My youngest son sits down on the bed next to me. “Mom,” he says, and waits until I raise my eyes from my phone. Holding eye contact he continues calmly, “I apologize for the way I spoke to you earlier today.”
He then waits, to see how I respond.
And there you have it.
My son, at fourteen, can initiate an honest and genuine apology – something so many adults seem unable or unwilling to do.
I’ve written on manners many times before. We instruct our children best not by lecturing and certainly not by punishing or belittling, but by demonstrating and improving our own character every day of our lives. My children learned to apologize for and amend their behaviors not through threats and reprisals but rather through commitments made by my partner and I: the practice of non-punitive parenting, our unconditional love and support, and our own examples.
And we can all stand to do better, when it comes to making apologies.
Apologies have not come easy to me because growing up, the adults in my life did not apologize to me (or, as far as I could tell, to many other people). They sometimes acted remorsefully after they misbehaved, but that is not the same at all. In fact, remorseful parental behavior is rather damaging: because as a child, parents’ distress and weakness (feeling sorry for themselves or feeling guilty after they erred) will often precipitate a strong sense of the child’s own culpability. That oppressive sense is hard to recover from. If you are someone who had a childhood like this, my heart is with you. It’s a very difficult experience and it is hard to overcome.
In my case, this apology-deficient upbringing was further complicated by my adult relationships with resentful, unforgiving key people in my life: people who did not accept apologies, instead storing up my wrongdoings as a “gotcha!” to unleash later. People who behave like this keep a mental ledger of deep-seated resentments and errors you’ve made, so they can dash them in your face when it suits their agenda. This, too, makes it difficult to commit to and to issue genuine apologies. We end up in a defensive arms race; predictably, no one comes out ahead, but both parties grow increasingly defensive and aggrieved.
But even though I had considerable liabilities in my childhood and early adult life, I was still able to learn to do better. And I also know today that it is my responsibility to try to do better – no matter what trauma or difficulties I’ve endured. Otherwise, I keep the cycle going: the cycle of resentment and unforgiveness, of hurting others and letting my pride keep me from being honest and making amends.
So let’s say you come to know, or intuit, that you may have hurt or offended someone. What then?
Before hurtling into trying to “make it right”, it’s better to think it through. Because a big part of communication is not so much telling the other person what we think or feel, as knowing how much to say and when. In our family, we’ve demonstrated through our actions that apologies start with a flat-out admission of wrong-doing – rather than explanations. “I am sorry” – or, my personal preference, “I apologize for [this specific thing I did].” At that point, we take a moment to see how receptive the other party is. Healthy relationships are grounded in taking these moments of awareness, in slowing down these difficult moments. If the other party is deeply hurt, they need tacit permission to experience that hurt. An apology is not a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card in which the hurt party is required to instantly wipe the slate clean (or pretend to do so). You cannot make someone forgive you on your timeline, and nor should you try.
In this piece, I want to offer some strategies for when you realize you’ve wronged someone; then, the anatomy of a decent apology. These are both equally important.
First: commit to apologize to people even if you think they will not forgive you.
I could have used this truth much earlier in my life. Looking back I have regretted the times I allowed my fear of the other person’s anger or hurtful words, to keep me from owning up and admitting my wrongdoing. Now, it is important that I do not tolerate abuse (verbal, emotional, or otherwise). But if I know I will not passively tolerate abuse (and today I do know this), then I will not allow another person to keep me from taking responsibility for my bad behavior. In the vast majority of cases there is a way to make amends no matter what the other party did or might do. In the cases my own personal safety (emotional, mental, sexual, physical, or financial) is involved, I may need help and careful consideration to navigate this situation; however, I should never use another person’s bad behavior as means to justify my own transgressions. Often a situation that seems impossible or complicated, is neither.
Second: simplify your apology as much as possible, and don’t make excuses.
A long apology with a backstory is not an apology; it’s an insult. The other person is hurt; they may be acutely aware of this, they may not. In either case it is quite self-serving for me to go on and on about why I did something. This centers my own needs, rather than acknowledging and respecting the other person’s humanity.
Third: realize the other party may not respond gracefully.
Let’s say I get up my courage, journal, meditate, and simplify my apology. I am rested; I have had a snack. I am ready to apologize and I’m ready to hear what the other party has to say. Bully for me! However, I need to remember that just because I am ready to do this, the other party may not be. They may be distracted, hurt, or have other things on their mind. They may carry a hundred and twelve resentments (towards me or others). They may be having a bad day. While it is important I do tolerate abuse, barring that: I am not guaranteed forgiveness either. If I am expecting the other party to forgive immediately or even to respond any particular way then I am not really committing to an apology: I am demanding a quid pro quo transaction.
Finally: Commit to do better.
