The other night my two-year-old son wanted me to get a step stool out of the closet. As I was lifting it out of the storage space, he reached for it and his littlest pinky finger got pinched in the hinge that connects the sides of the ladder as it opens.
Yikes! I put the step ladder down, scooped him up and said, “I’m so sorry.”
I wanted to say, “But you need to wait til I get it all the way out.” And “That’s why these things are grown-up things.” And probably 15 other things in order to make myself feel better because I very much didn’t like being responsible for an action that pinched his finger.
But I didn’t ,because I remember listening to a podcast with psychologist Harriet Lerner on Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us series that was like a master class on apologies. It was 2 years ago and so well done that I still remember some talking points. One being “When ‘but’ is tagged on to an apology, it undoes the sincerity.” If there is a genuine counter point or excuse to the apology, it needs to happen as a separate conversation.
So I looked up some more details from Dr. Lerner’s book, Why Won’t You Apologize: Healing Big Betrayals and Every Day Hurts. She notes there are cultural differences when it comes to apologies. There are also gender differences – males are more likely to be non-apologizers, women are more likely to be over-apologizers. But for anyone trying to craft a sincere apology, here are some pointers she provides of things not to do:
- Saying I’m sorry you feel that way: These are apologies that don’t address what happened but instead try to target the emotions of the other party.
- The “IF” apology: I’m sorry IF you thought is a weaselly effort to not own what happened.
- The mystifying apology: What is it that the apologizer just said? Apologies that usually are too wordy and talk around the issue, leave the other party feeling confused.
- The apology as instant expectation of forgiveness: I apologize now you must forgive me is a quid pro quo that undermines the apology as a genuine offering and not just a means to an end.
- Not listening: If we don’t hear the injured party out, they will not feel heard and any apology will fall short of the entire wound.
So what is a good apology? A simple statement expressing remorse for the action we are apologizing for, owning what we did, not taking more that our share of blame (because that comes across as insincere) and not trying to speak to how the other person feels.
Just thumbing this book reminded me of some old wounds that I was surprised to find hadn’t fully healed over because I can still think of the poor apologies I’ve received. The down-played sorry – “I’m sorry that I called you a ‘brat’ when I was feeling crappy” when that wasn’t the word used at all. The blame-shifting excuse: “I was feeling sick, what was I to do?” when someone no-showed/no-called to the birthday party I threw for her. And the non-apology because the person who caused the injury paraded around all his own hurts as a way to claim he couldn’t be responsible for his actions.
And it also brought to mind incidents where I owed an apology and fell short. The little hitches where I still feel a little guilty or ashamed because my actions were thoughtless, careless or uninformed and I never had the guts to address it properly.
All these memories make the case of how important a good apology is. As Dr. Lerner says, “I believe that tendering an apology, one that is authentic and genuinely felt, helps the other person to feel validated, soothed and cared for and can restore a sense of well-being and integrity to the one who sincerely feels she or he did something wrong. Without the possibility of apology and repair, the inherently flawed experience of being human would feel impossibly tragic.”
This makes me think of one of the best apologies I’ve ever heard. When my friend Jill was feeling tender because something her partner did, he said, “Please tell me what I did so I can never do it again.”
Fortunately having two young kids gives me plenty of opportunity to apologize. Thankfully it’s usually for skinned knees and stubbed toes for which I have no responsibility but am still sorry they happen. Then I get to participate in the healing. As my son said for the pinched finger incident, “Mama, kiss it?” And then we get to continue growing and learning, all the while in relationship to each other.
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(featured photo from Pexels)