Steps 8 and 9

This is a chapter from the pioneering book: The Alternative Twelve Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. It was originally written by two women, Martha Cleveland and Arlys G., and published in 1991. As valuable today as it was then, a second edition of this exceptional work was published by AA Agnostica.

List all people we have harmed, including ourselves, and be willing to make amends to them all. Be willing to forgive those who have harmed us.

Principles: Compassion, Personal honesty and Accountability

Whenever possible, we will carry out unconditional amends to those we have hurt, including ourselves, except when to do so would cause harm.

Principles: Compassion, Change, Honesty and Responsibility, Forgiveness, Self-discipline

Steps 8 and 9 go together, like 4 and 5 or 6 and 7. With each of these pairs, first we look inward, then we act outward. First we engage with ourselves, then we engage with the people around us.

• With 4 and 5 we discover our shortcomings, then share them with another person.

• With 6 and 7 we decide to accept our strengths and release our shortcomings, then work at doing this.

• With 8 and 9 we list those we have harmed, then make amends.

One of the reasons the entire program works so well is that it asks us to think and act. Neither one is enough alone – we need to do both.

When we start truly examining our harmful behavior, our load of guilt threatens to crush us. Guilt is relentless. It’s the “gift that keeps on giving” – and giving and giving. In a subtle way it makes us feel better to feel guilty. Subconsciously we tell ourselves it’s a bad thing to hurt someone else, so we should hurt, too. Our own suffering pays for our sins.

Instead of playing this guilt game, we need to take full responsibility for what we have done, make our amends and let the whole thing go.

With Step 8 we need to acknowledge that we’ve hurt others and are honestly willing to do something about it. We don’t have to like making amends, we don’t have to feel good about making them, we don’t have to feel ready to do it. We just have to do it.

Being Sorry Isn’t The Point

Being sorry and making apologies are not amends. Are we sorry we hurt someone? Or just sorry that they’re mad at us? Are we sorry that we did something we shouldn’t have? Or just sorry we got caught? How many times have we apologized for something, really felt as though we meant it – and then did the hurtful thing all over again and then again? How many times have we used apologies to manipulate others into giving us another chance?

Amends are different. To make an amend means to change our attitudes and behaviors and to keep them changed. Making an amend may mean apologizing, or it may mean making an internal commitment, but it always means changed attitudes and actions.

Amends are unconditional. We make them with no strings attached. We admit to another that we did a hurtful thing to him or her, we commit ourselves to not doing it again and we don’t do it again. If we do do it again, our amend is worthless and we have to start over.

Amends are one-sided. They are valid no matter how the other person responds. He or she may accept our amend, criticize it or reject it. None of this makes any difference. We have examined our own selves, found our shortcomings and are making changes respectful of ourselves and others. This is the true meaning of making an amend.

Making amends means respecting others and it means respecting ourselves, too. If we put self-respect aside, our amends won’t work. We mustn’t grovel before the person we have harmed. We make the amend appropriate to the hurt, limit it to the hurtful situation and then get on with life. An amend is not meant to repair a relationship, only to acknowledge our mistake, clear our past and correct our future behavior. That’s all. That’s enough.


There are always traps people can fall into while working Steps 8 and 9. Here are some suggestions that help us avoid them.

1. We don’t have any expectations about what the other persons response will be.

a. Don’t expect forgiveness.

b. Don’t expect gratitude.

c. Don’t expect acceptance.

d. Don’t expect understanding.

e. Don’t expect reconciliation.

f. Don’t expect the other person to respond with an amend of their own.

2. We don’t make the amend a tool of manipulation.

a. Don’t renege on the amend if we don’t like the outcome.

b. Don’t make an amend to get someone off our back.

c. Don’t make an amend to buy time.

d. Don’t make an amend to get someone’s praise or attention.

3. We don’t look for a quick “feel better” fix. We don’t think our amend is the most important thing in the other person’s life. It’s easy to think we’re more important to others than we are.

How To Do The Homework

Here are some guidelines that help us make amends. In using them it’s important to be precise and thorough. We mustn’t be vague. We mustn’t slide over the hard parts. It helps to write them down. Honesty is crucial.

1. Person’s name. Who did we hurt?

2. Memories of harm. What exactly do we remember about the situation?

3. Feelings about harm. How did we feel at the time? How do we feel about it now?

4. Thoughts about harm. What did we think at the time? What do we think about it now?

5. Motives behind harmful action. Why did we hurt the person we hurt?

6. What damage did we do? What were the consequences for the other person, for ourselves, and for the relationship?

7. Why do we want to make an amend? What are our motives for making it?

8. What specific new behavior are we going to commit ourselves to?

9. Exactly what are we going to do? Where are we going to do it? When is this going to happen?

10. Exactly what are we going to say? When are we going to say it?

11. What outcome do we want for ourselves?

Who Hurts Who And How

The harm for which we need to make amends falls into three categories: we hurt ourselves, we hurt others and others hurt us. We need to make amends in all these situations.

