The One Thing to Do Before Making Lasting Changes

by Danielle Capalbo on January 6

selfinventoryInstead of making a resolution for 2016, I’ll be making a “searching and fearless moral inventory of myself.” Sounds fun, right? It’s the fourth of twelve steps in Al-Anon, a program based on Alcoholics Anonymous to support the family members of people struggling with addiction.

I’ve seen moral inventories organized in a number of ways—but as a real newbie, I can’t pretend to know much besides this: your inventory should represent an earnest attempt to really see yourself and what unaddressed corners of your psyche are tripping you up.

You can write your inventory in your journal, or use an Excel spreadsheet. A quick Google search will generate a number of worksheets that you can download, free of charge. If you enjoy homework, like me, that’s the ticket.

Right now, I’m drawn to a four-part inventory based on this 1992 booklet. It asks you to face your resentments; your guilt, remorse and shame; your fear; and your pride, warmth, love and kindness. Through a series of questions like “What do you resent?” and “What beliefs are driving those resentments?”, the goal is to expose the “shit that’s killing you,” to borrow a phrase from Lauryn Hill.

Who doesn’t want to do that? I certainly do—not just as the adult child of well-meaning but wounded parents who struggled with addiction, but as a Spiraling Up-er. Someone who wants to get better, for myself and others.

The goal of self-inventory is no different for alcoholics than for codependent spouses of alcoholics, teenagers living with alcoholic parents, or the adult children of addicts whose maladaptive coping mechanisms from childhood continue to run amok in their lives. Calling your own bullshit is the first step to fixing it—and self-inventory is a bigtime bullshit whistle.

selfinventory2In these opening, inspired, days of the year, it’s tradition to dream about who you could be. How many of us really know who we are, though? And how often do we look at ourselves in a neutral, curious light, to see beyond our best intentions and our deepest insecurities?

If we don’t look, we could miss opportunities to take control of hardships we assumed were beyond our control. On the other hand, we could realize—upon further inspection—that a certain vexing problem is not ours. Here’s how the AA book puts it:

“To see how erratic emotions victimized us often took a long time. We could perceive them quickly in others, but only slowly in ourselves. First of all, we had to admit that we had many of these defects [Ed. Note: hate that word!], even though such disclosures were painful and humiliating.”

Painful and humiliating, yes. To borrow an example from David Foster Wallace, there’s also this: the hardest thing for a fish to recognize is water. Our circumstances—and the parts of ourselves they come to poignantly shape, long before we understand we’re being shaped at all—are often invisible to us. That’s another reason I love the inventory. It encourages you to see the water.

In one of Plato’s best-known allegories, some prisoners are chained deep inside a dark cavern—held captive since childhood and forced, with shackles and chains, to look straight ahead, day after day, at a patch of blank wall. If a prisoner could so much as glance over her shoulder, she would see a fire burning, and people passing by with objects of everyday life.

Instead, the prisoners can only see the shadows cast against the wall. It’s a cruelly simple, secondhand view of the world. And yet it’s all they know of life—until a prisoner goes free. Stumbling into the light, she comes face-to-face with reality, and the sun is blinding with its brightness – especially compared with the dark captivity of the cavern.

selfinventory3How would you react?

First of all, I suggest you read the rest of the allegory. Secondly, I’ll admit: I never studied this allegory in school. I learned about it last year, or the year before, and my interpretation is amateur, at best. But I love what I’m making out: When we come out of the darkness, light will drive us backward—causing us pain and confusion. But when everything’s out in the sun, you can finally see it.


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Danielle Capalbo

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Holly January 8, 2016 at 8:32 pm

Great article Danielle! I think it takes a lot of courage to do a ‘fearless and searching moral inventory’ of ourselves. Having said that, I think all of us could benefit from it, and probably from doing all 12 steps as well!


Danielle January 14, 2016 at 12:01 pm

Thanks for the kind words, Holly! It’s not an easy task, and I presume (for me, at least) it will take many iterations / years before I’m able to recognize / amend the reality of my resentments, actions, etc. This has proven to be a great place to start, and I also believe the 12 steps are such a strong framework for overcoming any self-defeating behavior.


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