Step 4

Step 4

This is a chapter from the pioneering book: The Alternative Twelve Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. It was originally written by two women, Martha Cleveland and Arlys G., and published in 1991. As valuable today as it was then, a second edition of this exceptional work was published by AA Agnostica.

Search honestly and deeply within ourselves to know the exact nature of our actions, thoughts and emotions.

Principles: Self-examination, Personal honesty, Self-acceptance

Step 4 helps us discover our true self and Step 5 teaches us to share it with other people. They work together to join us with the human race as who we are, rather than as who we pretend to be. Our life takes on a different reality as we change the way we know our own nature and the way we interact with other people. First, Step 4.

We want to change – we honestly want to change. We have tried and tried to make things different in our lives, but we haven’t been able to find a way. Now we can let the Fourth Step help us. It tells us to search honestly and deeply within ourselves in order to know the exact nature of our actions, thoughts and emotions. We try to know and understand what we do and why we do it, what we think and why we think it, what we feel and why we feel it. Otherwise, there will be no change.

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If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. If you want something different, you have to do something different.

Paul R. Scheele

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We wouldn’t be reaching for recovery if we didn’t know that something was very wrong with our lives, if we didn’t know that we needed to do something different. But we don’t know what’s wrong, and we don’t know how to do anything differently.

Step 4 gives us a chance to do something new, to struggle with ourselves in a different way. As we work with this Step, we gain layer upon layer of deepening understanding about the things that make us tick. Some of those things we like and others we don’t like at all. But at least once we acknowledge that what we find makes up our true nature, we have a realistic account of what needs to change and what strengths we have to work with. We discover who we have been, who we are now and who we have the potential of becoming.

I know All Things, Save Myself

The first principle that underlies Step Four is self-examination. We examine what we actually do and the consequences of our actions. We examine what we actually think and the consequences of our thoughts. We examine what we actually feel and the price we pay for our feelings. But before we can examine all these things, we need to identify them. The job of learning who we are is the first and most essential step in becoming who we are.

To begin and to stick with a Fourth-Step search takes great courage and commitment. It is one of the greatest challenges of a lifetime and it’s undoubtedly one of the hardest. Our fear makes it hard to carry a spotlight into the dark, dangerous corners of our mind. It’s even hard to illuminate the strong, safe places, because we have learned that it’s somehow perilous to feel strong or safe. It’s hard because of the pain, it’s hard because of the denial and it’s hard because it seems never-ending. But practice makes it easier. We get better at it and more comfortable. Eventually the Fourth Step and the many different ways we learn to use it become the foundation of our psychological and emotional evolution.

What It Takes To Make The Search

Someone said that when we look outward, we see all our problems, small and large, littering the landscape. And also that when we look inward, we look to the source of them all. When we look inward, we find not only the source of our problems but the source of their solutions, too. But how do we go about searching ourselves deeply and honestly to know our exact nature and find the solutions to our problems? This takes certain skills of character, skills that will serve us well for the rest of our lives.

1. We Accept Reality Without Denial.

Our roadblock to knowing ourselves is denial. Denial means so many things. It means ignoring, rationalizing, justifying, pretending or refusing to consider the opinion of an objective observer when it isn’t the same as our own.

Denial is when our husband has deeply hurt our feelings and we don’t let him know, but we lash out at our child for spilling milk.

Denial is when we cruelly tease someone and then say it’s “all in fun.”

Denial is when we have a second piece of cake and tell ourselves we won’t do it next time.

Denial is when we unquestioningly accept our son’s explanation that the marijuana in his drawer belongs to a friend.

Denial is when we give a physically-abusive spouse a second or third or fourth chance.

We each have beautifully-crafted webs of denial about situations in our lives, about other people and, most deadly, about ourselves.

It’s the denial about ourselves that the Fourth Step confronts. Each of us has a fixed, obstinate idea of who we are: what kind of personality we have, how we look, what our behavior is, what our motives are, how we relate to others and how others see us. For most of us this idea is based on past beliefs, on wishful thinking, on rationalizing and self-justification. In other words, our idea of who we are is based on denial.

