Forgiveness and the 8th Step
Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” ~Lewis B. Smedes
At first glance, the 8th Step may seem easy. Per the guidance in the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, we made the list in Step 4. But how complete it is will depend on the thoroughness of our inventory.
We need to ask ourselves if we’ve harmed others who aren’t on the list. Conscience-searching is a powerful tool, for if thinking about certain people makes us feel guilty—even if we don’t connect them with fear, resentment, or sex—then we need to look deeper. Guilt lets us know we’ve screwed up, even if we’re in denial about it.
Until we’ve had enough experience with the liberating power of Steps 8 and 9, most of us avoid examining our feelings of guilt. We try to rationalize it away, telling ourselves there’s no point in making ourselves feel bad about things we can’t change. But instead of helping us to avoid guilt, such denial and rationalization actually perpetuates it and keeps us captive to it . . . and worse.
When we continue to feel bad about what we’ve done—to experience unresolved guilt—sooner or later we may also begin to feel ashamed of who we are. And we can’t just deny it or rationalize it away. The guilt and shame just go underground, hiding in our subconscious, gnawing at us and corroding our sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
However, there is a way to end both the pain and the corrosive influence of guilt and shame. We can’t simply deny them, but we can overcome them by owning up to our errors and making a whole-hearted effort to correct our mistakes and set things right. That’s what the 9th Step is about . . . but we cannot get there without completing the 8th Step first.
Making the list is the easy part—at least if we apply the honesty, courage, and integrity that we developed in the previous Steps. But becoming willing to make amends to everyone on that list may take some time, and in some cases will require considerable effort. In these difficult cases we usually feel justified for whatever we did because of what we think they did to us.
As long as we cling to such resentments over old injuries, we continue to injure ourselves. We stay locked in a vicious cycle of reliving old indignities and disappointments, holding ourselves hostage to them, and inflicting our pain on everyone around us-especially those we most love. Then we feel guilty, and ashamed and try to cover it up with denial, rationalization and blame.
If we don’t break this cycle and heal from the pain of our pasts, eventually the need for relief from guilt and shame will drive us to drink or use again. That is the most nakedly selfish reason that we must forgive others for wronging us. We do it for our sakes—and for the sake of those we love—not for the sake of the people who harmed us. And until we find it in our hearts to forgive them, we cannot honestly become willing to make amends to them.
Forgiving ourselves for our own wrongs is equally critical, for as long as our hearts are hard toward ourselves, it’s easy to withhold forgiveness for others. How often have we excused our hardness toward others by saying that we’re hardest on ourselves? When we begin to forgive our own failures and shortcomings, after earnestly repenting the harms we have caused, it gets much easier to open our hearts and become willing to forgive others.
None of us achieves the necessary willingness without first completing all the previous Steps. Without thorough self-examination we’ll keep rationalizing our own behavior and deceiving ourselves about our part in things and the harms we’ve caused. And without first surrendering our wills to a higher power who loves us unconditionally, few if any of us find the strength, faith, and courage required to be forgiven, to forgive, and then to make earnest amends to all whom we have harmed.
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Questions about the 8th Step:
Have I completed the 4th Step and made a list of persons I have harmed? If not, then what am I waiting for that keeps me from moving ahead in recovery?
Have I reviewed the list to make sure it includes all the persons I’ve harmed?
Have I discussed the list and the circumstances with my sponsor to make sure I understand the nature of the harms done?
Do I feel guilty about things I’ve done or ashamed of myself for doing them? Do I understand the difference between guilt and shame? Have I discussed these feelings with my sponsor and do I understand how the 8th and 9th Steps can relieve them?
Have I prayed for the willingness to make amends to everyone on the list and for willingness to forgive those who’ve harmed me?
Is there anyone on the list I’m not yet willing to make amends to? If so, then why not?
Do I understand how holding onto resentments hurts me and my loved ones . . . that by refusing to forgive and make amends I am giving those who wounded me the power to keep me trapped in a painful past?
If there are still persons I’m unwilling to make amends to, am I at least willing to ask God for the willingness to forgive?
Links to more information about Forgiveness and the 8th Step:
12Step.org on the 8th Step
“Step Eight” from benestrophe.net
The Big Book Bunch, “Forgiveness, the Missing Step” and “Taking Step Eight”
The NA Basic Text on Step Eight
“Step Eight” by therecoverygroup.org
Terence Gorski, Understanding the Twelve Steps: An Interpretation and Guide for Recovering People A practical, straightforward guide to understanding and practicing the 12 Steps, written by a gifted alcohol and drug abuse counselor with many years of experience in the field.
Darren Littlejohn, The 12-Step Buddhist: Enhance Recovery from Any Addiction
A guide to practicing the 12 Steps from a Buddhist perspective.
The Twelve Steps, A Spiritual Journey: A Working Guide for Healing Damaged Emotions
A guide and workbook to all 12 Steps, based on Biblical teachings and written especially for Christians seeking to understand the principles of the Steps in relation to their religious beliefs and practices.
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions The official Alcoholics Anonymous supplement to the “Big Book” explaining each of the Steps and the Traditions in greater detail.