Step 8 of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) program is, “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”

The point of this step is the list itself — it’s easy to get ahead of yourself and start worrying about making the actual amends, but instead, you need to focus on writing everything down so that you can discuss each amend with your sponsor.

This can be extremely difficult because you have to face and acknowledge the harm that you caused other people. Not everyone can do this — in fact, this is a step that people frequently quit AA over.

After doing Step 5, where you told your sponsor or a trusted friend everything bad you’d done in your life and gone over your 4th Step in detail, you might wonder why it’s necessary to go apologize to everyone — isn’t confession enough?

The answer is no — otherwise it wouldn’t be included in the steps. Confession is insufficient — you have to actually do the work of trying to apologize and make things right (if possible).

Taking Responsibility

Taking personal responsibility for the consequences of your actions (and not just during your addiction but throughout your entire life) and preparing to talk to the people you’ve hurt is difficult, but the alternative is to return to drinking or using drugs.

In the 12 steps of AA, each step builds on the previous one, and Step 8 is no exception. It’s a culmination of the self-examination you began in Step 4 when taking a moral inventory of yourself.

Now, the focus shifts from self-awareness to the impact of your actions on others. It’s about acknowledging the pain you caused and expressing a genuine desire to fix the situation if possible.

In Step 8, you’re not just listing the names of people you’ve wronged — it’s extremely important that you understand the nature of your wrongs, the specific harms you’ve caused, and the appropriate amends to make.

If you’re not able to see how you’ve harmed people, you’re almost certainly going to harm them again.

Every name on your list represents a person who has been affected by your actions. Each one deserves your sincere effort to make things right. Step 8 is not something to rush through — you need to take the time to go over every situation in detail with your sponsor to make sure you do it exactly right.

Why You Should Work Step 8

One really good reason to work this step is that it can bring you freedom along the way. Most addicts and alcoholics have a lot of guilt and shame associated with their addiction.

While facing what you’ve done is painful, making those amends often lifts the guilt and shame you feel about what you’ve done.

In many cases, people will forgive you — keep that in mind. This might be the only way for you to get that forgiveness.

And even when they don’t, at least you can say you tried.

On top of that, amends can begin to heal the broken relationships that are often a consequence of addiction. You’ve broken people’s trust — rebuilding trust requires people to be willing to try again in the first place, which most people won’t want to do until they’ve seen a sincere desire to change.

If you take the time to write down in detail the harm you’ve caused, go over it with a sponsor, and then actually go to the person and make your amends, they’re going to see that you’ve thought carefully about what you’ve done and sincerely regret it.

They’ll see you taking responsibility for your actions and demonstrating your commitment to change. That goes a long way.

What If I Didn’t Mean to Cause Harm?

Many people seem to think that if they didn’t mean to cause harm it somehow makes things better, makes the harm they caused less harmful.

It doesn’t.

Harm is harm. Intentions don’t make a difference to the person you harmed. The reason you did what you did doesn’t matter — you still harmed them.

If you stole a TV from Walmart and got arrested, then stood in front of the judge and said “Well I just did it because I couldn’t afford one” or “I did it to feed my family,” do you really think the judge is going to let you go?

You still committed the crime. The concept is the same.

If you cheated on your wife because your relationship had started to fall apart, you still cheated. If you got into a fight with your brother because you were drunk and punched him in the face, you still got into a fight — the fact that you weren’t in your right mind doesn’t make the punch go away. It doesn’t heal his face.

It’s extremely important that you don’t talk about your intentions when making amends. You should never tell people why you did what you did unless they specifically ask. This is the main way you can avoid justifying your actions.

If you’re apologizing to someone and then try to justify or explain away what you did, it’s not an apology anymore — it’s an excuse. This also applies if you had good intentions or reasons that you felt (and maybe still feel) were good at the time.

These don’t matter to the person you harmed — and if they do, they’ll ask. You don’t get a pass for bad behavior because you didn’t mean it, you had good intentions, or you were under the influence. Especially if you were under the influence.

Beginning Step 8 of AA

Start by creating a simple bulleted list of all the people you believe you’ve harmed. Be thorough and honest. Don’t exclude anyone because you’re afraid of their reaction or because you feel they don’t deserve an apology.

This list is for you, not for them.

It’s a tool to help you understand the scope of your actions and the impact they’ve had on others.

Next, write down the ways you’ve harmed each person on your list. Be specific. When someone is mad about something, they’re not mad in a general way — they’re mad about something specific you did to them.