We Hurt Ourselves

The first amends we make must be to ourselves. Before we can make meaningful amends to others, we must acknowledge the hurt we have inflicted on ourselves during all the years we have been in pain. We cannot respect or love others before we respect or love ourselves. We cannot make true amends to others before we make true amends to ourselves.

The way we act with other people is a blueprint for the damage we do to ourselves. Treating others with disrespect shows disrespect for the person we want to be. Being dishonest with others can only mean we are dishonest with ourselves. Not letting others know our true feelings robs us of personal integrity. Denying we hurt others sickens our spirit. Denying that others hurt us is a form of self-abuse. And on and on. Steps 8 and 9 help us break this cycle of self-inflicted pain. When we make our first amend, we make it to ourselves. Under the first guideline, “person’s name,” we write our own. We commit our future to self-respect. We put our future in the hands of our strong self.

We Hurt Others

We have a list of people we have hurt – probably a very long list. Perhaps a list that seems overwhelming. But we don’t panic, we just begin to sort it out. We’re objective and refuse to let overpowering guilt get in the way.

We say, “I have hurt: . . . husband, wife, children, brothers, sisters, mother, father, other relatives, friends, acquaintances, institutions, myself (not to mention dogs, cats and other animals).” We take these one at a time and take months, even years, to deal with them. We make some amends and take time out to breathe. Then we make more amends. We’re in no hurry. Theres no deadline.

When we think about it, there are innumerable ways to hurt others. Harm can be physical or emotional. It can bruise the body, mind or spirit. It can be caused by things we do or things we neglect to do. Here are some ways we hurt other people, not in order of importance or degree of damage.

Over-protection                      Lying, dishonesty

Neglect                                  Demanding

Rejection                               Lazy, not doing share

Putting others at risk              Sabotaging

Setting bad examples             Negative comparisons

Unaffectionate, cold              Denying other’s reality

Careless driving                       Indifference

Unfaithfulness                         Intolerance

Stealing                                   Disrespect

Laughing at, disregarding         Demanding

Criticizing                                Verbal abuse

Pretending to listen                  Threatening

Pretending to care                    Yelling

Callousness                               Evasion

Refusal to listen                       Controlling

Judging                                     Gossiping

Over-involvement                     Grouchiness

Power plays                               Tardiness

Withholding                               Teasing

Hitting, slapping

We tend to focus on the big hurts and forget that little injury after little injury grows into big damage. Amends are tricky because harm can come from positive as well as negative behavior. When we wrap someone in concern and care “for his own good,” we may have the very best of intentions – but the person is smothered. If we are constantly cheerful and keeping others happy, we don’t allow them to express their fear, depression or anger. We have to remember that we are people who have been hurt and we’ll probably pass that hurt on in one form or another.

Sometimes if we are confused about whether we have hurt someone, it is appropriate to ask him or her about it. We don’t have to agree that what we did was harmful, we just have to accept the other’s reality.

If a person feels hurt, harm did occur. People can usually tell us the extent and nature of what we have done and what they have suffered from it. We’re lucky if they will do this. It cuts through everyone’s denial and builds trust.

People Hurt Us

Most of the time it’s fairly easy to recognize when someone injures us. They do something and in response we feel hurt, angry or afraid. But then there are the times when we feel hurt, angry or afraid and can’t figure out what it was the other person did. Some people seem to smell our vulnerability and harm us in small, subtle ways that we can’t explain. Some people know us so well they can easily zero in on our softest of soft spots. We ask ourselves who makes us uneasy, who makes us angry, who confuses us, who do we resent or want to avoid? Usually these feelings are clues that we are being harmed, and we need to listen to them. It’s often hard to hear our feelings speak because we don’t want to hear what they tell us. We want the other person to care for us, not hurt us. But in many cases, it isn’t going to work out this way.

When we are hurt by others, we don’t make amends to them, we make amends to ourselves. This means we change the attitudes and behaviors we direct toward ourselves, and the best amend we can make is self-respect. We need to alter or sever relationships with abusive people. We need to stand up for ourselves and understand that our best protection is to learn to be assertive. Our first commitment must be to treat ourselves with respect, the same way we strive to treat others.

To Err Is Human… To Forgive Is Hard

Step 8 tells us we must be willing to forgive others for the pain they have caused us. As long as we don’t forgive, we hold onto our injury until justice is done. It’s a consuming job to make sure people pay for the hurt we feel. It’s poor use of our emotional energy and it constricts our spirit. It also keeps us negatively attached to the person who hurt us.

When we forgive, we’re not freeing the other, we’re freeing ourselves.

It’s hard to render continuous justice, but its hard to forgive, too. We have to be entirely ready in order to forgive, and a lot of fear stands in our way.

In the first place, we’re afraid to forgive because we’re afraid we’ll “lose.” We’re afraid we’ll become defenseless or some kind of doormat.

This isn’t true. It isn’t true because we couple forgiving with self-respect. We forgive the other and respectfully promise ourselves that we won’t allow that kind of hurt to happen again. We mean it. And eventually, after lots of practice, it doesn’t.

