Saturday, 15 November 2008

A Meaningful Apology

Sorry is a powerful word. Whether used individually or collectively, it carries an emotional force that, in the best of circumstances, is life-changing.

Yet when it comes to healing serious hurt or conflict, I am increasingly sure that saying sorry is rarely enough.

An apology has its greatest power when someone unreservedly acknowledges the harm they have done to other people. Admitting "I caused this" is difficult. It can take many people a long time and much backsliding to get that point. Making excuses, looking for "both sides to the story", feeling miserable or resentful that you have been caught out, or self-pitying because your dignity and reputation are now sullied are all quite different responses from recognising and unconditionally regretting the damaging effects of your choices and actions on other people's lives.

A meaningful apology leaves excuses behind. It must arise from a willingness to take complete responsibility for your actions, but even that is not enough. It must also be based on a resolve not to cause such pain again. Fear of losing other people's love and respect, rationalisations, panic: all of that is essentially self-focused. It's about "you", not "them" and is even a faint hope that you might get away with it next time.

I have heard several painful stories where people talked about much-loved family members who are fluent in the language of apology but seemingly unable to make any real change to their behaviour. While each story is different, that awful sense of "Here we go again" is much the same.

I can add my own situation to these stories where by my ex-husband was very controlling and emotionally and verbally abusive. He degraded me to the lowest emotional point of my life. He knew just what buttons to press to hurt me by throwing everything from my past back into my face. And when he realised he had pushed me to the point of leaving, it was always the same "Lets give it another go, I am sorry, I will change".........I finally left in March 2000 after 15 years but that is another story for another day.

Conventional psychological thinking pushes people to find reasons why they or their loved ones are behaving badly: terrible parents, parents who were too kind; too much money or too little; poor self-image or excessive ego. Almost any scenario will do.

Some factors are significant. We don't enter or move through life with equal gifts or insights. But "reasons why" can also be perilously distracting. The primary cause of behaviour that hurts other people is rarely in the past. The past matters, but less than the way someone thinks about themselves and other people right now, in the present moment.

Are they willing to recognise their power to care about other people whether or not they "feel like it"?

My husband and the other people all see themselves as the primary victims of their own behaviour. The suffering they are causing others is less urgent for them than their own emotional needs and desires. Until they reverse that, and make their daily choices with far more active regard for other people, whatever sorrow they may feel for the pain they are causing will remain muted and ineffective.

Waking up to our power to harm - or uplift - others is crucial to emotional maturity.
It is the way out of self-centredness and, while challenging, is the only way to make saying sorry meaningful.

What it adds up to is taking unconditional responsibility for the effect of all our choices and actions on other people.

Stanwell Park, Sydney, July 2007: "The Path We Walk"


Fly Girl said...

My mother endured a lot, too, during a marriage. I think too many people are too selfish and self-centered to really comprehend what they are doing to their "loved" ones. We see the wreckage every day....

Good for you to recognize that change wasn't forthcoming in your own relationship and choose a path that allowed you to take care of yourself!

The path in the photograph says a lot... as we travel our own paths through life.


avtcoach said...

I have never been able to rationalize any excuse for a spouse to be treated like that. It is a depth of pain either way..staying or leaving, isn't it? I do know you were deserving of more and I am happy for you that you had the courage to have a different kind of life. I am sure some degree of pain is still there. You have to be proud of the life you have now. At least from the little I know you seem to cherish your life, do good for others, travel and see the world, create wonderful blog friendships, create wonderful stories in art with your scrapblogs and write from the heart. I am sorry that you did not get the apology you deserved! Blessings to you!

Poetikat said...

I'm sorry to read of your experiences, but happy to know that your life is better and you are stronger for it. You are so right in saying that "waking up" to our capacity for good or harm is crucial to our maturity. So is our ability to forgive, if not forget. ((This is not directed at your situation, but just as a general statement.)


P.S. thanks for your kind words on my blog.

Caroline said...

What a powerful post. I just reads another post from someone who is enduring abuse from a co-worker. I too worked with a bully...

It amazes me what we put up with. We give our power away and allow for this to happen...luckily most of us wake up and end the cycle. I look back and don't regret what happened...I don't want an apology. What I endured has made me so strong and I have learned volumes from that experience...

Just like that poem by Marianne Williamson:

"There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do.We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us."

Anonymous said...

A profound discussion in which you have told us so much about yourself. With Enya playing in the background it brought tears to my eyes. There is nothing I can really add to all you have said ....CJ

McMGrad89 said...

I have the worst time saying "sorry" even when down deep I know I am wrong sometimes because I am not ready to change whatever behavior caused the pain. Other times it is my inability to admit that I am not perfect that prevents me from saying I am sorry. This is actually one of my biggest faults.

I do tell my students that they are not allowed to say "I am sorry" unless they are willing to truly change what they did wrong. If they continually repeat the offending behavior then they are not truly sorry. I equate sorry with repentant and repentant with change. I am trying to teach them that using that word without change in behavior just diminishes the value of the word. They understand that. They are learning to say things like, "I realize what I did was hurtful and I never wanted to hurt you. I will try not to do it again." I have just heard too many kids just mutter "I am sorry" without a second thought.

McMGrad89 said...

PS - More importantly - Thank you for being so willing to share such a painful part of your life. There are many people out there who can benefit from knowing they are not alone in their pain.

Anonymous said...

I watched my sister endure 13 years of physical and mental abuse until one day she truly felt her worth. I enjoy your discussions greatly and look forward to returning.

JenX67 said...

I missed this post! I hate it when that happens. I've been so preoccupied this week.

"SORRY:" - wow - the really meaningful apologies - the ones that had the power to make a difference at one point -- seem to always come too late - say, 10 years after the magnificent unbonding.

I read an article in Parade Magazine when I was a senior in h.s. about emotional abuse. It really helped me deal with certain things in my life at the time. Many years later, I told an emotionally abusive person one, "There is nothing you won't say to me."

You know, Peggy, after awhile, nothing this person said even mattered. I am still exploring what all that means - and how many blows one person must absorb before you become immune. Weird, how we actually become psychologically innoculated, huh? I also think for me, I knew who I was in Christ. I knew I had an Advocate. Of course, this is where I found my strength and shelter.

You are a dear of a person. The Lord Restores the Years the locusts have eaten. ALL OF THEM. He that wait upon the Lord shall mount up with wings...I know you know the verse.