One of the telltale symptoms of alcohol or drug addiction is behaving in ways that go against your personal values and standards. That's why the Twelve Step recovery process includes the practice of recognizing how your behavior has harmed others and seeking to repair the mistakes and damage caused during your active addiction. Step Eight and Step Nine of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) call this approach "making amends":
Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
On the surface, making amends might sound as simple as offering a sincere apology for your treatment of others, but there's more to this cornerstone Twelve Step practice. Below, experts at Hazelden Betty Ford's Connection™ recovery coaching program answer frequently asked questions about this reconciliation process and why it's so vital to addiction recovery and spiritual health.
In Twelve Step recovery from alcohol or other drug addiction, a direct amend refers to the act of personally addressing issues with people who have been harmed by our behavior or our treatment of them as a result of addiction. As outlined in Steps 8 and 9, the practice involves going back to those individuals to acknowledge the harm or hurt we have caused them and demonstrating our changed behaviors in order to provide them with the opportunity to heal. Whenever possible, a direct amend is made face-to-face rather than over the phone or by asking someone else to apologize on your behalf.
Think of amends as actions taken that demonstrate your new way of life in recovery, whereas apologies are basically words. When you make amends, you acknowledge and align your values to your actions by admitting wrongdoing and then living by your principles.
In addiction, our actions and intentions aren't aligned. For example, we might intend to go to a friend's birthday party, but in actuality, we fail to show up for the event. While we might apologize later for missing the party, our apology consists of words rather than actions or changed behavior. And those words ring hollow when we repeatedly break our promises. So, to truly make amends, we have to offer more than words.
In recovery, our actions and intentions are aligned. An example would be telling someone how sorry you are that you stole from them and actually giving back what you took.
Yes. Step Nine states that we make amends "except when to do so would injure them or others." We don't want our actions to cause further damage, harm or stress. Also, we might owe amends to people we can't reach. In those cases, we can make amends in a broader sense by taking actions like donating money, volunteering our time or providing care.
We can also make amends by living very purposefully within the bounds of our principles. This is known as making living amends. For example, if we hurt people with our lying and we cannot make amends without further injuring them, we would make living amends by making a decision to behave and communicate with complete honesty.
It's also important to take great care when making amends to someone who is in active addiction because our primary responsibility is to safeguard our own health and recovery from substance abuse. If making an amends means exposing ourselves to triggering environments, we ought to reconsider and discuss healthy alternatives with a sponsor or addiction counselor.
No matter how much we feel the need to make things right, forcing another to meet with us or hear from us is not part of the Steps. When those we've hurt are not able or willing to accept our amends, we can still move in a positive general direction by taking intentional steps to be of service to others or making living amends.
It's important to note that making amends is for the person we hurt. Yes, we partake in the process to "clean up our side of the street," but we do not make amends to clear our conscience or undo our feelings of guilt. If someone does not want to hear from us, we respect that and do our best to move forward with our recoveries.
Taking these actions helps us to separate ourselves from the disease of addiction. We come to understand that we are good people with a bad disease. Steps 8 and 9 help us to move out of the shame we have lived in, shame that feeds the cycle of substance use and addiction. We strengthen and reinforce healthy recovery whenever we do our part to repair relationships or reach out to others with support and understanding.
It's important to have a plan in place before we reach out. We can't know for certain how another person will respond—or even how the interaction might affect us emotionally. So be sure to talk with your sponsor and/or support group about your plan in the event that you need support.
Remember, this is a Twelve Step process that can provide a platform for healing, but the person we are reaching out to may not be at the same place in healing as we are. We are only in control of our part—making and living the amends. As with alcohol and other drugs, we are also powerless over other people. We cannot control how others respond, whether they will forgive or whether they will hold on to negative feelings or resentments.
In the end, we are not seeking forgiveness. We are seeking accountability for our own actions and holding ourselves to the standards of our own values and our 12 Step program.
Generally speaking, people work through the Steps of Alcohol Anonymous with an addiction treatment counselor and/or sponsor. You can also turn to AA's Big Book and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (the 12 & 12) for guidance specific to Step 8.
When first writing your list, don't worry about including everyone you have wronged. Start by listing the people closest to you. Over time, as you strengthen and deepen your recovery from addiction, you will undoubtedly revisit Steps 8 and 9 many times. Eventually you will find you are making amends day by day through the positive actions you routinely take in living by Twelve Step principles.
There really isn't a "best way" for everyone. You need to find the approach that works best for you. Talk with your sponsor or others in your recovery community about what has worked for them. If your actions match your intentions and you reach out in person, you are doing the next right thing to right past wrongs. It's simple but not easy. And remember, if you are feeling ashamed about mistakes made and damage done during your using days, you are not your disease.
Once you enter into sobriety, there isn't a set timeline for working Steps 8 and 9, so you might want to ask your sponsor and recovery support network for their insights about whether you're ready. In Twelve Step recovery, your pace is your own to determine. No doubt you will experience challenges and setbacks along the way. But by prioritizing your recovery on a daily basis and doing whatever that next right thing might be for you, you will keep moving forward in living a life of good purpose.