Step 4 for Non-Addicts: Understanding Our Shame Voices with Step Four

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By Kristin Snowden MA, LMFT

In previous posts to this site, I have explored how Step 1, Step 2, and Step 3 of the 12 Steps of recovery can help non-addicts live a better life. This post is focused on Step 4. Step 4 reads as follows:

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

I have always struggled with hearing criticism from others. Personal and professional feedback from others instinctively causes me to become highly defensive, to apologize disingenuously, or to explain my well-thought-out justification for my behaviors and choices. My natural responses rarely include humbling myself, processing the feedback given, or vetting the feedback for pieces that might be valid or constructive to me. And until recently, criticism from others never lead me to a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself.

To be perfectly honest, the concept of Step 4 sounded both unnecessary and undesirable to me. My ego was too fragile to handle any person—let alone me—pointing out a chink in my armor, a flaw in my character, proof that I was imperfect or (even worse) unlikeable. When others would share their observations of me, disagree with me, or challenge my choices and perspective, I could barely hear what they were really saying. Instead, I heard that I was bad, wrong, defective, and less-than—things I’d worked my entire life to not be. My physical and mental state became overloaded from the shame of my imperfections.

After a great deal of internal work, I now understand the opportunities for growth that I have missed. The simple truth is that I desperately needed to explore all the facets of myself that make up ME. My good and bad, light and dark. My shame, trauma, and pain. Where I’d been harmed and how I might have harmed others. The not-so-great aspects of my personality (rage, resentment, passive-aggression, entitlement). I also needed to explore and validate my strengths and positive qualities (intelligence, generosity, spirituality, empathy).

In other words, I needed to work Step 4 of the 12 Steps. I needed to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself. I needed this inventory to be searching so as to leave no crevice of my history, choices, behaviors, emotions, or personality unexplored. I needed it to be fearless because it had to be done without fear of rejection, judgment, or shame (the things that led me to need Step 4 in the first place).

At this point, you may be wondering: “What’s the point of Step 4 in the big picture of 12 Steps?” Well, with Step 1 we admit that there’s a problem and aspects of our life aren’t working for us anymore. Step 2 acknowledges that we cannot change our life or our circumstances without the help of others, including a Higher Power. Step 3 suggests that we stop trying to control and manipulate an uncertain and chaotic world and surrender to some Higher Source. Step 4 continues this program for change by helping us identify and remove any facades and lies that previously existed.

Step 4 is a humbling process that begins to create a healthy foundation on which to build a more authentic, conscious, resilient person. It also develops a weapon against our arch nemeses: fear and shame (the deep-rooted belief that we’re not valuable, loved, or worthy of connection with others).

Developing a list of ways in which we may be flawed or fall short is not meant to rub our faces in the mud and make us feel worse about ourselves. It’s meant to humble our souls and envelop us in the truth and humility that we’re imperfect. It’s the beginning phase of creating transparency instead of lies, facades, and manipulation. It’s admitting blind spots and personality flaws while letting go of perfection. It’s exposing and exploring childhood wounds, painful conflicts, relationship difficulties, moral failures, and poor decision-making.

In combination with Step 5, Step 4 also helps us develop a sense of humanity between ourselves and others, as we begin to realize that we all struggle with the same basic fear and shame. The more in denial we remain, the more the shame can fester. Awareness of our flaws is the antidote.

The goal of Step 4 is not the perfect avoidance of sins, flaws, wrong choices, and mistakes because that’s not even possible. Step 4 is simply meant to acknowledge and own the struggle of trying to achieve growth, failing miserably at it, and achieving some amount of wisdom and comradery as a result. It’s also a commitment to the practice of being the best person we can be, regardless of the conditions in which we were raised and the bad choices we may have made.

The ultimate goal of Step 4 is shame resiliency—the freedom and liberation that we experience when we see our entire selves for who we really are. As we engage in this lifelong practice of exploring and owning our good and bad, it creates a sense of relief, of courage, and perhaps even liberation and confidence in being perfectly imperfect.