People who choose to follow a 12-Step program of recovery will, sooner or later, find themselves at the infamous Fourth Step. Despite its towering reputation as a fearsome Step to take, Step Four and its companion, Step Five, are really, for many people, the most freeing of them all. When done correctly with a sponsor, Step Four begins to clear away the wreckage of the past and set the recovering person on “the road of happy destiny.”


Fear of the Fourth

Fear of this step stems largely from the overwhelming amount of information accumulated around it over the years. A quick Google check of Step Four inventory formats will return several pages of worksheets designed, in theory, to make writing your inventory easier. The problem is, all of these sheets come in different layouts and different themes. The process quickly gets confusing, leaving many people unable even to start the process of writing.


How to Not Get Overwhelmed

While it should go without saying that none of the Steps should be done without a sponsor, attempting to do a Fourth Step inventory alone is never a good idea. Step Four asks you to look back at behavior patterns, including specific actions and events, some of which are painful and humiliating. Since you may be fairly early in the recovery process the first time you do this Step, the feelings that arise from thinking about these events can quickly overwhelm you. Your sponsor will tell you which format you should be using, undoubtedly based on the format their sponsor used with them.

Even with one set of sheets, however, you may still feel stuck when it comes time to put pen to paper. First and foremost, it is important to remember that this will not be your only Fourth Step; you don’t graduate from recovery. You will be working on these steps for the rest of your life, so in all probability, you will be doing another Fourth Step down the road. This one doesn’t have to be perfect. Just get it started.


Getting Things Started

Here are a few tips for getting the pen moving:

  • Try spontaneous writing. Let your Higher Power, whatever that looks like for you, do all of the writing for you, not your selective, distorted memory. Don’t think; write what pops into your head—no punctuation or sentences. The idea is to keep your ego out of it and, in doing so, remove your intellect from the equation.
  • Try to stay objective. Obviously, this is your life, and you’re going to have feelings about what you’re remembering. But also remember that you’re on a fact-finding mission here; you’re cleaning house. You are taking an inventory, and in this case, there is nothing wrong with viewing the process as something similar to fixing a car. It is okay to be dispassionate when dredging up the past. Emotional angst and a thorough inventory don’t have to be inextricably linked. It is actually quite the opposite; such a relief to know that you don’t have to dig down to feel the suffering. Understanding it is enough.
  • No Procrastinating. There is nothing to be gained by waiting to do this Step once you have completed Steps 1 – 3. That freedom from bondage everyone talks about will come much sooner when you do your Fourth Step and then move on to the rest of the Steps.
  • No dawdling. Many people do this, and while it’s understandable, there is really no reason. Think of it this way: while you may be afraid of the boogeyman lurking around the next corner, really, you have already been around that corner. You know what’s there. Try to dive in and move along.
  • One Column at a Time. This is a biggie. Unless your sponsor or other support person says otherwise, go in columns, not in rows. For example, list all of the people, places, and principles against whom you have a resentment. Do not list the person, then go to the next column and write down what happened to cause the resentment. This method has been universally affirmed as the most straightforward and least painful method of working your Fourth Step.
  • Set a deadline. This is also crucial. Work with your sponsor to set a time frame to complete this Step. While you want to be as honest and thorough as possible, taking forever and a day to work on a Fourth Step will keep you stuck in the past and all of the negative emotions that live there. Remember, everyone in recovery goes through this process over and over again. So if something gets missed, you can add it the next time. Also, don’t forget you have a 10th Step for what are essentially daily mini-4th Steps.

There is so much freedom in doing a “searching and fearless moral inventory.” All of the wreckage of your past, long sunk to the bottom of your emotional sea, can gradually be brought to the top, sifted, and put into categories. You can begin to look at things objectively and see where you played a part in the disharmony and bad feelings. This is the beginning of the repairing process.


When working at a 12-Step program of recovery, arriving at your Fourth Step feels like a momentous occasion. Frequently, though, for many people, it is also intimidating. There are so many stories out there, many of them from people who have not yet done this step! When you have guidance from a sponsor who has a working knowledge of the 12 Steps, you can start sifting through the debris of your past, looking at your relationships, resentments, and fears. You will be able to see where you played a part in the strife, and you will have the ability to own that. If you feel like you need a little extra motivation, the Personal Recovery Assistants at Hired Power in Orange County can help you work with your sponsor on a thorough 4th Step. Call them at (800) 910-9299. You can never have too many people on your recovery team.