Activity: Making Amends in Families
Parenting is challenging, but what can help us feel less stressed is acknowledging that we all struggle, sharing where we come up short, learning from our mistakes and moving on.
This is a great way to model accountability to our kids, too, not by being perfect but by being aware of our impact and growing in the process.
In that light, we have a great tool for clearing up mistakes and hurts, helping to heal emotional wounds and mending relationships. It’s called “How to Make Amends,” and it’s a great tool not only to practice yourself but to teach to your children. We’ve seen it resolve many sibling conflicts and bring siblings and other family members closer together.
Please read on for details on the amends process. It comes from the book Living with Reality by Beth Green. You can get a free PDF copy of the book at www.theinnerrevolution.org. In addition, feel free to contact Helen Hillix at (760) 990-9053 if you have questions. Note that the text may look long below. That’s not because the process is lengthy but because we give many examples to support you in the process.
How to Make Amends
We need to make amends (acknowledgement and reparation) when we realize we have hurt another person. No matter how impaired we were when we hurt them, we cannot clear the energy of the damage we have done unless we go through the steps of truly acknowledging our action and the damage it caused and ask for forgiveness. This is tender. This is vulnerable. This is real. And this is liberating. This is why we have an amends step that is very specific. And here it is in brief. After summarizing it, we will go into greater depth about each part.
Tool: The Amends Process
Remember, first, we need to have self-compassion. Don’t approach the person you damaged unless you clearly feel self-compassion. If necessary, talk with someone else who can support you to be honest and self-compassionate about what you did that hurt the other person. Once that’s done, we approach the person we have hurt and explain that we would like to make amends. Then we use the following formulation: “I realize now that I (state exactly what you did, no more, no less) and how that hurt you was that it.” (Take your time with this part—allow yourself to feel the impact). “And even though I couldn’t have done any better at the time, I need to ask you to forgive me. (Pause.) Will you forgive me?” Allow the person to respond if they want to. Don’t skip steps! Only by being thorough can we free ourselves from the toxic shame that hurts us and/or makes us cover up our shame with resentment.
Breaking it Down:
The amends tool just described has three parts: I realize now that I________; and how that hurt you was_____; and even though I couldn’t have done any better at the time, I need to ask you to forgive me.
(Pause.) Will you forgive me? Let’s go through this three-step process and understand it one step at a time.
Step One: What I Did
As we have said, it is painful to acknowledge that we have hurt others, but when we can practice our foundational self-compassion, we can take accountability for our behavior. We are ready to look directly at the question: What exactly did I do? Because shame often accompanies recognition of our negative behaviors, we tend to dramatize what we did (I destroyed this person’s life, crushed them, made them feel useless, etc., and I’m a terrible person) or we tend to underestimate what we did (No big deal. I didn’t really do anything. They are overreacting. I did it because THEY did such-and such. I’m innocent.).
So first we have to get clear in ourselves. What exactly did we do? In the next paragraph, I will offer a variety of examples that commonly occur in families. When we make the amends, we make each example as specific as we can.
For example, for parents, with one another, one thing I might have done was to ignore your needs when you were hurting the most. I might have gotten absorbed at work when you needed my support with our son’s anger. The specific version of that might be, “I realize now that when Joey was yelling at you, I left the room and got busy in my office.”
Here are some more or less generic examples of how we might hurt one another in families: “When you were angry with me, I pretended that I didn’t know why.” “I competed with you and tried to make you look bad.” “I hit you.” “I yelled at you when you were trying to help me.” “I ignored your sadness and pretended none of us were sad.” “I blamed you for my shortcomings.” “I reminded you of your failings while hiding my own.” “I told you I loved you in order to keep you taking care of me.” “I let you take the punishment for my misdeeds.” “I failed to confront you when I knew it was time for you to do your homework because I wanted to continue having fun.”
As I mentioned earlier, we need to acknowledge our hurtful behavior in the most specific way possible. For example, there might be a particular incident. “On Thursday night, when you were trying to discipline the children, I sided with them in order to make you look like an ogre, so that they would love me more.” Sometimes, the conduct is so pervasive that our amends needs to acknowledge a long-standing behavior. “Since you were born, I’ve competed with you for your mom’s love.” “I have felt that you are more bonded with the children than with me. In order to break that bond, I have consistently tried to turn the children against you by behaviors, such as siding with them in an argument, rolling my eyes when you have tried to discipline them, having private little conversations where I said ‘You know how your mother is,’ or by spending money on them that we could not afford, which pressured you to earn more.”
