I’ve been in Al Anon for about 6 months now, and I have written daylogs to mark my progression through the twelve steps. Making myself put this down in print helps me to clarify my thinking; I also am helped by reading or hearing about the experiences of others, and am hoping that maybe posting these will help someone else. Without further ado, then,
Step Four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves

Sounds like fun, right? A quick background for those of you just joining us: all the steps are written in the past tense, reflecting the actions of those who have gone before us in “working the program”. Furthermore, Al-Anon, like Alcoholics Anonymous, is a “selfish” organization, where the focus for on each individual is on his or her self; you’re not here to take inventory of another person, a.k.a. the alcoholic(s), and what is right or wrong with their character(s); your job is to work on yourself.

So. This is the step that actually gets written down. Although much has been written about the first three steps ( 1~Admitted that we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable; 2~Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity ; 3~Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to God as we understood him), it’s not really necessary to write anything down to “work” them. Taking an inventory of one’s character, however, takes time, and although it’s not supposed to be exhaustive, one does want to be thorough.

An analogy between Step Four and a store inventory is often drawn; it’s important for a shopkeeper to know what sells and what gathers dust, what works, what needs to be restocked, and what needs to be gotten rid of. We are reminded that some of our traits / “defects of character” may have developed as coping mechanisms that were once necessary in our lives, but have overstayed their welcome—what once may have been a useful or necessary way of dealing with our situation (or the best that we knew at the time) may no longer be needed, or the best choice of action.

Working through the first three steps lays a spiritual groundwork for taking this inventory, preparing the individual to have the courage and serenity (or hope thereof) to be able to take a good look at him/herself and just note the findings, without self recrimination. ”By looking at and accepting ourselves as we truly are, we can make decisions about who we choose to become.” 1

There are a lot of ways to take the inventory, from simply folding a piece of paper in half and listing positive traits on one side and negative on the other (and trying to an equal number of each listed), to reading and filling out the official Al-Anon Blueprint for Progress, a sixty-two page pamphlet which poses a series of questions on such topics as attitude, responsibility, self worth, love and maturity. There is a similar Alateen 4th Step Inventory, a 46 page workbook complete with cartoons, quotes from other teens who have gone through the program, and plenty of space to fill in responses and ‘draw your feelings’ related to attitude, self esteem, love, responsibility , feelings, and relationships. I’m 36, but I found the teen version less daunting, and chose to use it to help me organize my thoughts.

Attendees at Al-Anon meetings are frequently reminded that the 12 Steps are learning tools, and that they are guidelines in a process, not a program from which one graduates. Life constantly changes, and throws us curves—the 12 Steps and Al-Anon are principles and strategies for living. It may well be that one “finishes” Step 12 only to start over, repeating different steps at different times. With this in mind, my sponsor compared the 4th Step to remodeling a house; the first time through, you’re knocking down walls with sledgehammers. Later, you’ll be sweeping up and carting out debris, and eventually, vacuuming up dust. So, my first attempt at a 4th Step inventor would be in broad strokes, a general outline—more detailed work and fine-tuning could come later.

The inventory is supposed to be both searching and fearless. We’re not being asked, at this stage, to judge or to change anything, just to notice and record what is. Some people find it easy to list what they perceive as their negative traits, but have a hard time coming up with anything good about themselves. I, on the other hand, felt that laying out all my weaknesses and negative traits firsthand might be a bit intimidating, so I decided to sneak up on them, by starting with the ways I define myself and working my way down to my less desirable qualities. I created a table with three columns:

 Trait            Description / Background / History          Underlying Causes

I started by trying to answer the question Who Are You?. Some people try to write down their whole history, a mini-biography; I tried, within this three-column table, to capture who I am, and how I got there. So for instance, I started with I am a student, a teacher, a reader. Column 2 on my table contained a description of my joy in knowing things, learning, reading, making connections, sharing what I knew with others, getting good grades and positive feedback. In column 3 went my need for approval of parents, teachers, authority figures; applause, recognition, and affirmation of worth. Eventually, by page four, I got around to traits like arrogance, being argumentative, and lack of humility; by that time, I had given up on column three, because I had repeated the same underlying causes so many times; wanting to be well though of, desire to be right or be in control, needing to feel that I measured up. I ended up with 29 entries on my four page list, some of them contradictory.

I had been thinking about this inventory for more than a month when I finally wrote it down. By that time, I had already filled in most of the blanks in the Alateen workbook. When I had finished with that part of my inventory, I made other lists: the first was “People I have hurt or wronged (which is actually a later Step in the program, but while I was on a roll, I thought I’d jot it down); a list entitled “When I get angry, I …, and a compilation of the negative traits from the inventory, labeled “Okay, so things I need to work on” .

Now, certainly not everything in my life (or even the majority of things) have to do with alcoholism or alcoholics. I’m the grandchild of an alcoholic who stopped drinking before I knew him, so there are family patterns that may have come from contact with alcoholism, and there are recent patterns of behavior that have come out of my current relationship that definitely have to do with too much drinking, but I wasn’t trying to tie all of my traits to alcoholism. That’s not what it’s about. To me, so much of Al-Anon is working on becoming a better person, and while there are guidelines, I get to decide for myself what that would consist of. We are reminded in meetings to take what you like, and leave the rest ; that’s what the inventory is about too—keeping the traits that are beneficial and becoming aware of those that, in the words of Dr. Phil and Tyler Durden, aren’t working for me.

The beauty of this program, of the twelve step programs in general, I guess, is that they are broken down in to incremental actions. All that is called for in Step 4 is taking the inventory, becoming aware of oneself; sharing your findings comes later, in Step 5, and even being willing to change isn’t until Step 6. So once I had it written down, I was done.

Next, I needed to get in touch with my sponsor and find a time when we could sit down and talk about the inventory.


1 How Al-Anon Works for Families & Friends of Alcoholics , © Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc. 1995, page 52.

step one | step two | step three | step five | step six step seven | step eight The Twelve Steps