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Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Most of us are taught from an early age that we must apologize when we do something wrong. We hear the words of a parent to a toddler:

“You shouldn’t take toys from your friends, say you are sorry.”

“That hurts! Don’t pull mommy’s hair. Say you’re sorry.”

“Daddy doesn’t like it when you talk back to him, please apologize.”

In our modern society, apology frequently never amounts to change. We see it at the micro and at the macro levels. People in our everyday lives apologize to us and move on to their next affront. Think of the person who rudely brushes past you to get into a better position in the line. Chances are they’ve done it before and will do it again, even if they apologize. At the macro level, we see this behavior from large corporations that make apologies when they are caught skirting the law, but they’ll do it again if it means better P&L numbers and a higher stock price. We see it in our world leaders who make embarrassingly insincere statements or even deny any wrongdoing whatsoever only to continue to support policies that enable their wrongdoing and insincerity, over and over, again and again.

It’s as if we’ve been conditioned to think that saying we are sorry is all that matters. And so, upon first glance at the steps it’s easy to read this step as “apologize for your wrong doings.”

This reading misses the mark.

Fundamentally, the steps are a guide to living that revolves around changing our patterns of behavior. Apologies without change are meaningless. If we don’t course correct, and do better in the future, we are still acting like the toddler, the chairmen, or the world leader.

It is the resolve to make a change, to do better, that moves an out words from an apology to to the action of making amends. We are trying to right our wrongs rather than seeking forgiveness so that we feel better like a petulant child.

I’m not good at this. There are patterns of behavior that are deeply rooted in my life experience. They are my “go to” behaviors. I have learned that some of them are part of my trauma response. They are defense mechanisms that are almost instinctual, originating deep in my “lizard brain” — the amygdala. Changing these reactions is a big part of my personal work. I work with practicing the pause daily, with varying degrees of success.

The final words of this step are potentially dangerous. “Except when to do so would injure them or others” sounds like an escape clause. Many of us are good at finding the escape clause, in fact people with addictions are often masters the loophole. We must be conscious of this when we evaluate whether or not making an amends would cause harm. In most cases, making amends will not cause harm. In most cases making amends will help a relationship.

It is important to ensure that we do not confuse things — that we don’t hide behind this clause as a protective mechanism for ourselves. Indeed, there are some cases where it genuinely would cause harm to make an amends, and care should be taken to do no further harm, but we must be careful to ensure that we aren’t simply avoiding the amends process.

The best way to figure out whether or not an amends would cause harm is to discuss the situation openly and honestly with someone who we trust and who will be honest with us when we are clearly looking for an excuse to avoid doing the difficult work at hand.

This step can be miraculous. Indeed it is within the discussion of the ninth step that we are introduced to the AA Promises:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

— Alcoholics Anonymous, Fourth Edition, Pages 83-84.

Despite what it says in the Big Book, these are extravagant promises, but it has been my experience that they do materialize just as the book says. In a few weeks I plan to begin a series on the Promises.

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