NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Asking for Forgiveness: The Power of Making Amends

Making amends is an important process in the addiction and mental health recovery as well as in many religions and in life in general. Recognizing that we have hurt other people, our behavior has had consequences for ourselves and for others, feeling sincere remorse, expressing our remorse, where appropriate, and asking for forgiveness are important parts of that process.

Asking for Forgiveness: The Power of Making Amends

Making amends can seem like a daunting process, especially if our transgressions have been recurrent and longstanding. As we come to terms with what we did, there is often a lot of shame associated with this recognition. As such, part of the process of making amends is to be able to forgive ourselves, which is often harder than asking someone else to forgive us.

When we're contemplating making amends, it's often helpful to work through this process with someone else: a sponsor (if you're in A.A. or one of the other alcohol or addictions 12 Step programs), a psychotherapist, or a trusted mentor or friend. Their support, knowledge and expertise can be invaluable as you struggle to sort out what you did, who you hurt, whether it's the right time to contact the person or persons you've offended, and how to go about making amends.

It's also important to realize that just because you have decided to make amends doesn't mean that the other person is ready to hear from you or to accept your apology. When we're considering making amends, we might enter into vivid memories of what we did in such a powerful way that we feel like we're reliving these old experiences, even though it might be many years later. But just because we might be in that emotional state doesn't mean that the other person is there too.

So, when we're thinking about making amends, it's important to use good judgment about the "who, when, where, why, how and what" involved. And, if you're either early in your recovery or in the early stage of whatever process you might be going through, you might not have developed good enough judgment yet about how to make amends. So, you might not realize that, in some cases, making amends might cause more harm than good, and you want to be mindful of this as you're going through this process.

But assuming that you've given your decision careful thought and you realize that asking for forgiveness is the right thing to do, how do you go about making amends?

Recognizing that every situation is different, the following is one particular scenario. It is representative of many different cases and not related to any one particular person. After I outline this scenario, I'll go over the steps that are often helpful when you're in the process of making amends.

Robert was in his early 50s when he admitted to himself that he needed help for his out of control drinking and drug addiction. While he was getting help, he was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Until then, Robert knew that his life was out of control and that he had struggled with alcohol and prescription drug addiction for many years, but he had no idea that he had bipolar disorder.

During his inpatient dual diagnosis rehab, where he was detoxed from alcohol and painkillers and stabilized on drugs for his bipolar disorder, he had a chance to work on many of his addiction-related issues with the rehab counselor and his peers. At that point, Robert began to feel the emotional weight of how much he had hurt his family when he was active in his addiction and unstabilized with his mood disorder.

It helped him tremendously to be in a supportive environment where other people were going through a similar process, and he realized that he was not alone. However, he still felt somewhat overwhelmed when he thought about the pain that he had caused his wife and children.

Using the concept of "one day at a time," Robert was able to acknowledge that he hurt wife and children, as well as hurting himself, but not think too far into the future or too far into the past so that he was not completely overwhelmed with his shame and sense of remorse. He was also able to hang onto the idea that making amends would be a process that he could work out with a sponsor and in his after care treatment with a psychotherapist.

During family day at the rehab, Robert's wife and his two teenage daughters came to attend the educational series and to have sessions with Robert and his counselor. Robert's oldest son, John, who was in his 20s and living on his own, refused to come. John had gone through the worst of Robert's alcohol and drug binges and his rageful manic episodes, and he was unwilling to see or speak to Robert. Although it was very hurtful to Robert, he realized that he had no choice but to accept that his son wasn't ready and might not ever be ready to forgive him, and he could not control his son's feelings or behavior.

During Robert's sessions with his counselor and family, he acknowledged that he had caused his family a great deal of emotional pain, financial loss, and general upheaval in their lives. He also acknowledged that he realized that it might take a long time, if ever, before they trusted him again because he had breached their trust so many times. Robert expressed his sincere remorse, he took responsibility for his actions without making excuses for himself, and asked them to forgive him, if they could. He also told them that he realized that this would be a process and it wouldn't happen over night.

Robert's wife, Kathy, who had been very supportive of Robert during their 30 year marriage, talked to him about how important it was to her for Robert to finally acknowledge that he had a problem and that he hurt her and their children over the years with his addictive behavior and out of control manic episodes of rage, overspending, lost jobs, and the general chaos of their lives. She told him that she had loved him throughout their problems together and she still loved him. She was willing to start the healing process, but she knew that she would need time for her to trust him again. She also acknowledged that she was part of the dynamic and might have contributed to the overall chaos, and she wanted to understand this better by going to Al-Anon. But, overall, she was happy that he was getting help, and she hoped that she could trust that his remorse was genuine and he would continue in his recovery after he got out of the rehab.

Robert's older daughter, Susan, talked about how his dual diagnosis problems had affected her, and how she feared that she might become an alcoholic, a drug addict, or she might be diagnosed with bipolar disorder one day too. She struggled to put words to feelings because this was all new to her, but she told him that she loved him and she wanted him to get better.

Robert's youngest child, Beth, was very anxious. She cried through most of the meeting, and she told Robert that she wanted to understand what was going on with him, but she didn't. She and Susan both agreed that they would go to Al-A-Teen meetings.

After Robert was discharged from the rehab, he began attending A.A. meetings, he obtained a sponsor, and he started seeing a psychiatrist for medication and a psychotherapist for psychotherapy. At times, he felt overwhelmed, but most of the time, he was grateful for the support he was receiving.