Second, we’re afraid that if we forgive, we’re condoning the hurtful thing someone did. This isn’t true either. Forgiveness isn’t approving of, it isn’t saying, “That’s okay.” It’s letting go.

Forgiveness is neutral detachment. Forgiveness is letting go, without anger or anxiety and with much self-respect, the feelings that went with the hurtful incident.

“Forgive and forget” doesn’t often work. We may never forget what happened, but we can learn to forgive, to let go of, to detach from the pain that went with it.

Forgiveness, neutral detachment, is not for the other. Forgiveness is for us. And forgiveness is not a way to stay attached. When we forgive, we may or may not repair the relationship with the person who hurt us. Our relationship with that person is not the issue – our emotional relationship with the hurtful situation is. Forgiveness sets us free from that relationship and consequently from our hurt.

It seems that practicing forgiveness is closely tied to Step 6. For example, let’s take resentment.

Resentment is a base-line shortcoming, it’s common and it’s deadly to emotional health. Most of us suffer from carrying much too much of it. We resent our husband or wife for past hurts, we resent our mother for not caring for us in the way we wanted her to, we resent our friend for seeming distracted when we need help. When we practice forgiving these people, when we become neutrally detached from the hurts they have inflicted on us, we get closer and closer to being free from resentment. Then we can use that energy for something that expands our spirit rather than shrinks it.

Forgiving is a long-term process. We have accumulated lots of hurts over the years and now we forgive them.

The first person we forgive is ourselves. We forgive ourselves for allowing others to hurt us. We detach from the self-judgment that tells us we were bad, dumb or weak to be in a harmful situation. We forgive ourselves for denying our true reality and rejecting our true selves. We also forgive ourselves for hurting others. After we have started to forgive ourselves, we remember and forgive others who have hurt us. We let go of the guilt, shame and anxiety our memories bring back. Forgiving is a way to energize our spirit. We are strong enough to do it.

“We Will Not Regret The Past, Or Wish To Shut The Door On It.” [1]

Steps 8 and 9 help us cut, strand by strand, the painful emotions that bind us to our past. They give us a chance to remake our present by changing our response to the things we have done to others and others have done to us. Our past loses its power. We gain an increasing sense of personal power and emotional freedom. We don’t have to use our precious energy to bury or rationalize things we have done. We learn how to protect ourselves and have a better sense of how we shape our own lives. We let past mistakes teach us how to live in the present. We release our hidden hostility, resentment, jealousy and anger so we are not apt to pass them on.

Making amends teaches us humility, and we are surprised that it feels more comfortable to be humble than grandiose.

When we make amends and practice forgiving, our relationships with the people involved will change. Whether we express our amends with words or simply carry them out with actions, people will react to our new ways. Some people may not really care about us or our amends. Others may actually trust us again. Some may not even notice, and we needn’t point it out. Some will say, ’’Its about time” or be hostile and berate us. Still others will resent our amends and want us to go back to our old ways.

Whatever happens, the other persons reaction is no excuse to change our amend. No matter what the response of others, we are responsible for what we do. We choose to amend our past and be willing to forgive.

List all people we have harmed, including ourselves, and be willing to make amends to them all. Be willing to forgive those who have harmed us.

Whenever possible, we will carry out unconditional amends to those we have hurt, including ourselves, except when to do so would cause harm.

Today I will practice an amend. I will also practice forgiving someone who has hurt me.

[1] AA Big Book, page 83.

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4 Responses

  1. bob k says:

    I think that we heathens often tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I view the 12 steps, and the AA Big Book as a mixture of the weird and the wonderful. Beneath the religious language, there is a wealth of wisdom. Even if I’m not a fan of Moses and the OT, I can concede that “Thou shalt not kill” is a good idea, nonetheless.

    Steps 8 + 9 especially, need no secularizing. Some ninth step work with relatives remains among the BEST things that I have ever done. I think I won a great self-esteem hike on these.

    Of course, I could pretend that my problem was only drinking, but it wasn’t.

  2. ColoradoWildflower says:

    Excellent reading! Thank You… Just one question maybe someone can enlighten me on? What if a person writing their amends letter puts at the end of all the letters: “I will do whatever it takes to fix this problem”. Any input would be greatly appreciated.

    • Chris G says:

      It sounds like you are talking about restitution, rather than amends. There are some problems that simply can’t be fixed, not with money or some current action. If damage done is really irreversible, beating at it to “fix this problem” can be pretty counter-productive. As it says in this chapter, “An amend is not meant to repair a relationship, only to acknowledge our mistake, clear our past and correct our future behavior. That’s all. That’s enough.”

      All this is very situational, though, and every situation should be thought through on its own merits.

      Personally, I’d be very wary of using that phrase in a blanket way.

      • ColoradoWildflower says:

        Thank you very much. I am not trying to argue the last sentence with this person, I just thought it seems out of “place” and rather wide open, plus very much confusion for the other person receiving the letter.

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