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Incarcerated people in recovery learn that making amends isn’t about them.
Photo by Jarin13 on iStock

“Hi, it’s me. Listen, I’ve been doing some work and going back and forth over my life, and I realized you are on the list of people I’ve harmed and I need to make amends. So I’m sorry, or whatever.”

This might be an apology offered by someone in the process of working the Twelve Steps, created by Alcoholics Anonymous and used by a variety of other mutual aid groups for addiction recovery. A central part of the program is repairing relationships with those we’ve hurt. But to truly make amends, we have to go beyond “I’m sorry.”

For those early in the Twelve Steps, the above apology might seem OK. After all, we are still raw with the pain of realization that comes with the knowledge acquired in steps four (made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves), five (admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs), and eight (made a list of all persons we harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all). 

But as an apology, the above leaves a lot to be desired. How we apologize can be as impactful as the recognition of the need to make an apology. An apology like the one above can actually create another wound that then necessitates the need to make additional amends. 

If one is new to the program and experiencing these emotions and realizations for the first time, it might be better to move slowly. Write a letter of apology to those you’ve wronged, and then share that letter with your sponsor or another trusted person to get their input.

Help also is found in Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP), an offender accountability program developed by psychologist Jacques Verduin and first used at San Quentin State Prison. GRIP helps participants understand the origins of their violence and manage strong impulses. The program suggests things to include in an effective apology:

1. A detailed account of what you did to this person.
2. An acknowledgement of responsibility and a description of how you came to realize your responsibility.
3. A sincere expression of regret and sorrow that includes some deep reflection on who you have hurt and how you imagine you hurt them with your actions.
4. A validation that the person was not responsible for your actions.
5. An account of what emotions and impacts you imagine the person may have experienced as a result of your offense.
6. A description of how you will make amends, including what you have already done or plan to continue to do.
7. Vulnerability and transparency as you imagine connecting with the person as well as you can.

This next tip is not so much what to include as what to not include:

8. Do not ask for forgiveness. This is entirely up to the person and is not to be solicited. When we hurt others and cross their personal boundaries, we automatically lose the privilege to ask them for anything.

The above list is a beautiful framework for producing a thoughtful and well-considered apology.

Making amends is about those we have harmed, not about us. Some people we have harmed won’t be willing to listen to our apologies, much less grant forgiveness. We have to accept this.

This does not mean we stop working to make our apology real. This is the part where we get to make ourselves into the person we’ve promised to become. This is the person they should have met — not the addicted, delusional and criminal person who hurt them.

Making true amends acknowledges our negative impact on those around us, but also  demands that those of us with addiction problems acknowledge the damage we created in the pursuit of feeding our addiction. With that acknowledgement should come a healthy amount of brutal self-honesty. 

Sometimes we cannot make contact with those we have harmed. If so, we might make amends to someone who has suffered a similar injury, or even work in a field that relates to the harm inflicted. In this way, we can honor the person we hurt. 

Making amends is not about the one making the apology, it is about those we harmed and doing whatever we can to meaningfully acknowledge what we’ve done. By doing this, we may discover that we need to be more humble, more flexible and more understanding than ever before.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Mark Daigre is a columnist at The Mule Creek Post, a newspaper published out of Mule Creek State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated.