Another word on apologies

Have you ever had a week where everything you read and hear taps you on the shoulder and gives you THAT LOOK. You know, the one that says “See that? Hear that? Are you ready to grow?”

Ugh. No. I’m not always ready to grow.

But these promptings don’t go away and allow you to float on in ignorant bliss. They keep tapping on your shoulder, begging for the attention they rightfully deserve. To hell with your cute comfort.

Here is a thing that’s pushed me recently. No surprise it comes from Brené Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us: I’m Sorry: How to Apologize and Why it Matters, part 1 and 2.

In this pair, Brené re-shares a course she recorded with author Harriet Lerner. A course, I will now confess to you, that I had purchased in 2017, but never actually took. Two years later, Brené drops these into her podcast, and their message finds its mark. Probably at exactly the right time.

I’ve written about apologies and how bad I have traditionally been at them and how I recognize the imperative of getting better. This is simply a step in that journey.

Consider this list.

I’ve learned the first few through the pain of being in a family who held too much shame to be good at apologizing. I grew up hearing plenty of “I’m sorry you felt that way” and “I’m-sorry-for-this-but-I-deserve-an-apology-for-that” uttered in one breath. The “I’m sorry, but” is a verified trigger for me. However, being a rather proud product of my early environment, I went on to mimic many of these damaging non-apologies well into my adulthood.

The apology ingredients on this list that knocked me out were 5 and especially 8:

An apology shouldn’t be offered to make you feel better if it risks making the hurt party feel worse.

In explaining this principle, Lerner provides the example of a broken relationship in which one party has asked for space or lack of communication while the other party profusely does the opposite–showering the retreating person with gifts and apologies in all kinds of forms. Apologies offered when space or silence is requested are selfish and cannot be issued wholeheartedly because they are more about your needs and anxieties than true remorse and care for the other person. Oof.

I generally have a secure attachment, but in times where I was deeply hurt, confused, or in shame, I believe I have issued quite a few of hurtful apologies. I’m so anxious to heal the wound and control damage that I’m willing to gush anything. You want an apology? I’ll give you the best one, three pages long.

You want silence and space?

…yeahhhh, how about that three-page long apology?

I’m still thinking about all the ways I needed to learn this lesson before now. But that’s a recovering perfectionist speaking. We learn lessons when we are ready to grow from them. Until then, we’re not ready. I’m just grateful to be ready now, and hopeful I can carry this into my future relationships with partners, family, friends, and colleagues.

In episode 2, Brené comments her realization that she “has an inner litigator” and I felt simultaneously seen and called out. Brené and Harriet describe the tendency to listen in defense rather than listen for the other’s hurt. You are caught up listening for the flaw to use it in your defense–in other words, you have an inner litigator and you are more interested in assigning blame (that sneaky principle 5) than understanding and holding space for another’s hurt.

Lerner tells a hilarious story at the end about her husband coming home from a grocery trip having bought 5 equally-ripe bananas which subsequently cause her to fly into an righteously indignant rage. She had HAD this conversation with him before. She had explained the perfect system for buying bananas to avoid waste. In her anger, she used the phrase “what kind of person would…” Yeah. Classic #5.

I’ve had some recent practice with this whole good-apology thing. When I flew off the handle at my partner during dinner prep, I knew it wasn’t about how I wanted to be helpful but he wouldn’t let me. I just also know that my emotions were wrestling with something HUGE and I figured it had something to do with his actions or inactions. Obviously. In hindsight, the space of all good regret and personal insight, I realized that my frustration had little to do with him, and everything to do with my own internal battles. I offloaded that emotional content onto him. It wasn’t fair. Time to apologize.

I also recently said something very cringy in a work meeting–implying I thought my position and title made me “above” a task that I was asking those in the meeting to perform. It instantly made my gut churn, but I spent hours trying to convince myself that “it probably wasn’t that bad” until I just accepted that it was. Time to apologize–this time to 3 people.

I issued the first apology in person to a mixed grade on this Harriet Learner scale. There were some factors I didn’t separate and should have. There was some processing I should have done myself but didn’t. I give myself a C.

I issued the second apology via a written message. I deleted a few places where my psyche wanted to soften my wrong and mount a subtle defense. I forced myself to be honest about how gross my words had been. I had definitely improved. I give myself a solid B+.

The surprising bonus lesson that I’m learning from this is that the battle doesn’t end, even with a wholehearted apology. There are humans–flawed, growing, emotional humans on the other end of this interaction. They get to have whatever reactions and feelings about your apology too. They are the real arbiters of the grade. As soon as the apology hurdle is cleared you must learn to forgive yourself so you don’t obsess over the mistake. You must allow others the autonomy to decide how to accept or reject your apology. And most of all: You. Must. Move. On.

Instead of obsessing over my recent gaffes, I’m writing about my recent growth. About how I’m working to become a better friend, partner, colleague. About the underrated heroism of a deeply wholehearted apology and how perfectly wonderful it is to have a course you were too tired to take at one point of your life circle back around to land in your lap.

PS–As I finished my last post on apologies, I will offer that if you are reading this and believe I owe you an apology, please reach out. I’m looking for practice, healing, and wholehearted living. I will honor your courage to share with my own commitment to listen deeply, silence my inner litigator, and hold space for the hurt I caused you.

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