The Discipline of Self-examination

St. Thomas Hospital, Akron, Ohio

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.]  

Bill W."The moral inventory is a cool examination of the damages that occurred to us during life and a sincere effort to look at them in a true perspective.” – Bill W., As Bill Sees It   

Big Book"We took stock honestly. First, we searched the flaws in our make-up which caused our failure. Being convinced that self, manifested in various ways, was what had defeated us, we considered its common manifestations." – Big Book  

12&12"For the wise have always known that no one can make much of his life until self-searching has become a regular habit, until he is able to admit and accept what he finds, and until he patiently and persistently tries to correct what is wrong." – 12&12  

Life Recovery Bible"Let us examine and probe our ways, and let us return to the Lord." – Lamentations 3:40
"First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.” – Matthew 7:5 

Pythagoras"Let not sleep fall upon thy eyes till thou hast thrice reviewed the transactions of the past day. Where have I turned aside from rectitude? What have I been doing? What have I left undone, what I ought to have done? Begin thus from the first act, and proceed; and in conclusion, at the ill which thou hast done, be troubled, and rejoice for the good." – Pythagoras 

"The unexamined life is not worth living." – Socrates 

"The first and the greatest victory is to conquer self." – Plato 

Marcus Aurelius"Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?" – Marcus Aurelius

"Every night before going to sleep, we must ask ourselves: what weakness did I overcome today? What virtue did I acquire?" – Seneca   

Chinese Proverb
"Know thyself to know others, for heart beats like heart." – Chinese Proverb  

"They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom." – Confucius  

"He who knows others is learned; he who knows himself is wise." – Lao-tzu  

Druid Maxim"If you seek to understand the whole universe you will understand nothing at all. But seek to understand yourself and you will understand the whole universe."
– Druid Maxim 

Augustine"Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves and wonder not." – St. Augustine 

Thomas à Kempis
"A humble knowledge of thyself is a surer way to God than a deep search after learning." – Thomas à Kempis 

William Shakespeare
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar  

Pierre Charron"The most excellent and divine counsel, the best and most profitable advertisement of all others, but the least practiced, is to study and learn how to know ourselves. This is the foundation of wisdom and the highway to whatever is good." – Pierre Charron  

Francis Quarles"If thou seest anything in thyself which may make thee proud, look a little further and thou shalt find enough to humble thee; if thou be wise, view the peacock's feathers with his feet, and weigh thy best parts with thy imperfections." – Francis Quarles 

Jeremy Taylor
"Observe thyself as thy greatest enemy would do; so shalt thou be thy greatest friend." – Jeremy Taylor  

Benjamin Franklin
"There are three things extremely hard: steel, diamonds, and knowing one’s self." – Benjamin Franklin  

Philip Dormer"In order to judge of the inside of others, study your own; for men in general are very much alike, and though one has one prevailing passion, and another has another, yet their operations are much the same; and whatever engages or disgusts, pleases, or offends you in others, will, mutatis mutandis, engage, disgust, please, or offend others in you." – Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield  

Francois Nelon
"Nothing will make us so charitable and tender to the faults of others, as, by self-examination, thoroughly to know our own." – François Nelon

William Law"When a right knowledge of ourselves enters into our minds, it makes as great a change in all our thoughts and apprehensions as when we awake from the wanderings of a dream." – William Law 

Henry Home Lord Kames"When you descant on the faults of others, consider whether you be not guilty of the same. To gain knowledge of ourselves, the best way is to convert the imperfections of others into a mirror for discovering our own." – Henry Home Lord Kames  

Isaac Watts"Let not soft slumber close your eyes, / Before you've collected thrice / The train of action through the day! / Where have my feet chose out their way? / What have I learnt, where'er I've been, / From all I've heard, from all I've seen? / What have I more that's worth the knowing? / What have I done that's worth the doing? / What have I sought that I should shun? / What duty have I left undone, / Or into what new follies run? / These self-inquiries are the road / That lead to virtue and to God." – Isaac Watts  

Alexander Pope
"Trust not yourself, but your defects to know, make use of every friend and every foe." – Alexander Pope  

Francois Duc de La Rochefoucauld
"Not all those who know their minds also know their hearts.” – François de La Rochefoucauld  

Michel de Montaigne
"I study myself more than any other subject; it is my metaphysics, it is my physics." – Michel de Montaigne  

G.K. Chesterton
"One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star." – G. K. Chesterton  

