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Making amends
January 20, 2019

When Are Direct Amends a Bad Idea?

“We made direct amends to [every person we had harmed] wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”  The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, Step 9

More than one “Anonymous” director has wished that Step 9 came without that “except when” loophole, as someone protests, “But I wouldn’t want to reopen an old wound” when in fact they just want to get out of facing up to the problem. How do we really know when direct amends will make things worse? What exactly are “direct amends” anyway: is it “direct” enough to pay back the money you stole anonymously, or are you obligated to accompany that reparation with a confession?

Each situation has to be judged on its own merits, but here are a few considerations for deciding on the best approach when “amends” involve confessing an unknown wrong or digging up an unpleasant past experience.

DID YOUR WRONGDOING HAVE ANY ACTUAL EFFECT?

If you’ve been guilty only of thinking unpleasant things, you don’t have to go out of your way to admit that. Walking up to a coworker and saying, “You probably don’t know this, but I spent a lot of time last year hoping you’d get fired because the good work you do made me look bad,” is likely to do your relationship more harm than good. People may forgive ugly thoughts, but they seldom forget: you don’t really want your coworker constantly wondering what you, and perhaps others in the office, are thinking about them right now. If you really feel guilty, a few sincere compliments should be amends enough.

WAS THE DAMAGE MATERIAL OR EMOTIONAL?

Financial loss or property damage always calls for repayment or replacement, and perhaps extra compensation if major inconvenience was involved. Still, you don’t always have to confess your actual identity to the injured party. Anonymous repayment may be enough if:

  • The wrongdoing affected a business or other entity, rather than an individual person.
  • The injured party was someone who doesn’t know you personally.
  • No legal issues were involved.

If someone was injured emotionally (and perhaps physically), the question is more complicated: full amends may not be possible, and it does happen that having the old wrong confronted, or even seeing the guilty party again, just stirs up fresh pain. You may not need to make direct amends for hurt feelings if:

  • They involve someone you haven’t seen in a long time and don’t expect to see again.
  • You really don’t know whether the other party remembers what happened.
  • The offense was one-time or minor (a thoughtless joke at someone else’s expense, versus weeks of regular mockery).

Keep in mind, though, that old hurts can resurface when least expected. If you learn that someone is still smarting over what you did (or if they tell you directly), you do owe an apology and an offer of whatever you can do to make things better.

WHAT WILL THIS MEAN FOR YOUR FUTURE RELATIONSHIP?

A casual acquaintance can usually be appeased with an apology and compensation for any material damage. A family member who already suspects what you’ve done will likely be relieved to have you admit it openly. But if a secret wrongdoing involves someone you’ve been close to and want to stay close to, things get trickier. It’s like the classic question of “do I confess to my spouse after spending one night with someone else?” Some partners are willing not only to forgive, but to take the admission as a sign to work on revitalizing the relationship. Others, even when they try to forgive, are never able to trust again.

If you genuinely aren’t sure how the other party will react to an admission of your wrongdoing, explore the situation—and make a plan of action—with the help of a therapist. If a professional advisor agrees that direct confession will probably hurt the relationship, pinpoint other special efforts you can make to strengthen bonds.

ARE YOU THINKING MORE ABOUT YOURSELF THAN ABOUT THE OTHER PERSON?

Be seriously honest: is your real concern to avoid hurting the other party’s feelings, or are you primarily worried about potential repercussions to yourself? (You may need the help of a counselor to answer this question.) Of course you don’t want to risk permanent rejection, vocational ruin, perhaps even legal consequences. But if you’re serious about making amends for the damage your addiction has done, sometimes that risk is your only option. If it helps, consider that:

  • Consequences aren’t always as bad as you fear: in fact, they’re almost never quite as bad as you imagine.
  • Your real friends, and your sobriety partners, will be there for you.
  • Even if the worst happens, your conscience will be free of a nagging weight.

Making amends is never easy, even under the best circumstances. But the courage that helped you get sober will help you do what needs doing now.

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