And When We Were Wrong

Reflections in Recovery

Dr. Bob, Anne, Lois, Bill
I was listening to a Big Book Study tape recently when an exchange between the speaker and a woman in the audience caught my attention. The woman explained that she and her ex-husband were both in the program but attended separate meetings. Unfortunately, what they were saying there was not staying there. 

Breaking tradition, some people were going back and forth between meetings and divulging what the two of them had shared. The gossip had spread outside the rooms as well. They would tell the ex what she said and then tell her what he’d said in response. As a result, she had developed a resentment. She didn’t know how to handle the situation and asked for help.

Seizing on her admission that she had coped a resentment, the speaker suggested she might want to do a 10th Step inventory. She didn’t seem to have any problem with that. However, she still wanted to know what she should do. Should she stop going to those meetings and go to different ones? The speaker told her that, if she took inventory, she would find out the harm that she had caused and then she would have to make amends. “But I didn’t do anything wrong,” she replied. “Yes, you did,” he countered.

And that’s when things got complicated. The speaker argued that, by holding on to her anger and letting it turn into a resentment, she had done wrong. She was resentful against people for not acting the way she wanted them to act. She was playing God. She was “lying” to her friends by not telling them that they had hurt her and that she had a resentment against them. She had to admit her resentment to them and make amends for it.

Now, what are we to make of this? Was the woman right to say she hadn’t done anything wrong? Was the speaker right to say that she had and that she owed amends? Does having a resentment by and of itself call for making amends? Can one be wrong but not do wrong?

Listening to the tape, it’s not clear exactly what the woman meant when she said she hadn’t done anything wrong. But there are two possibilities. One is that she didn’t see anything wrong with her having gotten a resentment. If this is the case, she was mistaken. Under the circumstances she describes, he anger was natural and justified. Her resentment was not. It was an unhealthy emotion she indulged by holding on to her anger. The other possibility is that she meant she hadn’t hurt anyone. She hadn’t acted on her resentment and tried to retaliate. If this indeed the case, then she was right. She was wrong, but she didn’t do wrong.

Step 10 says that we “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” Not seen in their proper context, the words “wrong” and “admitted” can appear ambiguous. Wrong about what? Admitted to whom? For the speaker in the above exchange, “wrong” seems to have meant a “shortcoming” or a defect, namely resentment. To him, this defect automatically translated into wrongdoing. The resentment was harmful not only to the subject or holder of the resentment, but to its objects. “Admitted” seems to have meant not only to herself, but to them. Hence the suggestion she had to make amends.

But such an understanding conflates wrong with wrongdoing, an emotional state or condition (resentment) with an action (hurting). It also fails to appreciate that “admitted” can refer to either or both, and that the admission can be to oneself, to God, to another human being, and/or to the person we have wronged, if indeed we have.

Obviously, Step 10 is a continuation of the work we have done in Steps 4 through 9. Having worked through those Steps the first time around “as we cleaned up the past” (Big Book, p. 84), we continue to repeat the process now with regards to our present lives as we continue to recover. The Big Book makes this amply clear. Its simple explanation leaves no room for ambiguity.

“Continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear,” the book tells us (ibid.). We continue to take inventory of our defects of character (e.g., selfishness and dishonesty) and of emotion (e.g. resentment and fear), as we did in Step 4. “When these crop up, we ask God at once to remove them.” That’s a continuation of what we did in Step 7, which presumes we become entirely ready to have him take them away, as we did in Step 6. “We discuss them with someone immediately and make amends quickly if we have harmed anyone.” That’s a continuation of Step 5, where we first admitted both our wrongs (defects) and wrongdoings (hurtful actions), and of Step 9, which presumes we become willing to make amends, as we did in Step 8.

Notice: “and make amends quickly if we have harmed anyone” (my italics). We can be wrong without having wronged anyone. Having a resentment will generally cause us to harm others, but there’s no iron rule which says that will necessarily be the case. It is entirely possible that the aggrieved woman had a resentment against those who were gossiping about her and her ex but did not act on that resentment and “didn’t do anything wrong” in the sense that she did nothing to hurt them. In that case, she didn’t have to admit any wrongdoing to them and owed them no amends. To say that she was “lying” by not revealing her resentment to them is a stretch, to say the least.

Notice too: Even if we have harmed no one, we still take personal inventory “when these crop up (my italics).” Why? Because even if they don’t hurt anyone else, defects always hurt us. And that hurt will eventually lead us to hurt somebody else. That is the case with resentment, which if left unresolved will eventually cause the anger to flare up again and cause us to hurt people, sometimes people who had nothing to do with the situation that originally aroused our anger.

If the woman was right and she did not hurt anyone and making amends therefore was not the answer to her problem, then what was it? The 12&12 tells us:  “In all these situations we need self-restraint, honest analysis of what is involved, a willingness to admit when the fault is ours, and an equal willingness to forgive when the fault is elsewhere” (p. 91).

Apparently, the woman exercised self-restraint in not retaliating against those she resented. Still, an honest analysis of her situation would lead her to conclude that she was at fault for holding the resentment. The solution would then be clear. She needed to admit her resentment to herself, to God, and to another human being (perhaps her sponsor), and then she needed to let go of the resentment and forgive those who wronged her. If she found that she lacked the willingness to do so, then she would have to work Steps 6 and 7.

Whether she should drop the old meetings and start attending new ones would become clearer as she went through this process. Forgiving will help her to change. It will not necessarily change the situation or the other parties involved. She may forgive but decide not to expose herself to the same set of circumstances again. Free of resentment, however, she will be better placed to make a sober assessment. 

For a long time, I had a resentment against my father and my mother for having abandoned me when I was an infant. The resentment against my father grew when, having gone to live with him as a teenager, he locked me out of his house and left me homeless. Such resentment caused a lot of harm to myself and to many other people. Once I got sober, I let go of the resentment and made amends to those people. But I didn’t have to make amends to my parents. I never did anything wrong to them. I never hurt them. What I had to do was to forgive them. And I did.

For relevant posts, see Emotional Sobriety: Anger, The Discipline of Self-examination, The Discipline of Confession, The Virtue of Forgiveness.  

[Posted 08/30/16. Image: Dr. Bob, Anne, Lois, and Bill W.]

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