Gary S. Fisher, Psy. D., C.A.D.C.

healing, integration, authenticity

Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Principles: Consciousness vs. Self-Deception


"The unexamined life is not worth living"

Many people who have stopped their substance use question the need to go back over all the things that either happened to them or they did to themselves and others, and express the belief that the past should remain in the past thinking that they have learned their lesson and can simply be different now that they are aware of how harmful drinking and using (or whatever behavior they had been addicted to) had become. This idea precludes the role the unconscious mind and especially the habitual reactions and automated thoughts and behaviors that all of us have to varying degrees, play in our current view and reaction to life in the present, as well as how difficult it is to, as Einstein is credited as saying, "use that which is broken to fix itself."

Even if we were able to be fully aware of our ideas and habitual thought patterns, we are not able to use that intellectual knowledge to change the actual emotions that we experienced from all the events of our life, which have been repressed, and which contribute to the addict’s negative self-image as seen in the dis-eased psyche. Without a searching and fearless effort on the part of the recovering addict, intellectual identification of the patterns of thought and behavior may become apparent, but no real change can or will take place. The reason for this is found in the depth of the anchoring of the old belief system. Much of what happens to us as we grow up happens not so much on an intellectual level, as on a deep emotional level. When we are hurt as children, especially those profound instances when our whole world is shaken, whatever beliefs we take away from those instances (about ourselves, others, and the world at large), are anchored at an incredibly deep level by very powerful emotions. Even when the events are less traumatic in nature, as children we are so much more open emotionally that our conscious memory of the events might be lost, but the emotional cell memory stays with us for life. No matter how much intellectual effort we put into changing our belief system(s), unless we release those emotions and re-anchor a new belief system with equally powerful feelings and emotions, no permanent change is likely. If we look at the beliefs as a balloon and the emotions as one of the big lead washers that hold the balloon to the ground, it’s easy to see this idea in practical terms. No matter how much I think about letting the balloon go, it is only by removing the washer that the balloon can float away. The inventory process stirs up all the old emotions in order to help clear them away. Through the taking of pen to paper, many addicts talk about feeling as if they are reliving the incidents as they are writing them out.

While there are many formats for writing an inventory from the columns described in the AA Big Book to various guidebooks including those provided by organizations like Hazelden, I prefer to simply have people write out an autobiography with a chronological framework only to help when the person stops and starts, but I advise the individual to put in whatever comes up no matter if it fits into the chronology or not, and I inform them that the only way to do it wrong is to consciously leave something off that had come up.

It is very important through the fourth step process, that if you as a clinician are working the steps with your client, that you make yourself available for possible extra sessions, as well as aiding the client in setting up additional support systems in order to help the client avoid becoming overwhelmed by all the old emotions. An important and effective tool in this is to instruct the individual to always end the writing by bringing themselves back into the present moment. It will also be important for you the clinician, to help the client keep the fourth and fifth steps separate. The client may get into procrastinating on the writing because of fears about reading the inventory. The clinician should reinforce that the client should complete the inventory and then can make a decision about reading it to you or someone else of their choice.