Let it Go: The Truth Behind the 4th Step

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The fourth step, taken from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

If you are not familiar with Twelve-step based programs, Alcoholics Anonymous is the father of all Twelve-step based programs; AA’s Big Book is the “AA Bible.” The BigBook is considered to be the guide for the program of AA. Within the book, you will find the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions, among many other things.


The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Working the steps can be a daunting process for some. Many of us relapse before ever even starting the steps, but a good many alcoholics and addicts stop working the steps when they get to the fourth step, also known as the “dreaded” step.

If you are committed to your recovery, and desperate for a new way to live, creating an inventory of people you have harmed is a relatively small task to complete, in comparison to all the effort put into getting and using.

Why is the Fourth Step So Hard?


In my experience, the fourth step was not “hard,” it was mainly time-consuming. What can be deemed hard, or dreaded about it, is the fact that you have to at least attempt to recall every person you have harmed, and, remembering all those wrongs can be painful.

The process can bring about heavy feelings and emotions. But, the fourth step is created with the intent that you not wait months between the fourth, fifth, six, and seventh steps. So, if you are working your steps, you should be moving onto five, six, and seven, relatively soon, after your fourth.

The whole point of going back into the past is moot if you don’t take action after your newly-found awareness. So dredging up those feelings and emotions is dangerous if you do not continue to take action.

A sponsor once described the fourth step to me like this:

I am a water vessel or boat of some sort, and I am about to come into port. So, I’m trying to clean my boat. I get all the garbage from the voyage, which is in the lower portion of the boat, and place all that garbage on the deck. Keep in mind I’ve been living in/on this boat for 26 years.

I literally cannot walk on the deck, for all the trash bags and muck. I can’t change the sails, or make the boat function properly because I can’t even walk around on it.

That is the fourth step. Get all your garbage up, so you can dump it off–garbage being the many horrible or unspeakable things you did to people throughout your addiction. This is also called “wreckage.”

So, after four, it is essential for you to launch into action, literally. You need to start getting all that garbage, your defects of character, off your boat.

The fifth step helps me begin the process of trash removal. I want to make room on my boat for other things. The aim of the fourth step is to be so thorough in your inventory that you get every piece of trash from the bottom to the top, and thrown off the boat. If you leave stones unturned, then that is less room for you to put new things on your boat.

This is important because if you bring about all that garbage and defective behavior from the past, it will only fester if you do not take the action to relieve yourself of your past indiscretions. But, it is not just about your feeling better. Remember, it isn’t all about you!

Another purpose of the fourth step, and all the steps, for that matter, is to clean up your side of the street–to take responsibility for your actions and strive to make right your wrongs. We don’t just hurt ourselves in addiction. We drag our family through the pits of hell, with us, usually, for as long as they will let us.

How Do I Do the Fourth Step?

First things first: the steps are to be worked in the order they are listed, for many very important reasons. You do NOT try to make amends before you are on the ninth step, for example. Also, every sponsor does things a little bit differently. Usually, how their sponsor taught them, they will teach their sponsee, and take them through the steps accordingly.

Everything you need to work the twelve steps is found in the Big Book. A sponsor’s job is to take you through the steps. You can’t take yourself through the steps because you have never done them.

At any rate, you basically make several inventories regarding different areas of your life, resulting in this outcome: who you have wronged, who has wronged you, your part in all of it, and your character defects found in each situation. That is a nutshell.

But, the actual written part of the fourth step is done differently by different sponsors. Some may give you a print out with a chart on it for you to use, others may have you do it just how the book suggests. It really just depends. But, it isn’t awful. It’s a great thing. It helps to shed back the layers of defects that weigh us down and keep us in active addiction.

If you or a loved one is suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, contact us today at the Palm Beach Institute at 855-534-3574 or contact us online. We can help you get your life back.



Staff Writer

The Palm Beach Institute employs a diverse staff of writers that share a common passion for helping those who are struggling with substance abuse find the care they need. With years of experience in the substance abuse treatment industry and decades of experience in writing and research, our team of writers constantly strive to present accurate and helpful information that is easily digestible and encourages people to seek help.

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