Fourth Step Inventory

By Ken Wells - 01/21/2022


Series Two: Blog Ninety-Eight

Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”— James Baldwin

A few days ago I completed a 4th step inventory with a good friend.  As best I recall it was the tenth 4th step that I have done in 32 years of recovery.  I wanted to do a 4th step around the self-destructive behavior of martyrdom. Those who are familiar with the 4th step know that the step can be exhausting, emotional, and for sure difficult. For me in recovery, frequently a theme of self-sabotage will surface that triggers me to go back to do another 4th step. My tenth 4th step will probably not be my last. In one sense as a therapist, I do a 4th step constantly. I help people work through trauma every week. My experiences with my clients challenge me to reflect on my own trauma.

The fallout from doing 4th step inventory is predictable. It hurts. It is totally exhausting. You sit in vulnerability. Usually you swear a lot. The 4th step ignites feelings of overwhelm, exasperation, and anger. It affects your sleep. Shame is kicked up. You wonder why the guy who is listening is sitting there looking at you. There is so much to unload that it is tempting to categorize and minimize all the behaviors. It seems like the more you share the more you feel screwed. As you unpack your character flaws, it feels like you are on display (more shame).

During the inventory, you struggle to verbalize the meaning of each flawed experience. There’s an overwhelming sensation that what you just shared makes no sense whatsoever. As you soldier on and throw it all up on the table, there’s no sense of relief. It feels like the experience of going through emotional dry heaves. When you’re done you feel wasted. You feel numb. Your brain feels unplugged. You think you are in a daze. It feels like you were hit by a big Mack truck. You might even feel a little crazy. You are depressed and maybe even a little suicidal. This doesn’t mean everyone feels this way after doing a 4th step. It does mean I felt all of those things–not just when I did the 4th step a few days ago but this has been my experience every time I have ever done a 4th step.

So, why would anyone ever do a 4th step inventory? Who wants to sign up for this degree of suffering?

Here are a few considerations as to why it makes sense.

It triggers a shift from left brain to right brain experience. Addicts resort to figuring things out on their own. They compute and interpret the terrain of life through the distorted eyes of addiction. Their left brain approach is efficient to satisfying craving. It is amazing to listen to 1st step stories that detail the left brain calculation and planning involved in addressing addictive urge. They conceptualize and analyze a given situation and determine a strategy to feed the junkie worm. Addicts are really great at it until they are not. On the other hand, recovery requires a right brain approach. It depends upon letting go of left brain distortions that fuel addictive behavior and opening the heart of your right brain that shares your emotional experiences in life. Addicts disconnect from their emotions around distressful events and lose themselves into left brain logic. This leads to using, numbing out, and avoiding painful feelings. Embracing 4th step work is a right brain exercise that later helps the addict utilize his logical left brain toward effective recovery care.

Fourth Step work is an exercise that teaches how suffering cultivates healing. James Baldwin, American writer and activist, once said that you cannot grow yourself up unless you learn to suffer.  For sure, life teaches that the only way to manage emotional pain is to go through it. You cannot avoid it with attempts to go around it as if there were some kind of detour. Maturity requires that you know and experience grief. Grief is suffering. While there is no need to be masochistic, life always unfolds with suffering in many forms. Growing up demands that you learn to embrace suffering and learn the lessons that life reveals within its context. Fourth step work beckons the addict to make meaningfulness from the character flaws that have triggered immense suffering and pain.

The design of 4th step work is to transform behavior, not just to express emotional flatulence. Baldwin spoke to the New York Times in 1977 that people can cry much more easily than they can change.” For sure 4th step work triggers tears. I have listened to colleagues, clients and addicts alike shed tears about their behavior. You can grieve and shed tears about destructive addictive behavior, gender domination from patriarchy, racial equality, etc and remain unwilling to do what it takes to transform behavior. The goal of Fourth step work is not to provide emotional catharsis alone; it is to establish a solid foundation for behavioral change.

Procrastination paralyzes progress. People put off what is dreaded. Doing taxes, exercising, or facing a relational conflict is like doing a 4th step. You put it off because it’s painful.  Procrastinating will stunt your improvement. It is critical to move through the pain for the next experience of personal growth. Historically, addicts move through the first three steps in recovery with enthusiasm. They put off the possibility of maturation that comes from embracing Step 4. Overcome 4th step fear by “chunking”. Rather than sitting down to embrace the entire 4th step “enchilada”, work with it in bits and chunks. Write down one or two character flaws and its impact on your destructive behavior, one at a time. Eventually, you will have your first or next 4th step completed.

Fourth step work is a way to engage powerful transformation in recovery from addiction and behaviors of self-sabotage.

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