The Twelve Steps for Non-Addicts: Sometimes It’s Too Early to Say “I’m Sorry”

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By Kristin Snowden MA, LMFT

In theory, apologizing for harming another person is a sign of maturity and accountability. After all, we are supposed to take ownership of our transgressions. We are supposed to take appropriate steps to repair the damage we’ve caused. However, it’s important that our attempts to apologize and atone are genuine and are given with full acknowledgment of all the facts and nuances of our transgression.

In my therapy practice, I often see clients or couples who’ve recently uncovered an extramarital affair. After getting caught, the cheating partner will typically apologize profusely to the betrayed partner, making all sorts of promises and commitments (that are not often kept). The cheating partner might also, interwoven with this apology, minimize or rationalize the harmful behavior and its impact. This type of apology – made from guilt, duty, obligation, and a desire to cool down a crisis, tends to be more counterproductive than helpful.

To be effective, an apology must contain a genuine understanding of what happened, why it occurred, and how it impacted the other person. Until the person who is apologizing is in this frame of mind, any apology that he or she gives will, at best, feel hollow. This is why it’s so important for recovering addicts, cheaters, and the like to avoid making apologies or amends too soon.

Only time and serious contemplation can help these individuals fully comprehend the error of their ways, and to develop the insight they need to avoid making the same mistakes moving forward. That’s why the 12 Steps wait until addicts are on Step 8 and 9 before they even consider the idea of making amends. Stated very simply: There is a tremendous amount of internal work that must be completed before the addict can begin the process of repairing external relationships by making amends. With apologies and amends, patience really is a virtue.

Steps 1 through 7 of the 12 Steps encourage us to focus on the internal work that leads to healthy change. Step 1Step 2, and Step 3 challenge us to identify what isn’t working in our lives, and to acknowledge that we need help to fix our issues. Step 4 asks us to take a “fearless” look at every facet of our lives, especially parts that may have contributed to our struggles and strife. Then the healing begins with Step 5, when we share our story with another person and our Higher Power so that we might find healing through empathy, compassion, and nonjudgmental acceptance. This provides relief from the shame of our trauma, hurt, and mistakes. Steps 6 and 7 push us forward into internal growth by helping us to get out of our own way, to focus on what’s important, and to continue down the path of healing and wellness.

Only after the deep, soul-altering, mind-bending work of Steps 1 through 7 are we better equipped to own how our choices and experiences have affected others—without minimizing or rationalizing—and work toward repairing unhealthy relationship dynamics.

In my next post to this site, I will discuss the ways in which non-addicts can actually work Steps 8 and 9.