Saying I’m Sorry

feature blog post by Jonathan Bartlett who facilitates “Intentional Parent, Resilient Partners – Keeping Your Love Alive” on Saturday afternoons.



Jonathan Bartlett LMFT



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.

Be courageous.

Communicating with your Preteen/Teen

feature blog post by Gayatri Subramaniam who facilitates “‘Tween/Teen Parent Support Group” on Tuesday afternoons


Gayatri Subramaniam Registered MFT Intern Supervised by Jonathan Bartlett LMFT

Last week, I was preparing to make a presentation about parenting in the pre-adolescent years. I did my research, started to put together my PowerPoint slides, and then decided to ask my now 16-year-old what she thought I should include. The response was quick and earnest – “tell them that even if your kid acts as if she hates you, she really doesn’t.” Now she tells me…!

As our kids get older, we hear a lot about what can go wrong during the teenage years – drinking, unprotected sex, drugs, and the fear of dropping grades and never making it to college. We’re so busy building our intellectual and emotional armor to face an adolescent that we tend to overlook the crucial stage that precedes it. Pre-adolescence is a time of growing independence but it can be as scary for our children as it is for us. Even as the peer group seemingly becomes more important than you, your child still needs you, even if she tells you otherwise. It is crucial that you stay in touch with your child now, so your communication is robust when she hits her teen years.

Understanding Brain Development

To communicate better with your preteen, consider how the brain is developing at this age. By age 6, the brain is at 90% of its adult size, but between the ages of 12 and 25, the brain undergoes extensive reorganization. Development proceeds from back to front, and begins in the brain stem, which regulates much of the instinctual functioning of the body, such as breathing and swallowing. The limbic system, situated on top of the brain stem and below the cortex, is a complex set of structures that regulates emotional responses, and is highly active in adolescents. The amygdala, for instance, alerts the body to danger, and its development, along with hormonal changes, may make your child feel intense but unfamiliar rage, fear, aggression and excitement. What might have been an ordinary comment from you before is now likely to misinterpreted, and a rational discussion might seem impossible in the midst of all the tears and frustration that the comment elicited.

The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rational thinking and planning, is the last to develop. Eventually, the limbic system comes under greater control of the prefrontal cortex and your child will be better at controlling impulses, balancing desire with rules and ethics, and generating more complex and sensible behavior. Until then, be prepared for some reactivity.  The next time your ’tween comes to you with an issue, here are some things to try:

Downplaying the Drama

  • Breathe for at least 10 seconds before responding to what he is saying. As tempting as it might be to say, “What the hell were you thinking,” you can have a more rational conversation if your child feels safe opening up to you.
  • Acknowledge, don’t solve. “Wow, sounds like a frustrating day” will go a lot farther than “well, you should have…” Your ’tween wants to know it’s okay to feel the way she does. At an age when they are trying on new identities and are confused by their changing bodies and emotions, children need to hear someone normalize their experience.
  • Help them label their emotions. In elementary school, most children learn the words mad, sad, and happy. As they get older, more complex and unfamiliar emotions, such as jealousy, rage, and embarrassment come into play. Giving the emotion a name gives them a way to process and handle it.
  • Empathize. My children love to hear about times when I might have experienced something similar to what they are going through (I suspect they just like hearing the embarrassing stories, but if that makes them feel closer to me, I’ll offer up a few!) Your children want to connect with you, and they want to know that even you, now the rational adult, has made a bad decision or two.
  • Don’t overreact. I’ll confess. I’m guilty. When my daughter was in middle school, another parent mentioned with twinkling eyes that she heard my daughter liked a boy. It was a good thing I heard about it before my daughter brought it up, or I could not have practiced the “wait for 10 seconds” rule I just mentioned. My mind raced – how could she not have told me? Who said she was allowed to date, anyway? I’ll just have to move back to India and … (ok, I didn’t go that far). In the end, I found out that at that age, it just meant they sat next to each other at lunch, and I could stop planning her wedding. Good thing I didn’t overreact, right?

Keep the Dialog Open

Yes, your child is a little different now, but you can still engage him as long as you are willing to adapt. Try to find one-on-one time, where you’re providing undivided attention. That’s right – no paying bills or texting during that conversation! It can happen in the car or in your kitchen while you’re cooking side-by-side. In fact some kids, boys in particular, may prefer this to an invitation to “sit and talk.” It helps if you connect through their interests. For example, ask what they like about the music they listen to, even if you are not a fan of their music. Watch the shows they watch without getting too critical. It’s an opportunity to discuss the barrage of cultural messages and gender codes that they receive through media, but if they sense judgement on your part, they are likely to shut down the conversation.

Sit with the Silence

It’s developmentally appropriate for kids to start turning away from their parents and relying more on friends, but parents can take their preteen’s withdrawal as rejection. If your child is not very talkative now, let her know you can accept that, and that you are comfortable with it. It’s easy to alienate a ’tween by demanding they share everything. Lastly, keep the conversations short and simple. We’ve all done it – the lecture that starts with homework and ends with every transgression of the week. Remember when you were a kid and you thought, “I got the point. Why is Dad still talking?” Stop before your child gets there.

You can do this!

Even if it sometimes feels as if you have lost all influence over your children, in reality you are their role model. When you respond to his negative emotions with calm and caring, you are teaching him an important lesson about how to respond to adversity. If you do lose it and yell, give yourself a break. After all, you are human. An apology at a time when things are calmer sends an important message to her. It tells her that you can own your inappropriate reactions and you respect her enough to acknowledge that you could have handled it better.

And when all else fails, do what I do and pull out your kid’s toddler photos until the storm blows over. It’s the best reminder that your sweet child is still in that preteen body, and will re-emerge when the prefrontal cortex has conquered that pesky limbic system!