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Guilt-Based Apologies as Used in 12-Step Programs

Once again, from my article Shame by Any Other Name (etc.) here:

Understanding the differences between guilt and shame make even ordinary attempts to apologize and mend relationships damaged by careless, selfish or unkind acts, easier to understand and manage.

Use as an example the revelation that a spouse has had an affair. The anger, even rage, of the betrayed partner in this scenario is both understandable and familiar to all of us. A typical shame-suffused unfaithful spouse would more readily respond with shame-based confessions of powerlessness and helplessness than a guilt-ridden partner ("I couldn't help myself; I'm bad through and through; I wouldn't have done it if I were able to stop myself, but I was helpless against my desire") or aggression ("if you weren't so involved with your work, if you weren't so cold and distant, if you satisfied my needs more often, I wouldn't have had to seek solace in the arms of another").

Not only are these shame-based confessions unlikely to lead to a change in the unfaithful spouse's behavior, they are almost certain to further anger the betrayed spouse who likely wishes, at a minimum, an acknowledgement of wrong-doing, accountability, sincere apology and a promise not to offend again.

A typical guilt-based confession would have an entirely different focus. The guilty party, knowing himself to be the "locus of control," is far more apt to hold himself accountable for wrongdoing once it has been discovered. Guilty expressions of remorse would include "I'm sorry; I know I could have behaved better but I chose to ignore my better judgment" or "I have felt you to be distant and cold and I do feel my needs are not being met, but I understand that is no excuse for this bad behavior."

An individual who feels in control of his actions is more likely to feel accountable for them, and therefore, more likely to accept responsibility for them, apologizing and atempting to make amends.

As I go on to note in recommending to restorative justice practitioners some of the practices of 12-step programs, the widely misunderstood custom of "making amends" has much to recommend it for "restoring" criminal offenders to their communities.

As the Big Book [of Alcoholics Anonymous] explains:  

[We must] launch ... out on a course of vigorous action, the first step of which is a personal housecleaning, which many of us had never attempted. Though our decision [to stop drinking] was a vital and crucial step, it could have little permanent effect unless at once followed by a strenuous effort to face, and to be rid of, the things in ourselves which had been blocking us. Our liquor was but a symptom . . . . Putting out of our minds the wrongs others hand done, we resolutely looked for our own mistakes. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking and frightened? Though a situation had not been entirely our fault, we tried to disregard the other person involved entirely. Where were we to blame? The inventory was ours, not the other man's. When we saw our faults we listed them. We placed them before us in black and white.  

The moral accounting created by the recovering alcoholic "working" Step Four is not simply a record of "bad deeds" committed. It is a means to put one's actions in perspective and to enable the alcoholic to create a new moral order from the ashes of his life. By way of Step Four, the AA member can mitigate his harsh self-condemnation while nevertheless taking responsibility for his misdeeds.

Indeed, in making amends, the Big Book advises [12-step] members to be "sensible, tactful, considerate and humble without being servile or scraping."  Only after putting his faults down in "black and white," admitting his wrongs honestly and becoming willing to set matters straight, does the [recovering individual] begin to learn "tolerance, patience and good will toward all men." 

The [12-step] member does not acknowledge these "sins" alone nor store his "inventory" in a bottom drawer, continuing to hide his shame. Rather, Step Five makes quite explicit the need to admit these wrongs to another human being. This step is the first opportunity to be freed from one's shameful secrets and any continued resistance to group participation. 

By reading their inventory to sponsors who have "been there," members recognize they are fallible rather than evil. They come to understand that they can set right many, if not all, of the things they put wrong. 

This set of suggestions pertains to the soul-searching necessary to locate "one's own part in" conflicts, particularly those concerning harm caused by one person to another.  The actual making of amends -- successful apologies -- is another of the 12 steps in all manner of recovery programs.

[After] a [recovering] member [of a 12-step community] brings his . . . list [of persons he has harmed] to his sponsor . . . [they discuss and] agree upon the details of restitution. 

For those victims who are dead or untraceable, amends must be indirect. So-called living amends are required under these circumstances. Members vow to be generous where once they had been selfish, faithful where treacherous, honest where deceitful. They agree to practice "restraint of pen and tongue" lest they lash out too quickly or too harshly at those they love. 

For other wrongs, making amends is direct and simple, if not easy. Money is paid back, even if it takes years. If a crime was committed, after much contemplation and discussion with sponsors, friends and family, some members consider confession to the authorities and may serve jail or prison time as a result. 

Members do not stop there. Recognizing that God will not relieve them of human fallibility, a commitment is made in Step Ten to continue to take personal inventory and when wrong to promptly admit it. Members keep their own side of the street clean and try not to take a broom to anyone else's. They do not "take another person's inventory." 

Finally, members agree to "be of service" to others. "Being of service" is not only repeatedly stressed in [12-step communities] it is recognized as one of the most effective avenues to achieving lasting [recovery].  Many opportunities exist for members to serve others - from making the coffee or setting up chairs at a meeting, to becoming a sponsor one's self, assisting even newer members in working the steps.

Through these twelve steps, [12-step groups] achieve[] the moral education and esteem building necessary for a productive norm-abiding life in a community of mutual trust and respect.

For references used in this article, click here.


Comments (1)

Read through and enter the discussion by using the form at the end
Anthony Cerminaro - April 2, 2008 12:45 PM

This is a wonderful article. Thank you for writing and sharing it. God bless.

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