This is an important aspect I don’t see mentioned in otherwise rather good discussion on this topic. Yes, we need to commit to do better, and explicitly say so. We then need to hold ourselves to this intention. Because if I find I am unable to stop the bad behavior I am apologizing for, I need to be willing to seek help – professional help, if need be. Whether the bad behavior is yelling at our hitting my children, threatening or belittling my partner, being late or absent for my commitments, not paying back a loan, letting someone down, or speaking out of turn – if I can’t wean myself off the behavior, I need to find someone who can help. Saying “I’m sorry” or some such version over and over, while continuing to behave poorly, is a form of gaslighting that is incredibly hurtful. It does damage not only to the relationship and to the other party’s sense of self-worth – it is not good for me, either. Trust me.
These strategies, as simple as they sound here, sometimes seem impossible or inadequate. If a situation really troubles us, we can seek help from someone who is confident and who has a record of responsible and loving behavior.
OK, so we have our strategies down. Are we ready to craft our apology? There are many great articles on how to do this, but here is a pretty simple formula that works well.
1. Say the words, “I am sorry”, or “I apologize” – and name your poor behavior simply.
(“I apologize for talking over you while we were arguing.”)
In this example, there is no possible justification for why I talked over you. I don’t need to go on and on. Yes, there are reasons why I behaved the way I did, but in most cases those are not appropriate to air during an apology. Maybe I had a father who abused me or a relationship where I was gaslighted. Maybe I was hungry and tired. Maybe the issue we were discussing causes me great anxiety. But these things can be discussed at length with someone else – a counselor, mentor, sponsor, or a friend who loves us but holds us accountable. These are likely not appropriate disclosures to spill to the party I just hurt, because it is an attempt for me to minimize what I did wrong, or it sounds enough like one to render my apology unclear.
2. Wait to see how the other responds. If they are receptive to hearing more, state the values you compromised, and what you want to do better.
(“I do not want to intimidate or harangue people in a tense discussion. I want to be calm and civil even in an uncomfortable conversation.”)
When we repeat over and over the person we intend to be, we move closer to creating that reality. Maybe the rift won’t be mended with this other person; but that is not the entire point. This is not the only person you will have in your life. We want to do better for not just the other party, but for all people we have relationships with – and for ourselves.
3. Tell – or ask – the other party if there is something you can do to help them.
(“If you’re still willing to have a discussion, I will do a better job of slowing down and listening.”)
(“Is there something I can do for you now, to help you with this?”)
This one takes a bit of finesse. If you have any reason to think the other party will use this situation to retaliate, exercise caution. You can hear out their suggestions, but if you are confused or frightened, do not commit to anything just yet; say, “I will get back to you about this.” (and then – do!)
Therefore if a situation is particularly tense, I suggest stating the values you plan to employ – again, simply. If you’ve managed to slow the conversation down and you are speaking in civil and simple terms, you are already doing just great!
In most cases, people are generous and receptive to a genuine apology. Many people cannot think on their feet if you ask them “What can I do to help you?” – they are not expecting this kind of amends. That is okay. It is more important they know you are sincere and open. It will help them trust you more, and it will help them honor their own experience more. This is win-win, no matter what the relationship holds in store.
I am better at apologizing than my parents were; my children are even better than I.
I was raised in a traditional parenting style; my parents and the adults in my life loved me very much but they also made many mistakes. I was punished, belittled, neglected, and talked down to. I’ve probably made nearly as many mistakes, but in my children’s early childhoods I began to do things differently. I prayed, meditated, practiced yoga, got sober, read parenting books and philosophical tomes, found mentors, and sought out professionals – doctors and counselors. I never stopped seeking a way to do better – I did not and still do not give myself the luxury of thinking, “Well warts and all, I’m still a pretty good parent.” I am a pretty good parent, but my desire to be esteemed as such does not trump my responsibility to keep working at it.
My children have come to trust I will correct, apologize, and do better. And I won’t stop doing this. This is one of the greatest heritages I can impart to them.
You can appreciate that I, like all caring parents, want my children to have a fun childhood, to have a lot of joyful experiences and good friends and healthy food and enough rest. You can understand that I want them to receive a great education of the world and all its wonderful, messy, scary, uproarious varieties. But as important if not more so, I want my children to have the strength to admit when they are doing wrong, and to take constructive action to remedy their behaviors. I do not want them spending their lives hiding, whether in remorse or righteous anger or the myriad forms of resentment and stifled rage so many live with.
I’ll end with an anecdote. During parent conferences my oldest child’s kindergarten teacher had a good deal of praise for my child, but there is something in particular she said that stood out to me. The teacher told me Phoenix was advanced for his age in taking responsibility for his behaviors. At five years old, this is damned impressive. Over a decade later and I can say that my children are strong in this regard, and I am glad for this. Their lives will be all the more joyful for this, and so will the lives be of all those they touch.
This piece is featured in my upcoming zine:
How Not to Fuck Up Your Child
(Any More Than the World Fucks With Them Already)
shipping HALLOWEEN 2018
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