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Why Step 4 of the 12-Steps is so painful

This is part of an ongoing series explaining how I did the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. With the opioid epidemic claiming so many lives, I believe it is important for those who are not addicts to understand 12-Step programs and what it means to “work the steps.”

Step 1: Admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable

Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.

If you want to know if a newly recovered addict or alcoholic is working a 12-Step program, ask him this: How’s that 4th Step going?

The 4th Step is when the work begins. The first three steps are easy – especially if you are guilt-riddled and still dope sick, hungover, behind bars or lying in a hospital bed after a car wreck. At that point the first three steps are a relief:  Admit you are powerless. Accept that you can’t quit on your own. Have faith in a power greater than yourself that will help you get clean.

Then comes Step 4 and sobriety becomes much more than not swallowing, snorting or injecting certain substances into your body. You are told you must make a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of yourself.

Think about that for a moment. Sit with it.

Imagine you are an alcoholic or drug addict and you know you have said and done some really mean, nasty, unethical, dishonest and immoral stuff. You have spent years trying to forget. Now you learn that in order to stay clean and sober – and likely prevent yourself from doing more mean, nasty, unethical, dishonest and immoral stuff – you have to do this inventory it…in writing.

It is at this point that a lot of newcomers drop out. They have done the AA Waltz – Steps 1,2,3 – and they they cannot face making a searching and fearless moral inventory. Many come back and waltz through the first three steps again, and again relapse.

Why must we do this inventory? The same reason businesses do inventories.

According to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:”Taking a commercial inventory is a fact-finding and fact-facing process…One object is to disclose damaged or unsalable goods, to get rid of them promptly and without regret.”

How do we do this?

We make a grudge list. The helps us identify people and things against which we have a resentment. Why? Because resentments fuel anger, self-pity, self-righteousness, revenge, bigotry and hatred – character defects that are the greatest threat to our sobriety.

The Big Book gives us a template to do this. We take out a piece of paper and make at least three columns. My sponsor had me use a 4-column template. Here is how I used those four columns.

  1. Identified the person, place or thing I resented.
  2. What they did to me.
  3. How that made me feel.
  4. How it affected me.

This inventory isn’t just for the last few years, or when you started using drugs and/or alcohol. We are talking lifetime. Addicts and alcoholics have a LOT of resentments, so this can be a daunting and painful process. It can take weeks – or months. Many sponsees, myself included, drag their feet.

Then comes the really hard part.

“Putting out of our minds the wrongs others had done, we resolutely looked for our own mistakes. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking and frightened? “

Situations on the list may not have been entirely our fault. But in Step 4, we put others’ action out of our mind and focus on our own. We stay on our side of the street and ask: “Where were we to blame?”

We walk through each item on or Fourth Step with our sponsor. Our sponsors helps us dissect each resentment to find our role.

At this point, I use the seven deadly sins to identify the motive behind my actions:  pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth, For every item on my Fourth Step chart, I identified the sin or sins behind my role. I saw a pattern: Pride and envy fueled many of my resentments.

After finishing my Fourth Step I felt like someone had taken a potato peeler to my soul. I was raw. Ridden with guilt and shame. I felt stupid and vulnerable – feeling that are so intense that they can lead to relapse. Which is why we quickly move on to Step 5:

Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another the exact nature of our wrongs.









Why Step 4 of the 12-Steps is so painful

Christine Stapleton

Christine Stapleton has been a journalist for 35 years. She is now an investigative reporter for The Palm Beach Post. In 2006, began writing a blog for PsychCentral called Depression on My Mind. Her latest blog, Addiction Matters, draws on her 19 years of sobriety and her coverage of the drug treatment industry in South Florida.

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APA Reference
Stapleton, C. (2017). Why Step 4 of the 12-Steps is so painful. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 11 Jun 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 11 Jun 2017
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