4 Ways to Make Amends in Recovery

Often, people with substance use disorders cause harm to others, either intentionally or inadvertently. Step 9 of AA’s 12-step program directs people in recovery to take accountability for actions that may have harmed others and to make amends when possible. In Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), making amends is considered a crucial component of long-term recovery.

Understanding AA Step 9

Step 9 instructs AA members to make “direct amends to… people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” If you are working the 12 Steps in order, you will have already made a list of people you have harmed in Step 8.

Some people will be easier than others to approach due to the relationship you have with them, how close you live to them, or other factors. In some situations, attempting to make amends may cause more harm than good. Such situations may allow for partial restitution only. And in some cases, you may not be able to make direct amends at all. However, you can still take action in all of these situations to satisfy the spirit and the intent of Step 9 and progress in your step work.

Preparing for Making Amends in AA

Each person’s experience of addiction and recovery is unique. Just like each person needs an individualized approach to alcohol addiction treatment, your approach to making amends in AA may look completely different from someone else’s.

When choosing to make amends, exercise careful consideration of yourself and others to ensure you avoid causing further harm in your recovery efforts. Before you decide who to approach and how you intend to make amends, reflect on your efforts at recovery and the intent behind making amends.

Step 4 calls on you to make a “fearless moral inventory” and Step 5 asks that you admit your wrongs’ “exact nature.” 1 Making amends in AA is not an exercise in feeling better about yourself by avoiding, downplaying, or ignoring personal responsibility. The AA literature is very clear that “we cannot buy our peace of mind at the expense of others.”1 Rather, the 12 Steps offer peace through truly determining your own responsibility and coming to terms with what you do and do not have power over in recovery and your life.

If you have devoted the necessary time and energy to the first 8 steps, you should have a solid foundation from which to approach making amends in Step 9. Your relationship with a higher power—no matter how you define it—can help you to remain open and willing, even as you acknowledge hard truths about pain you have caused to others.

Be prepared for difficult reactions from others. While many people are receptive and supportive to attempts to make amends, some are not. And some people in your life may not be receptive on your timeline. Communicating about the way you harmed others can evoke strong emotions. Try to react empathetically rather than defensively.

1. Making Direct Amends

Making direct amends means actively confronting your behavior with the person who you harmed. Many people begin making amends as soon as they join AA. In some cases, simply opening up a conversation with a friend or family member about your history of alcohol use can begin the process of making amends.

However, even if you feel extremely motivated to make direct amends, it is advisable to take your time with this step. Make sure that you are comfortable with your progress during recovery and that both you and the other person are ready to engage in the process.

How you start these conversations depends on your relationship with the person you harmed and the circumstances in which you plan to make direct amends. When making direct amends, it is usually best to do so after a sustained period of sobriety and while in a calm state of mind.

Avoid initiating a conversation if the other person is distracted or upset by something unrelated. If possible, schedule a time to speak with them in advance to prepare for the conversation.

Some examples of direct amends include:

  • If you stole money from someone or borrowed in excess, arrange to pay back or work off the debt.
  • If you said unkind things to someone, meet with them and apologize for what you said without making excuses.
  • If you damaged someone’s property while under the influence of alcohol, meet with the person face-to-face and offer to repair the damage or reimburse them for repairs already completed.

If the harm you caused someone included monetary damage and you do not have the financial means to make direct amends in a monetary way, this does not mean that you should not make amends to that person. Your AA sponsor, therapist, or another trusted person can help you determine how best to address making amends. At this time, that may include simply having a conversation where you acknowledge any financial burden caused by your actions and the fact that you cannot currently lift that burden even though you wish to do so.

Some forms of direct amends may be more complicated. For example, if you neglected or mistreated your children while you were using alcohol, a simple apology may not repair the damage. Instead, you may need to engage in a dialogue with them over time. This may involve attending family therapy or individual therapy. You will need to demonstrate that you are committed to rebuilding trust and repairing your relationship with them.

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In some cases, the other party may not be open to a reconciliation, and you will need to respect their boundaries.

2. Making Indirect Amends

Sometimes, making direct amends with someone may lead to further harm. For example, if you are estranged from a loved one and they will not see you, your indirect amends may involve reflecting on and modifying the behaviors that led to the estrangement.

Your AA making amends process may include indirect amends.Indirect amends may include:

  • Writing a letter that you choose not to send
  • Taking steps toward better regulating emotions that have come between you and people you love, such as taking an anger management course
  • Volunteering for a cause that is important to your loved one or that is important in the context of harm that was done
  • Making direct amends with others who have been harmed in a secondary way, such as reaching out to your ex-in-laws to make direct amends when you cannot make direct amends to an ex-spouse
  • Making a meaningful donation of money that you might have spent making monetary amends to a specific person

Other individuals who have completed Step 9, such as your sponsor, may be able to help you choose a meaningful way to make indirect amends.

Indirect amends are a valid way to complete Step 9. You may also have the opportunity in the future to make more direct amends with certain people in time. However, this future possibility should not keep you from working your steps.

3. Making Symbolic Amends

Sometimes, you may not have the opportunity to make direct amends to the person you harmed. Perhaps the person is no longer living, or you no longer have contact with them and reestablishing contact would cause more harm.

In these situations, you can make symbolic amends. Making amends does not necessarily depend on your ability to connect with a person or how they respond to you.

Symbolic amends may include:

  • Writing a letter of apology to someone who is no longer living
  • Donating to a charity that is meaningful to the person you harmed
  • Serving people in your community who have been affected by drunk driving or other alcohol-related offenses
  • Taking time to meditate, pray, and connect with someone who has passed away as if they are still with you

4. Making Living Amends

Living amends refers to the ways in which you change how you live your life in recovery or “walking our talk.” These changes affirm your commitment to the direct or symbolic amends you made with others. Living amends represent the long-term actions you will take to remain committed to recovery.

Living amends look different for everyone, depending on the specific negative behavior patterns you have identified while working the 12 Steps. Determining the most impactful living amends will require a great deal of honesty. A qualified behavioral therapist can help you identify the areas of your life that need attention.

Some examples of living amends could be:In AA, making amends can include changing how you live.

  • If you repeatedly missed appointments or broke plans with loved ones, don’t simply apologize. Change your behavior. Refrain from making promises or commitments you don’t intend to or are unable to keep. If you miss an appointment or event due to circumstances out of your control, provide a specific apology that includes why it happened without excuses.
  • If you tended to lash out in anger, commit to handling anger differently. Learn to recognize when you are becoming angry, and leave the room if necessary until you calm down. A therapist can help you learn new coping skills for managing anger or other high-intensity emotions.
  • If you shut out your friends when using alcohol, commit to rebuilding those relationships and being open to honest conversations.

If You’re Struggling to Make Amends

Your efforts to make amends may not always go as well as you hope. Try not to respond with anger or defensiveness if others aren’t responsive to your efforts. They have been hurt by your actions, and they may not be willing to forgive and forget. They may have been hurt in ways that you were not able to identify when preparing to make amends.

Practice accepting other’s responses to your efforts and remember that you have done all you can. Sometimes other people need more time to accept an apology. When appropriate, remind others that you are here if they change their mind or wish to talk.

Recovery support groups and individual therapy can help you if you are struggling to make amends or accept the responses of others. A sponsor or therapist can help you talk through your choices, determine the best course of action for making amends, and consider how your actions may affect others as you seek to make amends.

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available. Call 800-839-1686Who Answers? today to speak with a treatment specialist. We can help you find addiction treatment services that meet your needs.

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