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A.A.’s Step Four: The Work Of Self-Honesty

Taking inventory of personality characteristics that are the “ism” of alcoholism.

Key points

  • The fourth step in A.A. suddenly becomes more personal and vulnerable.
  • An honest inventory of character defects is difficult for people with a long history of denial and avoidance.
  • The Twelve Steps promote more than behavioral change; they seek to transform character.
  • Step Four combines right-sizing the self with humble acceptance of the truth to promote character change.

After the difficult work of admitting powerlessness over alcohol and other drugs (A.A.’s Step One: Confrontation With Reality), wrestling with or reaffirming belief in a Higher Power (AA’s Step Two: Looking Beyond Your Self for Hope), and deciding to surrender to the God of their understanding (A.A.’s Step Three: Surrendering to What You Know Is Right), a new phase of work begins – honestly reviewing the assets and liabilities that characterize one’s personality. Step Four awaits, surrounded by fears that keep many from this very personal task.

I have stressed in previous postings that there are many ways to understand the meaning and implications of each step[i], and I am not speaking on behalf of A.A. What follows is only one perspective on Step Four filtered through my experience as an addiction psychiatrist. My goal is to offer thoughts on the psychological depth contained in the Twelve Step approach to recovery from addiction (see A Meaningful Definition of Addiction Recovery).

Step Four reads as follows:

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

A wide variety of frameworks have been developed for organizing Step Four work. Again, by “working” the steps, members of A.A. are encouraged to search for the personal relevance of each, often by simply meditating on whatever meanings arise. Working a step is less a matter of analysis and intellectual understanding, but rather a willingness to let the step work on you as it is turned over and over in your mind.

Step Four is usually done with pencil and paper, like a homework assignment. Many A.A. members work the fourth step with guidance from a sponsor, another A.A. member who has already been guided through this step. “Making” an inventory of personality characteristics that promoted and/or grew out of one’s alcoholism literally means recording a list of what are often referred to as “character defects”.

The idea of identifying one’s character defects can be daunting, especially since avoidance and denial are common characteristics in alcoholism. Many fear what they might find if they search fearlessly for embarrassing facets of their personality. Some object to the phrase “character defects” as too negative. I personally like this phrase because it promotes an even deeper sense of humility, which reinforces the need to surrender to outside help.

Two things ease acknowledging defects in one’s character. First, many defects come from the brain dysfunction caused by alcohol itself. Second, many defects arose during childhood as necessary defenses but became exaggerated over time. And third, any full inventory includes both liabilities and assets. A “searching and fearless moral inventory” is incomplete if it ignores positive characteristics, such as persistence and generosity, that exist alongside such defects as self-centeredness and dishonesty.

The word “moral” is important here. It designates a search for personality characteristics that touch on matters of right and wrong. “Morality” implies standards of behavior that put alcoholics and those with drug addiction in the context of relationships with other people. It is morally wrong to lie, cheat, and treat others with impatience and angry frustration. By emphasizing moral defects, Step Four is pulling people in recovery out of their isolation and back into relationship with others. The list of defects thus becomes a blueprint for many of the steps yet to come – steps designed to reduce the power of such defects and to offer a path for making amends for damage one’s character defects have done to others.

Step Four’s inventory is not the same as work done in psychotherapy. It does not focus on historical causes of the defects, but rather focuses on personality characteristics as they exist in the present. Most people in recovery take extensive inventories without professional help, though a skilled professional can often help scrape away remnants of denial and search more deeply for underlying features of many defects, such as hidden insecurities powering a person’s overweening pride.

And, of course, like all the previous steps, the fourth step is never truly finished. Understanding ourselves is a lifelong process. As we meet new challenges over the course of our lives, old defects often re-emerge in new forms, and even new defects can arise. Step Ten reinforces the continuous need for taking inventory, so no one should believe they are finished or be critical of themself for discovering the true nature of a defect only years after having done their first fourth step inventory. We never achieve more than a frequently-edited working draft. The important thing is to get started after having absorbed Step Three, and to move on to Step Five as soon as a good faith effort at an honest review of one’s character has been done.

Much of the Twelve Steps’ power lies in striving to accomplish far more than mere behavioral change. Like the previous steps, Step Four combines the twin goals of right-sizing the self, with its arrogant chemical manipulation of feelings and belief one’s secrets and lies are truly hidden from others, with humility that admits one’s powerlessness over alcohol, accepts responsibility for developing a personal understanding of a Higher Powel, and owns one’s character flaws. Each step rests on absorption of the previous steps and together they can bring about deep characterlogic change.

I will next look at the significance of openly sharing the fourth step’s inventory – Step Five.


[i] Readers interested in a deeper dive into AA and the Twelve Steps can find it in AA’s How It Works and the more academic work by Ernest Kurtz, Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, Hazelden, 1991.

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