C. S. Lewis
"A wrong sum can be put right, but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on." – C. S. Lewis 

George Eliot"It belongs to every large nature, when it is not under the immediate power of some strong unquestioning emotion, to suspect itself, and doubt the truth of its own impressions, conscious of possibilities beyond its own horizon." – George Eliot  

Charles Caleb Colton
"He who knows himself knows others." – Charles Caleb Colton 

Josh Billings
"It’s not only the most difficult thing to know one’s self, but the most inconvenient." – Josh Billings, aka H. W. Shaw

George Gurdjieff"Without self-knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave." – George Gurdjieff 

Carl Jung
Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves." – Carl Jung  

George Herbert"If any speak ill of thee, fly home to thy own conscience and examine thy heart. If thou art guilty, it is a just correction; if not guilty, it is a fair instruction."
– George Herbert 

James Thurber
"All men should strive / to learn before they die / what they are running from, and to, and why." – James Thurber  

Julien Green
"The greatest explorer on this earth never takes a voyage as long as that of the man who descends to the depths of his heart." – Julien Green  

Mignon McLaughlin
"Those who are brutally honest are seldom so with themselves." – Mignon McLaughlin  

Barbara Kingsolver
"Pain reaches the heart with electrical speed, but truth moves to the heart as slowly as a glacier." – Barbara Kingsolver  

Louis L. Mann
"What happens to a man is less significant than what happens within him." – Louis L. Mann  

Bernard M. Baruch"Get to know yourself. Know your own failings, passions, and prejudices so you can separate them from what you see. Know also when you actually have thought through to the nature of the thing with which you are dealing, and when you are not thinking at all." – Bernard M. Baruch  

David O. McKay
The most important of life’s battles is the one we fight daily in the silent chambers of the soul." – David O. McKay

George Santayana
"To understand one’s self is the classic form of consolation; to delude one’s self is the romantic." – George Santayana 

Katherine Mansfield
"I want, by understanding myself, to understand others. I want to be all that I am capable of becoming." – Katherine Mansfield 

Henry Van Dyke
"What we do belongs to what we are; and what we are is what becomes of us." – Henry Van Dyke 

Napoleon Hill
"f you do not conquer self, you will be conquered by self." – Napoleon Hill  

Tim Keller"What piper are you really dancing to? Who calls the tune in your life? What owns you? What do you belong to? What are the fundamental allegiances of your heart?" – Tim Keller 

Wayne Dyer
"If you don’t make peace with your past, it will keep showing up in your present." – Wayne Dyer  

"Recovery is a constant process of uncovering, discovering, and discarding." – Anonymous  

"A bad attitude is like a flat tire. You can’t go anywhere until you change it." – Anonymous   

Daily Reflections"These three—self-examination, meditation and prayer—form a circle, without a beginning or an end. No matter where, or how, I start, I eventually arrive at my destination: a better life." – AA’s Daily Reflections  

"Our greatest handicap is self-deception. We cannot recognize in ourselves the faults we criticize in others." – One Day at a Time in Al-Anon 

Courage to Change
"Self-knowledge is the path to personal freedom." – Al-Anon’s Courage to Change  

Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts "We can only change what we acknowledge and understand. Rather than continuing to fear what’s buried inside us, we can bring it out into the open. We’ll no longer be frightened, and our recovery will flourish in the full light of self-awareness." – Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts  

"When we began to take our own inventory, we discovered that we were as flawed as the next person." – PTP123  

PTP4"Our inventory has two interconnected objectives: to discover the wrongs we have done so that we can make amends and mend our relations, and to discover the wrongs in us—our defects—so that we can change and not continue to cause further damage, to others or to ourselves." – PTP4

Practice These: Self-examination - Know Thyself
Practice These: Self-examination - Thales

For more PTP123 passages on self-examination, see pp. 14, 15, 17, 22, 29, 31, 53, 93, 125. For a full book on the subject, see PTP4. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on and search under appraisal, examination, and inventory. See also entries under inventory in As Bill Sees It, especially pp. 106, 140, 193, 205, 215, and 267. On this site, see PTP Step 4 Excerpts: Taking InventoryAppendix 1. Inventory Type A: Harm Done to Me – Guide, and Appendix 2. Inventory Type B: Harm Done by Me – Guide. See also And When We Were Wrong, and Can I Put You on Hold?, in Reflections. For an audio of Step 4 in the 12&12, please click on link.

See Also: In All Our Affairs: Practicing Self-Examination, "We Need to Talk" 

Additional Resources

  1. Meditations for 06/18 and 06/19 in One Day at a Time in Al-Anon 

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