Steps 4 & 5: Composting Our Emotional Debris

Planting in compostSometimes we just need to take a good hard look at our past, learn from it and let it go. In the 12 Step program this usually takes place in Steps 4 and 5, when we write a searching and fearless moral inventory and share it with God, ourselves, and another person. We list the people, institutions, etc. towards whom we feel resentment, guilt or shame. We figuratively sweep out the root cellar of our hearts and minds, looking for stray items left behind to rot. To the best of our ability we clean house and let go of anything that is holding us back.

We list positive memories in the Step 4 inventory—those that are uplifting, enlightening or comforting—and the gifts, talents and skills we find. We examine and explore how we can use them to bless ourselves and others.

The rotten stuff we gather up and take to the emotional compost pile. As we write the inventory we let ourselves remember each incident: what happened, who was affected, how it affected us. We look for patterns of negative behavior to find the underlying causes and conditions leading to the choices we make today. Then, in Step 5 we turn it over to God and another person and let it go.

It takes humility and courage to overcome our fear of closely examining our pasts. Watered by our tears, the rotten fruit—the emotional debris—is changed into life-giving compost. We no longer need to agonize over the individual incidents in our inventory, or feelings of resentment, guilt or shame. Our memories and experiences can, with the help of the Lord, blend together and become fertile ground in which He plants the seeds of future accomplishment and contribution. In this way He consecrates our afflictions for our good. (See 2 Nephi 2:2)

One Example

One of my sponsees has had a very difficult life, starting with repeated childhood sexual abuse and neglect. To survive her life of continual trauma she developed several dysfunctional coping mechanisms including an eating disorder and other forms of self harm. After decades of these behaviors, with the help of the Lord she found abstinence from her eating disorder. She is now using the 12 Steps to overcome her other addictions. This woman is immersing herself in Steps 4 and 5 with great humility and commitment, even though it hurts to examine her very difficult past. She writes in her inventory every day and shares with me what she has written.

How has her “emotional compost” led to growth and joy? She is recognizing her need for boundaries and learning to set them. Every time she does so, it is a victory for her. She is learning to recognize anxiety when it starts. She is learning to deliberately choose alternative behaviors – healthy behaviors – to cope with it. She is learning to relate to her husband with  a new, more spiritually mature love. She is teaching me how to help others with a background of complex post traumatic stress.

God is using her emotional debris to create a rich, nourishing medium for growth: hers, mine, and all the others we each work with through this inspired 12 Step program.

  • Write about how God can consecrate your affliction for good if you are willing to examine your past and turn it over to Him.
  • Are you willing to do a “searching and fearless moral inventory”?
  • What are you willing to do today to get started?

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Related posts: Declaring Spiritual Bankruptcy – Becoming Happy, Joyous and FreeFear: the Enemy of Progress and RecoverySix Thoughts about Step 5

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