When I did Step 8 early in sobriety, I did it the way it says in the Big Book, to use a phrase we hear in the rooms in relation to another Step. I didn’t have to do much. I didn’t even have to make a list, because I already had it from Step 4, as the book says. All I had to do was to become willing, and if I lacked the willingness, to ask till it came (Big Book, p. 76). Having both the list and the willingness, I proceeded to Step 9.
Many years later, when a very painful emotional bottom forced me to take a second look at the program and to probe deeply into our two basic texts, the 12&12 helped me realize that my Step 8 had fallen short of the goal. As a result, my Step 9 hadn’t been as good as it might have been. That was alright then, because I was new in the program (as was my sponsor), and that’s the best I could do.
But I’m not new anymore, and I need to do better. As I go on with my recovery, I have to continue taking inventory, and if I don’t get Step 8 right, I’ll continue to fall short.
Step 8 is part of an inventory process with regard to the past that stretches from Step 4 through 9 and is repeated with regard to the present in Step 10, where, when we go wrong again, we once again examine the defects involved and we confess, surrender, become willing to, and make restitution for them, as the particular situation may demand.
Step 8 is not Step 4 plus willingness. To be more precise, it is not Step 4 to which the principle of willingness with regard to making amends has been added. In Step 4 we concentrate on our defects of character and emotion with a view to confessing and surrendering them in Steps 5 through 7. In Step 8 we concentrate on the harm resulting from those defects with a view to making amends for it.
The logic is clear. If we are going to make meaningful and substantive amends, amends that really address and attempt to repair the harm we’ve done, we need to examine the scope and the depth of that harm. “Every A.A. has found that he can make little headway in this new adventure of living until he first backtracks and really makes an accurate and unsparing survey of the human wreckage he has left in his wake,” says the 12&12 (p. 77). “To a degree he has already done this when taking moral inventory,” it adds, “but now the time has come when he ought to redouble his efforts to see how many people he has hurt, and in what ways” (our italics). The book goes on to give us a long but far from exhaustive list of the kinds of harms we inflict on people.
This “redoubling” of our efforts is especially important in situations where the harm is very serious. It's part of the process of becoming willing with full awareness of what we've done. Otherwise, our amends run the risk of becoming a shallow formality. At best, we might admit to having done a specific wrong (“I did X”) and to the defect involved (“I was Y”) and apologize accordingly. Or we may just admit and apologize for the wrongdoing without saying anything about the character defect. Or we may just issue some lame apology and say how sorry we are, specifying neither the wrong nor the defect (“I did a lot of bad things when I drank”). That may allay our conscience, but it won’t mend very much.
There’s more to making amends than admitting to wrongdoing. We want to do as much as possible to repair the harm. The ultimate goal is healing, for those we’ve hurt as well as for ourselves. Showing the person we’ve injured that we are aware of the extent of the damage we’ve done and that we sincerely regret it is essential to such healing. It’s an acknowledgement that we’ve taken something important from the person. For harming always involves depriving the person of something. This may be something material, like money or property, but it may also be something intangible, something spiritual or emotional, like someone’s self-esteem, self-respect, dignity, a sense of safety and security, faith, and trust. The acknowledgment is a form of restitution. It helps the person retrieve and recover from the loss. We’ll have no idea of what that may be unless we look deeply into it.
Healing involves most centrally forgiving, a process that starts with Step 8 and is consummated in Step 9 if brought to full fruition. If I am to become willing to make amends in Step 8, I need to forgive those in my list who have done harm to me. Recognizing how I have actually hurt them will help me with such forgiveness. I also need to forgive myself for the harm I have done to them. Otherwise, my guilt may undermine my willingness. It may also distort what I do, for making amends is a function of assuming responsibility, not of being driven by guilt. But if I am to forgive myself for that harm, I need to know what it is. Otherwise my self-forgiveness will be superficial. It may not last. I may continue to be wracked by guilt, remorse, and regret.
In Step 8 I am also preparing to ask for forgiveness, directly or indirectly, as the case may be. Or at the very least, I’m hoping for forgiveness. But what is it that I’m asking or hoping to be forgiven for? I won’t know if I haven’t probed into it. Of course, I have no control over whether I will or will not receive forgiveness from the other person. But surely my recognition of the exact nature of the harm will influence how I go about seeking it.
My first Step 8 fell short of the goal because I had no clue about any of these things. A person with whom I had been in a long-term relationship was at the top of my list. I had been unfaithful to her. I admitted that to her, and I sincerely apologized. That was not a bad start, and perhaps the best that could be expected from someone with a little more than a year in the program.
It wasn’t until I started studying Step 8 in the 12&12 and began to focus on the nature of the harm I had done to her that I began to appreciate the full extent of it. My unfaithfulness had impacted her so deeply that it had driven her to do things she probably would not have done otherwise. It had certainly undermined her confidence and her self-esteem, as she had blamed herself to one extent or another for what I had one. It had been a factor in her becoming insecure and suspicious of men, probably affecting her subsequent relationships. It had aroused a lasting resentment. There were many other things I had done to her in addition to cheating, and all had affected her in their own particular ways, as I gradually came to understand.
Fast forward 34 years to the summer of 2018. Coming out of my apartment in my bike-riding gear, I run into my neighbor who is coming out of hers. I say hello and run down the stairs as usual. As I’m taking my bike out of my car, my neighbor passes by. Did you take the elevator? I ask with a slightly mischievous grin. Yes, she answers sheepishly. “Shame on you,” I retort, still grinning. I was of course kidding. But I immediately realized that was no joke. A spot-check inventory was doing its job, thanks to the emphasis Step 8 in the 12&12 had placed on understanding the kinds of harm we can inflict on people. I understood that even the appearance of shaming could be deeply hurtful. Who knows the effect such a seemingly harmless comment could have on her. Who knows if she had been shamed as a kid by her parents or a teacher, or by her husband or boss as an adult?
The next morning I knocked on her door and apologized, explaining that my comment had been thoughtless, that I had meant no harm, and that she had nothing to be ashamed of. She graciously accepted my amends. Fortunately, in her case, she had apparently not felt shamed but encouraged. She was going to start taking the stairs more often.
The Big Book shows us the founders’ early understanding of and experience with Step 8. As the experience accumulated and the understanding grew, the need to translate that into a more substantial exposition of how to work the Step became obvious. Hence the account provided in the 12&12. The same happened with Steps 6 and 7, which like Step 8, are treated very briefly in our first text.
Attending a Big Book Study meeting once, I heard someone call the 12&12 “a book from hell.” As far as I’m concerned, it’s not from hell at all. It’s from heaven. I’m deeply grateful for it.