Jun 02

Taking Inventory

The Fourth Step is the immediate action that needs to be taken upon completion of first three steps.  It takes courage and rigorous honesty for it to be of any use to us but the information we gain in this step will serve us well as we move forward.

“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”  Step Four

We have admitted the state of our affairs and that we can no longer manage them effectively.  We have given our lives over to the care of a power greater than ourselves and trust in our Higher Power’s ability to guide us.  We have become willing to do the work that lies ahead.  Generally speaking I’m not a fan of dwelling on the past or overthinking what are usually considered negative events and feelings but this is not the case here.  This step is an exercise in honesty, a reality check, an opportunity to to address the things that lie within our circle of responsibility and let go of the rest. So we bravely step into the warehouse of the mind and sift through the sometimes dusty shelves with the strength and clarity we’ve gained in the first three steps.  We have a new and clearer vision of what got us here and we are ready to take stock.

Step Four focuses on resentments, fears, and harms.  Most people have difficulties in these areas whether they are addicts or not.  Fearless and entirely honest searching is required if we want to get to the root of our behaviors and we now know that we must if want to be healed.  We are seeking information in this step, information that we already have but for a variety of reasons have chosen to forget, ignore or perhaps have never been honest enough to identify it in the first place.

We have not been functioning as the person we were meant to be.  Out of balance and out of control, we have now committed to a course that addresses the illness of the body, mind and spirit.  It fits well with the idea of holistic recovery.  Consider those three areas not as separate but as parts of a whole, a system that relies on the functioning of each member for health and happiness to be restored.  The body, where our physical behaviors and/or cravings demonstrate themselves.  The mind, where our faulty thinking and mental obsessions play themselves out.  And the spirit, the seat of truth, which has become disconnected from our Higher Power and our true self.

“What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.”  ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Reading through pages 62-71 in the Big Book, if you have it, is a great way to prepare for Step Four.  On page 65 there is a three column chart to to give you an idea of how to get started.  (Or see the recommended links below to read more and view sample forms.)  Some prefer to use a chart with four columns in this manner.  Column 1 names the physical – the WHO, most often a noun, a person, place, institution, etc. Column 2 deals with the mental - WHAT we think happened or how we were wronged. Column 3 deals with the emotional – HOW we felt about what happened.   And finally, Column 4 refers to the spiritual – the TRUTH about what happened.   The fourth column is helpful as it usually reveals how our behavior or thinking has contributed to the situation and helps us release our resentments, our fears and our guilt.


The Big Book says that all forms of spiritual disease stem from resentment.  We have been truly ill physically, mentally and spiritually.  When the “spiritual malady” is overcome the others will be overcome as well.  We are not only listing our resentments here but beginning to understand how our own thoughts and actions may have contributed to that resentment.  There are no rules about what to include, only you know what belongs on your list.


Fear is a normal and useful emotion that can protect us from danger by heightening our senses, releasing adrenaline and inspiring caution.  At appropriate times and in appropriate doses it is healthy and even necessary for survival.  However, dwelling on fear, especially in large doses prevents us from living the life we were created for and can even make us physically ill. This sort of fear controls us.  We become paralyzed, stuck in an unhealthy cycle by our own worries and anxiety.  Releasing fears is an important part of healing.

Aside from fear of eminent danger such as the fear of heights and wild animals our fears usually fall into a few different categories – fear of losing something, fear of not getting what we want or feel we need and the fear of people finding out things we’ve done.  Begin to list your fears with whatever comes to mind first and allow yourself to explore the source of each entry.

Sex and Harms

We now begin to review our own conduct as we go through the sex inventory and harms list.  These sometimes go hand in hand, sometimes put together in one chart or listed separately.  Depending on the length and content of your sex inventory you may want to separate it but the point is to be entirely honest about what we’ve done to others, physically, mentally and emotionally.  For this reason our sex inventory is often intertwined with our harms list.

