How to Do Step 8: Paving the Way to Set Right the Past

When we come into recovery through a drug addiction and alcohol treatment centre or by way of a 12-Step program, one of the many thoughts rattling around in our heads is ‘How am I going to face the wreckage of my past?’ Even when the future looks bright and hopeful, most people living with addiction have still damaged their lives to one degree or another, and fear of dealing with that can definitely hold us back.

Step 8 in the 12-step programs says that we “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” If this seems daunting, consider that as with all the steps, before we go out and carry out action in the world, we must first take a look inward, with the help of a sponsor or trusted recovery advisor. Before acting, we will have an opportunity to come to grips with the things in our past that are blocking us from moving forward – and deal with the shame, guilt, fear, anger, and other feelings that stand in the way of cleaning up the past.

Why Make a List in Step 8?

As we learned in the 4th step by listing our resentments and fears, putting things on paper serves an important purpose: it takes ideas out of our heads, where they may have grown to massive proportions, and puts them in perspective in black and white. Making a list of all the people we believe we have harmed through our alcohol and drug abuse, or through our toxic behaviours, is key; it prevents us from rushing out and saying ‘sorry’ to everyone we can think of, instead allowing us to calmly review our actions and prepare to make genuine amends.

The principles behind Step 8 are said to be accountability and compassion. First, by writing down who we believe we have hurt, we are holding ourselves accountable. Second, by admitting we are human and have made mistakes, we develop compassion for ourselves – and, when we examine these situations, for the people we have hurt, even if they have hurt us.

How to Make the Step 8 List

The key phrase there is ‘make the list’ – just do it! Even if you feel overwhelmed with guilt, or certain that you won’t be able to remember the nature of your wrongs, or still angry at people that have also hurt you back, just get the names down, in no particular order. For reference, have a look at Step 4; often, the people we resent, we have also hurt (it’s a tragically common cycle). It doesn’t matter whether the harms were big or little, or who started it. As the Big Book says, the goal is to clean up our side of the street: to take responsibility for our own part, not someone else’s. Therefore, it doesn’t matter if the names on your list are people you once teased on the playground, robbed, cheated on or treated coldly; whether they are living or dead; whether they will want to hear from you or not. You are just making a list.

If you get stuck, try thinking of people that you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed around. Chances are that if you can’t be around someone with complete ease, you may have harmed them, or they may have harmed you. Be sure to include yourself on the list. You have certainly harmed yourself through your actions, and this needs to be acknowledged and grieved before you will be able to stop harming yourself in the future.

Preparing for the Amend in Step 9

Detailed instructions on how to make appropriate amends are given in Step 9 in the 12-step literature. However, it is obvious that something will eventually have to be done with the names on the list, so why not start now? Next to each name, write how you believe you have harmed the person. This is where our sponsors and advisors can provide invaluable advice. For example, you may feel as though you were really a good friend until the last days of a relationship, when you had a blowout over your drinking and drugging. But your sponsor may point out that long before that, you were harming your friend with evasion, dishonesty, or withdrawing. Or, you may have been carrying guilt for years over something that isn’t really yours at all. Sorting out what you really did to harm another may take time, but it’s time well spent: it will ensure that your amend – your actual effort to set right the wrong, and then change your attitude and behaviour so it is never repeated – is sincere, and has no strings attached.

Becoming Willing to Make Amends to Them All

There are some amends that most addicts and alcoholics usually want to make right away. For example, we may genuinely feel awful at things we have done to our children, spouses, parents and other loved ones, and want to set that right as soon as possible. However, there are other amends that will seem much harder to make, even though we have identified where we went wrong. These are usually amends where some person or entity is involved that we dislike, and that we feel has harmed us, too. For example, alcoholics who owe back taxes are usually not too thrilled about having to pay up; the addict who was fired for stealing on the job may not be eager to go back to their old boss to make amends; the couple who gave up their children to relatives may harbour resentment at how the children are being raised, and therefore reluctant to confront their own wrongs.

For those amends that we are not willing to make, the Big Book suggests asking a Higher Power for the willingness until it comes. We have to be able to admit where we went wrong, disregarding the other person’s faults. It may be that we never repair a relationship with the other, because we (or they) don’t want to. The crucial thing is to not forget about or ignore these amends just because they are inconvenient or unpalatable. We have spent a lot of time examining ourselves and identifying our shortcomings; no matter what the other person has done, we are willing to make changes so as not to repeat harmful behaviours, and that means becoming willing to make amends. With willingness comes the relief that we have finally ‘grown up’. We have taken a balanced look at our behaviour, and are willing to acknowledge our mistakes, clean up the past, and move forward.

A clean slate – what a gift.

Have you started or completed your Step 8?   Please share your comments or experiences in the comments below.

Have you yet to start Step 8? Go ahead and share your feelings, concerns or questions that you may have.

About the Authors

Renascent Staff
The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.