A woman who was an overweight adolescent always pictures herself as fat, even though she has been a normal weight for the last 15 years. A wealthy executive refuses his family an expensive ski vacation because his own father was always out of work and there was never enough money. A notable scientist worries that he will never live up to the definitions of success he has set for himself. These people are all locked in denial, in self-delusion, in an unrealistic world. Their current reality is made up of rationalizations and justifications, not on the actuality of their lives today.

Others are locked in denial, too. There is the woman who always obeys the law, always follows society’s rules and describes herself as absolutely honest. But she is unable to look at her dishonesty to herself. She is jealous of her younger brother’s success and feels a throb of pleasure when he is not chosen for an important position, yet she smiles and tells people what fun it is to have a famous doctor in the family. She is never rude and never loses her temper, blaming the pain in her stomach on what she had for dinner. She cannot get past the initial lie that she is an honest person. Like so many of us, she believes that if she hides her true nature from others and hides it from herself, it doesn’t exist.

And it is possible to hide our exact nature from ourselves and from society forever. All it does is kill our spirit.

It’s hard to learn to see ourselves clearly, but self-examination is basic to a fulfilling life. If we are going to live the life we want to, we need to understand our real nature. We need to make considered and conscious choices instead of being driven by unconscious, reactive needs. Only then can we make realistic assessments of our current lives, no matter what our past has been. To search ourselves honestly and deeply helps us build the skill of seeing ourselves clearly, tearing away from our tenacious web of denial. We learn to set ourselves in the present and react to our current life according to our current self, not to a self that belongs in the past. The messages from the past no longer clamor for attention. We can rest in the quiet and open ourselves to spiritual energy from today.

2. We Discover Our True Motivations.

Another skill taught by the Fourth Step is to discover why we do what we do, why we think what we think, why we feel what we feel.

Why do we pick a fight with our husband when we know we’ve done something he disapproves of? Why do we resent the success of others? Why do we stay home and mope rather than make plans to be with a friend? Why do we refuse a job promotion that involves a lot of personal challenge? Why do we take on so many obligations that we can barely handle them? Why do we feed the stray dog that cries at our door?

As denial begins to clear, we find out all kinds of things about ourselves – and this can be exciting. Some of the things we find we don’t like. We don’t like finding resentments, righteousness, rage and fear. These things don’t match the person we think we are. We don’t like to think we deliberately cause fights rather than accept realistic criticism. We don’t like to think of ourselves as jealous. We don’t like to think we’d rather be alone because we still hurt from the rejections of childhood. We don’t like to think we’re afraid of a challenge because of old messages that tell us we’ll never be good enough. We don’t like to think we take on obligation after obligation so we gain a false persona while we lose ourselves under all that busy importance. But there are bright spots, too. We’re glad we’re the kind of person who takes on the responsibility of a homeless dog because he is a helpless creature who needs food and shelter.

The Fourth Step shows us we have motivations that are assets rather than liabilities. Our honest search uncovers love, compassion, determination, commitment and a sense of personal power. When we discover these strengths, we live differently. We choose to listen to criticisms from our husband without becoming defensive and lashing out. We realistically evaluate what he says and either change our behavior or decide his opinion doesn’t match our own true needs. We’re glad when a neighbor gets a raise and buys a gorgeous car. We meet freely with friends, take on new challenges and choose only the obligations that are compatible with ourselves. We find peace as we pet our dog.

3. We Accept Ourselves Without Judgment.

Denial begins to crumble. Honest motivations are found. Then what? How does our search go deeper? It goes deeper when we begin to work at examining ourselves without being ashamed of what we find.

