Understanding and Practicing Step Eight

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Think of Step Eight as the opening break in a billiards game. If we hit it just right, many others will be affected. This step is about more than just us. (Kucher Serhii/Shutterstock)

Think of Step Eight as the opening break in a billiards game. If we hit it just right, many others will be affected. This step is about more than just us. (Kucher Serhii/Shutterstock)

It’s time to once again continue our monthly series on the Twelve Steps, this time by focusing on Step Eight. In many ways, the Eighth Step and the Ninth Step go hand in hand. Consider Step Eight to be something of a primer before we begin making our amends. And since making amends will be one of the more frightening aspects of recovery for some people, we should be thankful that we are given this chance to prepare ourselves. Some say that the Eighth Step is easy, because it simply entails making a list. But there’s a little more to it than that.

Step Eight involves working with our sponsors. It involves a deep and searching inventory, not unlike that which we took in Step Four. To complete this step, we must be completely honest with ourselves. More than that, we must develop a sense of readiness to be honest with others. Some of these may be people we have faced since entering sobriety. At least a few of them may be people to whom we haven’t spoken in years. There are still others to whom our sponsor says we should never speak again, even if we truly wish to make amends. We need to solidify this list before moving forward to Step Nine. As such, it is vital that we do this right.

As always, we’ll run through a brief definition of Step Eight before discussing its deeper meaning and the best ways to practice. This step may seem simpler than some others, but that doesn’t mean we should blow it off. We’re talking about our sobriety here. There is never a good reason to take half-measures. Even if you regard this step as little more than making a list, you should give it your all if you truly wish to achieve spiritual growth in your 12 step recovery program.

What Is Step Eight?

The manner in which we write our list matters very little. Of much greater importance is the actual content. (Bartek Zyczynski/Shutterstock)

The manner in which we write our list matters very little. Of much greater importance is the actual content. (Bartek Zyczynski/Shutterstock)

In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, also known as the 12&12, Step Eight reads:

“Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”

Notice that there are essentially two parts to this step. The first is to make a list. This, as discussed above, may not be as easy as it sounds. The second part is to develop a sense of willingness. Again, this sounds easy. But some addicts and alcoholics may finish their list long before they feel truly ready to make amends.

When Step Eight says to make a list, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this is a one-time thing. Some people realize long after completing Steps Eight and Nine that their list was incomplete. Perhaps they didn’t intentionally omit anyone, but they realize long after the fact that they still have some amends to make. Others will add to their list while in sobriety. We are not perfect, and sometimes further amends will need to be made. But what matters now is simply that we list the ones we can, and develop a sense of willingness to move forward with Step Nine.

It takes time to develop a willingness to make amends. For some people, it takes more time than others. In fact, some addicts and alcoholics feel ready to make amends before they even begin working on Step Eight. But when the time comes, fear might overtake them. Others fear this step in the beginning, yet find themselves at peace when they finally get here. You never know how you will respond to this step until it is upon you. But no matter how you respond, you must do your best to become willing.

Developing a sense of willingness requires an understanding of amends themselves. Most think that Step Eight and Step Nine demand apologies. In some cases, this may be true. But the definition of “amend” isn’t to apologize—it’s to make a change. The Twelve Steps do not advocate blanket apologies, but rather the drive to improve upon relationships that we have injured or broken. Remember that recovery leads to spiritual growth. In turn, spiritual growth improves our personal relationships. In order to prepare for this, we must understand a bit more about willingness and the nature of amends.

What It Means

We cannot reach a state of willingness without a great deal of deep thought, during which we may come to some rather vital conclusions. (lassedesignen/Shutterstock)

We cannot reach a state of willingness without a great deal of deep thought, during which we may come to some rather vital conclusions. (lassedesignen/Shutterstock)

Developing the willingness to make amends will often require us to develop a sense of forgiveness. Some of the people to whom we must make amends have wronged us as well. We use this to justify withholding our amends. Playing the blame game, we reason that they should make amends to us—not the other way around. But making amends needs to be about more than who’s right and who’s wrong. It needs to be about cleaning our own side of the street. Until we learn to see this, we cannot be ready to move on from Step Eight.

