Step 4 of the 12 Step Programme - How do you judge yourself?
One of the reasons I developed an unhealthy relationship with drink was because I believed some really ridiculous things about myself. I believed I wasn’t good enough. I believed I wasn’t lovable or desirable. I believed I needed to be more like other people to fit in. I spent years seeking approval from other people because I didn’t approve of myself. This has all changed dramatically over the last few years, and although there is still someway to go before I have a 100% healthy relationship with myself, I judge myself far less harshly now and I nurture more helpful and healthy beliefs about myself.
Step 4 of the 12 Step Programme requires that we make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”. On the surface, this about standing in judgment of yourself. One interpretation is that it’s suggesting that you get to know yourself well enough to work out what you want to change. Another interpretation is that it’s suggesting you need to identify and name your “faults” or “weaknesses.” This step is about getting honest with yourself one way or another.
Of course, a moral inventory can also include strengths and any full examination of self and behaviours will include things we like and things we don’t like about ourselves. But my worry with the language and phrasing of this step is that an unhealthy relationship with alcohol often stems from an unhealthy relationship with ourselves. In other words, people who develop an unhealthy relationship with drink are more likely than not to see the worst in themselves and to hold some limiting and unhelpful beliefs about themselves. These beliefs can lead to low self-esteem and self-confidence, anxiety, depression and all sorts of mental and emotional health issues for which drink has become a medicine or a relief. If people already have an unbalanced perception of themselves which is very negative, this step could push them into embedding unhelpful beliefs even further. This could lead to more damage to emotional wellbeing and self-confidence.
And, I’m not sure how helpful it is to use the word “moral”. Whose moral judgment are we supposed to judge ourselves against? Whose version of right and wrong? However, I quite like the words “searching” and “fearless”. If we really want to get to grips with ourselves and our “issues”, if we want to change our behaviours and our habits, it makes sense to be prepared to look ourselves in the eye fearlessly and to search below the surface – to do a bit of digging around – a bit of self-exploration. Being prepared to ignore any fear and to honestly appraise where we’re at in life and where we want to go is crucial to stepping in the right direction and towards our desired destination. If we haven’t decided on a destination, we’re not going to get very far.
Our past actions and behaviours might be helpful to us to remind us of how we don’t want to be – remembering some of the embarrassment, guilt, fear and shame of past actions can be a powerful motivator. But I wouldn’t encourage people to sit in judgment of themselves and every past mistake they’ve made. What we need to do to make it easy to live life without any “crutches” is to learn to be kind to ourselves, to understand ourselves, and to give ourselves the kind of care and support we often show to other people. We want to build our emotional resilience, not shatter it further.
If we tweak the language and assume this step’s real underlying meaning is to examine ourselves and to look at changing those behaviours and beliefs that are unhelpful to us, then this makes sense. In fact, this is really important to the process of getting sober and enjoying and celebrating our life without alcohol. But asking people to stand in judgement of themselves when they are already likely to be their own harshest critic is less-than helpful.