Apology and Amends—Step 9

Having made our list of people we have harmed, Step 9 directs us to make amends to those people, except when do so would cause further harm to them or others.  If there be magic in the Steps, this is where it happens.

Simple, yet daunting, when done from the heart and for the right reasons, we set ourselves free from our mistakes of the past, repair broken relationships, remove much of our guilt and shame, and deepen our self-awareness.  Perhaps most important, proper apologies and amends reinforce in us a humility in which we accept the fact that we are imperfect beings and therefore fallible.  That, in turn, allows us to be more open-minded and to improve our interactions with those around us.  Recognizing when our mistakes have hurt someone, when we have been insensitive or unkind, and accepting responsibility for those mistakes, we can learn to avoid making them again.

But regardless of what we may gain—

Amends and apologies are always for the benefit of the other person.

The focus should stay on the other person and never on us.  Berating ourselves (“I was an idiot to say that, ” or “I’ve been so stressed lately that I just forgot our lunch meeting,” etc.) is inappropriate as it brings the focus back on us and our problems.  While explanations are sometimes needed, keep them as short as possible and never with the intention to gain sympathy.

We apologize for what we have done.  What the other person has or has not done is not part of the equation, nor is their reaction to what we have done.  If I’ve said something that hurt or embarrassed my friend, I might say, “I’m sorry I hurt (or embarrassed) you.”  But I should never say “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt,” or “I’m sorry you were embarrassed by what I said.”  Notice how I subtly shift responsibility from myself to the other person in those examples of non-apologies.

A proper apology consists of:

  • an expression of remorse (I’m sorry, or I apologize.);
  • an explicit statement of what we are apologizing for (…I hurt your feelings when I said those things…);
  • our acceptance of responsibility (…and I was wrong to do that.);
  • and an amends, or restitution, apropos to the offense.  This could be anything from a promise not to repeat the mistake to returning a possession that is rightfully theirs to paying back money owed.  When in doubt, ask them how you can set things right.

Thus:  “I’m sorry.  I know I hurt your feelings when I said those things, and I was wrong to say them.  I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Is there anything else I can do to make this right?

And then, of course, I have to make sure I don’t do it again.  I can’t begin to count the times I told my wife “I’m sorry I got drunk last night; I promise it won’t happen again,” and the next night I drank again.  Sound familiar?  Without the effort to ensure against a repeat of the offense, the apology is worse than just another empty promise; it’s a slap to the face of the other person.

The Aftermath

After I’ve made an apology, I have to allow the other person as much time as they need to process through their own feelings about both the offense and my apology.  The larger the offense, the more time will likely be required, and the size of the offense is always about how the other person feels.  Something that I feel is minor might be a major blunder to them, and that call is theirs to make.

I’ve learned that with most things in life I have to act as I believe is right, and then accept whatever results from my action.  Simply put–I cannot expect any particular result.  In the context of this topic, the other person may or may not accept my apology; may or may not forgive me; may, in fact, meet my apology with a new barrage of anger and resentment.  I have to accept that result.

In actual practice, I’ve learned that most people will graciously accept an honest and proper apology.  And why not?  It gives them a chance to let go of any resentment they have been carrying around against me.  Very few people, it seems, want to keep their resentments once they see a way to let go.

When the Situation is Reversed

I’ve also learned to accept an apology when it’s sincerely offered.  It tells me the other person is feeling guilt or shame, and is remorseful.  Even in situations where I didn’t feel hurt, angry or whatever, I don’t laugh it off or otherwise invalidate their apology; I respond with variations of “Hey, it’s OK.  I understand.  Apology accepted.  Thanks for coming to me with it.”

Some Words To Avoid

‘Ifs,’ ‘Buts,’ ‘Mays,’ and ‘Wants.’ As in:

  • “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you,” or  “I apologize if anyone thinks my comments were out of line.”
  • “I’m sorry, but…  (Anything that comes after a ‘but’ negates everything in front of it.)
  • “I’m sorry.  I may have said something inappropriate.”
  • “I want to apologize for…”  (To paraphrase Yoda:  “Don’t want.  Do.”)

Notice how the effect of these words is to deflect or minimize our responsibility in the matter.

The Exception

“Made direct amends…except when to do so would injure them or others.”  I take this exception very seriously.  Some fellow 12-Steppers have told me I take it to the extreme, and a few have told me I’m using it as an excuse not to make the amends.  In the end, it’s a personal judgement call that each of us has to make; a decision we have to live while the ‘advisers’ go on their merry way.

It seems clear to me that amends are made for the benefit of the other person; anything I might gain from the action is secondary.  If there’s any chance that my action in offering the apology will cause further hurt to the person, or cause harm to one or more third-parties, I won’t act.  Better for me to live with the knowledge that an injury I caused has gone without an amends than to pile on more injuries which will require more amends, possibly to more people.

In cases where I believe the exception applies, I make ‘living amends,’ as that is the best way I know to atone for those harms.

How about you?  Tell us your thoughts or experience with apologies and amends.