Most of us can’t remember a time when we weren’t judged by others and didn’t judge ourselves. We grew up with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, teachers and lots of others telling us when we were good and when we were bad. We came to accept their judgments. As grown-ups we still believe these old judgments, lecturing ourselves in much the same way our parents and all those other people lectured us in our formative years. We judge everything about ourselves – how we look, how we feel, how we act. Everything gets put on a continuum from good to bad. We lecture ourselves and judge ourselves and lecture ourselves and judge ourselves.

Self-acceptance without judgment is crucial to discovering the “exact nature” we are looking for. If we don’t give up self-judgment, give up telling ourselves this feeling is “good” or that action was “bad,” the Fourth Step – no matter how thoroughly or diligently we work with it will be meaningless. We must accept objectively whatever the search into our true nature brings. This is the only way to come to peace with our true self.

Instead of self-judgment, our new rule becomes, “As I search my deep nature, anything I find is okay. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is.” Objective searching and accepting doesn’t mean we justify, excuse or condone any behavior that has caused others suffering or pain. We know there is no excuse to hurt anyone. But when we acknowledge our hurtful behavior, there’s no point in mentally beating ourselves up either. Like all the “good” things we have done, the “bad” ones are simply a part of us —- a part that is past. This kind of thinking allows room for a whole being to emerge.

Nothing “bad” has to be held down and buried by elaborate denial. Nothing “good” needs to be exaggerated or explained away. We simply are what we are. We have done what we have done. We think what we think. We feel what we feel. That’s all.

Step 4 teaches us that accepting the negative things about ourselves leads to renewal. It’s important to identify what we see as emotional liabilities so we can transform them. We stop judging ourselves with what’s good or bad and start choosing our actions on the basis of what works or doesn’t work. This means we choose to feel and act in ways that are useful to us and respectful of others.

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Sam is 45 years old. He lives a quiet life, a life he has deliberately chosen for himself. He loves, is loved and makes enough money to support his family and put some aside for retirement. Sam likes the way he lives. Yet he has a constant, nagging feeling that he is not doing enough with his life; he is not as financially or professionally “successful” as he could be if he had been more aggressive and chosen a different way to live. He could still change, but he truly doesn’t want to.

Sam is caught between his understanding of his true needs and an old judgment that he is somehow bad. He sees his unwillingness to pursue what society calls “success” as a weakness in his character. As he applies the Fourth Step to this situation in his life, he understands that his way of living works for him, is right for him and conforms to his true self. With this understanding comes peace.

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One final thought about self-judgment: There is an interesting way that our reaction to other people can help us understand our own nature.

When we rage at someone else’s hypocrisy, when we become upset at another’s laziness, overindulgence or self destructive acts, we’d better examine what we are really agitated about. ls our anger really directed toward another person or at our own hypocrisy, our own laziness, our own overindulgence, our own self-destructiveness? Are we really furious at someone else for acting out the negative traits in our own nature that we deny, hate, are afraid of or spend much time and emotional energy fighting against? Are we sending our anger outward because we don’t want to send it inward?

These are all good questions to ask ourselves. The intensity of our outward response may be a measure of our internal judgment and an indicator of how violently we are abusing our inner self. No wonder it wants to hide.

4. We Realize Our Own Personal Strength.

Finding and accepting our true self takes honesty and lots and lots of courage. We are used to struggling and feeling weak and confused. Our personal strength is something we often discount. We try to control our world so we can feel strong, but just underneath the surface of our immediate consciousness lie feelings of fear and weakness. This is how we feel, but the reality is that we are very, very strong. If we weren’t strong, we wouldn’t be trying to heal. If we weren’t strong, we wouldn’t be trying to find peace and serenity in our lives. If we weren’t strong, we wouldn’t be looking for joy. Our commitment to the 12-Step program comes out of our strength. Our unceasing struggle comes out of our strength. Our growing sense of humility, of recognizing our place in the overall scheme of life, comes out of our strength. Our spiritual growth comes out of our strength. We always need to remember that embracing our own strength is the key to our healing.

