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Making Amends.

5 January 2014

Making amends is one of the things that terrifies newcomers to AA. I was fortunate. I didn’t have a great many amends to make. I didn’t need to go to jail (sometimes making amends involves confessing to crimes). I didn’t need to pay huge sums of money. I didn’t need to talk to the parents of anyone I’d killed. I know people who’ve done all these things. It’s difficult.

My amends fell into a few basic categories. Acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Acceptance of consequences. And leaving people alone. There’s a reason making amends is step 9. We’re not ready right when we get sober. And people are not ready for us. Frequently, when we first get sober, we want to run right out and fix all our relationships, and rectify all our wrongdoing. But we can’t.

By waiting until step 9, we prepare ourselves, but we also let time pass. The passage of time is hugely important in making amends. We can show up the next day and say: “I’m sober now, for a whole day, and I promise I’ll never do anything like that again!” It’s bullshit and everyone but us knows it. Letting time go by, and showing up after six months or a year and saying: “I’ve had a lot of time to consider how I harmed you. I haven’t had a drink in half a year,” will be far more meaningful.

When we’re ready, and when enough time has passed for those we’ve harmed to be ready to hear it, then we can start to address how we’ve done wrong in the lives of others. I think that amends and apology get conflated in ways that are not useful. An apology, by itself, is very rarely an amends. And though most will, not every amends needs an apology. Sometimes, you just have to write a check.

Because, at its heart, the amends is about the person who did the wrong, not the person who had the wrong done to them. We make amends so that we can go on with our lives, free from debt and regret and resentment, able to move forward and respect ourselves. As long as our goal is forgiveness, we’re not ready to make amends. If our goal is to retain or regain something from our past, we’re not ready to make amends. We’re ready when we’re ready to accept the consequences of what we did, make what restitution is possible, and change our behavior. Nothing else is within our control.

Circumstances are also often such that we were harmed by a person whom we have also done harm to. In this situation, we still need to make amends to them. And when we do, we can’t be expecting them to also make amends to us. We can’t offer our amends conditionally upon their acceptance of some blame. We make amends for how we’ve harmed them, and do not mention or discuss how they’ve harmed us. That may come another time. It may not.

When we make amends, we explain how we harmed the person. We accept the consequences of that harm. We lay out how we’ll make it right, if we can. We describe how our future behavior will change, so as to ensure that this sort of harm will not happen again. We apologize. Usually, this results in forgiveness. Sometimes not. But the amends do not hinge on forgiveness. Some people are not interested in forgiving us. Some people will never want anything to do with us again. Some people will want revenge. We can’t control their reactions.

Nor are we hostage to them. If we’ve honestly and forthrightly attempted to rectify a situation, without excuse or condition, and our amends is not accepted, so be it. Everyone has the right to say: “I do not forgive you.” Or the right to say: “I will not rehire you.” Some wounds are too deep. And some people are not forgiving. We accept that. Sometimes, the harm we’ve done causes irrevocable rifts. We go on to live separate lives. But we do not need to grovel or complete trials trying to earn forgiveness. If our amends are sincere and not accepted, we can move forward in our lives without regret.

The key for me, the internal litmus which tells me if I am ready, is resentment. If a person has harmed me, and I also owe them amends, am I resentful about having to make mine while they still also owe amends to me? Then I’m not ready. Am I angry about what I’ve lost, and blame someone other than myself for it? Then I’m not ready. Will I be offended or insulted if my amends are not accepted and forgiveness granted? Then I’m not ready.

But when I see my own fault, and when my own culpability in harm is objectionable to me beyond any resentment, I am ready to address my wrongdoing. When my knowledge of my own error interferes with my serenity, my peace of mind, I am ready. When the harm I’ve done others pains me not because of how it affects me, but because of how it affect them, then I am ready. Sometimes this is immediate. Sometimes, it takes a long time. But it happens.

