feature blog post by Jonathan Bartlett who facilitates “Intentional Parent, Resilient Partners – Keeping Your Love Alive” on Saturday afternoons.
We ask acts of contrition from our children as though saying “I’m sorry” is as simple as saying “please” or “thank you.” We are right to teach this skill early in life. But interpersonally, among those with whom we hope to entrust our deeper selves, saying “I’m sorry” is a far more complex task.
Apologies are part of the social glue that bind us as a society. They add to the everyday courtesies that make it safe to walk the streets. When bumped while waiting in line, all it takes is a simple “excuse me” to ease anxiety, brush off the offense, and usher a return to relative social harmony. At this level, even a child can understand that apologies are best kept direct and even somewhat cursory.
But interpersonally, among those with whom we hope to entrust our deeper selves, saying “I’m sorry” is a far more complex task. To repair deeper hurts, we need a deeper level of contact. Cursory apologies just will not do.
In my work as a couples therapist, I bear witness to the myriad routes people take to avoid accepting responsibility for the mistakes they have made. Unresolved hurt and unaddressed regret can end up playing two lovers like puppets on a string: a highly nuanced dance of blame and denial.
Both parties know all too well what it’s like to receive an empty apology.
“I’m sorry you feel that way, but …”
Hearing this, it takes no psych degree to see that the person isn’t really sorry at all. Rather, the person is taking a moment to briefly acknowledge the other’s existence before bulldozing forward with explanations of his or her innocence, good intentions, and misery at being misunderstood. Attempts to gain quick forgiveness leave both parties feeling even more alone with their hurt. They both clearly see the depth that’s missing when receiving such apologies, yet find it equally difficult to offer depth in return.
True apologies can justifiably take years to accomplish. Occasionally, though, with encouragement, a moment of freedom will occur. The hurt dissolves, and the two are alone no longer. I offer the following three skill sets as an outline for the complex work involved.
1. Start with Self-Compassion
Crushed with guilt. Wallowing in shame. Drowning in self-hatred. If these are the emotions being asked of us by those we’ve wronged, it’s no wonder we resist. If we are healthy, there should rise within us a strong countervailing force. We need to construct reminders of our own basic goodness in order to care enough to correct our mistakes. Self-compassion doesn’t come naturally when we’ve done something out of character. But it’s important we start there.
Creating space for self-forgiveness is a private task. For some, it helps to have faith in a higher power that is witness to our goodness even when it appears hidden. Others may need to grasp at positive memories that hold them in a special light, where their worth was unquestioned. It can be helpful to turn to a trusted friend who we know can hold us in that light. But we should beware of going immediately to the one we have wronged for this support. It is not the victim’s job to forgive the aggressor or to see the bigger picture.
Uncovering and remembering our own basic goodness does not require us to deny the wrongs that have taken place. The work of self-forgiveness can take place even while the damage of our actions is still apparent. Reminders of self-compassion offer us silent reprieve while in the heat of accusations. It takes effort because it involves holding opposing views of ourselves at the same time.
“I am at fault for this AND I am not a bad person.”
“I have hurt the one I care about AND I am still a caring person.”
“I am being seen as guilty AND other times I have been seen as innocent.”
“I must rebuild trust all over again AND I consider myself trustworthy.”
2. Empathy as Its Own Reward
Empathizing with others carries intrinsic pleasure for us, for we are physiologically social beings. Putting ourselves in the shoes of another is a freeing activity. We care about the perspectives of others simply because we can.
We can get a thrill while standing on the shore just by watching and imagining the experience of a surfer riding the crest of a wave. We know empathy is rising in us by the sense of a general softening in our mental attitude. “I am safe enough here. I wonder what it feels like over there?” How liberating our empathic imagination can be. The cutting cold of the glassy water sliding below. The rumbling foam crowding from behind. For fleeting moments, we share in the aliveness of the surfer, almost as though his or her experience was our own.
But what pleasure is there in caring for a hurt person? Especially, why should we want to care for the views of someone who is accusing us of something we regret and would just as soon downplay or forget altogether? The honest answer is that most often we choose not to care. We buffer ourselves from their reproach by steeling ourselves from empathy. If we are clever enough, we can do this while pretending to care. We can say all the right words that a caring person would say while never having to feel the pain that we have caused.
The desire to empathize with someone we have hurt is rare. It is inspired by a resilient sense of self-compassion and an unusual kind of love for the other person. But it is also a naturally rewarding act. Caring puts us in accord with our natural sensitivities. Even as we experience the other’s hurt and share in that sadness, we feel liberated by our own largeness, our connectedness, our transcendent capacity to share in the aliveness of another.
3. Trust as a Social Experiment
Grasping that we have some understanding of the pain our actions have caused brings us face to face with another choice: Is it safe to express that I was wrong? We live in a litigious world and are advised to remain vigilant over our rights to remain innocent until proven guilty. One could try to hold attorneys at fault for this entrenched need to appear blameless, but really attorneys are only exacting in public the kind of relational untrustworthiness that goes on in groups all the time. There is genuine risk in exposing our faults to those who feel wronged by us.
Victors have a tendency to punish those who have admitted defeat. Recouping power after a bruising battle unleashes a natural sense of self-righteousness. Victims have a biological need to vent against their perceived aggressors. Saying “I’m sorry” (and meaning it) allows the other an opportunity to act out to even the score. Whether the person’s anger is warranted or not, apologies can temporarily add fuel to the fire. The softening, where the wronged person acknowledges and accepts the apology, often happens later—if it happens at all. Building trust after the apology, no matter how authentic the apology, takes time.
Do not be surprised by your own unwillingness to admit that you have made a mistake. It comes with the territory of belonging to a species prepared to fight in order to survive. Since receiving mercy is not a given, it takes great courage to bow one’s head and say:
I see what I have done.
I can feel what it has done to you.
I hope you will be able to forgive me.
Is it worth the risk? This is a very important question we must first ask ourselves. It may require remembering cherished times with that person in order to answer the question accurately. But if the answer is yes, that it is worth the risk, there is only one thing left to do.