Step 8

8.  Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

The List

I had a pretty good start on this list from the inventory back in Step 4.  That’s where we look at our resentments and find our own mistakes in each case.  So I already had a list of resentments along with the whos and the whys, including where I had acted selfishly, dishonestly, or for my benefit at the expense of the other person.  Without going into specifics, let’s just say I had a hefty list and a lot of work to do.  In nearly all of my resentments, and I’m sure it is (or will be) true of your inventory, I was at least partly at fault.  But it was far from complete.

My list wasn’t lacking from thoroughness; it was lacking all those times I’d caused someone to hurt that did not involve resentment on my part—a thoughtless word spoken in anger or frustration, a forgotten birthday, or a case of insensitivity to another’s situation.

Keeping in mind that in Steps 8 and 9 we are dealing with people we have harmed, there may be people on our resentment list who have harmed us in some way while we did nothing to cause harm to them.  A woman who has been raped or a person who suffered physical or sexual abuse as a child come to mind as obvious blameless victims.  No amends are necessary or appropriate where we have caused no harm.  Forgiveness, yes, but that is not what these two Steps are about.  I’ll talk about forgiveness in a later post.

The Willingness

By the time I’d gotten this far into the Steps, I was already willing to do whatever it was going to take, so the willingness wasn’t a huge problem for me.  I will admit, tho, that for several people on my list, I needed to keep reminding myself that they were human, too, and even if they weren’t alcoholic, they had problems, too.  When I could see them as like unto myself, it made the amends process easier.  As recommended in the Big Book, I could say to myself, “This is a sick person.  How can I be helpful?”

And in fact, the other person can benefit from our amends as much as we do.  If they have carried resentment against us, as we against them, it gives them the opportunity to also let go. That’s entirely their call, tho.  My job in the process is to offer to amend the damage I’ve caused.  It’s not up to me to even so much as suggest what they should or should not do from there.  From the Tao Te Ching:  “The wise one acts, then steps back.”  (And accepts whatever the result might be.)

Next up—Step 9, where the magic happens.

Any thoughts or questions about Step 8?  Please leave a comment!

Removing Defects

The 4th and 5th steps gave us an idea of what our faults are, where they might be coming from, and which ones have been the major players in our lives up to now. Once we know what they are, we can start to get rid of them. But how exactly do we do that?

Some of them will be so minor that they seem silly in hindsight. We can simply let them go and that’s that. Something like “I’m jealous of my brother because Mom always liked him best,” maybe. (Remember the Smothers Brothers?) Other faults will need a bit more work. I go through a process of comparing my feelings/emotions of the moment against certain core beliefs and values I have. By the time I’m done, the majority of them drop to the more manageable level of “silly,” and then I can let them go.

Core Beliefs and Values

This is a short sample of beliefs and values of mine that usually play a part in the process:

  • We are not powerless over our reactions or our feelings. We can choose to change.
  • We are all brothers and sisters, each one of us a divine spirit having a human experience.
  • The human experience is to be imperfect. We all have defects, and for the most part, they are all the same.
  • To be human is also to be conflicted. We are both/and rather than either/or, both saint and sinner, beast and angel.
  • What we resist persists.

There are others, of course. You may not have the same ones; yours might even be in direct opposition to mine. It doesn’t matter; we all need to discover and start living by our own set of values and beliefs.

The Process

Anger (along with resentments, which are anger we’ve put into an interest-bearing spiritual savings account) were big on my inventory, so I’ll use that in the example. When I get angry about something, such as something someone writes on the Internet, I stop and go through the following:

  1. I let myself feel it. What we resist, persists. I let it have its way until it subsides enough for me to continue. Sort of like counting to 10, except I observe the feeling without judging it as good or bad and accept it for what it is—the feeling of the moment.
  2. I name it. “OK, I have some anger here.” This lets me own the feeling.
  3. I look at why I reacted with anger. Maybe I was on a forum and someone replied to tell me I was wrong about something. This would affect my prestige in that community, which really means “my pride gets hurt.” Or maybe I hear my bank is going under, and my financial security evaporates. The list is, or seems, endless. (I don’t know yet, I’m still alive.)
  4. I decide whether I want to let it go. If I don’t, or I’m not sure, I look for why I want to keep it. What am I getting by clinging to the anger in this particular case. What’s the payoff? Am I afraid of something? Often, I’ll need to do some contemplative meditation to discover this.
  5. When I know I’m ready to let it go, I plug it into one or more of my core beliefs or core values.This puts it into a proper perspective, usually knocking it down to the more manageable level of ‘silly.’ Then, I can let it go.

The process is not as involved as it appears when written out, and it gets easier and more automatic as I practice it. It’s my way of disconnecting my buttons so that the next time a similar situation occurs, I can act with understanding, rather than react with emotion. The same process works whether I’m dealing with baggage from the past or present, and whether it involves another person or not. The only difference is that if it involves another person, I almost certainly will need to make an amends.

How do you go about ridding yourself of these defects?