Trauma-Informed Approach to AA's Step Four

Sitting down, pen in hand, it’s hard to work through trauma in a fourth-step when “what’s your part?” is swirling around in your head. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very important to examine our part in things, but when it comes to trauma, this is not the approach that works with any sort of gentleness. Instead, it’s helpful to focus on the truth of the matter.

Truth:“that which is in accordance with fact or reality,” according to Google Dictionary. Alcoholics and addicts have a hard time with truth. We manage to delude ourselves to protect our drinking/using and our lifestyles, living in constant discord from the reality that our lives have become unmanageable. Alcoholism and addiction in their true nature is the avoidance of the facts. The primary fact being that we lie to others, but more than not we lie to ourselves. We find it difficult to get to the core of things.

Well, the fourth step, or a personal inventory in 12 step programs, can help do just as the above definition of truth suggests: enter accordance with fact and reality by evaluating situations more clearly.

In working the fourth step, I had four columns. Who I was resentful at, why, what it affected, and then the “turnaround” part. In this section, I wrote where I was selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and fearful. I also wrote about the truth of the matter or the opposites of the dishonesty.

It’s important to take ownership of the damage that we have caused. It’s crucial to keep our side of the street clean. In many ways, we have been self-centered and have harmed other people. The only way we can acknowledge this is by looking at the specifics of our actions.

For example, I threw a party at my house that resulted in my brother’s Xbox being stolen. I had a clear part in this, so I took ownership of it in my writing. I was selfish because I wanted to drink without consequence. I was dishonest because I told myself nothing bad would happen. I was self-seeking because I trusted people who were untrustworthy. I was fearful because I was afraid of dealing with my feelings sober. The truth of the matter was that I never should have had that party in the first place.

In the fourth step in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, it says “putting out of our minds the wrongs others had done, we resolutely looked for our own mistakes.” I’m just going to go ahead and disregard this when it comes to trauma. Perhaps you did something wrong along the way, but that’s not what the heart of this turnaround is about. What it’s about is finding what you’re carrying that’s not yours.

While one portion of the “truth of the matter” requires looking at “my part” in a situation. This question can actually do more harm than good. I’ve heard of people in the rooms having a sponsor tell them to look at their part in an instance where they were raped. To me, that’s doing more harm than good.

Even in the less extreme cases, if we’re only looking at all the things we’ve done wrong, how are we growing? For example, in a breakup that was in part my fault, only looking at my own mistakes will have me miss out on some beautiful truths like “I’m learning to have healthier relationships today.” Reality is where we’ll find peace and serenity. 

When I wrote out my trauma turnarounds, we weren’t just listing lies, but we were focusing heavily on what reality was. I often found my sponsor saying that: “the truth of the matter is…” She taught me that I don’t have to live in delusion, I can find authenticity and live in it. She did this gently and with a lot of love.

Let’s look at a real example from my fourth step. I’m resentful at ____ for breaking up with me. Sure, it’s important to look at where I was at fault like not having my sex and love addiction under control. It was also crucial to look at the lies I was telling myself like that I’m unlovable and unworthy and this relationship was a waste of time. But if I stopped there then I’d be selling myself short.

There’s more to the turnaround. In truth, I’m a lovable and worthy child of the Universe. I was doing the best I could at the time. The relationship still brought me good lessons. I’m learning to take responsibility for my addiction. These were also important things to tell myself. 

Looking at the truth rather than purely mistakes opens up a world of safety for trauma-related turnarounds. I did multiple turnarounds on sexual assaults that occurred both during and after my drinking days. If somebody were to tell me to think about what my part in those was, I’d lose it. 

Thank god I had a trauma-informed sponsor who was also equipped with this reality-seeking approach. For dishonesty, I put that I had asked for it, it was my fault, and that I was unlovable as a result. If I had left it at that, I can’t imagine I would have experienced much healing. Next, my sponsor and I looked at the truth of the matter which was that I couldn’t have done anything to deserve that and that I was completely and totally lovable and worthy. 

I find that this approach continues to bring me healing. As I do tenth steps, or mini fourth steps, whenever resentments crop up I can use this method to shed light on what the truth is. 

Living in reality has meant being more gentle with myself and others. It’s meant taking a deep breath before I make assumptions. It’s taught me to check myself, taking a moment to see if any fear or self-centered ideas have crept in.  

I also get to be a trauma-informed sponsor. When someone brings me a resentment that’s intense and traumatic, I hold space for them. I approach it gently. We look at it together, slowly, and when they’re ready. I don’t ask them what they’ve done wrong. I ask them how we can shed some light on what’s real. 

I’m not saying that we should entirely throw out the idea of “what’s your part?” Rather, let’s expand on that and get a little deeper into the truth of the matter. Let’s focus on what reality is, not just the mistakes that we’ve made. Let’s use our judgment when doing turnarounds and identify where the focus should be. More importantly than anything, let’s be gentle and compassionate towards ourselves and sponsees.