12-step programs such as Overeaters Anonymous and Eating Disorders Anonymous contain many useful tools that any of us can use. When it comes to healing guilt, one of the best methods is found in steps 8 and 9.
Step 8 reads, “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.” Step 9 continues with, “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
The 12-step process recognizes that guilt over our unresolved issues with people, places and institutions are what cause us to reach for unhealthy behaviors such as food addiction, emotional eating, bulimia, over-exercising and restricting.
When they feel guilty, a lot of people are quick to apologize. Unfortunately, they’re just as quick to repeat whatever it is they just apologized for. There’s no relief for either person, because there wasn’t any action or change behind the apology.
The 12-step process of making amends goes beyond an apology, to actually changing the words or actions that harmed the other person. If we have acted out of integrity with the kind of person we wish to be, we can do something to repair the damage in a real way.
This is rarely an easy process, and that’s why it requires spiritual guidance and strength. Sometimes it’s not clear how to make up for what we did, and we need some extra clues or insights. Other times we may see what we have to do, but we feel afraid or reluctant to do it. We need extra strength and courage – especially if there may be consequences for admitting what we did wrong.
Whatever the situation that is causing your guilt, it’s important to be thorough in the process of making amends. Otherwise you can put a cycle in motion where you keep hurting the other person or you keep hurting yourself. As part of your amends, you can create a new plan of living when it comes to that person or situation. How would you like the relationship to look and feel? How would you like to behave in the situation? What kind of person do you want to be?
In some cases, even after you’ve identified a person or institution that you owe an amends to, you can’t do it right away. Maybe you don’t have the financial means to fully repay a debt. Maybe the person you harmed has died or moved away. The important thing is to get yourself to a place of being willing to make the amends, and then find a way to do it.
A 12-step sponsor or a therapist can be very helpful during this process. This person can also make sure that you haven’t slipped to the other side of the equation where you’re taking on responsibility for something you haven’t done, out of a sense of people pleasing or co-dependency.
Reflect on all the people or institutions you have hurt or harmed, and get yourself to a place where you’re willing to do whatever it takes to repair the damage that was your part. Sometimes the action takes place right away; sometimes the action is deferred or done through someone else.
Before making amends, be sure that you have forgiven the other person for any harm they may have done to you. The amends process cannot work if you are still full of rage, resentment or defensiveness.
No matter how much love you may have in your heart when you approach the other person, you can’t expect them to accept your amends or be ready to forgive you. They may not be able to do that right now and you have to accept that. You’re making these amends to relieve your own poisonous, toxic guilt. You can hold your head high, no matter how the other person responds.
The biggest amends you may have to make is to yourself, for putting yourself through all of this guilt. If you can change your perspective and behaviors so they’re more loving and kind – to yourself and others – that will change our relationships, alleviating our guilt and replacing it with relief and gratitude.
There are three key benefits of making amends are. First, an apology for hurting someone in the past can be a great way to build a bridge to a better future relationship with others or with oneself.
Next, it’s ideal for removing the weight of guilt, shame and remorse. Finally, step 9 leads right into step 10, which is a daily reflection on how we behaved. We can use step 10 and the journaling process to clean stuff up every day so it never builds up beyond 24 hours. It’s a beautiful way of living.