Step Nine of the 12 Steps : We made direct amends to such persons [“all persons we had wronged,” Step Eight] whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
For many 12-Steppers, the subordinate clause in Step Nine of the 12 Steps (“except when …”) seems a welcome excuse for avoiding dreaded confrontations. It’s one thing to apologize and commit to doing better when you have an ongoing relationship with the other party and it’s obvious that they already know what you’ve done. It’s another thing to drag up an incident long buried, to seek out someone you haven’t spoken to in years, or to come clean about something the other party doesn’t know about and apparently isn’t affected by. Is it really necessary to go over the pain of that old incident again, when you can’t see any serious consequences in just pretending it never happened?
As mentioned in our Step 8 post last week, the answer is yes more often than not. Taking open responsibility for one’s actions is a good habit to get into. And if the incident involves someone whose path you regularly cross, it’s near impossible to reestablish an open relationship without coming clean, because (whether or not they suspect what you’ve done) that invisible wall of guilt will always stand as a barrier in your own heart.
Step Nine of the 12 Steps: Cases Where Others Are Better off Not Knowing
Nonetheless, there are cases where “they’re better off not knowing” is a valid argument. It’s unlikely that a coworker needs—or wants—to know that you secretly fantasized about his suffering a debilitating accident that would leave his job open for you to take over. It’s also unlikely that such a revelation would do your professional relationship any good; more likely, it would throw up a new wall between you. When the wrong you’ve done someone stayed inside your own head, the best way to make amends is to develop the habit of looking for the good in them and speaking well of them.
More problematic is the case where your “wrong thoughts” led to actions that didn’t affect the injured party directly, but would break her heart if she knew. The classic example is marital infidelity, which can range from a one-time drunken liaison to a long-term affair: do you confess to your spouse or keep your mouth shut? Some experts say that, marriage being the most intimate of relationships, letting the “invisible wall” stand will do the relationship irreparable damage over the long run; hence, an affair must always be confessed regardless of the consequences. Others disagree, pointing to marriages that collapsed under the blow of such a revelation.
The truth is that, as in most human interactions, the blanket statement “this is always the best action in any such situation” is bound to be wrong; each individual case should be evaluated by someone with inside knowledge of the situation and of the parties involved. Don’t try to do this evaluation on your own; get the advice of an objective mentor. If a competent advisor agrees that it’s best not to confess a secret betrayal of trust, you will likely need long-term counseling to help you get past the guilt so it doesn’t affect future relationships with the wronged party.
Protecting Others from the Consequences
If you’ve wronged someone who didn’t know you were the guilty party but did feel the consequences, and especially if the consequences are no secret to others—say, you planted a false rumor that did major damage to someone’s reputation—you’re facing the hardest “amends” situation: a public wrong merits a public apology, but it’s going to be excruciatingly painful to tell the truth and suffer loss of face not only with the injured party but with most of your mutual contacts. Get advance support, emotional and spiritual, from your mentors and fellow 12-Steppers; you need not only the backup strength, but accountability to keep from procrastinating indefinitely. Remember, the “would injure them or others” exemption does not apply to you when it involves fair consequences for wrong actions, though you have the right to protect yourself from physical danger.
During Step Nine of the 12 Steps, you also have a responsibility to protect others from undeserved consequences—reputational, emotional, or physical—of your coming clean about your wrongs. Did anything happen that would cause the injured party unmerited shame if it became publicly known? Might anyone have understandable reason to be afraid of having you approach in person? Is there any possible backlash that could affect parties not directly involved in the initial wrongdoing—for example, does the person you cheated with have a partner who works for your spouse, or does your mother tend to take out the blame for your mistakes on other family members?
Wherever an “amends” situation involves anything beyond a face-to-face apology and repayment of any material debts, you need advice from a mentor to pinpoint the best way to approach the specific situation. Again, make an action plan for going through with it, so you won’t be tempted to procrastinate and so your apology will carry more weight.
What About Someone You Haven’t Seen in Years?
Finally, there’s the less emotionally serious but still complicated situation during Step Nine of the 12 Steps of having wronged someone you haven’t seen in years—perhaps you have no idea where they are now, or even if they’re still alive. Must you go to the perhaps extensive trouble of seeking them out? What if you can’t find them at all?
If you still have mutual acquaintances, you should be able to locate the person fairly easily; treat the situation as you would with someone in your direct circle. If there are no mutual contacts and no results from a brief online search, and if the incident was fairly minor (again, see if your mentor agrees this is the case and you aren’t simply rationalizing), you may be able to let things go. If you caused someone serious harm, or incurred even a minor material debt, it’s your responsibility to do everything you can to locate the person and make amends. If you can’t, or if the injured party is now deceased (this applies also to deceased parties you did stay in touch with), you still need to make relevant amends: through a donation to the person’s favorite cause (this can be a good way to reimburse unpayable material debts); through a public apology if the situation was public; to the person’s next of kin; and/or by reading your apology over the person’s grave, perhaps leaving it there if permitted.
Regardless of what exactly you do to make amends or how complicated the situation gets, listen to your mentor’s advice and use discretion, and come openly clean whenever you possibly can. It’s a vital part of moving beyond the past and into new ongoing habits, which will be covered in the final three Steps.
About Kemah Palms Recovery
While Step Nine of the 12 Steps can be difficult to navigate alone, Kemah Palms Recovery can help. We’ve designed our 12 Step recovery program to help individuals embrace a new, addiction-free lifestyle. For more on our addiction treatment options in Houston, call Kemah Palms Recovery today at 866.604.1873.