Apology 101

I’m a little bit hung up on the subject of apology; just ask my husband.

When I first married Brad, I patiently explained to him that I never wanted to hear, “I’m sorry that you are so upset.” See, I think what that really means is, “I am not sorry for what I did, but I don’t like that you are angry and so, without actually admitting that I did anything wrong, I am having this conversation with you right now in hopes that you will feel better and we can be close again.”

No thanks. You can keep that sort of apology.

I also can’t stand apologies that end in “but.”  Like this:  I am sorry I treated you that way, but you drove me crazy!  To my ears it sounds as if the person saying it still feels right about what she did in the first place and she is using her apology moment to justify her previous behavior and maybe even convince me that I need to apologize for something.

Also, I hate apologies that have the word “if” lodged in the middle: I’m sorry if you are hurt.  But you are not sorry if I am not hurt? Puh-lease!

Since I have already outed myself as an apology-peeve, I’ll keep going…

I really hate any obnoxious and aggressive use of the word “sorry.”  Well, Sor-reeeeeeeee!!!  I think the word should be a bit sacred and I fear we misuse it so often that it loses its impact, especially when we throw it around in mocking, sarcastic ways.

I die a little each time I hear my kids say “I’m sorry” to me in a knee jerk way.  Usually they are not sorry, just bewildered, but they feel obligated to make amends.  “For what?” I’ll ask, and they have no idea.  They just sense I am mad and they desperately want to make things right.  (Side note: This always makes me examine how I am treating them and what exasperated tones and sighs I’ve been offering and usually ends with me apologizing to them.  This gets them even more confused, but I just can’t have them holding the fault simply because I am not present enough to treat them with respect!)

And then there are the apology forcers…  I overheard an adult who had used her authority in a draconian way and wronged a whole slew of kids.  They felt emotionally beaten up by her and some other adults called her aside to point out how her harsh words were affecting the kids.  She called them all together and said she had overreacted and they probably weren’t as bad as she had initially felt, and then she said “OK?  Can we all move on now?”  As if she were being put out by their hurt feelings.

A few weeks ago I witnessed one of those awful moments when parents act like children and I actually heard one father say to someone else’s mother – in ear shot of all the little third graders waiting for their turns at the koosh ball game – “F@#k this and F@#k you!”  Lots of gasps, dramas, opinions and authorities-marching-over later, he offered to her, “I shouldn’t have taken my frustration out on you.”

I noticed with curiosity that he did not offer a traditional apology.  He simply made a truthful statement come out of his mouth that in some round about way connected to the situation.

I think one reason apologies are hard for people is that in any given messy relational situation, it’s usually difficult to figure out who has done the most wrong.  A friend was explaining in detail a story of another friendship gone bad: Then I did this and she did this and if at that point she had apologized for that, we could have started over, but then she did this thing and then I went and did this other thing, and now neither will speak to the other and of course I can’t apologize – she should apologize! It’s just never clear-cut, and saying “I’m sorry” feels like you must be willing to take on all the responsibility of a given situation that you know in your gut is simply not all your fault.

When one of my own complicated friendships was swirling the drain, I attempted a Hail Mary and offered up an insincere apology.  I tried hard to fake how bad I felt even though I really thought she was the wrong one.  I didn’t want to lose the friendship and it seemed headed in that direction unless I figured out a way to intervene.  She smirked when I said the words “I am so sorry that I hurt you.”  She named all of the people who were peripherally involved in our struggle (whom she’d been keeping up to date on the demise of our relationship) and said she’d only accept my apology if I offered one to all of them as well.  I passed and let the relationship die a blessed death.  Am guessing I should have saved that initial apology for a time that felt more authentic.

So what is “making an apology” about anyway?  Should we say “I’m sorry” even if we aren’t sorry?  Do we ever help a relationship when we demand an apology? Who knows?  Life is waaaaaay too messy to have clear cut rules about this sort of thing.  I think guiding principles are the way to go.  Here are just a few of mine on the subject of apology:

1)   There are few things sexier to me than a husband who comes to me in humility and tells me he feels remorse about something that he did to me and doesn’t try to explain why, or help me see my part in it at all.

2)   I feel safe enough to examine my own heart and motivations when a friend is doing the same thing.  When she has the courage to approach me and share her regrets, I am more easily able to do the same thing. I usually have no urge to drive the screws in deeper or keep her at arms length. Because her willingness to be vulnerable shows me she cares for me, I pull her closer into my heart.

3)   My relationship with my kids is only strengthened when I refuse to sweep my actions under the rug and instead go to them and admit that I was mean, snarky, critical or mocking.  It sucks to say things like that out loud, but it feels so much better to be forgiven for it.

4)   If I am ever feeling “owed” an apology, it should make me wonder what in the world the relationship means to me in the first place.  If hearing the words “I’m sorry” will make all the difference, I am probably in an unhealthy, power struggling relationship to begin with and I need to leave it or figure out how to begin a new dance with that person.

5)   If someone demands an apology, I have two choices.  Give it authentically and not make excuses, or be prepared to move on from the relationship.

6)   It’s within my right to ask for forgiveness and admit that I feel remorse about my actions.  What the other person does with it is pretty much out of my control.

Just after I finished typing this, I had dinner with my twelve-year-old and asked him what he thought about the topic of apology.  “It’s what you do when you know you did something wrong and you really want the other person to know that you know you did it and you want them to forgive you because you care about them and you want to stay friends even though you messed up and did the thing you feel sorry for.”  Boom, ‘nuff said.

Ok, and then after cleaning up dinner and doing another quick revision and almost pushing the “publish” button, the garage door opened and in walked my fourteen-year-old, just home from a babysitting job.  I heated up some dinner for her and we chatted about her day, which had been very long and had included one teensy, tiny, sharp-toned snap at her younger brother.

“What can I do to show him I am sorry?” she asked.  Literally, right after I wrote all of the words above she asked me that. I am not lying.

“Just say it like you mean it,” I suggested.

“He’ll just forgive me too fast, and I want him to pay attention and tell me how much it hurt his feelings.  I know…. I’ll make him hot chocolate and bring it to his room and that will make him listen to me longer while I tell him how sorry I am.”

Seriously, sometimes these kids appear to be raising themselves!

 

 

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5 Comments on “Apology 101”

  1. Danette T Mares says:

    Joy,
    You bring so much JOY to my life, I love your words of wisdom, keep them coming!

    Nettie

  2. Katelin says:

    Joy,
    Wonderful! Thank you!
    This relates so well to some continuing discussions we’ve been at BTSF (http://tiny.cc/jlq1j). I will definitely link to you post, as well talk it up on this week’s ‘Friday Fruit.’ Thank you!

  3. Karen Mendelsohn gould says:

    Wow!! Right on…I think the socratic method of teaching may make certain people more prone to the apology word games….:) Love the part about your kids…..such a good feeling when after putting sooooo much in to them, you see something come out that tells you what you are doing is working!
    keep writing, please! xo, k

  4. Mari says:

    I wish the whole world would read this, seriously. That is one of the best writings on “I’m Sorry” that I have ever read. Keep writing, girlfriend.

  5. Lmb says:

    Amazing piece. The phrase “you have a way with words” so aptly applies to your voice. Thanks for making me think, reflect and act.


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