Being specific about what we have done is absolutely essential. It establishes the boundaries of our amends. I am making amends for something real that I have done. It’s not vague; it leaves neither the damaged party nor me in doubt about what I’ve done. It’s clear; it’s transparent. Sometimes we make amends for something of which the other person may not even be aware or may have just sensed intuitively but could never bring to consciousness. Now the damaged party can understand some vague feeling he or she was having but couldn’t explain. For example, Bobby may have always felt that his father was angry with him, but it’s really that his father is jealous of his relationship with his wife, your mother. Bobby was blaming himself for the uncomfortable energy between them. By making amends, Ted is being accountable to Bobby for the damage he’s done; and he is relieving Bobby of the guilt that he felt about feeling competitive around his father. Just stating what we have done clears the air in a powerful way.
Step Two: How I Hurt You
We all injure others out of fear, pain, or blindness, and if we self-examine, we can understand our behavior with compassion for ourselves. Armed with self-compassion, we can look at how our behaviors have hurt one another. How do we damage one another? In so many ways. We are all incredibly fragile inside, no matter the game we play or the face we put on. We all feel insecure, needing love and validation, afraid of rejection, often terrified of death. We all carry shame. Some of us make shame a badge of honor and wallow in it (I’m sooooo ashamed); some of us hide it from ourselves or one another. But we all feel it.
Recognizing our common, vulnerability, it becomes obvious how easy it is to hurt one another. We might cause someone to feel something negative about him—or herself, such as shame, or cause him or her to be or feel isolated, or trigger his or her fear of loss. Most often, when we hurt someone, we are actually only reinforcing an already-existing negative feeling the person has about him or herself.
When we don’t feel negative about ourselves in some area, we are much less likely to feel hurt by someone pointing out a supposed weakness of ours. Let’s spend a moment on this. I am a 5’1” tall woman, and that’s okay with me. If some angry person stood in my face and screamed at me, “You shrimp. Why aren’t you six feet tall?”, I wouldn’t care. I might be disturbed by the hateful energy, but not by the comment. But if I were a 5’1” man in a world where men’s height is a sign of status and power, anyone making the slightest comment about my height could really hurt me. I already feel inadequate because of prejudice against short men, but the angry accuser is accountable because he or she is exploiting my vulnerability in order to make me feel small. They are exploiting my vulnerability in order to hide a vulnerability of their own.
Just as it is powerful to say exactly what we did, it is powerfully healing when we acknowledge the actual hurt that we have caused, and we acknowledge that hurt specifically and completely. Let’s look at some examples of hurts. We will start each of these with the opening line, “I realize now…”
“I realize now that I competed with you to play the game the best even though I knew you are younger than I am and have a harder time to win when we’re playing together.” “I realize now that we have a lot of arguments, and I always blame you, as though I were innocent, and how that hurts you is that I deny you acknowledgement of my faults and hurtful behaviors”, “I play on your already-existing self-doubt, I make you feel like a bad partner, and I try to make you feel like you’re crazy to feel hurt by me at all, deepening your shame about your own emotional state.”
Once we have shared how we think this specific behavior may have hurt the other person, we can then ask them whether or not they have something to add. This can be very useful, so that the amends is complete. On the other hand, the person to whom we are making amends may not be capable of self-honesty, and we don’t have to accept everything they say. For example, they might use this moment as an opportunity to bring up other things, or they may blame us or something that was caused by themselves. If we agree with their account of additional hurts, we can repeat it back to them. For example, they may tell us that our behavior caused them to feel stressed. If we agree, we can add something like, “And that also hurt you by causing you stress, as you tried to please me more.”
At first this kind of honesty and self-honesty seems almost unbearable. How can I admit to myself the exact nature of how I hurt you? How can I acknowledge to you how selfish, unfeeling, and manipulative I have been? Will you still love me if you know the truth? Will I?
The simple reality is that I have done what I have done, and ignoring or denying it will not change that reality. The best I can do is make amends. But the ego says that if I admit that I’ve done something hurtful, then I will look bad. This is one parents use as an excuse not to make amends to their children, and its result is to keep the family stuck in the pain and lack of connection. There’s the ego, again, telling us that protecting ourselves and our image is more important than our spiritual well being or the well being of anyone else.
If we have done something hurtful, the pain is not in admitting it; it’s in having done it. And refusing to admit it, just to avoid feeling the pain of our accountability or to avoid the consequences, is throwing more self-centered abusiveness on top of what we have already done. And it’s not just for the other person that we admit the nature of how we have damaged another. It’s for us, as well. It is the true confession that begins to empty the cup of shame and guilt. It is the accountability that in itself starts to restore us to self-esteem and self-love. It is the step toward restoring us to wholeness.
