Saying “Sorry”

Saying Sorry

I have the pleasure of working with a number of people in recovery, most with multiple years clean and sober, men and women who have already gone through the Steps more than once. They (like me) are interested in staying sober for the long haul, are interested in learning to apply the 12 Steps to the challenges of daily life.

When we get together and talk about what’s going on in their lives, I frequently hear the following:

“I don’t think I’m going to apologize to _________.  Seriously. Why should I say I’m sorry? I’m not.

This statement is usually followed with an explanation along these lines:

  • Sure, Mr. Sponsor Man. I know our book talks about “being in the best possible relationship with everyone…” But I think the best possible relationship with this particular person is no relationship at all.
  • I just want to move on with my life! I think it’s best to let them go and find some new, better, healthier friends. I read in a self-help book it’s important to let bad relationships go.
  • Yeah… I know our literature says we get more out of making amends with someone we dislike than a friend… but that’s only when it’s our fault, right? (Not when its THEIR fault. Not in THIS case.)
  • Besides, I DON’T EVEN LIKE ‘EM! I don’t want to be friends. Hell, I don’t want to ever SEE that ^$$hole again!

Strangely, we usually have this conversation about someone our sponsor knows, someone in the rooms of recovery, someone who is recovering from a deadly disease as we are… rather than a work acquaintance or family member.

Go figure.

We all know making amends is important. There’s a whole freakin’ STEP dedicated to making amends (and another step worked in preparation). It’s no surprise that we balk at continuing to make amends after we’ve gotten some time under our belt… Our literature PROMISES we’ll try to manufacture reasons to delay saying we’re sorry, it predicts a time will come when we’ll go out of our way to find “reasons” to skip correcting uncomfortable behaviors:

After this preliminary trial at making amends, we may enjoy such a sense of relief that we conclude our task is nished. We will want to rest on our laurels. The temptation to skip the more humiliating and dreaded meetings that still remain may be great. We will often manufacture plausible excuses for dodging these issues entirely. Or we may just procrastinate, telling ourselves the time is not yet, when in reality we have already passed up many a fine chance to right a serious wrong. Let’s not talk prudence while practicing evasion. (12&12; 85)

This tendency is common and very, very dangerous.

Today’s post is an explanation of the six components of making amends when a relationship has been disturbed, the why, what and how of …

Saying Sorry (Even When We Don’t Like ‘Em)

1. Correcting our mistakes has nothing to do with figuring out who is (more) at fault.

“But they were in the wrong! They shouldn’t have gossiped about me, shouldn’t have embarrassed me in public, shouldn’t have tried to make me feel guilty, shouldn’t have__________!”

Yeah. Well

This is the classic response given by every alcoholic and addict (including myself) to the idea of making amends to people we don’t care for. If you’ve worked the steps with me, you’ve learned about the three obstacles to making amends described in the  12 & 12.

(1) lack of forgiveness

(2) fear conspiring with pride

(3) purposeful forgetting 

Check what’s first on the list: my rebellious insistence that the other person’s wrongdoing cancels-out the need for me to make any direct amends.  Concerning this obstacle,  Bill W explains that:

The moment we ponder a twisted or broken relationship with another person, our emotions go on the defensive. To escape looking at the wrongs we have done another, we resentfully focus on the wrong he has done us. This is especially true if he has, in fact, behaved badly at all. Triumphantly we seize upon his misbehavior as the perfect excuse for minimizing or forgetting our own.

Sound familiar?

This is what we do.

Over and over again. We justify OUR bad behavior on the basis of (our perception) of THEIR bad behavior.

After laying out the problem, Bill W provides insight into why they may have acted the way they did and  then offers the solution: forgiveness.

Let’s remember that alcoholics are not the only ones bedeviled by sick emotions. Moreover, it is usually a fact that our behavior when drinking has aggravated the defects of others. We’ve repeatedly strained the patience of our best friends to a snapping point, and have brought out the very worst in those who didn’t think much of us to begin with.

In many instances we are really dealing with fellow sufferers, people whose woes we have increased.