No matter how you decide to break it up you may want to briefly review your resentments and fears lists to see if you’ve gained any insight or if there are ways in which you have harmed those who have also harmed you.  We are interested in what is called, “sweeping our side of the street.”  In this section write only what YOU did no matter how justified you may have felt at the time.  If you feel that you were wronged you can always go back and add to your resentment or fears list if necessary.

For the sex inventory it can be helpful to answer the questions on p. 68 & 69 of the Big Book.  For more guidance regarding a list of harms to others refer to pg. 70.  In some recovery circles there is another list that can be added after the “Harms Inventory” called a “Graves List” to be used to write down the secrets you would take to your grave.  This list can be shared with a sponsor or trusted friend if you choose but is often burned after completion both for your privacy and as a way to symbolize releasing what you have confessed.

Positive Characteristics

Some people also like to include a list of positive characteristics and attributes.  This is something for you and possibly your sponsor to decide.  Our assets most likely didn’t contribute to our current difficulties but since we’re assessing the state of our affairs it can be useful to acknowledge our strengths.  In some cases our strengths may in fact have influenced us in negative ways that created unhealthy attachments to the ego or inaccurate opinions of ourselves.  An honest assessment of the characteristics that are healthy and serve us well can also help us identify those which are not truly positive.

A few important reminders on the Fourth Step:

  • It is a written inventory, it’s okay if you feel most comfortable doing this on a computer but usually handwritten.
  • Complete honesty is paramount.  This is essential, it is of no real value if you lie to yourself or withhold information.
  • Keep it simple, we aren’t writing our life story here; remember it isn’t meant to be a novel but an inventory.  We will end up telling our story in the 5th step based on this thorough inventory.
  • Be thorough, take your time, but do not dwell on this step.  It’s normal for some feelings to be stirred up during the process but try to remain somewhat detached simply reporting the truth to the best of your ability.
  • Most inventories are written vertically and read horizontally. Go down the list, first who, then what, the feeling and then the truth.
  • Consider the possibility of including yourself in the “Who” columns when it comes to resentments and harms.

In the Fourth Step inventory we further accept our responsibility for the circumstances we find ourselves in today.  We see our part in even our resentments and our fears as we admit that our own faulty thinking has often allowed many of these situations to play out the way they did.  As we review our inventory with another person we take the information we’ve gathered and prepare for the steps to follow.  These lists create a clear picture of the barriers that separate us from health, happiness, peace, other people and most importantly from our Higher Power.  We have an honest assessment of the past, of where we stand now and a guide for what needs to be done.

If you experience new or difficult emotions as you write and review your lists know that you are not alone.  Allow yourself to feel without beating up on yourself or anyone else, you’ve probably done more than enough of that already.  Use this as an opportunity to use what you’ve learned so far.  Continue to humbly admit your powerlessness, keep believing that there is a Power that can and will care for you as you surrender your will and your life – over and over again.  Accept the freedom of letting go as you give and receive the gift of forgiveness.

“We will know peace.” ~ Promise Four


Recommended Reading:

The AA Big Book and Guide for Working the Twelve Steps are recommended reading for anyone in recovery of any kind, not only because they were the first but also for their inspirational and direct content. Two great resources for those working the Steps for codependency are also included here. More books on 12 Step Work from other fellowships and programs can be found in the “Steps” drop down list under “Programs and Literature.”

Featured image for this page taken from Hazelden 12 Step Pamphlet Collection – The Complete 12 Step Collection used by patients in recovery centers throughout the nation, these easy-to-read editions are a sure way to gain a basic, and yet thorough, understanding of the significance of each Step. Pamphlets are available individually or in a money-saving full collection.



Forms for charts can be found here:  http://www.barefootsworld.net/docs/aaworkstep4forms.doc  Taken from “Barefoot’s World” which is an excellent site for more information on working the steps of AA and can easily be adapted for any condition.

Other Fourth Step Links:





Recommended Links:

The questions above are fairly generalized in order to apply to a variety of conditions. The basics are the same but if you are working the Steps specifically for drug/alcohol abuse or codependency the following links may help you to explore further. There are many other formats and workbooks available through a simple web search.

12 Step Worksheets

CoDA 12 Step Worksheets

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