Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Flip Side of Forgiveness: How To Apologize

Here we are on the flip side of forgiveness, in the doorway to relationship repair.  Apology is a lost art in our society, from politicians who earnestly swear that they ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY  DID NOT DO . . . . whatever they have to admit to doing the next day, to our kids who wallop each other in the head and are forced to mutter a snotty "SORRY" through clenched teeth.

Really?  It's not that hard.  Just have to get your head and heart in the right place and realize that you're not giving anything up with an apology, you're taking the high road and setting the bar for the other person to respond in kind. 

Here are a few things to consider in delivering a sincere, and boundaried apology:

1.  Have good self esteem.  As I said in my previous post, you're a good person.  Most of the time, a well-meaning person.  You made a mistake.  If you had, in the moment in question, had the tools to do the right thing, you would have.  Keep in mind that what I mean by "tools to do the right thing" includes things like: 
  • Enough inner resources to not have a knee-jerk reaction to be selfish (read:  self-protective), which in today's world many people don't.
  • Skills to know what the right thing is, which can be tricky in relationships.  We're not talking about do or do not rob a bank.  This is do or do not tell someone that you don't want to go to their cousin's reindeer dress-up party and instead saying that you have the flu and getting caught not having the flu. 
  • Also required is wanting, in the moment, to do the right thing.  Go back and read about your amygdala hijack.  When adrenaline hits your system, you're not using your decision-making skills, you're flying by the reactive, fight-or-flight based seat of your pants.  WANTING to do the right thing comes from your thinking brain which, in that moment, is off-line. 
So good, well-meaning people, present company absolutely included, screw up all the time.  We trip and fall and damage a relationship.  You're still a good person.  You can be a good person who has the skills to fix it.  (AHEM . . . THIS IS NOT A GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARD.  If you want a relationship, you must learn to act relational-LY even when it's hard.)

2.  Really BE sorry ... not just sorry you got caught, or sorry the other person called you out on being a selfish jerk, or sorry you can't figure out a way to escape responsibility.  If you care about the other person, you naturally feel sorry that your behavior caused them pain.  Or at the very least you feel sorrow that they are hurt.

I'm a literal definition kind of gal, and think it often helps to go back to what a word actually means rather than what it's been watered down to in today's world. Good ol' Merriam Webster says apology is "a written or spoken expression of one's regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another." It is not an admission of guilt, it has nothing to do with power, and it certainly isn't a one-sided deal. MOST of the time, "FAULT" for any given person is equally divided between the two parties. There is the offender, who gets the finger pointed at him or her, but the offender is often reacting to some equally egregious, but often masked, bad behavior on the part of the other person. Often, people just get into a power struggle over who was wrongEST, and wait the other person out for that apology, all the while building resentment and further damaging the relationship. You can feel sorrow that the other person is hurting AND be aware that you are hurt too. 

Whoever takes a step to try and fix it first, wins.

Frankly, if you're not feeling sorrow that as a result of your behavior someone else is feeling hurt, you shouldn't be in a relationship anyway.  Go to therapy until you have worked on your issues enough to be able to feel empathy and remorse in a healthy way.  There's a word for someone who is INCAPABLE of recognizing the impact their behavior has on others.  Rhymes with "SchmOCIOPATH."  That's another blog.

3.  Be specific.  There's always something in a conflict that you can have sorrow about.  However, oftentimes, people get their feelings hurt when we tell them the truth about something they don't want to hear.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't have said it - sometimes it is important to let someone else be uncomfortable for a while and struggle with an issue.  It takes a LOT of skill in communication to navigate that minefield.  In the meantime, try the following: 
  • I'm sad about where our relationship is.  Would you be open to talking about how to fix it? (Yes, MEN, you can say SAD without your gonads falling off)
  • I know what I said was hard to hear.  I'm sorry that we're struggling.  I care about you.
  • I know it hurt you when I (insert behavior here).  I'm sorry for that.  I hope we can move past it.
  • Ooh .... I really blew it didn't I?  I'm sorry (optional hug)
  • Look - I don't even really know what to say about what happened.  I just know I care about you, and you matter to me, and I want to fix it. 
4.  Get the message out any way you can.  An apology over text or email is better than no apology at all.  We don't have conflict management skills taught to us, and many people aren't good at it.  Delivering an apology face to face requires not only good communication skills but also good self-esteem, boundaries and limit-setting.  Don't avoid doing the right thing because you're not sure you can handle the aftermath.  Do the right thing, and see what happens.  THEN figure out what comes next.  I edit many client emails for boundaries.  Get a second opinion from someone with good skills.

5.  Be ready to hear the other person's feelings . . . with good boundaries.  You're not a punching bag.  Personal attacks on your integrity aren't ok.  "I'm so hurt by what you did" is different from "You're a selfish jerk."  The question "Why did you do that?" really has no good answer.  Obviously you didn't mean to.  (If you did, you don't belong in a relationship)  Obviously you did it because you couldn't come up with the resources NOT to do it in the moment.  "I don't know" is a cop-out.  The answer is "I really don't have a reason that will make it ok."  Because you don't.  If the tirade goes on and on, ask "what is it that you need to hear from me?"  Often you will get "I need to know you're not going to do it again"  the answer is "I will do my very best."  and mean it.  Now read #6.