If we are now about to ask forgiveness for ourselves, why shouldn’t we start out by forgiving them, one and all?  (12&12; 78)

I can hear the complaints already.

“How am I supposed to forgive ’em? I don’t even LIKE ’em!”

Hold that thought. We’ll get there in a minute. First, let’s talk about the ongoing amends we’re supposed to be making while taking the tenth step.

2. Correcting each new mistake requires me to address my motivations and rationalizations.

I had a sponsor who started each of our weekly conversations the same way: “Chris, who did you make amends to since we last talked?”

The first couple of times he asked that question, I remember staring at him with a blank, dumb expression, saying nothing, just blinking.

Over time, I learned his question was based on two unarguably true ideas:

(1)  If I am a normal, fallible human being (which I am) I’m making a lot of mistakes. I’m hurting people’s feelings – sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidentally – but regardless of forethought or the lack thereof … I’m doing stupid things.  I occasionally injure others, just like everyone else on the planet. I’m not special. I haven’t been sainted.I’m just me.

(2)  If I haven’t apologized and tried to set right any of the stupid mistakes I made during the past week, I can only offer one of two rational explanations: either I’ve recently attained perfection or I’m not working step 10. 

There is no third option.

The initial problem I had with my sponsor’s question is the same blindspot many of us have: I found it difficult  to SEE & RECOGNIZE the places I’d been at fault.

I wasn’t drinking or using anymore – so I wasn’t stealing, lying, sleeping with other guy’s boyfriends, getting arrested; I wasn’t doing ANY of things I made amends for the first time around. Those behaviors were GONE from my life. And worse, though I  knew how to make amends for the BIG things, I had no frame of reference for spotting and identifying SMALLER, less DRAMATIC harms.

Even so, I kept having the same kinds of problems show up in my life, the same imploding relationships, the same arguments, the same hurt feelings. Why? My over-sized ego was busy working hand-in-paw with fear, keeping me in denial, hiding the truth in the dark, shadowed corners of my mind.

(Fear conspiring with pride: obstacle number two from Bill’s list – remember?)

It took a lot of patient effort on my sponsor’s part before I saw the reality: in every single one of my difficulties, I was the common-demonminator. All the people in my life weren’t acting “that way” because I kept picking the wrong kinds of friends; they were acting “that way” in response to MY BEHAVIOR.

In order to get to the root of the “me” problem,  my sponsor had me take a hard look at my motivations and rationalizations.

[I]n other instances only the closest scrutiny will reveal what our true motives were. There are cases where our ancient enemy, rationalization, has stepped in and has justified conduct which was really wrong. The temptation here is to imagine that we had good motives and reasons when we really didn’t.

We “constructively criticized” someone who needed it, when our real motive was to win a useless argument. Or, the person concerned not being present, we thought we were helping others to understand him, when in actuality our true motive was to feel superior by pulling him down. We sometimes hurt those we love because they need to be “taught a lesson,” when we really want to punish. We were depressed and complained we felt bad, when in fact we were mainly asking for sympathy and attention. This odd trait of mind and emotion, this perverse wish to hide a bad motive underneath a good one, permeates human affairs from top to bottom. This subtle and elusive kind of self-righteousness can underlie the smallest act or thought. (12&12; 95)

For me today, I believe self-righteousness is ALWAYS the bottom-line character defect driving my unhealthy and harmful behaviors, attitudes, and acts. I have become convinced that self-righteousness – that emotional  posture which says it’s not my fault – is the creeping assassin  of character development, good living, and continued, happy sobriety.

I had to quit saying “it’s not my fault.” I had to quit insisting “I didn’t do anything wrong.” I’m human. I always do at least something wrong. That doesn’t mean it’s ALL MY FAULT. It simply means this: I’ve got a part in making this mess and I’ve got to find it.

3. Correcting our mistakes has nothing to do with their reaction

In AA and NA meetings all over the world, members get an enormous kick out of dismissing people’s reactions to the amends we make. They say things like: “I took care of my part; I cleaned up my side of the street – what that bastard says, how they think, what they do afterwards? That’s on them. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.”

