Steps 4 and 5: A Fearless Moral Inventory Shared With God and Another Human Being

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

Step 5:   “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”


Steps 4 and 5 are action steps designed to “clean house” of all the things that cause negative feelings like guilt, shame, anger and resentment, the emotions that make addicts seek the relief of a first drink or drug.

Rehab wasn’t the place to do the 4th and 5th Steps, they told us, there simply wasn’t enough time. It was properly done with a sponsor as part of going through all the Steps in detail, so prior to discharge each patient was required to get a sponsor specifically for that purpose.

AA’s Big Book describes Steps 4 and 5 as necessary to rid alcoholics of their “spiritual malady.” It classifies resentment as the “number one offender.” It provides instructions for a moral inventory based on the founders’ experience: “In dealing with resentments, we set them on paper. We listed people, institutions or principles with whom we were angry. We asked ourselves why we were angry. In most cases it was found that our self-esteem, our pocketbooks, our ambitions, our personal relationships (including sex) were hurt or threatened.”

Crucially, it instructs that “we resolutely looked for our own mistakes. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking and frightened?” Since this was our inventories and not an inventory of those whom we thought had mistreated us, a central question was, “Where were we to blame?” In every instance it asks, “What was our part in it?”

After completing the fearless moral inventory of Step 4, Step 5 requires that it be shared. Why? Because only by disclosing it to another human being could alcoholics rid themselves of their secrets and shame. AA counsels that only by disclosing all shameful secrets to another could an alcoholic learn how to be honest and humble enough to avoid the guilt and shame we used to drink over and might again. As one AA saying puts it, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”

Most sober addicts I’ve known have agreed that like the First Step, Step 5 is very humbling. They usually anticipate, fearfully, that their sponsor will disapprove of them and the terrible things they admit. But most also say that while the process is difficult, it’s also the source of great relief. They find that sponsors are non-judgmental because they’ve usually been guilty of doing similar things. Many sponsors make their own admissions in discussing Step 5. When he or she admits having done the same kinds of dreadful things you did (and perhaps worse), you’re no longer alone with your shame and you can finally put it behind you. Furthermore, Step 5 is a tremendous lesson in acceptance. When another human being accepts you no matter how bad the things you’ve done may have been, it’s much easier for you to accept yourself.

As the Big Book puts it, after “illuminating every twist of character, every dark cranny of the past,” withholding nothing, “we can look the world in the eye. We can be alone at perfect peace and ease.” And if you can achieve that, there’s no longer a need to drink to medicate away negative emotions.

In early sobriety, complete honesty comes hard and so does remembering all the details of of past transgressions. Over time, you remember more of them, especially when others mentions things they did, which can ring bells in your mind and dredge up incidents you’ve forgotten. The people I have most respected in AA have done multiple 4th and 5th Steps over a period of years as they become more honest and willing. They go through all of the Steps periodically.

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