“Guilt is like any other energy: you can’t accumulate it or keep it because it makes you sick and disrupts the system you live in – you have to let it go. Face the truth, make amends and let it go.” ~ Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World
There are few emotions as damaging as guilt. It robs us of our piece of mind and our sense of worth and, as the above quote suggests, if left unaddressed it can contaminate every aspect of life – especially our relationships. For everyone, releasing guilt and the accompanying self-abuse is essential to emotional health; however, when part of a sobriety journey, this process, known as “making amends,” encompasses much more than that.
Depending upon who we’ve hurt and how we hurt them, the urge to rush into making amends can be a powerful one. We want to know that things are resolved, that our lives are no longer in freefall and we are standing on solid ground – at least with a particular person. At the same time, the mere thought of it can trigger our deepest fears of loss, and the worst thoughts we have about ourselves – in other words, the belief systems that led us to addiction in the first place.
It is no accident, therefore, that making amends is the ninth step in twelve-step programs; for many, it is the scariest step, as well as the most misunderstood. Going through the eight previous steps – however long that takes you – provides the time to understand what amends really is and approach it from the appropriate space. First and foremost, an amends is not synonymous with an apology. Like any words bandied about in our day-to-day lives, “I’m sorry,” are often rendered meaningless. In fact, over the course of your addiction you may have said them countless times and for the wrong reasons (i.e. to ease your own discomfort or even as a way of silencing/shutting down another.) While the mere act of making an amends shows that you wish you had not engaged in the behavior and caused them pain, what you say is not nearly as important as what you do. Amends requires reparation – or action aligned with your commitment to healing the wound and doing things differently moving forward.
As such, when making amends your words should focus not on blame but accountability, by stating what you have done in a way that takes full ownership, without excuses. You should also be prepared to talk about how you are evolving, changing your lifestyle and, most importantly, will not engage in this type of behavior ever again. Then comes the action, i.e. replacing what you have taken from the person or, if direct amends is not possible, “paying it forward” by donating to a cause or assisting another in need.
Finally, to determine whether you are ready to make amends, ask yourself whether you can do so with the sole expectation of saying what you need to say. It is normal to run through possible outcomes in your head beforehand, for example, Will the person accept my amends and offer forgiveness, or will they slam the door in my face? Assuming they do listen, will they immediately embrace me and resume our relationship, or will they say they need time to decide whether they want me in their life? How the person reacts definitely falls under the category of things we cannot control. They are operating from their own set of beliefs and expectations – as well as any unresolved hurts from the past. They may not believe you will do things differently moving forward and be unwilling to risk further pain. Whatever the case, you must go into it with deep humility and a willingness to honor their feelings and decisions, Most importantly, you must allow yourself to “feel the feels” afterward – be it joy or pain or aanything else on the emotional spectrum, knowing that anything that comes up for you is necessary for your continued healing.