Over time, Robert made efforts to reach out to his son through letters because his son refused to take his calls. Writing these letters to his oldest child, acknowledging that he had hurt him, expressing his remorse, and vowing to try to make it up to him, if his son was willing, was one of
hardest things that Robert had ever done in his life. Doing it while he was also new to sobriety and new to the knowledge that he was bipolar was also a challenge for him. There were many days where Robert was tempted to pick up a drink or call his old dealer to get painkillers. During those times, he reached out to his sponsor and his therapist, as well as peers in his support network, to just get through the day.

John acknowledged Robert's letters with his own responses, where he expressed his own anger, sadness, and lack of trust for Robert. John wasn't sure that he wanted to accept his father's apology or that he wanted to forgive him. He was afraid that if he forgave him, Robert would think that "everything was okay" and Robert might disappoint him again. But he agreed, for now, to keep the lines of communication open through these letters and he held out the possibility that he might be willing to talk to Robert in the future.

Robert offered to talk to John, when and if John was ready, about anything that John might want to know about Robert's addiction and mental illness. He was very careful to make this offer not as an excuse for his behavior, but as a way for John to understand the background of these problems. But during the first few months of Robert's recovery, John wasn't interested or ready for any explanations.

In the meantime, Robert continued to work on improving his relationships with his wife and daughters. It was a slow, painful process but, over time, he felt that his relationships with his wife and daughters were getting closer. He also sensed that they were beginning to trust him.

Robert also continued to work on forgiving himself. He knew that he couldn't turn back time to undo all the damage that he had done, and this was a hard concept for him to come to terms with. But he continued to work on his recovery, meet with his sponsor, attend his psychotherapy sessions on a weekly basis, see his psychiatrist and take his medication.

About a year after Robert completed his rehab, he received a call from his son. It was so unexpected that Robert hardly knew what to say. John told him that he still felt a lot of anger and ambivalence towards him, but he also recognized that, underneath his anger and sadness, he still loved his father and he wanted to begin the healing process between them. Robert felt that this was one of the happiest days of his life, and he was very grateful to his son.

The scenario above gives you a glimpse of how complicated the process of making amends can be. As I mentioned earlier, everyone's situation and process will be different, but there are certain steps that can be gleaned from this that might be helpful to you or someone that you know.

Steps Towards Making Amends

Say That You Were Wrong:
For some people, saying, "I was wrong" or "I'm sorry" is one of the hardest things that they can do.

Acknowledging to yourself and to the people that you hurt that you were wrong is a powerful first step. As previously mentioned, you need to use good judgment about this and make sure that if you're contacting someone to apologize, you won't do more harm than good. This isn't always obvious, but one possible example of many might be in a situation where your interjecting yourself back into someone's life might be too hurtful to them and their loved ones. For instance, if you've had an affair with someone who was married and contacting this person might place his or her marriage or family situation in jeopardy, it would probably not be a good idea to contact this person.

In all other cases, it's important that your apology is sincere. Express your remorse for what you did--without making excuses for your behavior. The minute someone senses that you're making excuses for your behavior, he or she will doubt the sincerity of your apology.

Now, making excuses is different from providing them with information about what was happening to you at the time--if they want to know. You can ask them if they want to know, and if they don't, you must respect that and not impose it on them. Above all, your intention should be to say you're sorry.

Say (and mean) that You Won't Do It Again:
For many people, when they hear someone apologize, the first thing that comes to their minds is the question of whether they can trust that person again. They might want to forgive the person who is making amends, but because trust has been broken in the past, they might be afraid to trust again.

When you're new to addiction recovery or to dealing with your mental health diagnosis, you might feel shaky yourself about whether you can live up to your words that you won't do it again. So, it might be necessary for you and the person that you're asking forgiveness of to put certain structures in place to help ensure that it won't happen again.

For example, if one of the things that you're asking forgiveness for is your compulsive gambling and that you spent the family's savings on your gambling addiction, one of the structures that you might put in place with your spouse is that he or she will handle the money. This can be an informal agreement or, if necessary, you might give your spouse power of attorney over the family finances, if this is appropriate. This can provide a feeling of safety for you and your family that even though you're sincere about not wanting to transgress again in this area, the particular structure that you've put in place will also support that effort.

Ask What You Can Do to Try to Make Up for Your Behavior:
Restitution is an important part of making amends. While you and your loved ones cannot go back in time to undo what has already been done, you can find out what your loved ones might want to help make up for the hurt that you have caused.

Even in situations where your loved ones can't bring themselves to forgive you and they are unwilling to allow you to make up for what you did, it can still be important for your own health and well-being to find ways to make restitution in your life.

This could mean that, when you've had enough time in your recovery, that you become a sponsor to people who are new to recovery to share your hope and wisdom, you volunteer your time to helping others, or that you find other ways to try to give back to others, even when you're unable to give back directly to the people that you've hurt.

Recognize that making amends is a process for yourself as well. You don't have to do it perfectly, although reflection and consideration before you start this process is an important step.

Also, recognize that other people don't always understand what it means to forgive. Some people might have the impression that by saying that they forgive you, they're telling you that what you did was all right with them, and they don't want to give you this impression. So, the people that you're asking for forgiveness from might have to go through their own process with this to understand what you mean and what it means for them.

When you first begin to recognize how much you've hurt others, you might only see the very top layer of hurts that go very deep. Over time, you might develop a deeper understanding of the implications of your behavior for yourself and others, and this brings its own challenges.

As previously mentioned, making amends can bring up a lot of feelings of shame and sadness, and I recommend that you find healthy support when you're going through this process.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and EMDR therapist.  

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to go through the process of asking for forgiveness and making amends.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also, see my article:
When Your Efforts to Make Amends Are Rejected