We switch from thinking we are weak to knowing we are strong. Instead of accepting our feelings of weakness and struggle, fear and desperation, we can choose to acknowledge that we are strong. We can assume that we are operating from a core of strength and our strength is where our self lives. We set our feet firmly on the earth and stretch our body toward the sky.

All of this can be translated into personal power. Personal power comes from knowing when to stand strong and tall to hold up the weight of the world around us and when to yield, to fold into ourselves and let the world wash around us. When we know that yielding can be strong and isn’t always a sign of weakness, we have a real choice. When we can truly choose to stand or truly choose to yield, we are people with personal power.

Each time we use Step 4 we practice self-trust, and over time self-trust grows and grows. We learn to trust our own search and trust where it leads us. We learn not to shy away from our own truths because they are who we are. We learn self-respect. We learn not to judge and abuse ourselves. In place of judgment and abuse we put love and understanding. We treat ourselves as dearly loved friends.

Everyone’s Search Is Different

No one method of doing the Fourth Step is better than another. Each of us will discover many ways of examining our exact nature. Step 4 can be casual mental notes of self-revelation or it can be structured, formal and written. It can be written spontaneously in a journal or as carefully-thought-out responses to a systematic Fourth Step guide.

First-time Fourth Steps usually focus on problems in the present because persistent negative behavior must be arrested or slowed before we can go deeper into ourselves. Later Fourth Steps are more introspective, go deeper and often amaze us with what we find.

There are printed Fourth Step guides and inventories available, such as Carla Wills-Brandon’s “The Fourth Step,” (Health Communications, 1991). There are AA and Al-Anon conference-approved booklets and independently published guides. Fourth Step Weekends and Step retreats are offered in some metropolitan areas. We can use any or all of these sources of help, and we also learn to develop our own.

Our Search Evolves Over Time

The nature of our early Fourth Steps will be different from the ones we do later. In the beginning we usually work from the point of view of adults looking at our present lives. Our first Steps also tend to be formal. We make lists of our weaknesses, writing down every negative personal characteristic we can think of.

This kind of exercise is particularly helpful and important as a start. When we write down and address our negative traits, we unload painful thoughts, feelings and fears we work so hard to keep hidden from ourselves and other people. We begin the subtle and crucial process that introduces us to the injured child inside of us who is really running our show.

Later we begin to experience the Fourth Step through the eyes of our inner child or adolescent. This child carries our pain. Our adult self has spent immeasurable time and energy keeping this kid quiet. Acknowledgment of his or her pain, compassion for the carrier of so much agony, is the beginning of self-acceptance and self-love.

It isn’t only our inner child that this Step shows us. The evolving Step gets us in touch with our childhood pain and also introduces us to our wise self.

Many of us have never considered that there is a wisdom that lives deep within us – but there is. While the hurt parts of us have lived out the pain, the wise part has also utilized our experiences quietly underneath the other. This part of ourself carries wisdom that we are unaware of, that our busy minds have been too frantic to discover. This wisdom is ours to use if only we will be still and listen. Recognizing both inner child and wise self, our character begins to balance.

We can narrow the scope of the Fourth Step and become much more specific in how we apply it. It can become informal and spontaneous, our natural way to approach a problem or challenge. Instead of looking at “resentment” as a general negative trait, we examine why we became resentful in a specific situation with a specific other. Instead of thinking about our “fear” we wonder why we feel uncomfortable around a certain relative. Instead of lecturing ourselves about overeating, we make detailed notes of what our feelings are when we want to go to the cookie jar. And we ask our inner child and our wise self to help. We finally acknowledge that they have a lot of our answers.

There is no “correct” way for this Step to evolve. We don’t move directly from a formal Fourth Step directed by our current self to a deeper one led by our child or wise self. We bounce back and forth. One day we make a list of our troublesome traits, two days later we’ll write down all our strengths and potentials. Another time we narrowly apply the Fourth Step to examine a childlike trait that shows up when we are criticized by a friend. Then we may ask our wise self to help. It’s all useful. It all works.