In such cases, forgiveness requires understanding. First, we must understand that those who wronged us may have their own character defects. Their defects are not unlike ours, even if they do not suffer from alcoholism or addiction. If we wish to receive forgiveness from others, we must be willing to grant forgiveness to others. Second, we must understand that we often played a part in our resentments. We may have made life difficult for the people on our list, and they might have had several reasons for lashing out. In such cases, we need to reach out first. You never know—some of the people on your Step Eight list just might be eager to make amends to you as well!

Even compiling our list may require a level of understanding. It’s easy to convince ourselves that our actions hurt no one but ourselves. We think that we suffered this disease alone; therefore, we alone were affected by it. This isn’t so true, which is why Step Eight requires a rigorously honest inventory of our past. Anyone whose life has been negatively altered in any way by our substance abuse should be on that list. And if we aren’t quite sure whether they need to be on the list or not—well, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

The 12&12 lists several examples of harm: physical harm, emotional neglect, callousness, irresponsibility, impatience, critical judgment of others, etc. In other words, we must understand that “harm” equates to more than direct action. Sometimes, we cause harm to others simply by treating them to a generally negative atmosphere. This means that our family, colleagues and close friends should all be on our list. We may have stolen from people and institutions, or evaded paying bills. In these cases, we owe some financial amends as well. Once we understand the broad and complex array of ways in which we caused harm, we are ready to begin actually writing our Step Eight list.

How to Practice

After each entry, we should spend some time thinking about the amends we need to make and whether or not we need to start with forgiveness. (Andrey Bondarets/Shutterstock)

After each entry, we should spend some time thinking about the amends we need to make and whether or not we need to start with forgiveness. (Andrey Bondarets/Shutterstock)

Toward the end of the 12&12, we receive strong advice on how to formulate our Step Eight list:

“To put a finger on the nearby and most deeply damaged ones shouldn’t be hard to do. Then, as year by year we walk back through our lives as far as memory will reach, we shall be bound to construct a long list of people who have, to some extent or other, been affected. We should, of course, ponder and weigh each instance carefully. We shall want to hold ourselves to the course of admitting the things we have done, meanwhile forgiving the wrongs done us, real or fancied. We should avoid extreme judgments, both of ourselves and of others involved. We must not exaggerate our defects or theirs. A quiet, objective view will be our steadfast aim.”

To perform Step Eight in this manner is difficult and time-consuming. It requires us to do more than simply sit down one afternoon and quickly jot down a list of names. There is a lot of self-reflection in this step. But if we perform the work as outlined above, taking a moment to reflect on each name and ensuring that we can forgive them before moving on, then we will be ready to move on by the time this list is finished. At least, we’ll be mostly ready. There is one more thing we must do before we can truly complete Step Eight—we must take the list to our sponsors.

Upon receiving the list, our sponsors may ask us why we owe amends to each person. In some cases—especially wherein sexual conduct is involved—they may tell us not to make amends. They may also tell us not to make amends if someone is on our list because we stole drugs from them. We sometimes feel bad that we cannot make amends to our mistresses or drug dealers. But remember that we are doing this not just for them, but for ourselves. If our amends have the potential to do more harm to us, to the recipient of our amends, or to another person on our list, we must think twice. The 12&12 says that Step Eight should help put an end to our isolation. As such, we cannot make amends that will result in backward progress by isolating us even further.

Step Eight seems easy at first glance, yet requires much honesty and deep thought in practice. Not only must we be honest about our list, but also about whether or not we are truly ready to move on and begin Step Nine. It may seem scary to face the wreckage of our past, but fear not—after the next step, things will begin to look much brighter indeed.

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