Big Book Recovery
Working the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous

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About This Site

Step Four

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves


Reading: pages 63-71.


What is a moral inventory?

The Big Book explains that we must make a list that includes all our resentments we have and have ever had, an account of sexual conduct and our fears. Then we must look at why we have those feelings. We found that the most important reason is not as we previously thought, what happened to us, but our reaction to what happened. This is not to deny that sometimes very bad things do happen to us. But the point is that usually we cannot control what happens to us. However we can do something about our reaction to events. Always, we discovered, when we feel bad about something, it is because we have reacted with self-centered thoughts. Self-centeredness has the opposite effect to love or compassion, which always caused us to feel good. This is why we are taking a moral inventory of ourselves: we are considering the exact nature of our self-centered reaction to the events that have happened to us. Let us consider first, resentments:


What is a resentment?

A resentment is any bad feeling relating to our past (sometimes the very recent past). Resentments can be directed against people or institutions: these are the feelings of anger, irritation, dislike, antagonism that we feel towards someone or something. These feelings can range in intensity from mild irritation to burning anger. Resentments can also be directed against ourselves: these are the feelings of guilt, shame, and regret we have for our actions or for things we have failed to do. Any negative sense about our appearance or our bodies is a resentment against ourselves (for example, I might wish I was better looking). Annoyance about our bad luck or about how things seem to go against us are resentments against fate or whatever we believe controls fate (which might be God).

Why must we list resentments?

Resentments are not the preserve of the alcoholic. They are not a symptom of our alcoholism. All people can get resentments (and for that matter fears and sexual problems -- as it says, 'we wouldn't be human if we didn't'). Nor is there any reason to believe that any alcoholic, simply because he is an alcoholic, suffers resentment any more deeply than a non-alcoholic. We know this because the Doctor's Opinion tell us that some alcoholics are perfectly well balanced in all matters except for one area, their attitude to drink {p xxviii}. So if, in having resentments we are no different from non-alcoholics, why worry about them? The problem for the alcoholic is that the consequence of harboring resentment is so much greater than for non-alcoholics. If non-alcoholics have resentments, they just feel bad. But for the alcoholic they also shut out the Higher Power, the only thing that can save us. As the book says: "Harboring such feelings cuts out the sunlight of the Spirit, the insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us to drink is to die." Alcoholics risk paying the highest penalty for hanging on to resentments.


How do we analyze our resentments?

On page 65 of the Big Book there is a diagram containing examples of several resentments. This diagram, with three columns is just the starting point. To illustrate how we proceed, we will deal with a fictitious example: imagine the writer has a fight. In connection with this event he is able to isolate three different resentments: he is angry with Fred, whom he fought; he was cross with some people who watched the fight and gloated over his defeat; and he is full of regret that he wasn't a stronger man and a better fighter who could have beaten Fred in a fight. First of all, if we put these three resentments into the diagram in the Big Book, it might look like this:



On page 67 we are told that these three columns are not enough: "Referring to our list again. Putting out of our minds the wrongs others had done, we resolutely looked for our own mistakes. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking and frightened." These are four self-centered impulses. There are different forms of selfishness, dishonest, self-seeking and fear. To be completely thorough in our inventory we must describe each form precisely. For example, is my self-seeking impulse one of jealousy or envy? Am I displaying selfishness or greed? "That, we think is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion [a form of dishonesty], self-seeking [Self-centeredness] and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows..." {p62} There are not literally 100 forms of these impulses. The number has been exaggerated to emphasize the point. However, we found that 14 different forms covered all the different impulses that we experience (although some of the 14 have more that one meaning and are used in different situations in slightly different ways (see the end of this section for definitions of the defects of character). The book indicates, therefore, that we need to create a fourth column (or extend the third column). Into this column we put the precise nature of our wrongs: whichever of the 14 defects of character have caused our resentment. It is the final column, then, that contains the precise forms of our Self-centeredness and selfishness that represent the "root of our troubles". It holds the key to our resentments. The third column is a "stepping stone" that leads us into the full realization that the resentment is our problem. We are sore not because of what Fred did, however unjust, but because of our defective reaction to it, as detailed in the final column. Once we have accepted that, the need for the third column is not as great and we can omit it if we wish. It is this final column containing the 14 defects of character that is vital for our recovery. We must have this realization if we are to recover. The Big Book states this at the outset of the description of the Step Four, on page 64: "Being convinced that self, manifested in various ways, was what had defeated us, we considered its common manifestations."

