alternative 12 steps
The Proactive 12 Steps alternative 12 steps

Step 4, Alternative Twelve Steps

I look at my life systematically, to see patterns in how I have been relating to people and situations.

Original wording (AA): Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

The following audio is a commentary on Step Four. There is a written transcript immediately below the audio player.

If you see this text instead of the image of a sound player, click on the link below to play the file from your computer.


There is something very striking about the 12 steps: They were originally written for alcoholics, and yet there's very little mention of alcohol in them. They talk about putting things in a broader context, and many of the steps, starting with Step Four, have to do with how you interact with other people. So how can one make sense of that?

A couple of things here. One is about understanding patterns of behavior. And two is: How patterns of behavior are actually related to what happens in your life.

If you pay attention to the language of Step Four (and of the following steps), it is full of words such as being wrong, making amends, asking for forgiveness. And so, within the context of the traditional 12 steps where God is very present, all of this has very much the connotation of acting in a manner that is sinful and then repenting, asking for forgiveness of sins and being healed by the grace of God. This kind of a framework might work for you if you are a religious person, and your religious tenets are in accordance with that kind of pattern. But if you're not, then what do you do? Even if you are actually religious, this kind of explanation is not really an explanation of what actually happens. It is an explanation that relies on the metaphysical, on some sort of miracles happening, as opposed to really understanding what it is that changes how you change your behavior. So in the Proactive 12 Steps, the wording reflects a different understanding of what it is that makes change happen.

We're not speaking the language of sin, and we're not speaking the language of morality as something that you have to submit to simply because it's good. We're talking about understanding patterns. So the wording of Step Four in the Proactive 12 Steps has to do with patterns of behavior, and understanding these patterns.

What does this mean? What we are talking about is thinking in terms of patterns, as opposed to isolated individual actions. To take an example, let's say you have been inappropriately rude with somebody... Then, if you just think of this as an isolated incident, all you need to do is apologize and make an effort to not do that again. Thinking in terms of patterns is about paying attention to different circumstances, different times, different people, and looking at the way that several unrelated incidents may have some patterns in common. So, then, what you are able to do is to reflect on what it is that tends to activate you... That tends to make you, in this case, get angry... To possibly overreact to the situation. So, of course, it's not just about being angry, I'm just using this as an example.

Thinking in therms of patterns is an entry point into trying to understand why you do what you do. Understanding, of course, does not mean condoning. It means that, before you can effectively change anything, you have to understand why it happens. Because if you don't, then you really don't have the tools to change it.

And so, as you're starting to see with Step Four, and you will see even more in the following steps, the Proactive 12 Steps describe a path that is different from the path described in the traditional 12 Steps. The proactive 12 Steps are oriented to changing the way you behave, by understanding what it is that makes you do what you do. So it's not going to have the moralistic tone of "wrong" or "atonement" or "repenting"... But it's going to have the much more mindful tone of observing what is, in order to understand it.

We're talking about mindful understanding. So this is different from trying to analyze and to force feed some logic, some rationality into this. It's not that human behavior has no logic whatsoever. There is a logic, but that is an emotional logic. For instance, when you are scared, shadows on the ground will look threatening. When you are happy and safe, behaviors that otherwise might scare you are not going to be nearly as scary. Things like that.

So as I am introducing the notion of mindful observation, you probably see the link with Step Three, which was talking about finding yourself moment by moment by taking a mindful pause. At this pont, you have not perfected the art of the mindful pause and the art of finding serenity and equanimity in looking at yourself. But you're starting to be more aware of the difference between being in your default mode, between being in a kind of mindless state, and being at least a little more mindful. So now in Step Four, you're making use of this growing ability to shift from mindless to more mindful in order to pay attention to patterns in your life.

Being mindful means first and foremost, being curious and having the intention to stay as calm as can be, given the circumstances. In practice, how do you do this? Probably the easiest way to do it is to do it with a friend, or a group of friends: You take turns narrating a section of your life: When you were a very young child... When you started going to school... What it was in high school, and so on and so forth. You talk about work... You talk about friendships... You talk about relationships... You talk about incidents that come to mind... Good moment and bad. And, as you hear yourself talk, you may start to see some patterns emerging.

You can also sit in front of a piece of paper and write stories about different periods in your life, the same way as if you were talking to a friend. Having done that, you ask yourself what might be the possible common points between several of these stories. Not necessarily all the stories having the same common points, but some of them.

It takes curiosity and openness to let things emerge. It is quite OK to not see patterns right away. It's quite OK to spend quite a long time wondering what patterns there might be, if any. If you get into that mode of being open and contemplating what has been through that lens, through that perspective, then at some point or another, things will start coming up for you.

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