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

For many recovering addicts, step four is a huge sticking point in their recovery. The idea of taking a long, hard look at themselves and their behavior just isn’t appealing – especially if they’re still engaging in the type of denial that externalizes the blame for their addiction. You know the drill…

  • I drink because my family treated me badly.
  • I get high because there is too much pressure on me at work.
  • I use porn for hours on end because my partner is not as interested in sex as I am.

When addicts are still justifying their behavior in this way, the mere thought of taking an action that forces them to see their own role in their addiction and its consequences often seems unnecessary, not to mention frightening, daunting, shaming, depressing, etc. And who needs that, right?

Because of this, recovering individuals will sometimes delay step four indefinitely. Some stop working the steps altogether, deciding they can stay sober on meetings alone. Others create excuse after excuse to procrastinate – pretending they’re stuck on steps two and three, choosing to focus on their career or their relationship, switching sponsors because the old one seems too pushy, etc. Either way, not working step four leaves an addict stuck in a rut of recovery, moving neither forward nor backward.

If this sounds like you, it’s time to break out of your rut, no matter how formidable that seems. After all, steps five through nine – the healing steps – all build on the work you do in step four. As such, step four is the key to both internal growth and lasting sobriety.

The goal of step four is for addicts to take a hard, unrelenting look at their problems and their role in creating those problems. After working step four, recovering addicts typically realize that they are not victims; instead, they are active participants in the mess their lives have become. And believe it or not, this realization is empowering. In fact, many long-recovering addicts point to step four as the turning point in their recovery. Before working step four they were battling external factors – other people, events, and organizations that “drove them to addiction.” By the time they’re done with step four, they know that the real enemy lives within. They understand that they, not others, are the cause of their misery, so their addiction belongs to them and no one else.

As with all of the twelve steps, there is no set way to work step four. If you look around, you will find all sorts of methodologies suggested in online forums, articles, and recovery-centric books. And any of these methods will likely work for you, as long as they’re constructed with the same basic goal – for you to see the ways in which you are an active participant in your addiction and its consequences.

One of the most common approaches to working step four is outlined below.

  1. List the ways in which you have avoided taking personal responsibility – blaming others for the problems in your life, using the actions of others to justify your addiction, lying to avoid blame for something you actually did, behaving in ways that distract or divert attention from your bad behavior, etc. Be both specific and general. List as many items as you can. Examples:
  • I told my parents that the drugs in my bedroom belonged to a friend, not me, when they really were mine.
  • I told my wife she was being paranoid, that I really did fall asleep on the couch at work, when really I was out all night doing cocaine and having sex with a prostitute.
  1. List the ways in which you have misused your anger – nurturing grudges and resentments and using them to justify your addiction, lashing out when you were caught in your addiction, attacking the people who tried to help you get sober, etc. Be both specific and general. List as many items as you can. Examples:
  • I am still angry about the way my high school soccer coach treated me. Every time I watch soccer on TV I feel like drinking.
  • I yelled at my husband and accused him of being paranoid when he asked if I’d been smoking pot again.
  1. List the ways in which you have been paralyzed by fear. When did you fail to act even though you should have? What conversations or actions have you put off because you were too afraid to move forward? Be both specific and general. List as many items as you can. Examples:
  • I have hated my job for years, but I’m too afraid to quit. So instead I just secretly drink all day to dull the pain.
  • I knew that my partner was cheating on me, but I was afraid that if I said something I would end up alone. So I just sat silently and ate prescription painkillers like candy.
  1. List the things you’ve done that you’re ashamed of – instances where you did not live up to your own values or practice what you preached. A good way to start is by listing all the things you’re keeping a secret. Be both specific and general. List as many items as you can. Examples:
  • I ran over the neighbor’s dog while I was drinking and driving.
  • I gambled away my children’s college fund.
  1. After you’ve listed the ways you’ve avoided taking responsibility, the ways you’ve misused your anger, the ways you’ve been paralyzed by fear, and the things you’re most ashamed of, it is time to examine your role in all of the items you’ve listed. For each of the four lists, look at each item and answer the following:
  • What was I thinking and feeling when this occurred?
  • What is my part in what happened (i.e., where am I to blame)?
  • What, if anything, could I have done differently?

Yes, creating these inventories is a pretty miserable endeavor. Basically, you’re dredging up the worst parts of yourself and writing them down on paper, knowing you’ll soon be sharing this information with another person (as part of step five).

Because of the difficult and painful emotions that step four tends to bring up, it is wise to increase your meeting attendance while working it. You might also want to increase the amount of time you spend with friends in recovery, the number of conversations you have with your sponsor, and the number sessions you have with your therapist. If you are in a relationship, you should let your significant other know that you’re working on step four and you’ll likely be feeling more vulnerable than usual while doing it. The more support you get, the better off you will be.

My last piece of advice is to say that if you’re working on step four and you start to feel serious anxiety or depression, take a break. Put the step away for a while and share what you’re feeling with friends and loved ones who support your recovery. Later, when you are less overwhelmed, you can return to this work. Just don’t put it off indefinitely!

In previous postings to this site I discussed steps one through three. In future postings to this site I will present suggestions for how to effectively work steps five through twelve. For general information about healing from addiction, check out my website. For treatment referrals, click here, here, and here.


Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW is Chief Clinical Officer of Seeking Integrity LLC, a unified group of online and real-world communities helping people to heal from intimacy disorders like compulsive sexual behavior and related drug abuse. As Chief Clinical Officer, Dr. Rob led the development and implementation of Seeking Integrity’s residential treatment programming and serves as an integral part of the treatment team. He is the author of ten books on sexuality, technology, and intimate relationships, including Sex Addiction 101, Out of the Doghouse, and Prodependence. His Sex, Love, and Addiction Podcast is currently in the Top 10 of US Addiction-Health Podcasts. Dr. Rob hosts a no-cost weekly Sex and Intimacy Q&A on Seeking Integrity’s self-help website, (@SexandHealing). The Sex and Relationship Healing website provides free information for addicts, partners of addicts, and therapists dealing with sex addiction, porn addiction, and substance abuse issues. Dr. Rob can be contacted via Seeking and All his writing is available on Amazon, while he can also be found on Twitter (@RobWeissMSW), on LinkedIn (Robert Weiss LCSW), and on Facebook (Rob Weiss MSW).

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