When taken to it’s logical conclusion,  such an attitude is breathtakingly narcissistic and douche-baggy. And even when applied with more tact and compassion, it’s still  sorta-kinda-not really true.

For the readiness to take the full consequences of our past acts, and to take responsibility for the well-being of others at the same time, is the very spirit of Step Nine. (12&12; 87)

Taking responsibility for the well-being of others means this: how I go about apologizing for the messes I made of a relationship actually DOES freakin’ matter.

Please note: We DO  put “them” and “what they did” out of our mind, we DO focus on our own wretched conduct, and we DON’T craft our amends to elicit a specific response. In other words, while we may not care ABOUT the person to whom we are making amends…  We must care ABOUT how the apology and correction affects them and their well-being (we just don’t try to manipulate the circumstances). 

Unless it’s your first time through the steps, you already know this.

Caring how our apology and correction affects them and their well-being doesn’t mean we’re using the amends as a way of reclaiming a broken relationship. It’s very, very clear in our Literature: we aren’t making amends to get what we want. We aren’t on a mission to “get back” our ex-girlfriend,  the job we were fired from, a friendship lost due to bad behavior, TO GET BACK ANYTHING…

But what about when I DON’T care? What about when I don’t LIKE the person to whom I’m making amends?

We don’t skip making amends because our motives swing the other way; we don’t skip making amends because we don’t want to be friends anymore, because we don’t want our ex-girlfired back, don’t want our old job, don’t want a friendship to be restored, don’t want anything from them at all, thank you very much.

Once again, their response – positive or negative –  is irrelevant. We are simply taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions and their future well-being (to the extent it is within our power).

See, the reason we don’t give a shit, the reason we balk at making amends, the biggest factor negatively effecting our relationships is almost always this: we haven’t ACTUALLY forgiven them.

We tried to forget about it. We tried to move one. We tried to avoid them or go to different meetings or for GOD’S SAKE, LET IT GO!

Their behavior may be inexcusable, but if we’re going to stay sober, it MUST BE FORGIVABLE… even if we never talk to them again. We have to learn that:

 4. Correcting our mistakes doesn’t mean liking them.

It is amazing to me how frequently alcoholics and addicts believe if they forgive someone they have to like them.


Forgiveness is unrelated to feeling nice, warm, happy thoughts about a person. Nor does forgiveness means you will then invite the forgiven person to your birthday party, nor does it mean you will call them once a week to find out how they are doing, nor does it mean you will WANT to have the old relationship back AT ALL, on ANY LEVEL, EVER.

Emmet Fox wrote:

People have always made such a bogey of forgiveness because they have been under the erroneous impression that to forgive a person means that you have to compel yourself to like him. Happily this is by no means the case–we are not called upon to like anyone whom we do not find ourselves liking spontaneously, and, indeed it is quite impossible to like people to order.the art of forgiveness

You can no more like to order than you can hold the winds in your fist, and if you endeavor to coerce yourself into doing so, you will finish by disliking or hating the offender more than ever… We are not obliged to like anyone; but we are under a binding obligation to love everyone… This has nothing directly to do with the feelings, though it is always followed, sooner or later, by a wonderful feeling of peace and happiness.

Forgiveness means loosing the chains of obligation that hold me bound in a past event so that I might be FREE.

Click here for more on the Importance and Method of Forgiveness,

Understand this point, please! I don’t have to be friends with those who have harmed me. But I ABSOLUTELY must try to love them. I must practice universal amnesty. If I wish to grow spiritually, I must be in the process of moving towards loving others with reckless abandon.

And that means…

5. Correcting our mistakes means learning to love without exception.

While we don’t have to like anyone, we must strive to love everyone.

This kind of love – the adoption of a mental and spiritual posture that allows me to accept others as they are and not as I would have them – is difficult. It takes most human beings  a very long time and requires immense amounts of open-mindedness and willingness. However,  the rewards of moving towards a life motivated by real love for our fellows is enormous (as are the dangers of refusing to do so).

I can hear the question already: “What do you mean, ‘refusing to strive towards real love for our fellows’ is dangerous?”