6.  Don't do it again.  Apology wears thin after the 16th time.  It starts being less believable.  Relationship involves responsibility; responsibility to be thoughtful and considerate, to not do things that you know will damage the other person either physically or emotionally.  Repeated hurt leaves scars, and often those scars last long after you have parted ways.  If you can't commit to changing your behavior, be honest.  Acknowledge that you aren't willing to make those changes and give the other person the respect to allow them to make an informed decision about the future with or without you.  If you care about the relationship, but can't commit to changing the behavior, get help.  FAST. 

7.  NO BUTS.  YOUR behavior is YOUR responsibility.  Barring physical violence, there is NO behavior on the part of the other person that CAUSES you to act out.  DO NOT use an apology to call for change in the other person (as in "I'm sorry BUT IF YOU DIDN'T . . . THEN I WOULDN'T . . . ).  Apologize for your part of the problem and leave it hanging there in the silence.  Doing so creates healthy pressure on the other person to take responsibility for THEIR part of the problem.  They may.  They may not.  This isn't the time to demand an apology in return.  Most of the time, if you genuinely change the problematic behavior, it upsets the (unhealthy) pattern in the relationship in a way that makes it impossible for the other person to continue their own hurtful ways without feeling like a jerk.  This is where you can just let them marinate in the knowledge that it is their turn to make some changes.  Enjoy it.  You lose all the impact if you give them the answers.  It's healthy manipulation.  I like to say I have a job tricking people into doing healthy things despite their best efforts.  It's fun. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Apology: The flip side of forgiveness

Forgiveness is not a crowbar, a battering ram or a bargaining chip.  If you’ve screwed up, forgiveness is not a right or a demand. 

Let me give you a helpful piece of advice.  If you care about a relationship, the MOMENT you realize you blew it, RUN, don't walk - race as fast as you can to the relationship repair department and start taking steps to fix it. 

I always talk about maintaining good self esteem in relationship, so I don’t want you to lie prostrate on the floor while moaning "mea culpa, mea culpa."  Let’s have some dignity here.  You’re a good person.  You made a mistake.  If you could have figured out how to do the right thing in the moment you would have.  Lots of factors come into play there, including being more or less interested in doing the right thing in the moment. 

One of the most disabling disservices we do our children in this society is to not teach them how to screw up and recover.  We teach them to screw up and hide it, to screw up and give 100 reasons why it wasn’t REALLY their fault, to screw up and accept being berated and shamed in a manner out of proportion to the seriousness of the screw up, but we don’t teach kids how to deal with the unavoidable situation in which either knowingly or unknowingly we have hurt another person. 

The funny thing is, we have an easier time apologizing to strangers.  I did it this morning on my way to my plane (yep.  That’s why I’m writing.  I am stuck in a plane!)  I heard a chuckle behind me, and the guy said “I’m trying to pass you and you’re just all over the place!”  First words out of my mouth?  “I'm sorry!”  It’s habit.  And it’s not a lie.  I was totally in my own little world, daydreaming about my upcoming VACATION and not paying attention to anyone else on the planet.  I didn’t do it on purpose, but I impeded someone else’s progress with my (albeit unknowing) self-centered lack of awareness of my relationship to other travelers.  Apology was easy, as was having a short conversation with this total stranger who was apparently rushing back to Ohio.  We had a nice relationship.  It was short, but pleasant.  We even worked through conflict in a positive way.  A lot happened in that 5 minutes.  Our relationship ended abruptly, but I’m OK. 

We grow up being made to apologize for things we aren't sorry for, that really weren't WRONG in the first place.  I VIVIDLY remember being forced to go to the door of my next door neighbor (I was probably 6 or 7 at the time) and apologize for picking peaches up off the ground, and subsequently from the tree that was technically the neighbor's but halfway in our yard, and from which the neighbors NEVER picked peaches.  In fact I remember hearing MANY complaints about the peaches rotting on the ground.  Yet myself and my two neighbor-friends were trotted to the front door and made to spit out an apology.  It made no sense to me.

I heard a story once of a kid who was being picked at by his older brother and when he had finally had enough, picked up a pencil and stabbed the offending kid in the hand (No one died of lead poisoning . . . not even sure there was a band-aid required).  The mother, horrified, asked "DOES IT MAKE YOUR HEART FEEL GOOD TO HURT YOUR BROTHER???"  And at that moment, the youngster replied absolutely honestly "YES."  Gotta love that kid.

I don't make my kids apologize.  I thought long and hard about this one.  I don't make them say "I'm sorry," especially when I know darn good and well they aren't.  I think that teaches kids to be disingenuous and frankly, to lie.  Instead, I force my children to say "It was wrong for me to (whatever they did)."  I used to make them add "and I won't do it again."  But I stopped because everyone in the room knew they would.  I also make my kids write lines and/or paragraphs about their offenses, but that's another blog.
"I'm sorry" should mean "I am experiencing sorrow that I didn't pull my self-centered head out of my clueless ass quickly enough to avoid damaging our relationship."  Instead what it usually means is "don't hold me accountable," or "I'm sorry you aren't tough enough to take it."  I generally don't say "I'm sorry."  But I will speak volumes about recognizing that a relationship is damaged and expressing my desire to repair that damage. 

We all trip and fall and act like jerks once in a while.  Know who I apologize to and own up to my behavior with most?  My kids.  First of all because I screw up with them most frequently.  They get the dregs of me and have to deal with it when my head falls off and I fall back into old patterns of drill-sergeant parenting.  But secondly, and I think most important, because I want them to know how to make mistakes and still feel good about themselves while having an expectation that the other person will recognize a g

enuine effort and accept the apology.