The Fine Art of Apologizing
“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”
~ Benjamin Franklin
Owning our mistakes (digging deep until we reach the sacred ground of humility) is a gift we offer to both ourselves and to the ones on the receiving end. Saying "I'm sorry." Why do those words hold the power to raise bile and tighten our throats? Why does it bring us to our metaphorical, and occasionally literal, knees? Why does the very idea of owning our mistakes call out to our deepest internal defense mechanisms so they come rushing forth, leaving us angry, agitated, aggressive, and on the offensive? In a word: Ego. We hold tightly to the notion that if we are right we are in control and somehow safe. Humility cannot reside where ego is present. Ego tells us: we got this. But do we?
Imagine Ego as a coin: one side of the coin is the I'm less than while the other side is the I'm better than. We frequently judge ourselves as either being less than others, or better than others. Both states are ego. When we believe we are less than another it is as surely about ego and pride as are the moments we believe we are better than others. Ego leaves no room for simply being equal to others. It tells us that in order to remain powerful and in control we must maintain our ideals of right and wrong. We fluctuate between less than and better than all the time. It's a huge pendulum we swing on wildly from side to side, briefly glimpsing humility in the center.
As social creatures we are naturally prone to comparing ourselves to others, which is why social media brings people both great joy and tremendous angst. Are they ever home? Do they ever struggle? Do they always look that amazing? Yes they are frequently home (folding the laundry or picking up dog poop), of course they struggle (they just keep it off Facebook and Instagram), and no they do NOT always look that good (that was the 50th shot with just the right filter, lighting and angle). Every year when we receive those "our year in review" Christmas letters I utter to my family"one of these years I'm gonna write one of those, but I'm gonna tell the truth about what went on around here." It's one of our holiday chuckles. The constant comparing on social media, or in the produce aisle, feeds the great beast that is our ego. It makes saying "I'm sorry" that much harder, because we already feel small, inadequate and frightened.
I have a group of friends that love, and I mean LOVE, tossing out the "would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?" saying, to which I have always replied "being right makes me really happy." It's a joke, kind of. Okay, it's mostly not a joke. It's mostly honest as I, like most, am a work in progress. Self-righteous indignation? Be still my beating heart. The opportunity to hide our rage under the cloak of fighting for what we believe is morally right, especially on behalf of others? I love the notion of being right, but fortunately, on most days, I love being emotionally and spiritually free more. And if we wish to be emotionally and spiritually free owning our mistakes is vital.
Some key things to keep in mind when apologizing...
1) We apologize for ourselves, not for the person we are apologizing to. This may seem strange, but it is such an important truth. We apologize to keep our side of the street clean. We own our part, which, by the way, is all we can ever own or control. We apologize to protect and grow our integrity.
More than 20 years ago I got into a fairly, okay super, heated argument with someone I really love and cherish. I knew they were wrong and had said some hurtful things. I was left emotionally bruised, angry, and incredibly frustrated, and I knew they owed me an apology. I knew it with every fiber of my being. And yet, the apology never came and I remained hurt and swimming around in the swamp of self-righteousness. I was the one carrying that suffering around. The only way out? I had to apologize. To be clear I didn't have to do anything, unless, of course, I wanted to free myself from the misery. I had to own my part in the disagreement, and so I did. The other person never did apologize, and that fact annoyed me for a fleeting moment... until I realized I was free. Their side? Why that would be their business. I was free to continue loving and cherishing them. What a gift.
2) What the other person does with our apology is none of our business. For real. If we're hoping for a certain reaction we're not apologizing, we're manipulating, and that is always about ego. Always.
3) Apologizing, especially to our children, of any age, is one of the greatest gifts we can ever give them. We are teaching, through example, the importance of owning our mistakes. People who learn to own their own part of any situation are far more likely to experience serenity and joy. They are far more likely to have successful loving relationships. They are far more likely to actually grow up.
4) Apologizing, unless we absolutely love doing it, must be followed up by a conscious choice to not repeat the mistake we just apologized for. Does this mean we'll get it right all the time? Of course not. However, unless we back our words up with action they mean little to either ourselves or others. It's our integrity, our peace, our soul on the line.
5) When it comes to apologies; get in and get out. Everything that is truly important to say can be said in five sentences or less. For real. If we find ourselves slipping into a dissertation on our feelings we're edging dangerously close to rationalizations and excuses. We are on the precipice of manipulation, consciously or subconsciously.
6) Never apologize for something we didn't do, or cannot do. This may sound like a no-brainer, but the truth is we do it ALL the time. I'm not a fan of New Year's Resolutions, however, every year I set an intention to continue my growth when it comes to not saying "I'm sorry" for things completely outside of my control. The other day I was checking out of the grocery store. Everything had been scanned and bagged. My debit card payment had been approved. And then the computer system froze. It took 10 minutes, and 3 store managers, to re-boot the system. During those 10 mins, 5 customers were stuck behind me. In under 2 minutes I turned to the lovely older woman behind me and uttered those inauthentic words "I'm SO sorry" and then I caught myself and said, "wait a minute what did I do?" We both laughed, and then spent the next 7 minutes talking about how often we utter those words without really thinking. Here's the problem with saying "I'm sorry" when we have nothing to be sorry about. Over time all those "I'm sorry's"seep into our subconscious and we begin to assume responsibility for the feelings of those around us, and that leads us directly into the camp of unnecessary guilt, and becoming prolific people pleasers. We need to pay attention to all the times those words slip out of our mouths. Are we sorry? Should we be? Did we actually do anything wrong?
When apologizing matters it will be a challenge. When it doesn't matter? It will be a piece of cake...
Peace & Love Always