by Dale and Juanita Ryan
It had been embarrassing enough when in confidence we had admitted these things to God, to ourselves, and to another human being. But the prospect of actually visiting or even writing the people concerned now overwhelmed us, especially when we remembered in what poor favor we stood with most of them. There were cases, too, where we had damaged others who were still happily unaware of being hurt. Why, we cried, shouldn’t bygones be bygones? Why do we have to think of these people at all? These were some of the ways in which fear conspired with pride to hinder our making a list of all the people we had harmed.
–Anonymous, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
In Steps Eight and Nine we learn that the way out of the pain of separation is through that pain, not around it. Instead of justifying ourselves, we own our hurtful behavior specifically. Instead of burying what we find, we go to the person we have offended, confess the behavior, and make amends. For those of us who have always hated to be wrong and have been terribly afraid of rejection, this is a very frightening prospect. When I had been in the program long enough to be at Step Eight I had heard many people talk about the serenity and restored relationships that came from doing Steps Eight and Nine, and I was at least ready to do Step Eight. I was desperately afraid of Step Nine, but my sponsor reminded me that I only had to do one step at a time; I could wait until I was ready–even if it took years. So I began Step Eight.
–J. Keith Miller, A Hunger for Healing
The first seven Steps helped us to establish the beginnings of a more peaceful relationship with God (Steps One through Three) and with ourselves (Steps Four through Seven). In Step Eight we begin the process of establishing a more peaceful relationship with others.
Many of the strategies we have used to manage our relationships have been unhelpful. When we have had problems in our relationships, we have pretended that the problems didn’t exist. Or we have avoided the people with whom we had conflicts. Or we have blamed others for all of the problems. Strategies like these have not led us to peaceful relationships. The Twelve Steps suggest that making amends is the most important thing that we can do to bring peace to our relationships. If we want to make peace, we need to set aside our tendencies to pretend, deny, avoid, blame, argue, forget, or evade. We need to replace these unhelpful strategies wherever possible with making amends. In Step Eight we begin the amends process by making a list of the people we have harmed and by becoming willing to make amends to them:
Made a list of all persons we had harmed,
and became willing to make amends to them all.
Making a list of people we have harmed can cause us to feel uncomfortable. We may experience feelings of fear, shame, and guilt when we start thinking about making amends. But there is no need to feel that doomsday is approaching. Making amends will, in some cases, lead us to restored relationships! The number of people who will greet our efforts to make amends with open arms may surprise us. Restored relationships will not always be the outcome. In all situations, however, there will be significant rewards for becoming willing to make amends. Making amends can make it possible for us to let go of some of the emotional burdens we have been carrying. We will gain the confidence that comes from knowing that we have taken full responsibility for our own behavior.
Step Eight: A Closer Look
Made a List
The first part of Step Eight is based on the work we did in Step Four. In Step Four we made a moral inventory of our lives. In Step Eight we revisit this inventory in order to make a list of the people we have harmed. As we start to make the list, our tendency may be to rationalize, minimize, or avoid some of our actions. We may think, Let bygones be bygones, or That was a long time ago, or Don’t make such a big deal out of it. We may think that people have forgotten about what happened. Regardless of our resistance or rationalizations, we need to make the list anyway.
It is important to include ourselves on the list of people we have harmed. The harm we have done to ourselves because of our behavior has an impact on how we feel about ourselves today. As we get a clearer picture of the harm we have done to ourselves and become willing to make amends to ourselves, we will grow in compassion for ourselves and in our capacity to respect and value ourselves.
Of All Persons We Had Harmed
It is normal in Step Eight to think about the people who have harmed us and what they did to hurt us. The spiritual growth that Step Eight makes possible, however, will come only if we focus on the behaviors for which we are responsible. For our own spiritual benefit we must focus our attention on how we have harmed others–not on how they have harmed us. The only sins we need to focus on and make amends for are our own. We can’t change what others have done to us, but we can become willing to make amends for what we have done to others.
A list of people we have harmed is not the same thing as a list of people who don’t like us, or a list of people we would like to please. The goal of the first part of Step Eight is to make a list of the people we have harmed. The focus on harm in this Step is important. It is intended to protect us from making a list of “people we would like to see changed.” Our focus needs to be on our actions that caused harm to others, not on how to get other people to like us or to feel good about us.
Became Willing to Make Amends
The second part of Step Eight is similar to Step Six, in that it involves a time of preparation. In Step Eight we don’t actually make amends; we focus on the willingness to do so. What does it mean to be willing to make amends? We know that some people will respond to our amends with gratitude and support. In these cases, willingness to make amends may be relatively easy. In other situations, however, willingness can be quite difficult. For example, we need to be willing to make amends to people who have harmed us. When the harm done to us seems much larger than the harm done by us, willingness can be much more difficult.
Becoming willing to make amends will be easier if we work toward forgiveness for any harm done to us. Offering forgiveness to people who have harmed us is a good thing. The Bible puts a high value on forgiveness: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). But forgiveness is often a long and challenging journey. We do not need to be at the end of that journey before we become willing to make amends. We need to remember that the task of Step Eight is not to forgive others for the harm they have done to us; it is to become willing to make amends to others for the harm we have done to them. This is something we can do even if our forgiveness is still in process.
In addition to working on forgiveness, we can increase our willingness to make amends by preparing ourselves for the kinds of responses we may receive from others. Some people will welcome our amends. Other people, however, may reject us when we try to make amends. In such cases, willingness to make amends will be much easier if we prepare ourselves by gathering a supportive community of people around us who can encourage us when we experience rejection. Supportive friends and companions can encourage us to do whatever is necessary to make amends.
We need to make amends even if our forgiveness has not yet proceeded to completion and even if we expect to receive responses that will be difficult for us. It is not reasonable for us to expect that all of our amends will be easy. Sometimes we need the willingness to make amends to people who have profoundly mistreated us and who are not likely to respond in healthy ways to our amends. The Bible is, however, clear about such situations:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27, 28)
In difficult cases, becoming willing to make amends may require us to “do good to those who hate” or to “bless those who curse.” We need, in such circumstances, to remind ourselves that we are not making amends to change someone else. We are not doing this for someone else. We are doing this for ourselves. We are making amends because we want to move on in life, to become saner people, and to find more serenity in life.