Acknowledging the damage we’ve done carries no self-pity or self-justification, and so it starts shifting us away from the ego and the ego’s drama. The amends is not about how bad I feel or what a bum I am, which is still all about me. The amends focuses on you. It’s about something that I did to you. This gives you acknowledgment. Sometimes it even gives you new information, which helps you understand why you have felt angry or hurt. It also gives you an opportunity to look at yourself and determine your own accountability. In addition, the structure of the amends gets us away from the drama of “I killed her or him, and I’m the worst.” The reality is that I did something, but when I admit what I did, I also acknowledge what I did not do. And that’s a relief, as truth always is.
“Was there any other way that I hurt you?” This gives the person a chance to think through what you have said, and explore how else it might have hurt them. This helps you see aspects of them that you may not know. They may want to discount that you hurt them. Accept what they’re saying but be clear that you are aware of hurting them and want to make amends. When the process is complete you can talk about what it has brought up. Often, they may also have an amends to make, and yours triggers their awareness. Support them, but don’t expect that. This is your amends.
Step Three: Asking for Forgiveness
The final piece of the amends is: “And even though I couldn’t have done any better at the time, I need to ask you to forgive me. Will you forgive me?” This step has three parts. Let’s look at them one at a time.
And even though I couldn’t have done any better at the time
First, I am acknowledging that I couldn’t have done any better at the time, and there’s self-compassion. At the same time, it hints at change. I couldn’t have done any better at that time, but maybe I can do better now, and I’m working on it. And second, I am acknowledging that even though I couldn’t have done any better at the time, I still owe an amends, because I damaged you.
For example, even though I was hurting from a relationship breakup and was therefore less attentive as I was driving down the road, I am still accountable for the accident, because I hit you and that damaged you. Even though I was fired from my job and smoking pot when I let the baby sit in dirty diapers, I am still accountable to both the baby and you for the baby’s needless suffering and my irresponsibility. “And even though I couldn’t have done any better at the time” grants us self-compassion, encourages us to improve our behavior, and at the same time acknowledges our action and the hurt it caused.
I need to ask you to forgive me
We say, “Even though I couldn’t have done any better at the time, I need to ask you to forgive me.” If I couldn’t have done any better at the time, why do I need to ask you to forgive me? I need to ask you to forgive me for my sake: Asking you to forgive me is my final step in taking accountability. It is a deep recognition of the hurt that I have caused, and it releases me from the bottomless pit of shame.
I also need to ask you to forgive me for your sake: Asking you to forgive me is the final step of recognition that frees you to understand what has occurred and to release your pain, anger and resentment. It is your opportunity to be restored to wholeness. When I use the phrase “I need to ask you to forgive me,” rather than “I need to ask you for forgiveness,” I am making a personal, direct request to the person I have hurt. I am not asking for some abstract forgiveness from the universe. I am confronting the victim of my behavior and asking him or her to decide whether or not to respond with forgiveness.
Will you forgive me?
“And even though I couldn’t have done any better at the time, I need to ask you to forgive me. Will you forgive me?” This is the ultimate point of the amends: to humble ourselves and ask for the opportunity to make restitution and clear the damage of our action. If the person accepts our amends, both of us are redeemed from the pain. If the person does not accept our amends, either we have failed to make the correct amends, or that person is struggling with his own ego, and I am redeemed anyway
Why would someone withhold accepting the amends? The person who won’t forgive may have an amends of their own to make. If they are not ready to make that amends, they will want to hang on to their resentment to deflect from their own guilt. Or the person may have some other reason to hang on to their resentment, which will block their acceptance of the amends. For example, if you are making amends for introducing my son to drugs, I may not want to forgive you. I may just want to stay focused on what you have done, because in that way I don’t want to focus on my son’s accountability or my own. Sometimes the damage to another is huge and difficult to forgive. If you betrayed a loved one, that’s not an easy thing to forgive. But forgiveness is always the better choice. The wronged person who carries the resentment is poisoned by the resentment, just as the hurtful person is poisoned by his or her shame. Amends are a transformational moment for all involved. Let’s use them.
Take your time to do this. Begin with the person you feel safest with, suggest that they also read through this piece, and talk about how you feel. Practice, so you overcome the newness of being so open, direct, and honest. Once you feel comfortable, bring it to the others in your life. You will be changed! The steps are new to all of us, and most of us need a prompt to do it completely. Here’s a complete amends prompt that you can copy and distribute to all! Let us know how it goes, and get support if you need it!
I realize now that I (insert behavior). How that hurt you is (insert suggestions). Was there any other way that that hurt you (wait for the person to think and respond)? Even though I couldn’t have done any better at the time, I need to ask you to forgive me. Will you forgive me?
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