The Twelve Steps for Non-Addicts: Working Steps 8 and 9

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By Kristin Snowden MA, LMFT

Step 8:
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.

Step 9:
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Merriam-Webster defines making amends as “doing something to correct a mistake that one has made or a bad situation that one has caused.” Basically, we do something to show we are sorry for hurting or upsetting someone, especially if what we do makes the situation better for them. So making amends is an action, not a sentiment.

Amends are birthed from empathy and compassion. Amends are a product of deep contemplation and authenticity. Amends are without excuses, justifications, or minimization. Amends are not an apology followed by ingenuine promises to correct regretful behavior, nor are they a request for forgiveness. Making amends is a restorative act. It is also an opportunity to demonstrate that we have fully explored our actions and choices, examined how they have impacted others, and made the vulnerable and courageous decision to do what we can to repair the damage that has been done.

Too often, we make the critical mistake of attempting to make amends too soon (i.e., before the internal work of steps 1 through 7 is completed). As stated in my post on that topic, addicts who try to “skip steps” and apologize without deep contemplation generally end up worse off because their attempts to seek forgiveness and express regret to those they’ve harmed falls flat. Their attempts at amends are not received as proof of a changed soul. This is because a knee-jerk “I’m sorry, please forgive me” rarely embodies the complexities of a true, fully informed amends.

For non-addicts, steps 8 and 9 can be more subtle and elusive than they are for a typical addict seeking recovery. Essentially, non-addicts might wonder what they have done that requires amends. After all, they weren’t the ones sneaking around, lying about their behaviors, and betraying others’ trust. They weren’t the ones engaging in obviously unscrupulous behaviors.

To counter thoughts like that, I offer my own story, with hopes that it will guide you through the purpose of steps 8 and 9 for the non-addict.

I initially became fascinated by 12 step recovery after my relationship went agonizingly wrong. I found myself floundering as my relationship ended, and I was desperate to find a healthier way forward. I spent a lot of time talking to a friend who was in recovery about my relationship problems, and he’d always help me by applying the 12 step principles to my non-addict struggles.

One day, I was in an especially deep vortex of pain, talking about all the ways I’d been wronged and hurt by my estranged partner – the lies, the betrayals, the emotional abuse. I went on and on to my confidant. Finally, he stopped me and asked, “Have you considered your part in all this, Kristin?”

That sentence felt like a gut punch. I gasped with righteous indignation in response to the preposterous suggestion that I might have a role in my seemingly endless relationship woes. So I said, “My part? I didn’t ask for this! I didn’t want to be lied to or betrayed. I don’t deserve any of what happened to me.” Then I once again reminded him of all the ways my partner harmed me.

My friend nodded his head in agreement and said, “Kristin, you’re right. You were victimized by his lies and betrayal, and you have every right to be upset about that. But your goal is to heal from this trauma and move forward in a healthier way, right? So maybe you should consider the ways you fell short in the relationship. And maybe you should look at how you’ve behaved during and after your relationship’s unraveling.”

I sat with the pain of his words for weeks until finally they began to soften my heart and change my soul.

This exchange and exploration changed my entire outlook on what I was struggling with and healing from. For so long, I’d been paralyzed by my victimhood—more invested in being hurt and angry than in healing and moving on. I was trapped in the powerlessness of my victimhood until my friend gave me the invitation to look beyond how I was harmed and to explore the ways I, too, had perpetrated harm on others (including my then partner).

Exploring ways that I needed to make amends and improve upon my relationship dynamics helped me move from a paralyzed state of pain and suffering to a place of empowerment. From Victim to Victor. From Anger to Empathy. From Shame to Self-Compassion.

In our journey toward change, our egos are at first too fragile to make appropriate amends. Basically, we are not ready to own how we’ve harmed others. Our souls are drowning in hurt, rejection, and shame from everything going belly up. Our defenses are high, our nervous systems are a wreck, and we’re unable to think or act in ways congruent to our values and goals. However, the more we to humble ourselves, clean up our side of the street, and realize that we’re all struggling in various ways, the more likely we are to acknowledge our own part in what our lives have become.

So for non-addicts, the purpose of steps 8 and 9 is less about repairing the damage we’ve done and more about softening our hearts and expanding our capacity for empathy and compassion. For me, the process of working steps 8 and 9 allowed me to see that all of the transgressions that occurred within my relationship—either big and traumatic or part of everyday imperfections and unhealthy dynamics—were simply a part of what happens when two very flawed people try to engage in a long-term relationship. And that knowledge was a key element of my moving forward in healthier, more life-affirming ways.