November 9, 2010

Apologies: Thawing the Ice that Grips Relationships

Apologies are interesting.  There are people who offer apologies in order to smooth things out for the moment so that a conflict can be avoided—maybe even a conflict that would do their relationship some good.  There are those who offer an apology, in hopes that next time the misdeed will be forgiven without any notice or further apology.  And, I hope, there are apologies that come from those who take responsibility for poor behavior, regret their actions, and have a desire to refrain from (or limit) inconvenience or harm to another in the future.

When I look at dictionary definitions, as I often do in thinking about a topic, I notice that “apology” comes with some contradiction that seems to be borne out in the way people offer their “regrets” about things they’ve done:

For example, we find that the noun “apology” carries a definition of regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.  That’s the most frequent use of the word, but the next definition rings true as well: “a reasoned argument or justification for something”.   So, I hear many people offering an apology that goes something like this:  “I owe you an apology for not calling you back after you made such an effort to let me know about the upcoming class that I wanted to attend, but I stubbed my toe that day, and I was coming down with a cold, and besides that, I was writing a paper for my other class.”  What was proffered as an expression of regret, turns out to be little more than a lengthy justification, and certainly falls short of, “I’m sorry and I’ll try to not let it happen again.”

In close relationships—or, rather, in relationships that you hope will remain close or become closer—apologies are not necessarily meant to be the “last word” in the hurtful matter.  They can be a bridge to further communication that can strengthen the relationship. But, the true apology comes as a means of taking responsibility for a misdeed or behavior that has caused distress, extra work, or even minor inconvenience for another person.  Further, a real apology also includes the intention not to repeat the error.  WHY, THEN, IS IT SO HARD FOR US TO APOLOGIZE?

It seems to be rooted in the need to protect our ego, or positive sense of self. We all like to think well of ourselves and by apologizing we are letting on to the fact that we are fallible and often make mistakes. Owning up to our errors in life can be uncomfortable, and for men it is contrary to the code we are taught (“men NEVER apologize!”). AND, most importantly, it is well-documented that our brains are wired to justify our actions to reduce anxiety, as well as take the “victim” position, much more often than that of the responsible party.

Real apologies can only be offered after some examination of one’s own character, thought processes, and actions, and without much focus on the actions or failures of the one to whom the apology is given.  For example, if my wife and I have had a disagreement about something and find ourselves muttering under our individual breaths in opposite ends of the house, is it an apology if I approach her saying that I am deeply regretful for my actions, but if she hadn’t behaved like a jerk during our recent conversation, I wouldn’t have behaved poorly?  Now, that was a joke, of course, but it comes close to describing how some people “apologize”!

In relationships with others, we all make mistakes.  Sometimes we are unintentionally hurtful to our partner.  We might be jealous, or quick to anger in situations that are more about personal insecurity than about the wrongdoing of another.  I remember feeling possessive of a friend in elementary school.  This has happened to a lot of us, I know, but I am reminded of the power of this issue, even decades later.   As a fifth grader, when my friend would invite other boys to his home and I was not included, I felt so confused and angry that I sometimes broke something he had given me, or would give him the silent treatment at school the next day.  Though we see the childishness in such behavior, it is not that different from what adults do every day when we perceive that others have disappointed or harmed us in some way.

In my office, I’ve suggested that a few individuals apologize for an action (or inaction) that hurt another, and the responses to that suggestion tell me that apologies are really tough for many of us.  To say, “I’m sorry,” means taking responsibility for being wrong, or having stepped on the feelings of another.  I’ve seen grown men (and women) shrink back in horror at the very idea!  Somehow, admitting to one mistake, seems to them like opening up the floodgates of “being wrong” and that all their past errors will come rushing in to be examined and criticized.  Of course, rationally we know this isn’t true, but I suspect many of us have a little bit of this fear.  The only way to test whether it is safe to take a risk like that is to apologize for some small error, and learn and grow from there.

As the great 20th century psychologist Albert Ellis said, “As humans, we are all talented self-actualizers, and talented screwballs.” In attempting to maintain the healthiest sense of self that I can , I know that acknowledging my successes in life is important, but acknowledging and taking responsibility for my screwball actions is equally crucial.