To illustrate, here are the same three resentments with the fourth column added to include the "self, manifested in various ways". (Explanations of the meanings of each of the defects of character are given at the end of this section.)



There are five parts that could be affected (p65): our self-esteem, our security (pocketbooks, ie money worries), our ambitions (worries about the future), our personal relations, our sex relations. Pride and Fear also appear in the diagram in the Big Book. Notice how generalization is avoided and the single event is split up into its component resentments. Also the Big Book tells us that, in connection with our grudge list, "We admitted our wrongs honestly and were willing to set matters straight." {p67}. This statement anticipates Steps Eight and Nine. It tells us that we must record all that we have actually done in connection with our resentments and, at a later stage, we must become willing to make amends...but we don't need to worry about that willingness yet, we just have to write down what we did in Step Four. So, if as a result of this fight I lied about Fred, slandering him to destroy his reputation, then I should make sure that I take inventory on this as well writing it down as a separate resentment with myself in the first column.

Similarly, when we look at the situation honestly we realize that Fred didn't just punch me unprovoked. Where I can now see exactly what I did to Fred leading up to this I must put that down in the inventory too. Again, I write this down as a resentment with Self in the first column and what I did in the second. We must write down all the resentments we have ever had, that we can remember. "We went back through our lives. Nothing counted but thoroughness and honesty." {p65} As an aid to thoroughness, we list chronologically, as best we can: our family, close friends, girlfriends, boyfriends and people we have had sex with, places we have lived, classes at school, college, places of work, holidays, and so on; we use this list to generate memories of resentments. Also, we make sure that we put down resentments we can remember having, even if we are pretty sure we no longer have them. For example:

We must write down all the resentments we have ever had, that we can remember. "We went back through our lives. Nothing counted but thoroughness and honesty." {p65} As an aid to thoroughness, we list chronologically, as best we can: our family, close friends, girlfriends, boyfriends and people we have had sex with, places we have lived, classes at school, college, places of work, holidays, and so on; we use this list to generate memories of resentments. Also, we make sure that we put down resentments we can remember having, even if we are pretty sure we no longer have them. For example:



I was seven years old when this happened and, even before doing my Step Four at the age of 26, I understood why my Dad had told me to go to bed and did not feel bitter towards him. However, I remembered it so I put it down.

As mentioned before, we do not neglect resentments against ourselves: "Sometimes it was remorse and then we were sore at ourselves" {p66}. All matters of shame, embarrassment and guilt would come under this heading and are resentments against ourselves.

It is important to try to record them when we remember them so as to avoid, as far as possible, our forgetting them later. We might start off with the first name on our family list. This will spark off a memory of a resentment and then possibly a whole string of other resentments that have, apparently, no connection. We just put them all down and when the string in our memory stops, we go back to the next name on the list.

The myth of the "justified" resentment. It is likely that on occasion we will feel that we are on the receiving end of an injustice so great that we are entitled to feel resentful. Well, the answer is that we are always entitled to feel resentful about anything we like, just or unjust, but it never does us any good.

It is important in these cases to distinguish between what is in second column, and our reaction to it. The second column simply describes what happened, nothing more. The final column does not indicate fault, it indicates what part of us has reacted in a self-centered way. Or put another way it explains why we are unhappy about what happened. The fact that we have a resentment about what happened, no matter how unjust, is down to our defective, self-centered reaction to what happened.

"Though a situation had not been entirely our fault, we tried to disregard the other person involved entirely. The inventory was ours, not the other man's. We placed them before us in black and white." {p67}

As alcoholics, it is never good for us to have resentment, we risk drinking if we keep them. In these situations, we should strive for compassion and the strength to forgive those who have wronged us. The Big Book suggests that we ask for the same tolerance, pity and patience we would show a sick man {p62}. In doing this, we should keep uppermost in our minds that our potential to rationalize, to falsely justify our actions and our attitudes, and to blame others is almost limitless. It says we cannot consider them to be anything but "perhaps spiritually sick" [our emphasis]. We are not qualified to judge whether or not someone is spiritually sick, only God can do that. The intention is that we treat them as if they were ill so that we can grow in patience and tolerance. It does not help us to indulge our desire to pronounce those who annoy us sick in order to justify our own sense of superiority or make us self-righteous.


