How hard is it for you to say ‘I’m sorry’?
If you think about it for a moment, you might imagine that in my line of work as a psychiatrist, I’m in the privileged position of being able to regularly witness and learn about interpersonal conflict.
And you’d be right.
I’d say that, on average in my professional life, I am either witness to or to some degree involved in, some sort of fairly intense interpersonal conflict from anywhere between six to twelve times per week, especially where couples are involved.
And one of the first things I learned, some years back, is just how truly difficult it is for people to utter the words ‘I’m sorry’ to each other.
Not, ‘I’m sorry but…’, or, ‘I’m sorry if…’
Just, ‘I’m sorry’. Period.
This ESPECIALLY holds true if the two people happen to be in close relation to one another, as is the case with married couples or between parents and their children.
I also noticed how hard it was for me as well.
What amazes me the most, however, is what I feel AFTER I give a proper, adult apology. To give it justice in trying to describe the feeling I would need to use words like ‘cleansed’, ‘calm’, ‘loving’, ‘at peace’, and, ‘loved’.
In fact, when I listen to my devout religious friends talk about their experiences with God (I’m just a VERY imperfect Catholic who prays God exists for fear of the alternative), they sometimes- incredibly enough- use words that are quite similar to my list above: loving, at peace, cleansed, and calm.
This can be some powerful stuff we’re talking about right here my friends.
When we struggle to grow and to act as truly Emotionally Competent adults, we are, in a sense, praying to a higher, stronger, more capable and dependable self; one that we can TRUST and one that we can feel safe and good about sharing with our loved ones and the greater world around us.
This adult self is very different from the more childlike, but also powerful, habit-and-trauma-driven REACTIVE self which comes out of our childhoods and early adulthoods.
When we apologize like true adults, we help both ourselves AND the other person feel better and heal from past betrayals. Chances are that not many people in our lives heretofore knew how to behave like Emotionally Competent adults, and a proper adult apology can lay the groundwork for a new buildup of trust, which is VERY healing.
So, what IS a proper, adult apology?
When I make an apology, say, to my wife or to my children, I am not simply saying ‘I’m sorry’.
I am Deliberately Stopping also.
THEN, I am checking in with myself and acknowledging what I am feeling. (This would be akin to having a proper adult within us at all times kind of saying something like, ‘Hey Anthony, how you doin’ my man? What’s going on?’- We tend to begin to feel better and less hurt or angry when we are acknowledged.)
Once I have checked in with myself and I’ve made sure that I’m okay, I’m NOW ready to make an apology.
And here’s the key: DON’T make your apology conditional, ever; meaning no ‘buts’ or ‘ifs’.
You should never say something like, “Honey, I know I was wrong in the way I handled that BUT you have to admit, you were wrong too….” It won’t work.
The problem with this is that you’d be trying to do the other person’s work of apology FOR THEM, which doesn’t work; you’d be saying TOO MANY words.
Instead, stick with, “Honey, I know I was wrong in the way I handled that. I’m sorry.”
In my experience, people often ‘panic’ and fail to Stop.
In fact, a large number of the interpersonal conflicts I’ve been privy to could have been resolved in a faster and more Emotionally Competent manner had the participants known when to Stop talking. People often make an excellent initial point only to undermine and sabotage themselves with more words.
Don’t worry about feeling you haven’t gotten a chance to justify or to defend yourself. You can ALWAYS have more conversations about the particular topic(s) later on.
In fact, in my office I’ll often use the phrases, “The game never ends”, and, “Life’s a long race, not a short one (we hope), so take it easy.”
Let yourself feel the weight of your words AS WELL AS the weight of your SILENCE when you Stop talking. Learn to deliberately Stop and to feel the power in that adult decision.
This is the weight that the other person will feel, and with it you will have a chance of passing by their defenses and entering their heart with your apology.
Remember that the quality of your interactions with others depends not just upon your WORDS, but also upon your BEHAVIOR- which includes Restraint (see my REALADULTS post where the ‘R’ in the acronym ‘REALADULTS’ stands for Restraint. It is also explained in detail in my new book Don’t Get Married! Unless You Understand A Few Things First.)
Now if, while apologizing, you display a sense of agitation, anger, impatience, or insincerity, the other person’s defensives will ‘rise and shine’ and you’ll be shut out (and so will your apology.)
So be calm and poised; let yourself feel centered and at peace. Only YOU can account for how you are feeling and behaving at any given time. Don’t blame or shame or be passive aggressive.
I’d say that out of every one hundred attempts, I probably get this whole thing right maybe fifty or sixty times; and I do this for a living, so don’t feel too badly.
And with THAT, I wish you, as always, the best of luck and hope,
Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.
(You might also want to read my related posts, ‘Forgiveness in Your Marriage’, and, ‘Is Your Spouse a Stranger or Family?’ for some additional background on this topic.)