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Making Amends

I’ve had the opportunity recently to reflect on making amends. Part of twelve step work includes step 8: made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all; and step 9: made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would incur them or others.

When I first began step work, one of the first things I did was to make an exhaustive list of every person I could think of that I had harmed and was willing to make amends with. I reflected on how I had hurt them and used this as an opportunity to play the martyr. I was such a bad person to have hurt so many people, I needed to make it right, they deserved my apology… and on and on. Thankfully I never reached out to anyone to make amends, I realize now that this isn’t what making amends is about.

I ran into an old acquaintance very unexpectedly this week and immediately felt resonance there. I had thought about him a lot recently even though it had been a few years since we had last spoken, I knew that was something that was unfinished there and that I needed to dig into what I needed to learn and reflect on to feel complete.

I had made a decision with him that didn’t sit right with me. He assured me that I had been ethical in the decision we had made and that the fall out wasn’t my fault. When I began reflecting on this I began by feeling really sad about how my decision had hurt other people and had altered their path. I figured that those that had been touched by the decision must really hate me. I had a good sulk about how much it hurt me to hurt others. Hurting others isn’t who I am, I told myself, and that’s where the pain is.

As I sat with this more, I was able to pass through this stage and to see how my decision, that I carried shame and guilt around for years over, had actually been beneficial to all of those involved. How my lack of boundaries and my trauma informed decision had helped people navigate to the timelines that aligned with what they wanted. I moved from victim to hero. They should be thankful that this happened. I was thankful that I didn’t have to beat myself up over it anymore. I could see the two sides of it.

The truth, however, has three sides. I briefly conversed with the acquaintance and was met with compassion for my years of unnecessary guilt and shame, once again assured that I had behaved completely ethically. It just didn’t sink in though.

As I continued to reflect I was able to recognize that I had actually hurt myself in the decision that I had made and that was the amends that needed to be made. In the moment that I made the decision I heard my inner voice tell me to make a different decision and I didn’t listen. I wasn’t able to use my voice and set an appropriate boundary that aligned with my values and my needs. That’s where the shame and guilt really were. I had abandoned myself in that moment and had been unwilling to see and accept responsibility for it.

My lesson wasn’t about how I was a bad person who hurt others. It wasn’t about how I needed to shift perspectives to see how even “bad” decisions could be seen as overall good. The lesson was that when I make decisions that don’t align with my values that I hurt myself and I take other people down with me. That’s what it means to make amends. It’s to take responsibility for having made a decision that wasn’t who I am, that wasn’t in alignment with my core values. Only then can I feel complete.

As the child of an alcoholic and ex-wife of an alcoholic, it’s easy to become the martyr. That’s the default setting for me. I was blamed for everything and was forced to take radical accountability for all of the “bad” feelings that those around me had. Of course I will naturally blame myself and my heart will ache for the pain others feel. The difference now is that through the lens of my values, I can distinguish what is actually mine to make amends for and what feeds into my victim narrative.

I’ve made many decisions in my life that have caused others pain. It took me a long time to recognize that it was morally neutral for this to happen. To recognize that others are entitled to their responses and that it wasn’t my responsibility to shield them from that pain. I’ve wanted to take responsibility for everyone’s pain and to show them that I knew I was a bad person, and that’s not a genuine or authentic place to be making amends from.

If I’m making decisions that are aligned with my values and I am being true to myself then I know I’m making the right decision. The key is to be able to view a situation and possible decisions through the lens of all of my values and make sure it checks out. If it does then my job is to find a way to be ok with the responses of others and to not take that on as my own, that’s where my work lies.

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