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.
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.
“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.