The 12 Steps and Mindful Parenting: Steps 8 and 9

Acknowledging harm you’ve caused takes courage; making amends requires skill.

Posted Dec 23, 2019

"Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it." —Mark Twain

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of recognizing and celebrating the beauty in broken things. Broken ceramics (bowls, cups, vases) are put back together with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. Rather than trying to hide it, practitioners visibly incorporate the repair into the object’s restoration, honoring and revering the damage rather than using it as an excuse to discard and replace the object. The process frequently results in something more extraordinary and precious than the original.

The process of 12-step recovery has much in common with Kintsugi in both intent and effect. Twelve-step recovery helps people who dedicate themselves to the process become strong in the places where they have been damaged. The 12 steps create a framework for practicing new ways of relating to thoughts and emotions; generate healthier behaviors; support the application of spiritual principles, such as acceptance, tolerance, open-mindedness, perseverance, humility, and gratitude; and prompt additional opportunities for conscious contact with that which is beyond oneself—of belonging to a greater whole, of connection to others, as well as to the world. All these benefits have spillover benefits for the quality of one’s parenting.

Step Eight

We made a list of all the persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

Active addiction and its effects regularly cause harm to significant others, certainly including one’s kids. Step eight is about acknowledging responsibility for the suffering inflicted. Step five expands upon the fourth step’s examination of the ways in which our parenting has been insensitive, unattuned, and unskillful by bringing our conscious awareness to the specific harm it caused our kids. In this way, steps four and five inform the later work of step eight.

One of the most damaging effects of denial is the way it obscures our capacity to appreciate the suffering we cause others. Step eight requires trading in this form of denial for the conscious awareness of the damage done in active addiction—to others and to oneself. It requires answers to these questions: Whom have I hurt? In what ways did I hurt them? What caused or motivated me to hurt them?

Whether or not you intended to cause harm is irrelevant. We often hurt people incidentally through unconscious disregard for the consequences of our behavior, especially when driven by the self-centeredness and need for immediate gratification during active addiction. Importantly, as much harm as you may have caused others, as the person at the center of the storm of your active addiction, there are numerous ways in which you have also harmed yourself.

Acknowledging the harm you’ve caused and doing what you can to repair it can be a daunting task, uncomfortable for almost anyone, with or without addiction. Just thinking about listing those you’ve harmed and how you’ve hurt them can reanimate intense feelings of guilt and shame, as well as fuel new anxieties and fears about how the amends process might go. This is where mindfulness practices come in. Present-centered awareness of your thoughts and conscious contact with your emotions, without being swamped by them or running from them, facilitates the work of step eight.

Step Nine

We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

The ninth step provides the opportunity to make restitution to those you have harmed while repairing your relationships with others. In making amends, people frequently find the capacity to forgive themselves as well as accept forgiveness from others when offered. But, if you are working step nine with the expectation that you will receive forgiveness from those you have harmed or that they will automatically welcome your intent to set things right, you’re setting yourself up for great potential disappointment.

Step nine is about what you give to others and, by extension, to yourself. What you give to those you have harmed includes:

  • Your awareness that you’ve harmed them
  • Your awareness of the specific ways you harmed them
  •  Taking responsibility for your actions by committing the time, attention, and energy required to make amends to them
  • Repairing the damage you’ve done to the best of your ability through the amends you make to them

While an apology is often part of the process of making amends, they are not the same thing—amends go beyond apologies. A basic apology consists of admitting an error or wrong and expressing regret for it. In order for apologies to be effective, they need to focus on the other person’s needs and feelings, not your own. In contrast to trying to make yourself feel better or avoiding the consequences of your behavior, a true apology is a tool for taking responsibility for your actions and their impacts and repairing ruptures in your relationships.

Genuine apologies need to include: (1) a clear statement expressing your remorse and regret for what happened as well as (2) an empathic acknowledgment of the impact your actions had on the other person. The message of empathy is critical in order for the other person to feel as though you truly understand how your actions affected him or her: for example, “I can only imagine how hurtful (or upsetting, confusing, disappointing) my actions must have been for you.” A request for forgiveness is optional. Keep in mind that no matter how heartfelt the apology, it has little meaning if the behavior that necessitated it continues.

Apologies are important, but they’re not enough. Making amends involves doing everything possible to right a wrong and repair the damage caused. This includes making changes in your attitude and behavior and doing things differently.

Anxiety and fear about the outcome of the amends process are normal and natural. After all, unless you’ve learned how to predict the future, there’s no way to know how the process will go with any given person. Using the mindfulness practice of anchoring your awareness and attention in the present moment, and returning it to the here and now when it drifts, will help you here. As always, you can only change the things you do. How others react to what you do is beyond your control.

Opening up old wounds is never to be approached lightly, as it can easily result in further pain and injury. In order to be recovery-supportive, the amends process needs to be done with appropriate preparation and guidance, positive intent, and conscious awareness. In the ninth step, older wounds are reopened only to provide an opportunity for them to heal properly.

The truth is often healing, but it can also be used as a weapon. Honesty employed mindlessly and without compassion can be hurtful and even cruel. In recovery, especially when people are less experienced, telling the truth can be used as a way to help alleviate your own guilt, but step nine is not about purging your conscience, effectively vomiting emotionally on someone else so you can have a cathartic experience and feel better. Your healing should not come at the expense of another.

Amends can take direct and indirect forms and be a one-time event or an ongoing “living” process. Close and careful consultation with your sponsor/guide/mentor is critical in deciding how best to make amends to those on your list.

Direct amends involve addressing the harm you’ve caused with the people, groups, or institution(s) that were injured, usually in person. They begin with admitting to the other party the harm you caused, taking responsibility for it, and apologizing. Direct amends also include either explaining how you plan to repair the harm or make restitution for what you have done, or asking the other party how you can best make restitution or reparation. And, then, actually doing it.

Indirect amends are made in those circumstances where making direct amends is literally impossible or could result in further harm to the parties you have hurt or others, including yourself. In some cases, the people you harmed may have died or can’t be located. In other cases, bringing up the past with people you’ve hurt may only make the situation worse, creating more harm and adding insult to the original injury.

Continuing your process of recovery and your practice of spiritual principles is a form of indirect amends, as well as an example of ongoing or living amends. For example, my living amends to my children include being as helpful, consciously present, emotionally available, loving, kind, compassionate, supportive, and generous as I can possibly be.

My next post will feature steps 10-12.

Copyright 2019 Dan Mager, MSW