the steps again”. That’s fine, and I respect it. How other people work their programs is not my business in any case, other than in how I allow it to inform how I work mine. But I personally feel that the fourth step is done once, ideally in early sobriety, to clean up our past, and change how we look at the world. Then, if further work on the same topic needs to be done, and it will, that’s part of the tenth step.
The fourth step is, at its heart, a list of resentments. We list all the people, institutions, organizations, and circumstances which we feel have wronged us. The people we slept with that we wish we hadn’t (the ones who wish they hadn’t). The money we owe, or is owed to us. The crimes we’ve committed. Old scores unsettled. For each of these things, we account for four things: who’s involved; what happened; what aspect of our own psyche or self it impacts; our own part in the circumstance.
This very simple and straightforward way to come around to a new way of looking at the world. Prior to becoming sober – and for a great number of people at large, I think, who have no addiction issues whatever – resentment stops at the second semicolon. We know who, and we know what. And then we sit in our feelings and allow our internal selves to mutter intemperately. Recovery depends upon learning to process hurt and fear and pain and resentment, rather than simply react to it. That begins with examining what part of our selves actually sustained the injury. It is the difference between howling incoherently at the physician versus saying, “my stomach hurts.”
And finally, we need to look carefully at how we contributed to the circumstance. This does not necessarily mean accepting blame. Many people misunderstand this when beginning the fourth step, and many non-alcoholics think that it means that the recovering person must accept fault for everything wrong in his or her life. None of that is true. It means accepting blame when we are to blame. It means understanding that we were party to relationships that went wrong; no matter how badly we were treated, usually we were an important factor in how the situation arose, deteriorated, or lingered.
This is like saying to the physician, “I drank milk that may have been expired.” It is how the situation arose, our contribution. We may not be to blame. It may simply be something that is. But it is relevant, and we participated. And that information aids in our recovery. However, my experience is that just as often, it’s more like, “I was juggling flaming machetes and one of them sliced open my abdomen and burnt me.” We have to cop to that.
When we go through our lives and do this, and examine ourselves thoroughly, accepting our part in our troubles, we find that our resentments aren’t as fierce. Hurts subside when we recognize that we contributed to them, even if blamelessly. In my life, I was able to find only one resentment that I did not in some significant way contribute to. Now, whenever I am upset, resentful, afraid, or confused, I look for what part of me has been injured, and how I participated. That almost invariably aids in my setting my feelings right, and allowing me to plan for how to move forward.
I have seen, too many times, that people who don’t complete the fourth step relapse. In fact, I cannot think of a single person I know with sustained sobriety who did not do it. Certainly, completing the fourth step does not guarantee sobriety. But failing to does seem to correlate highly with failure to sustain sobriety, anecdotally. Many people, new to sobriety, whistle through the first three steps. Then, the fourth, which requires work, effort, willingness, time, and diligence, will end up undone. I don’t know the direction of action. Maybe people prone to relapse don’t finish the work. Maybe failing to do the work promotes relapse. Likelier is that it is a very complex relationship.
I started my fourth step when I was around 5 months sober. I finished it at around 6 months. And I continue to use the framework to forestall resentment and keep my sobriety planted in the middle of the garden, unassailed by the thickets of resentment and anger and pain and fear that would otherwise lead me drink.