Step 9 of 12 Steps: It’s More Than Saying ‘I’m Sorry’

Although we’ve come a long way in our understanding of addiction, some of the most effective treatments and means of recovery have been used by individuals who have been suffering from alcohol and drug dependency for many decades. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy techniques have proven highly effective in helping individuals correct irrational and harmful thought patterns and behaviors. However, one of the most effective tools in the recovery arsenal has been twelve-step recovery groups.

The first twelve-step group—Alcoholics Anonymous—began in 1935 when Bill Wilson, himself an alcoholic, developed his own recovery fellowship out of his efforts to help Dr. Bob Smith overcome alcoholism. Over time, the fellowship continued to grow and expand, accruing thousands of members as chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous were started in cities nationwide. In 1939, Wilson published Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism, which is called “The Big Book” among members of twelve-step programs today. The Big Book offered the earliest iteration of the renowned twelve steps, which were intended to be a sort of blueprint that members of the group could follow in sequential order, allowing them to progress from a state of alcoholism to a state of physical, psychological, and spiritual health and sobriety.

Steps One Through Eight

Each of the twelve steps is intended to be a landmark achievement in the journey toward recovery. Whether addicted to alcohol, drugs, or even harmful behavior, the steps progress in much the same way. Beginning with accepting and admitting powerlessness to the disease of addiction, individuals who are working the twelve steps move to the next steps, which involve recognizing that some power greater than the self can restore one’s sanity and submitting oneself to the higher power of one’s understanding. The spiritual tone of the twelve steps is also highly personable, allowing individuals to substitute “higher power” for the deity of their religious belief or perhaps just the chaotic, unpredictable cosmos. The fourth step involves taking a moral inventory of oneself, followed by the fifth step, which requires individuals to be accountable for their wrongdoings. The sixth step involves becoming ready to remove or rectify character defects, followed by step seven’s appeal to a higher power to remove those defects of character. In the eighth step, individuals make a list—often a physical, written list—of all those that were harmed over the course of their addiction, accepting the need to make amends for those and becoming willing to do so.

Step Nine: Making Amends

According to the Big Book, the ninth of the twelve steps is as follows: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” The “such people” referred to are those that were listed in the eighth step, comprising any individuals—whether family members, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, or otherwise—who were harmed over the course of one’s alcohol or drug addiction. The tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous state that the ninth step requires several important traits in the individual who is making amends, which include good judgment, a careful or deliberate sense of timing, courage, and prudence. Making amends relies on the individual having already made a list of persons who he or she has personally, or directly harmed, often involving careful reflection of each instance. Those to whom amends should be made can be broken down into groups, which consist of individuals to whom amends can and should be made as soon as possible, those to whom only partial amends can be made, those for whom amends should be deferred, and those to whom amends cannot be made due to the inability to make personal contact or some other prohibitive reason.

What’s more, the Alcoholics Anonymous literature assumes that the individual making amends will also explain his or her participation in twelve-step recovery, the progress made in working the twelve steps, and where the amends lies in the twelve-step recovery process. If the harm caused to others was severe enough, they may not wish to communicate with the addict who harmed them. However, disclosing one’s membership in a twelve-step program and the progress made in recovery tends to make individuals more receptive to those making amends for their wrongdoings. This sort of approach helps individuals to exude an air of honesty and humility, making the amends much more sincere and authentic.

It’s More Than an Apology

Although saying “I’m sorry” might be part of the process, making amends is not actually about an apology. In the eighth step, members of twelve-step programs make lists of all those individuals they directly harmed while in active addiction, spending time thinking about those individuals and the wrongs committed against them. When it comes time to make amends for those wrongdoings, the goal is to not just apologize but to restore order by actually righting the wrong. By nature, an apology only expresses guilt and regret, but does little in the way of restitution; in fact, a mere apology could even make matters worse. Instead, making amends is about fixing what has been broken, admitting one’s wrongs honestly, making restitution, repaying debts, or suffering the unpaid consequences of actions. There’s a degree of responsibility involved in the ninth step as the individual making amends has progressed to a point where he or she recognized the injustices caused to others and wants to restore balance.

When fulfilling the ninth step, it’s been said that the easiest amends to make are those that are financial in nature, such as money that was borrowed without being repaid or valuables that were outright stolen. The most difficult amends to make often involves repairing relationships, especially in cases where trust has been broken and individuals’ feelings have been severely hurt. Over the course of the ninth step, it’s important to remember that the ultimate goal is to promote healing while restoring balance and order.

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