As we continue to make progress in recovery, we must eventually face the reality of the harm we have done to other people's lives as a direct result of our actions.
In simple terms, we can’t have the opportunity for forgiveness until we take ownership of the damage that we have done.
We do this for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do. But the impact of making amends extends so much farther, and no matter why else we do it, we do it for ourselves and our own future well-being.
Living with shame and guilt is one of the best ways to guarantee a relapse. When we come face-to-face with what we have done to other people, and to their lives, it leads to feelings of sadness, remorse, and shame. This is a normal human response to doing something wrong. We are indeed meant to feel guilty for hurting other people.
This is the ground zero moment when we can begin to forgive ourself for abusing other people. It is also the moment when we can decide to try and mend the broken relationships left in the wake of our addiction .
Personal forgiveness is a powerful force. Its value can hardly be overstated. It has the power to stitch back together broken families and friendships.
We cannot truly forgive ourselves unless we have first asked for forgiveness from those we have wronged. When we have finally tried to make whole the people left in our wake, we can begin to truly forgive ourselves.
In depends on what we have done wrong. Sometimes a letter or a phone call is all that is needed to deliver that apology for the way we spoke, the way we acted, or how we behaved.
When the damage is deeper, and the relationship is more important, the journey of healing can take much longer.
This process can take a long time, and to be honest, once you learn to make amends you should find yourself doing it occasionally the rest of your life. When we wrong each other, it is indeed the right thing to do so both parties can heal and move forward.
The people we hurt are often as broken about the situation as we are, left with nothing but bitterness, resentment, or anger. Our actions can have long-lasting consequences we may never really understand.
We can’t change what happened. But we can choose to do the right thing now.
Sometimes it is valuable for us to work through making amends and confront what we have done in the privacy of a group, or in an individual therapy session. That can be a really good way to get started, and has real value.
It is a good idea to ask your therapist if you are ready to take things “out of the classroom” and into the real world. It is OK if you are not at that point yet.
We don’t really get to see the full brunt of what we have done and feel its full effect until we make amends in the real world. No amount of talking can really replace that experience fully.
You may have been asked to make amends with every single person you have ever wronged. That is a lofty goal, to say the least.
If that is your goal, that is OK, but if you choose to focus on the people actually in your life today, your living relatives and friends, and the people who will remember you, that is also perfectly valid.
Sometimes the process of making amends can take a long time. Sometimes it is exhausting, and could even be unhealthy. It is OK to take a break and re-examine what has been happening.
Sometimes the process of fixing relationships and making things right can bring about new triggers or resurrect old ones. Watch out for that, so you do not find yourself reverting to old behaviors. If you do find that may be happening, get support. Talk to your therapist or sponsor.
This part of the process should only take place after you are in a place where you can accept the pain it brings and not revert to self-destructive cycles as a result. You and your therapist will know if that is true when that time arrives.
With the help of your therapist or sponsor:
Once you have a list of names, begin to write down the ways you have wronged them. Try to go beyond the obvious things such as stealing, or getting into a fist fight. But think about the ways those actions impacted their lives into the future. Is that person you got into a fight with more likely to be aggressive toward his children? After you stole from that person, did they rack up debt that kept them from getting a better job or owning a home? Did they blame it on someone else and create another broken relationship? Did the person you got drunk and hooked up with end up in a divorce?
Once you have a list of names and wrongs, you can work on a plan with your counselor or therapist. In a case where you need to make amends with someone who has died, you can use imagery or even an empty chair to allow for that part of the process. This can sound silly, but pain and grief are real, and feeling them is important.
It is important to remember that while we want to mend broken relationships, they may not all be mendable. Some people may not like your apology and not accept it. They may have a very different reaction to it. They may not respond at all, or write back anything.
It is important to try and do what we can, even though this is the case. We can’t make anyone accept our apology, and we don’t have a right to force them to do anything. All we can do is our part.
Roy was a 32-year-old bank employee at the regional branch of a national bank. Roy entered counseling at the request of his parents after his second divorce. The divorce had been a painful process, and unlike his first divorce, the former couple was now vying for custody of their two children.
