What Is So Scary About Step Four?

Step Four is often thought of as the bogeyman and is portrayed as a turning point for people once they have initially got sober.

It is sometimes seen as almost a litmus test as to whether people are really willing to begin the process of facing themselves and their demons.

In reality, there are really several different things going on behind all these issues that are probably worth looking at and unpicking.

The phrase, a moral inventory, is used in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, specifically in step four of the AA 12 step program.

Many people find this phrase a bit baffling or a bit scary, and people in recovery often find the whole idea of doing a step four one of the biggest blocks or obstacles they face in staying sober.

Some of the confusion around  the word inventory is because it is normally used in a business or commercial sense, and refers to a stocktaking or assessment of assets and liabilities in a company.

Fear in Recovery

Many people are pretty terrified when they get sober, normally for a number of different reasons.

Often it is about a fear of what it means to be sober, often it is a fear about losing alcohol even when it has stopped working, and often a fear about the possibility of change and what it might mean.

All these fears can combine and at times be quite debilitating, but it is worth unpacking them all and dealing with each as a separate issue in order to fully understand what someone is saying to themselves.

This can be true about a number of issues in recovery. It is often the overall effect of a number of  fears or issues that can be quite traumatic, and it is really important to break them down into specifics.

These specifics can normally be isolated and looked at, and whilst they may be daunting in their own right, they are at least focused and tangible and In some measure can be dealt with.

When fears or issues come together as one, they not only can produce a chilling effect, but can also be seen unsolvable because of the emotional fog they generate, almost as one big glob of terror.

Fear of Step Four

There can be many reasons people have a fear of doing a step four, but there are probably two or three main ones.

Firstly is the fear of specific things they have done in the past, and the possibility of having to own that reality and share it with someone else can be very daunting.

Secondly is a more general fear about the fact that doing a step four is moving in a different direction to where they have previously been travelling, and the prospect of change, or the unsettling nature of change can be fairly daunting.

The other fear can be simply what if it does not work. This is a fear that can be quite common in the context of seeing the steps as an event, rather a process, seeing them in a very black and white context.

This is normally part of a broader thought process, where everything is seen in very stark terms.

Whilst this hopefully changes in long-term recovery, part of the nature of change is going through the steps as a process, which does become a bit of a catch 24 problem.

Whilst any fear can be powerful in its own right, often in recovery it is a bigger fear that can move a person through it.

Sometimes the bigger fear around an inventory is either fear of going back drinking, or the fear of what it means to live effectively as a dry drunk.

Fear can often push people to do things that they don’t want to do.

Sometimes this is a good thing, and sometimes not a good thing. Perhaps the important thing to add in terms of recovery is that this fear should generate itself from within people, and not from other people trying to bully them.

A Moral Inventory

In the book Alcoholics Anonymous, a moral inventory initially is used to describe the process of a person looking at three areas of their life, those of resentments, fears and their sex conduct.

Other literature broadens this process to an extent, but the main focus is still on an individual looking at a number of areas of their life, and trying to gain some level of self-awareness about who they are and how they function in the world.

Other 12-step fellowships use the idea of a moral inventory in slightly different ways, each of which will have a somewhat unique take on what it means to begin the process of becoming self-aware. However the principle of self-awareness and ownership of one’s own emotional well-being is the same throughout.

An inventory is normally used in a business or commercial context. The fact that it is used in 12 step recovery should in fact be an asset not a liability.

People often get very bogged down in judgements about how they feel, and whether or not their feelings are okay, whether or not their feelings are good or bad, whether or not they should feel grateful or angry etc.

Pretty much the only way to really get a true and real assessment of yourself is to be able to look at yourself without judgement, to look at yourself in the context of unconditional love.

Whilst for many people this can take a long time to get to, it is a crucial element in any roadmap of recovery. Judgement of self kills any ability to be objective, and any ability to free yourself of judging other people as well.

The term inventory is very non-judgement of itself, whether or not that was the original intent when it was used in the forming of the 12 step program.

When any store owner or business is doing an inventory of their business, they will tend to do it in a fairly objective manner.

They simply want to know what are their assets and liabilities. They normally do not get bogged down in any type of emotional baggage around what they are doing.

This normally frees them to look at things objectively.

This should absolutely be the endgame and objective of a moral inventory in the context of 12 step recovery,  the ability to analyse oneself without judgement.

The book Alcoholics Anonymous refers to an inventory as a fact-finding process. Facts are of themselves not normally that emotional, it is normally their interpretation that is.

Emotional Sobriety

It is really both a strength and a weakness of the approach to a personal inventory that it is meant to be a fact-finding process, not an in-depth emotional rebirth.

What this means is that the initial inventory should be fairly objective and analytical.

For a lot of people in early recovery this is all they can deal with.

It does also mean that the really powerful emotional drives behind a lot of this understanding do come later on in people’s recovery, either through other inventories, therapy or inner child work.

This process is probably what most people would mean by emotional sobriety.


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