When we decide that it’s okay to cut person after person from our lives –

because they “did something we can’t forgive;” when we take that one step further and avoid making amends “because we don’t like them anymore and probably never liked them to begin with”

– we are setting ourselves up for loneliness, isolation, poor relations with fellow members of AA and NA, our families, our work relations, and ultimately… isolation from God Himself.

This kind of isolation is terrible to bear.

We must avoid it at all costs, even if the cost is apologizing to someone we dislike or even hate.

6. Correcting our mistakes begins with acceptance.

Just like in the Resentment section of the fourth step inventory, we begin by remembering that the people we are angry with are sick and suffering people. This is actually kind of fun. I remember being pretty excited to read that the people I didn’t like are sick as hell and I was going to treat them like people suffering  from a spiritual flu.

I did not respond nearly as well when it was  “Amends Time” and my sponsor pointed out a few things I hadn’t noticed before:

Finally, we begin to see that all people, including ourselves, are to some extent emotionally ill as well as frequently wrong, and then we approach true tolerance and see what real love for our fellows actually means. It will become more and more evident as we go forward that it is pointless to become angry, or to get hurt by people who, like us, are suffering from the pains of growing up.

 Bill W writes in many places about how we need to accept the shortcomings of others because they are “sick and suffering.”

In this section of the 12&12, Bill W adds this uncomfortable notion: it’s not them. My sponsor read it to me this way:

We, too, are emotionally ill.

We, too, are frequently wrong.

“Wait a minute,” I said to my long-suffering and ridiculously patient sponsor. “I’m just as sick as they are? I’m just as wrong as  they are? Shit muffin.”

“Yup,” my sponsor said. “Let that sit a minute and then tell me how you feel about forgiving others.”

With all this in mind, it is helpful to challenge ourselves with the following questions when faced with making amends to someone we don’t like:

  • Is it possible I am the one in the wrong? Completely? All me?
  • Is it possible my assumptions about this bothersome scenario are false? Is it possible I am the one with faulty perceptions (not them)?
  • Is it possible my reaction (which seemed entirely normal at the time) is the result of MY emotional illness (not theirs)?
  • Is it possible my character defects aggravated the person in question? Is it possible they NEVER WOULD HAVE ACTED THIS WAY WITH ANYONE ELSE?
  • I’m the common denominator in my failing relationships; is it possible it was my “struggle to grow up” that led to these difficulties?

This type of mindset, Bill writes, is the foundation of a genuine love for our fellows:

Such a radical change in our outlook will take time, maybe a lot of time. Not many people can truthfully assert that they love everybody. Most of us must admit that we have loved but a few; that we have been quite indifferent to the many so long as none of them gave us trouble; and as for the remainder—well, we have really disliked or hated them. Although these attitudes are common enough, we A.A.’s find we need something much better in order to keep our balance. We can’t stand it if we hate deeply. The idea that we can be possessively loving of a few, can ignore the many, and can continue to fear or hate anybody, has to be abandoned, if only a little at a time. We can try to stop making unreasonable demands upon those we love. We can show kindness where we had shown none. With those we dislike we can begin to practice justice and courtesy, perhaps going out of our way to understand and help them.

Whenever we fail any of these people, we can promptly admit it—to ourselves always, and to them also, when the admission would be helpful. Courtesy, kindness, justice, and love are the keynotes by which we may come into harmony with practically anybody. When in doubt we can always pause, saying, “Not my will, but Thine, be done.” And we can often ask ourselves, “Am I doing to others as I would have them do to me—today?”


This is some pretty difficult stuff.

Making amends isn’t complicated, nor is it hard to understand; we haven’t been discussing  deep, theoretical AA, we haven’t been investigating theological or philosophical abstractions.

It’s just… Yucky.

These are the times when we must make really good use of our sponsors. It’s easy to get sidetracked, it’s a simple thing to find yourself mired in a pit of pissyness and bad attitudes.

Fight your way through! Keep going! Remind yourself what this step has meant to so many AA and NA members before you: the end of isolation from yourself, others, and God.

Grace and Peace,


Further Study:

e20308ba535d3763e3e237017baff9dacare to talk?


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