Roy had grown up in the county in which he worked. His family had not used alcohol or substances in their home. However, Roy’s father was frequently gone on business trips, leaving Roy, his brother and their mother alone.
In high school Roy had joined a high school social club that allowed him the opportunity to connect with other boys his age as well as compete in local events. Roy was introduced to alcohol at these gatherings and he became popular since he could drink more than most of the other kids. Although Roy had many blackout incidents, his parents never found out he was drinking.
Although Roy continued attending the club and getting drunk, his mother rarely checked on him and Roy stayed at friends’ houses after drinking. Upon graduation from high school, Roy attended a local community college and received his AA degree in business. He married his high school sweetheart and found a job at the local bank.
Marriage was not easy for Roy and he began drinking even more heavily. He became verbally abusive to his wife and after two years of a difficult marriage she divorced him. Roy became depressed and drank more heavily during the next three months. Roy met another woman through an online dating service and married her eight months later. Roy believed that this wife was better, because she stopped him from drinking.
They had two children over the next four years. However, Roy became very depressed after his second child and began drinking very heavily again. His wife threatened to leave him if he did not stop drinking, and after six months of fighting over the abuse, this wife also left Roy. Roy entered another, and more severe, depressive episode, believing he was only able to make it through with the use of alcohol. At this point, Roy’s family admitted that they knew he had a drinking problem but were hoping it would go away. They strongly encouraged him to go to therapy since he was fighting for custody of his children
Roy began therapy believing that he was depressed and just needed a little help to get better. As he continued, he became aware of his alcohol problem and began to work on his sobriety. He joined AA, attending nearly six times a week. He began to work through many of the layers of pain, loss and guilt, and was finally having better days.
Roy struggled with making amends as a step in his AA. He told his sponsor that he was not ready and that he needed more time. As we worked through many issues regarding his desire to avoid this step, Roy finally said that he was terrified to admit to everyone that he was wrong. He was afraid that what he had done was so bad it had ruined many people’s lives. We worked through his fear of failure and I continued to encourage Roy to think about making amends. After another month, Roy entered his session and said, “It’s time.”
“What is it time for?” I said. “It’s time for me to begin making amends.” he replied. “I went back and re-processed some of the other steps with my sponsor and I believe it’s time for me to take this next step.”
“Great,” I said. “This is going to be tough, and you may have a desire to run away from the issues and counseling, but I think you will do well – and I will help.”
“It’s just that I’ve been such a failure, and this just highlights all the evil I have done,” he said with dismay. “You’re right, but the only way to move on is to look at the failure straight in the eye and confront it.”
Roy and I worked through the exercise of listing people he had harmed.
Roy was quickly able to put names in the first circle: his family, his ex-wives and his current friends. His other circles included individuals from high school, girls he dated, and people he had met while traveling and vacationing.
After working through the list we decided to take one person at a time, listing how he had injured them and how he might make amends with them. We transferred the names onto the "broken fences" sheet. I told Roy that this would help us visually represent the destruction and the changes that he would need to do to make amends. For Roy, most of the amends were the simple apology he had developed during his time at AA. He liked the apology and it allowed him to explain how he had injured the other person, how it was his fault and that he was sad that he had done this.
We discussed whether he would call and talk, e-mail or mail his letters. Roy decided to mail the letters. We also discussed how he would react if the others responded back, and we worked through how he would deal with their anger, sadness or joy.
Roy put the plan into action and continued to work on it for many months. In some cases he was actually able to help others in their journey of healing and recovery. Some he was able to help get into recovery while with others he just shared his experience. In one case, Roy was able to help an old friend that had been contemplating suicide and was abusing severely. This inspired Roy, and soon after this he began discussing his desire to go back to school and get a degree in psychology in order to help others.
Black, C. (1981). It Will Never Happen to Me . Denver: MAC Printing.
Gordon, E. (2002). To End All Wars: A True Story About the Will to Survive and the Courage to Forgive . Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Miller, K. (1991). A Hunger for Healing . New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.