There’s no doubt that this was the longest and hardest Step to do, but it also carried some of the biggest benefits to me.
Having made a hard decision in Step Three, the next thing I did was to start carrying out that decision in the hardest way possible: to examine my own past for the wrongs that I had done. This Step takes a fair amount of time and effort, and it always requires a lot of guidance from a sponsor who has already done it. It may require anywhere from a week to several months of work.
I didn’t do it very well the first time. It took me about a year to go through Step four. In retrospect, that’s because I wasn’t doing it the way the AABB says. My sponsor at that time was 3000 miles away and didn’t have much more sobriety than I did – so we kind of fumbled through it together. What took me so long was that I did not “list” things; instead, I explored each item as it came, across several lists. The problem with that approach was that I would get emotionally devastated by looking at the totality of each item, and I’d put it down for another week or two before tackling the next item.
Today, I guide sponsees on this Step using the AABB pp.63-71; we do it very strictly, reading a sentence or three and then following directions exactly. By doing this, we make a list of items, just naming them. Then we make another list of what those items meant to us. Then we make another list of what we did about those items. This seems to work much better than the way I did it, because it separates the emotional impact. (Lesson: Go down the columns, NOT across the rows!)
Step Four takes the form of a series of lists, observations and prayers. The lists are necessary to provide the information, but it is the observations and prayers that began to change me.
I’ve also heard it said that Step Four is the chance to start cleaning up the past, to find a new way to live with the things that have eaten me alive. Or that it’s a task of dumping out the trashcan of my life and sorting through all the garbage to figure out what’s really worth keeping and what should be gotten rid of.
Resentments. I went back through my life to list people, institutions, or principles with whom I had been angry or resentful at any point in my life. This was a pretty long list; I had about 30 people on it. The father who didn’t love me enough, the spouse who demanded things, the clinging mother, the friend who led me into sexual play, the boss who didn’t promote me, and so on. Having listed them, I observed that the world and its people are often quite wrong. I prayed for these people whom I had hated. I tried to see them as spiritually sick people, to have done such evil to me. In most cases, I could succeed in that. A father had to have some sort of spiritual sickness not to be more loving, and so on. This was a bit of revelation in itself, to change my viewpoint from resentment to compassion, to see the spiritual sickness in these people and to pray for them.
And then came the hardest part: I set aside what they did, and I examined what I may have done to wrong them. Invariably, I found that my anger really stemmed from the fact that I also did something wrong. I didn’t obey that father, I cheated on that spouse, I avoided that mother, I spoke badly about that friend, I did not fully do my job for that boss, and so on. These facts are so difficult to examine that it takes time and tears and surrender to continue this work – but this work is the most healing part of the entire Steps. Working with a sponsor to do this was absolutely essential. I never could have gotten it done on my own. The work was just too emotionally hard. But it was definitely worth it.
In more recent years, I have seen grown men in tears during this work, discovering in themselves a new spiritual life as they examine and re-frame their past.
Harms. I also went back through my life to list people I had harmed in any way, even if there was no anger associated with them. This is particularly true of sexual harms, which are often pervasive. Similar observations and prayers helped to set aside these wrongs.
Fears. My sponsor then told me to go through the other lists to find out what fears had driven all those resentments and harms. I dreaded coming up with another list of 30-50 fears, but I discovered to my amazement that the same pervasive fears drove me over and over to do all the wrong actions. I only had about 15 fears on my list, and only a handful of those were core. Fear of surrender, fear of being discovered, fear of failure, fear of being inadequate – I found that the same fears were evident in wrong after wrong.
Then again, I looked at the list of fears and observed that all the fears stemmed from a lack of trust in God. If God were big enough and powerful enough and loving enough, none of these fears would be necessary. So I went back to Step Two and looked again at that definition of God as I understand Him. I found that the traits I had written for God would really be enough to prevent all these fears, if I just gave myself fully to Him. So I prayed again (to that God) to take away these fears.
Character defects. And finally, the fears were evidence of underlying character defects that pervaded me – all of which also represented a lack of surrender to God. Pride, arrogance, self-centeredness, low self-esteem, cynicism, laziness – I discovered a key set of eight character defects that pervaded my life choices.
And that was it. With a few more observations led by AABB pp.70-71, I was ready to do Step Five with my sponsor.
Along the way, simply examining these lists and praying about them had already done me a great deal of good. I was looking at people and situations in a new way, with compassion instead of anger. I was seeing my own character defects in my actions and reactions, and I had gained enough humility that I was praying to God to remove them when I saw them.
I was finding some peace now, several months into recovery.