It’s important that you understand the concrete ways in which your actions have affected others. People don’t just want to hear an apology — they want to see that you understand the harm you have caused, regret it, and would like to make it right.

If you take the time to write down specifically what you did to each person — with no sugarcoating or minimizing — you’ll have a better chance of making amends the right way.

And if you don’t your sponsor will likely suggest that you make the amends again and again until you get it right or the other person is tired of hearing what you have to say. It’s best to get it right the first time.

Use Your Sponsor (And Others) as a Resource

When you’re working on Step 8 of Alcoholics Anonymous, you may have trouble identifying the harm you caused. You might miss something important or not realize that something was harmful, or at least more harmful than you thought it was.

You might also be tempted to leave people off for one reason or another. You might feel like you need to leave people off who hurt you, or who have passed away, or who are still in active addiction.

This is not the kind of thing you should decide without getting input. Writing someone down on your 8th-step list doesn’t mean you have to make amends to them! It’s just a piece of paper — it doesn’t mean anything until you and your sponsor have talked over the amend and decided together that it’s best to make it.

Writing everyone down no matter what ensures that you and your sponsor (and other people who are involved or may be affected) can discuss the situation in depth and then decide if an amend is appropriate or not.

Remember, when you get to Step 9, you only make amends if it won’t harm the person you’re making amends to or someone else. Just because you harmed someone and owe them an apology doesn’t mean you can make that apology — even if it would make you feel better.

Your sponsor is a good resource for helping you decide which amends to make or not make, but it’s also helpful to ask other people in AA what they think about each amend, especially if you’re not sure about making it for one reason or another. Counselors or therapists are also good people to loop in.

It’s also a good idea to talk to other interested parties. For example, if you owe amends to your children, their other parent (who you might not be with anymore) might not want you to do it.

Depending on the harm you caused to your kids, it might not be appropriate to apologize until they’re older — it’s possible you could traumatize them or make things worse.

There might be other things you need to do first before making a formal amend. For example, if you’re making amends for disappearing from their lives regularly due to alcohol or drug use, it’s not a great idea to apologize for that when you only have a month or two sober — it’s better to demonstrate that you can stay sober for a long period of time before making that amend.

Another example — if you owe amends to a grandparent who struggles with dementia issues, making an amend could upset them. Your parents might not want you making the amend and would rather you just spent time with them and helped with their care.

One example the Big Book specifically discusses is infidelity. It says that it’s not always a good idea to just tell your spouse you cheated, that there might be better ways of handling the situation because telling them directly might cause them (and others) a great deal of harm.

The point is to always think of the other person and anyone else who is involved. You need to consider the potential consequences of each amend you make carefully.

All of this should be figured out during Step 8. Think of Step 8 as strategy time — you’re working with your sponsor and others to come up with a strategy to do the absolute best job you can of righting wrongs without causing additional harm.

What If I’m Not Ready to Make Amends to Someone?

Making amends can be very difficult. There may be people you owe amends to that have harmed you deeply. After talking with your sponsor and others, you might all agree that you still need to make amends to that person despite what they’ve done.

You might not feel ready to do this.

There are other amends that might just be plain scary for one reason or another. That’s okay — it’s normal to feel afraid of making amends. Not everyone is going to take it well, and it can be extremely humbling, which isn’t a good feeling (at least while it’s happening).

There are two things you can do about this. One is to follow the advice of the Big Book and pray until the willingness to make your amends comes. And if you’re not even willing to do that, pray for the willingness to be willing to ask.

The second thing is to make some “small” amends. There are levels of harm — stealing a DVD 20 years ago from someone who was never going to watch it again anyway is less harmful than cheating on your spouse a month ago when you were drunk.

Making a few small amends — especially to people who are likely to be sympathetic toward you anyway — can give you some confidence and help you feel better about making the bigger, more difficult amends.

Walk Into Step 9 Feeling Prepared

Step 8 of Alcoholics Anonymous is a powerful tool that can take away a lot of the uncertainty and fear surrounding the amends process. Spending time on it and making sure you are as fearless and thorough as possible makes it more likely that the amends will go well.

If you’re going through the 12 Steps and are thinking about getting into a sober living or IOP program to augment your recovery, we can help.

At ASIC Recovery, our Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) is dedicated to helping you develop healthier coping skills and build a supportive recovery network so that you can achieve long-term sobriety.

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