Different Doorways To Step Four

There are many different ways to enter this Step, many different approaches to self-examination. Depending on which door we step through, we will cover distinctive landscapes and arrive at various destinations. Which door we choose doesn’t matter, as long as we take personal honesty and self-acceptance with us.

1. Important events in our life, past or present. We choose an important event and examine our actions and reactions in relation to it. Perhaps we examine it through the eyes of our current self, our child and our wise self and note similarities and differences of these different approaches.

2. Personal attributes, assets and liabilities. We identify personal attributes as a way to learn about our exact nature. It’s important to remember that most attributes have meaning only in the way we apply them. What we call “liabilities” may really be assets that are out of balance.

For example, self-control is an essential asset as long as it is used with moderation. It becomes a liability when we control ourselves in such a way that we are isolated, disconnected from friends or loved ones. Vulnerability is an asset when it allows us to express our feelings. It’s a liability when we choose inappropriate times or places to be vulnerable so someone can use our vulnerability to hurt us. Step 4 can help us see both sides of an attribute and then consciously choose how to put it into action.

3. Relationship between feelings and behavior. We examine how our feelings relate to our behavior. Feelings and behaviors are always connected, sometimes appropriately, sometimes not. We look at anger, rage, shame and guilt and at what we do when we feel those feelings. Then we look at how our behavior affects both ourselves and others.

We can come at this from the opposite direction. When we yell at the dog, we can figure out what we are really feeling and toward whom. What do we feel when we act the way we act? How do we act when we feel the way we feel? The Fourth Step helps us to sort this out.

4. Single behavior; large or small. We identify a problem behavior and apply Step 4. When we first begin to use the Steps, we usually focus on something obvious such as drinking, gambling or allowing ourselves to be physically or emotionally abused. This is our initial concern. Later we focus on more hidden but equally hurtful behavior such as perfectionism, resentment or isolation.

One of the wonderful things about the Fourth Step is that it teaches us who we are underneath the major problems that brought us to the Steps in the first place.

5. Single personal relationship. We focus on a single personal relationship with our spouse, child, parent, sibling, friend or co-worker. We can look at this relationship overall or in terms of a single event. We examine our feelings about this person, how we relate to him or her, why we relate the way we do, what consequences we have to live with. We also examine whether we are actually relating to the person we are focusing on or whether that person is a stand-in for someone else. We try to sort all this out so we can see how much of it makes sense in our present life and how much is tied to the past.

6. Current situation. We examine a situation that’s bothering us. First we carefully define what the situation is. Next we look at what we’re feeling about it, what we’re doing about it, how we’re affected by it and how it affects others. Then we are in a position to decide how we can change it.

7. Balance of lifestyle. We look at the balance in our lives, at how we are juggling our work, social life, physical fitness program. We ask whether we are consciously caring for our mental and spiritual health. We may feel as though we’re constantly teetering on a tightrope as we try to keep these things in order. We feel overwhelmed and lose the pleasure that work, family, friends or jogging used to give us. Step 4 helps us identify our true nature so we can decide what lifestyle balance best fits our unique needs.

8. Conscious versus unconscious messages. We ask whether the conscious messages we give ourselves are different from the ideas that appear in our dreams. There is often a wide disparity between the messages we get from our dreams, spontaneous images and “thoughts that come from nowhere” and the directives we give ourselves. If we are truly examining our exact nature, we’d better listen to the breakthroughs from our unconscious mind. These messages, whether we like them or not, are often gifts of honesty to be used to make deep change in our lives.

Reality Is Always Ours To Change

The Fourth Step is about changing reality. Everyone’s reality is different. Two people can experience exactly the same situation and feel differently about it. They can even physically see it in contrasting ways. The world is made up of billions of people, each with a separate reality developing out of their particular set of genes and lifelong experience. And each reality is true for the person who lives it. Unfortunately, many of us live in a reality formed and limited by elaborate systems of denial. The Fourth Step helps us examine this.