Sexual Conduct

The Big Book tells us on page 69 that we all have sex problems and that we wouldn't be human if we didn't. Nevertheless, some people may wonder why it is necessary to examine our sex conduct in order to get over alcoholism. First reason is that many of us have feelings of guilt and shame connected with past conduct and with thoughts that run through our heads in connection with sex. Guilt and shame are resentments against ourselves and so we must write these down as we do other resentments as part of our step 4. We are told on page 75 that we must illuminate every dark cranny of the past and reveal each one to a trusted person in order to get over our drinking. We are also given the good news: that as result of this process we can finally look the world in the eye.

However, we must go further still. Even if we initially feel no guilt or shame, we must look for those occasions when, as the Big Book says, "we had been selfish, dishonest, or inconsiderate; hurtful -- and where we had aroused jealousy, bitterness and suspicion." We had to be thorough here too. In fact we are told that we must subject each relation (that is, each sexual act) to this test. We had to be as fearless and thorough about this part of our moral inventory as any other. We start looking at past behaviour in a new light. Did we use someone for sex? If so, it is selfish. The fact that the other person willingly goes along with the arrangement does not necessarily alter the fact that it is selfish. It might be a case of two people cynically using each other. Even if we couldn't say that our conduct was selfish, we had to ask ourselves was it even inconsiderate? Here's another situation: in heterosexual sex whatever precautions are taken, there is always some chance of the creation of human life. We had to be considerate, in line with what the Big Book tells us, and consider whether or not we would behave lovingly or selfishly towards that newly created human life?

Later on, as part of Step 5, we give an account of our secret thoughts to our sponsors. Many revealed things to our sponsors that we had never told anyone before. (This is applicable also to all our darkest thoughts, not just those of a sexual nature). To be told that nobody can help the thoughts that pop into their heads and to discover that we were not the only ones who think like this is a great relief. In fact despite all that we had revealed, many of us were told that we were just "pretty average alcoholics".

It is through this process that we have started to look at our past sex conduct in a new light, and we can start to form an idea of what will be the best approach in our future sex conduct - the book calls this a sane and sound ideal. We must be prepared to try to work towards this ideal in the future. We can rest easy that however many times we fall short, as long as we continue to try, we will not drink. However, if we are not prepared at least to try to change, and our sex conduct continues to harm others, we are told categorically that we are quite sure to drink. This warning tells us why this part of our inventory is so important.

We are told that counsel with persons is often desirable here and we found our sponsors invaluable in directing us to these questions in accordance with what the Big Book says and helping us to analyse each situation properly. We were inclined to hide bad motive behind good in this area more than any other and an objective viewpoint from our sponsors helped us to cut through that. In the final analysis though, each individual must answer these questions honestly for themselves. We sometimes we hear that no one can judge our sex situation, but in fact this is not quite true and we are not left completely to ourselves. The Big Book tells us that there is a judge: God. As the book says: God alone can judge our sex situation.


Fears

These should all go down. The Big Book says: "We reviewed our fears thoroughly. We put them down on paper, even if we had no resentment in connection with them." {p68}. So the thorough review of our fears will reveal the ultimate cause. When we do this we find that they come in two categories: self-centered fears and phobic fears. Self-centered fears are fears about things that will happen to us while we are alive and affect our ambitions and our security. They have defects of character as their ultimate cause; and phobic fears are irrational fears of death and physical pain and do not involve defects of character.

Self-centered fears: many of these will be dealt with anyway in our resentments. For example if I have a resentment against my boss for shouting at me I will have dealt with this in the normal way as a resentment, but there is in fact fear about my job security involved as well. Some self-centered fears will not have a person associated with them -- if I just have a fear of losing my job, there might not be anybody to put into the first column. Then we insert the word "Fear" so remind us why it is there when we read it out in Step Five. The book tells us to list down all fears, even those that had "no resentment in connection with them" {p68}.