Making amends is about setting right my wrongs. I do it so that I can live with myself. I do it so that I can stand in this world and feel that I am a positive for others. So that my resentments don’t intoxicate me. So that my debts, karmic or financial, are clear. I accept my consequences so that I may transcend my own bad behavior. So that I can move forward and live soberly, and be of value to others. Not so that I may be forgiven. Not so that I may regain status or position or material. Only so that my hands are free from debt. So that my heart is free from shame.

Because shame and debt and resentment lead me directly to despair, and depression, and inevitably to alcohol.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Beccas permalink
    6 January 2014 07:10

    There are parts of this that are ring very true to me, and I suspect you’ve layed out an AA inspired way of viewing this process, which is very practical for some purposes. What is concerning, to me, is the lack of focus on the injured party. You’ve layed out what somebody needs to do to avoid a shame/antisocial behavior spiral associated with addiction. Not the steps one needs to take to avoid wrongdoing that does not originate in that process.

    Sometimes people do wrong because they don’t truly understand the hurt they are causing. The process you’ve described, because it prioritizes one’s own serenity, will by design prevent empathizing with intense pain (so as to not get sucked into addiction), cannot always facilitate deeply understanding the harm done.

    Its also true that sometimes people do wrong because they can’t empathize and they do not care about the harm done. These people often can’t offer as emotionally resonant apologies. They are stuck with changing the context they are operating in to the extent they can’t get away with that type of wrongdoing again. But the first step to doing that credibly is often listening to others (those injured parties and others with empathy ).

    Essentially, at no point should anyone rely only on their own judgment (or their friends judgment) about whether they have, in fact, made what restitution is possible. As opposed to what restitution seems par for the course, or that we expected to make, or that which is all we can offer without wanting a drink. Because we all want to maintain our serenity. We aren’t entitled to serenity when it prevents change or growth.

    • 6 January 2014 08:03

      You make a few important points, some of which I feel I addressed, and at least one crucial one I didn’t.

      The process is not about avoiding shame or antisocial behavior. It’s about correcting our behavior and debts when we’ve already acted shamefully or antisocially. Nor does it “prioritize our own serenity” over making appropriate amends. The idea is that making proper amends will result in serenity. No matter if they are accepted or not. And that our peace of mind is not hostage to someone saying they don’t accept our amends.

      And you are absolutely correct that no one should rely on their own judgement about whether an amends or restitution is sufficient. I should have put that in the piece. We do this guided by a qualified sponsor. And we listen to the aggrieved if they want to talk to us, and respond to all reasonable requests in making those amends. Our sponsor helps us decide what’s reasonable.

      But your first point, that this post is not about the steps one takes to avoid entering the spiral in the first place, is correct. It isn’t. While I did write that we describe how our future behavior will change to avoid repeating the harm, I said nothing about not getting in trouble in the first place. Because that’s a different topic. And it’s not about making amends or step 9.

  2. 6 January 2014 13:47

    Good post. I am glad to have made amends to most people on my list and for those who are no longer around, I wrote letters read them with my sponsor. Step Four has helped me to be more aware of my part and to have empathy for others. The steps are in order for a reason.

  3. zman91 permalink
    7 January 2014 08:48

    Yes indeed, a good post on a vital step in our program of recovery. Unfortunately many people mistake making amends with apologizing, and the results are less than satisfying. Some of the points you make, especially about taking time and not rushing things, and the last statement by Syd remind us that Step 9 is only one of 12 steps, that the steps are in order for very good reasons, and by the time we get to #9 we will have changed a lot of our behavior and thinking. And as the Promises tell us, if we have been painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through… I am still amazed, to this very day!

  4. 7 January 2014 09:02

    Glad you added here in the comments that we should have the guidance of a good sponsor. One of my most disastrous amends was made because I was just so sure it was the right thing to do – I didn’t bother speaking with anyone about it. It was just wrong, wrong, wrong, and in retrospect I could see that I had not the best of motives, but I couldn’t see it at the time.

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