The discipline of self-examination begins with Step 4, where we make a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” While various terms are used to designate this discipline (including self-appraisal and self-survey), the Big Book’s emphasis on “inventory” is meant to highlight a practical, no-nonsense, business-like approach to this traditional spiritual practice. Our inventory is a “fact-finding and a fact-facing” enterprise (p. 64). It is not an exercise in religious breast-beating, gnostic enlightenment, or psychoanalytical probes of our unconscious.
Juxtaposing “moral” with "inventory" further underscores the practical nature of our undertaking. For the facts that we set out to find and to face are the facts about the way we have lived and the kind of people we have become. A moral inventory takes stock of our character and how the defects that have warped it have also warped our emotions and our conduct, causing us to hurt ourselves as well as to harm others.
Practical and moral, our inventory is fundamentally spiritual. It is part and parcel of the spiritual awakening through which we change. It is designed to help us get rid of those items that “blocked” us from God ( Big Book, p. 71, 12&12, S3, p. 34) and kept us from the freedom and the flourishing that he intended for us. Hence the practicality of our inventory differs also from the kind of practicality associated with secular therapeutic approaches, which generally tend to deemphasize if not completely ignore the moral and spiritual nature of our problems.
Though usually associated only with Steps 4 and 10, the 12&12 shows that self-examination is a continuous process that runs through the intervening Steps as well. In Step 4 we make a preliminary examination of our defects of character and emotion. In Step 5 we admit to their exact nature, but in doing so we don’t just engage in a mindless recitation of wrongs, but honestly and sincerely recall them to mind and try to deepen our understanding of them. Nor are mindlessness and formality characteristics of Steps 6 and 7. We take another look at those defects with the goal of becoming entirely ready to surrender them and humbly ask God to remove them.
In Step 8 we again take account of those defects, but this time in order to consider the specific ways in which, as a result of them, we have harmed others. If we are to make sincere and meaningful amends for those harms in Step 9 and not just some hollow apology, we have to go back and look at those defects again, considering not only what we did wrong, but the wrong that was festering in us. In each one of these subsequent Steps, we look at our defects for a different purpose, seeing them from a different angle and in a different light. In some cases, this may help us to see defects that we had missed in Step 4, or at least to see them more clearly.
Step 10 repeats the entire process of the preceding six Steps. But unlike Step 4, which focuses primarily on our past life before we got sober (assuming it’s done in early sobriety as intended) and is therefore quite comprehensive, Step 10 spotlights our present and the more recent past and is therefore more focused and limited. It takes two main forms: the spot-check inventory we do in the midst or immediate wake of a difficulty, and the nightly inventory at the end of each day. Two additional forms are the periodic inventory, where we review how we’ve done since the last inventory, and the special-issue inventory, where we focus on a particular area of life (such as work, sex, or finances) and examine what defects of character and emotion may account for our difficulties there.
Through all of these seven Steps, self-examination works together with a number of other principles, both disciplines and virtues. This interaction is readily apparent with the discipline of confession in Step 5, of surrender in Step 6, of prayer in Step 7, and of restitution in Step 9. But surrender and prayer, for instance, may be necessary from the very beginning of the process in Step 4, where they may also connect with a number of virtues. Thus we may have to ask God to help us let go of the fear, the unwillingness, and just the plain and ordinary sloth that often stands in the way of a really searching inventory. We may have to ask for the willingness to get started, to get honest with ourselves, to persevere in our search despite the arduousness of the task, and to humbly accept our findings.
Once we have worked through the 12 Steps the first time around, the lifeblood of our continuing growth in recovery is the self-examination that we conduct every day as part of our work with Step 11. That’s where self-examination is combined with prayer and meditation as we search for God’s will for us and the power to carry that out. When these three “are logically related and interwoven,” we read in the 12&12, “the result is an unshakeable foundation for life” (S11, p. 98).
[Image: St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, where Dr. Bob worked with Sister Ignatia to sober up countless alcoholics. For audio of Dr. Bob's story, Q&A about it, and talk by him, as well as talk by Sister ignatia, please click on links.]