Tools for Living

Courage and the 4th Step

Step 4:  Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

“How few there are who have courage enough to own their faults, or resolution enough to mend them” ~Benjamin Franklin

The 4th Step is about many things:  It’s about becoming completely honest with ourselves regarding our own attitudes and behavior, past and present. It’s about accepting full responsibility for who we are today, as well as for what we’ve done in the past. It’s about taking ownership of our lives and ceasing to play the victim.

In other words, the 4th Step is about making a commitment to ourselves to grow up.  And the spiritual principle most essential to this step is the principle of courage.

Without courage, we cannot make much progress. It’s not by accident that the description of this Step specifies that we must be fearless, or that when writing about it later in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. stated that pride and fear must be overcome in order to complete the thorough self-examination this Step requires.

This is the Step where we embark on a course of action that does not take place almost entirely within our own hearts and minds.  Here we begin to get out of ourselves, by taking the stuff that we’ve kept hidden for years and exposing it to daylight.  We write about it.  And even though we write about it only for ourselves, with no one else seeing what we have written (unless we choose to show them), it takes courage to explore the dark corners of our pasts, to sweep the cobwebs from painful memories we’ve suppressed, and to get everything out in the open where we can take a good, hard, honest look at it.

Sometimes it takes a bit of coaxing to get started, but usually we find that once we begin, it’s like turning on a tap.  Memories and the feelings associated with them come pouring out of us as if the floodgates of a damn had been opened. Without guidance we fear being overwhelmed.

This is where a structured format – like the one shown in Chapter 5 of the Big Book – and the advice of an experienced sponsor can be very helpful.  We need a context in which to put all of this stuff, a context that helps us sort the wheat from the chaff.

As every program veteran knows, most newcomers are intimidated by Step 4. They usually fear taking an honest look at themselves even more than they fear making the amends later required in Step 9.  This is usually because of a misconception of what the 4th Step is about. Correcting that misconception is sometimes all it takes to help them find the courage they need.

When we think about some of the things we’ve done that we’re not proud of and haven’t made amends for yet, most of us suffer considerable guilt, shame, and remorse. Consequently, when first approaching this Step, many newcomers start feeling that guilt and shame, and so they mistakenly imagine that Step 4 is about beating themselves up for all the bad stuff they’ve done.

This mistaken idea is often reinforced by misunderstanding the word “moral.”  Many of us confuse it with ideas about morality learned as children and we associate it with being told we’re “bad” and “immoral,” or with religious dogma that makes us fear being judged by God and condemned to Hell.  No wonder some folks are so frightened that it’s hard for them to get on with the Step – especially if the God they’re supposed to seek help from is the same God they fear will punish them for their sins!

Let’s get something straight right here: the 4th Step is not about beating ourselves up, not about suffering guilt and shame, and not about damning ourselves as doomed sinners. The only thing it has to do with any of that is that the 4th Step is the key that opens the door to freedom from such self-defeating ideas.

Yes, the 4th Step is a moral inventory, but that has nothing to do with deciding whether we’re good or bad people. Morality is about our actions. It governs what we do, the choices we make in life, and their results. A moral inventory takes account of our actions and their consequences . . . period!  It’s about seeing, not judging.  We look to see what we’ve done and why, and what the results were.

If we’re harboring resentments, feeling fear, or suffering guilt and shame about anything in our pasts, then those powerful feelings let us know that what we’ve been doing isn’t working very well – not for us, and not for other people, either.  When we work the 4th Step, we need to find the courage to see ourselves clearly, with the detachment of a grocery clerk checking the condition of cans on the shelf.  We must detach ourselves from our egos to examine our behavior in a matter-of-fact manner, without putting a self-serving spin on it.

The 4th Step is not about beating ourselves up. Instead, it’s about courageously facing some unflattering truths about ourselves so we no longer have to live in fear of them. If we are honest and thorough, this Step will prove very powerful, enabling us to get a handle on what’s not working in our lives . . . and then to replace it with something better.

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Questions about the 4th Step:

What do the words “searching” and “fearless” mean to you?


What does the word “moral” mean, and what is an inventory?


Have you studied pages 63-71 of the Big Book with your sponsor? (Or equivalent material if you are working the Steps from the standpoint of another addiction?)


Do you understand precisely what Step 4 asks of you and why?


Have you completed your 3rd Step?


Having agreed to turn your will and life over to the care of God, do you understand that God’s will for you is to complete the 4th Step and then continue with the rest?


Links to more information about Courage and the 4th Step: offers some thoughts on the importance of “Making a Moral Inventory”. on working Step 4.

The Big Book Bunch on “Taking Step 4.”

From Spiritus Contra Spiritum, an entry titled “Faith Means Courage”

The website Spirit-Led Recovery from Addiction offers some advice on Step 4 and the principle of courage, here.


Recommended Books:


Jon R. Weinberg and Daryl Kosloskie, Fourth Step Guide: Journey into Growth
In print for more than 30 years, Weinberg and Kosloskie’s little book explains the nature and goals of the 4th Step in clear and non-judgmental terms that help readers overcome their guilt and shame and get on with the business of recovery.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions     The official Alcoholics Anonymous supplement to the “Big Book” explaining each of the Steps — and the Traditions — in greater detail.

Hubal and Hubal, Living with Yourself: A Workbook for Steps 4-7     The second of Hubal & Hubal’s study guides to the Steps, this volume takes readers from the 4th Step through the 7th.

The Twelve Steps, A Spiritual Journey: A Working Guide for Healing Damaged Emotions
A guide and workbook to all 12 Steps, based on Biblical teachings and written especially for Christians seeking to understand the principles of the Steps in relation to their religious beliefs and practices.