An honest and deep understanding of ourselves is the basis of all our thought. This is important because it’s our thought that directs the actions of our lives. It’s true that the thoughts we think form our reality, whether that reality is honest or based in pretense and denial. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”

In every situation there are many ways to react. For example, if a friend forgets to meet us for lunch, we can be angry, understanding or laugh about it. We might be any of these. The important thing is that we make a thoughtful choice about what our response will be. Having the first reaction that comes is a primitive reaction that is often related to the pain of our childhood. If we follow through on our instinctive response, we are responding to a past reality. But Step 4 encourages us to change this. It helps us choose thoughts and actions that are appropriate – not to our past, but to our present.

The process is never smooth, and it doesn’t ever seem to end. We will work this Step again and again. But when we get discouraged, we hang in there, we wait, we remember to breathe and pretty soon we begin to work again. It’s hard and it’s a struggle, but our healthy, hopeful, honest future is worth it.

Search honestly and deeply within ourselves to know the exact nature of our actions, thoughts and emotions.

Today I will closely examine the exact nature of one action, thought or feeling. I will accept without self-judgment whatever I find.

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The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery is available as a second edition at Amazon.

It is also available via Amazon in Canada and the United Kingdom and Europe.

EBook versions of The Alternative 12 Steps are available online in all formats. Click here for Kindle, Kobo or Nook. An iBook version for the Mac or iPad is available at iTunes.

Chapters of the book have been posted on AA Agnostica and can be accessed here:

8 Responses

  1. Colin says:

    Seems almost comical but, I’ve heard similar things in meetings. I was also worried about dragging out the past and being angry or depressed and slipping. I have been working on a mental but have written some things down and speaking with some closed mouthed friends and recently been writing things down.

  2. Christopher G says:

    I just reread this and it’s come to my mind, as I’ve heard in the rooms a few times, that this step is taking me as opposed to me taking it. I have attempted a few linear fourth steps and am in the middle of one now with a group study, and I am finding that no matter how well ordered or perceived by another, my own forming understanding and lifeforce, if you will, is really the director. This is why it is a process and not an end in and of itself, I think, and that there is no perfect way to do one and that it is never done, like continuing education. A degree in recovery will never be given or achieved, only degrees of….

  3. Dave J says:

    This is a better description of the fourth step than I’ve seen. I’m not a big fan. I find the whole western fascination with psychology tedious. The problem with the trip down Blame Shame Lane is that it’s easy to get lost down there and never find out that it’s all smoke and mirrors and nothing is real. There is nothing wrong with us…there never was. If the fourth step leads us to this conclusion, it’s worth it. If it doesn’t, it’s pointless.

    • daniel says:

      The fourth step changed my life, it’s the first time in 46 years that I took an honest look at myself.
      What I found was my alcoholism, I was selfish, dishonest, arrogant, close-minded, childish and on and on. This information moved me on a path to change these shortcomings and get a better life.

  4. Denis K says:

    This is by far a more objective approach to taking ones inventory than the approach found in both the 12 X 12 and the big book.
    I am passing this along to some people I know who have struggled with step 4 for many years trying somehow to “Get it right”. Framed in the manner that this is framed seems to put one at ease with the fourth step task.
    Thanks for selecting and posting this practical series related to the 12 steps Roger.

  5. JHG says:

    I would add “curiosity” to the list of the fourth step principles listed above. One of the unintended and rarely acknowledged benefits of being honest with ourselves is that questioning our own assumptions actually changes the brain and mitigates addictive, compulsive, and obsessive tendencies. Being able to look at ourselves with amusement and appreciation would not only reduce the extent to which the fourth step is a dreaded means of self-torture (even to the point of triggering relapse), but would also be more effective in promoting real recovery.

    • John M. says:

      A very wise reminder to us, JHG, to an equally wise reading of the 4th Step by the authors.

  6. Lech L. says:

    I once heard someone say at a meeting that he had relapsed because of doing a bad step 4.

    I certainly don’t want to risk relapse.

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