Phobic fears: these are the irrational fears of death (spiders, catching cancer, heights, crowds). These are not listed in the form of a resentment. For some (not all) the ultimate fear is not death, but what will happen to us after death -- hell. For others there is a fear of extreme physical pain. Whatever that ultimate fear is, we need to state it in order to be thorough. Because these fears are not caused by defects of character they do not appear in the three-column form.



There is no significance in the order that fears, resentments and details of our sexual conduct actually go down. We are not looking for any patterns regarding the resentments other than the fact that they are all down to defects of character -- this is not a psychological process. Neither is it a process of the subconscious but one of the conscious memory. If you remember it, write it down. If you can't remember it, you can't write it down. Many of us carry a note pad with us during the period when we are on Step Four. Then as a memory occurs while on the train, say, we can jot it down briefly and then add it to our Step Four in full inventory form later on. Also, don't think about Step Five while you are on Step Four. Just for today, you are on Step Four so you don't need to tell anyone today, just write it down.


Prayers to Say While Writing Step Four

Resentments: for each person who is included for whom the resentment is still felt:

“Please God help me to show this person the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend.” {p63}


Fears: for each fear that is still felt:

“Please God remove my fear and direct my attention to what You would have me be.” {p68}


Sexual Conduct: this will help us to have the right ideal for behavior in sex. This will be helpful in allowing us to give a true account of our sexual conduct in Step Four:

“Please God, mold my sex ideal and help me to live up to it.” {p69}


Defects of Character for the fourth column in the inventory.

These are, as best as I can, the definitions used for the fourth step. It is worth noting that they are not always the definitions that are used in everyday and conversational language. What we are trying to do here is to put in words the self-centered impulses and feelings (the different forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking and self-pity) that cause our resentments and fears. So as long as we do that as consistently and honestly as we can, we will be fine.

Self-centeredness: thinking of myself excessively and not giving due regard to others

Pride: worrying about what people think of us — what would they think of me if they knew? How could he do that to the great me?

Self-pity: feeling down about my own situation. This is usually the defect that we feel most directly. It's the one that lets us know that we have a resentment -- poor me! It is not possible to feel pride and self-pity without it being due to Self-centeredness After all, I can't be feeling down about my situation (self-pity) if I am trying to think of others first; similarly, I can't be worrying about how others view me (pride) if I am not thinking about myself. This is why these three come together, they "hunt in a pack", as it were.

Jealousy: resenting affection that is given to others -- I am jealous of Fred because Mary fancies him and she doesn't fancy me.

Envy: wanting what rightfully belongs to others, their possessions, their abilities -- I am envious of Fred's Mercedes and his good looks. (But in this case I am still jealous of him as well because Mary fancies him and not me.)

Dishonesty: the conventional use of not being honest (lying, cheating, stealing). There are additional meanings that are not a used in everyday language, but are used commonly in the fourth step -- if I resent someone else for something that I have done myself it is dishonest (hypocrisy or self-delusion). We can extend that further: even if I Hadn't done what I had resented him for, then in almost every case we can say: "There but for the grace of God go I." In other words, if the positions were reversed and I had been through everything that person had been through in life, that I would not do the same, we might refer to this as a sort of potential hypocrisy. There are certain situations where this would not apply: we cannot ever put ourselves in God's position. So, other things being equal, if we resented God we would not include dishonesty.

Selfishness: not being prepared to let others have some of what is mine (material goods, time). NB if we are just thinking of ourselves, that is self-centeredness and not selfishness.

Greed: when I have what I need yet I want more. Refers to material possessions.

Gluttony: greed for food and drink (including alcohol).

Lust: a selfish desire for sex.

Arrogance: knowing better than my equals (not minding my own business, telling people who have not asked me and over whom I have no authority, what to do) or thinking I am the equal of my betters (not accepting the authority of those I should -- parents, bosses at work, teachers when I am at school). Also making judgments on the morality (rights and wrongs) of people's behavior is arrogance, because ultimately only God (or the judicial system) is entitled to do that.

Intolerance: not putting up qualities, in others that they cannot help -- he is ugly; I don't like her accent; I don't like the English; I don't like the working/middle/upper class; I don't like his or her skin color/race/nationality. Intolerance is not used for when we don't like someone's behavior (see 'arrogance').

Impatience: I am fed up with waiting (bus queues, she hasn't returned my telephone call yet.)

Sloth: laziness, procrastination


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