Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of self forgiveness lately. I think that self forgiveness presents a challenge for many people, in and out of recovery. As humans, we often judge our own actions through an unrealistic lens and are particularly hard on ourselves.
According to Freud, we all have three parts of our personalities — the id, the ego, and the super-ego. The id being the part of our personalities that is responsible for our animal instincts, sexual desires, and aggressive drives. The super-ego is the part of our personalities that functions as the moral compass and the ego is the part that mediates between the id and the super-ego. Perhaps it’s the ego that can’t accept that we might say or so something that falls outside out ethics governed by the super-ego.
Now, I am not a psychologist, and I’m not sure that Freud got it all right, but this model may be somewhat useful as we explore the concept of self forgiveness.
When we do something that we regret, the idea of forgiving ourselves can be difficult. We act as the prosecutor (super-ego), defense (id), judge and jury (ego) in our own minds. Rarely do these disparate roles agree about an action that we regret. In fact, this internal conflict that arises between these three parts of our personalities may be the very essence of regret.
When this conflict is strong within us, forgiving ourselves may seem impossible. Perhaps the strength of the voices of our internal judge and jury make us feel that we are unable to forgive ourselves. But, I’ve learned it’s important not to confuse ability with willingness. We can always forgive — even ourselves — the question is are we willing to do so or not.
Steps 8 and 9 are all about making amends and hopefully receiving forgiveness. When we get to step 8, we often look back at step 4 to make our list of people based on our moral inventory — it makes sense that we would look to address our amends to the people who were affected by the items on the list. This list may include our friends, spouse, children, other family members, business associates or supervisors, former lovers, and even former friends or others to whom we are estranged because of our behaviors while drinking.
There is one person that I think is excluded from the list more often than not and I believe this is unfortunate. That person is ourself.
How often does the amends list include ourselves? Why should this list include ourselves? Don’t we owe it to others to make things right first? What does making amends to oneself even look like?
While it may appear egotistical to make amends to oneself at first glance, I believe that it is foundational to making amends with others. I believe it is foundational to loving oneself. Just as one can’t truly love another without loving oneself, I believe that one must make amends and forgive oneself in order to truly grow in the program.
If we go about our lives regretting the past and thinking horrible thoughts about ourselves then we can’t truly change as a person. Brené Brown says, “we become the stories we tell ourselves.” If we are constantly telling ourselves that we are no good because of our past or that we are defined by our past, we come to hold this as a core belief about ourselves. And if we believe in our core that we are unworthy, then we will live as if we are unworthy. We will act as if we are unworthy. We will hold in to and repeat those old behaviors.
One of the promises is, “we will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.” When we are newly sober this promise may seem the most extravagant of them all. How on earth could we not regret our past? It’s exactly what got us here. Our past is defined by problems, poor choices, misbehavior, and pain. How do we get to a point where we don’t regret it? The magic that makes this possible exists in self forgiveness. And self forgiveness begins with making amends to ourselves.
So, how do we do this? It starts, as all amends do, with an assessment of what when wrong and how it could have been handled differently — the core difference between an empty apology and an amends being that an amends tries to make things right, by fixing the mistake of possible and by ensuring that it doesn’t happen again. So in order to make an amends to ourselves we need to know how we hurt ourselves and how we might fix it, as well as have a plan not to do it again. Then we tell ourselves that we are sorry for what we did, acknowledging how it was hurtful, and explaining how we will avoid it in the future. That is what making an amends to ourselves looks like.
Suppose that we hurt ourselves emotionally and spiritually by putting ourselves and others in danger by driving under the influence. We now see that our behavior was reckless and dangerous and we may feel bad about it. We may feel a deep sense of regret and fell like we can’t forgive ourselves. We need to make an amends.
To do this, we could write ourselves an apology letter explaining that we can’t change the past, but we can ensure that we never drive under the influence again, which should be easy since we are not drinking. We could even take it further by promising ourselves that we wouldn’t drive under the influence even if we did have a slip. If writing a letter to ourselves seems strange, we could record ourselves making the amends and listen to it, or even say the words to ourselves with a mirror. And while this all sounds a little strange, there is something powerful about making this concrete rather than simply thinking about it.
After making the amends to ourselves, we are in a better position to forgive ourselves. Again, making it concrete is valuable. Actually saying the words “you’re forgiven” is invaluable. Repeating them to ourselves when we are triggered about the past is also valuable. We become the stories we tell ourselves.
While it’s certainly not required, I believe that when we’ve forgiven ourselves for our past mistakes — when we believe the story that we are making changes and living a better life — then we are in a better position to make amends to others. Our belief in ourselves inside shows on the outside and we carry ourselves differently because we have a new found sense of self respect. Our self respect builds and becomes love of self and we are able to show others that we have changed, and it is per cicely these changes that enable us to make amends.
And what are amends, if not an act of love?