It seems like I’ve got this list going on inside my head all the time that is entitled, “Shit you can’t do properly if you can’t feel.” And here’s the deal, my friends, I KNOW that we all have feelings that we are feeling on some level. But lots of us have really, really strong and complicated ways to not feel them consciously while they are happening. So maybe it’s more, “Shit you can’t do properly if you aren’t aware of what you’re feeling.”
Today’s installment of this list is about apologising.
Take a breath and take a moment to think about all the ways and times and circumstances under which you have apologised.
Think too about the apologies that you have received.
Some of them work, as in, they restore connection between you and another human being. This is the function of an apology.
Some of them don’t work. At all. In fact, a bunch of apology styles make shit way, way worse.
Some of them feel really good to receive. They pull you back in towards that person even if some parts of your feelings are still a bit sore. You can feel the possibility of sweet reconnection, the possibility of renewed trust, the possibility of deeper, truer relationship.
Some of them feel shitty to receive and drive your shutdown even further down.
Some are totally innocuous.
As a Canadian of UK stock, I have this inbred social apology reaction. The other day in the little organic market up the street from our house I apologised to the shopkeeper when he pulled his binder out from under my grocery bag and dropped it. And then I laughed immediately and said, “How Canadian, I apologised for being peripherally involved in something that inconvenienced you.” He laughed too.
In my 20s I started to be able to apologise genuinely. I had done enough self-work and enough growing up to be able to recognise that not everything in the world that was wrong was my fault, but also that some of the shittiness around me was genuinely a result of my actions. I couldn’t do it all the time, and it was really, really hard to do this with my parents or my sister, but I began to be able to do it with friends and sometimes even with my partner (harder) and ex-partners (easier).
These were some of the cleanest apologies I could have imagined: I could see clearly what I had done, I could name it, and I could offer an apology and make at least some attempt at an agreement to be more mindful of that thing in the relationship (and in my life in general), AND, most importantly, I was beginning to be able to do this without beating myself up about the original mess-up for weeks and weeks and weeks.
One of the differences was that these apologies were coming less and less from a place of shame. I was beginning to see that I, at my core, was ok. Because shame has one believe that one is irreparably flawed in a fundamental way at the centre of one’s being. Apologies that come from the shame place don’t do the work of reconnection. How can it possibly when then underlying statement is, “I apologise for existing?”
Simultaneous to these shifts in my 20s, I was still quite often blaming Todd for stuff that I perceived was wrong in our life together. He was a big target and I had a huge pattern going on of outsourcing hard emotions through blame. So I would rail at him and he would reply, eventually, with this hugely sardonic, “Sorry?” completely framed as a question. Like he was saying, “I will say the words that you want me to say, but I exist here, and I know that this is not my fault, but, have it your way: sorry.”
And of course, it didn’t help me one bit to not feel feelings. They were still there, the fucking feelings, only now I had been apologised to so I couldn’t keep railing on and on. The end result was me feeling even yet still more trapped with my own unwanted feelings.
There is, in effect, so much strange shit that we do around apologies:
We apologise to someone when, inside, what we really think is that they should be apologising to us.
We apologise without thinking deeply about what is happening for the other person. Lip service: we learn this from our parents and school – “Apologise to so and so for hitting them.” It becomes just words. Not amends, not connection.
We apologise when really what we mean is “fuck you” and what is felt by the other is “fuck you”.
We apologise as shortcut to re-establishing the status quo of the relationship, even when the status quo is nuts and unworkable. “They won’t stop being mad at me and giving me the silent treatment unless I lead with these words. So I will say the words.”
My apologies these days are fewer and further between. I DO find myself apologising to my kids, and on some level that I haven’t yet figured out, many of these feel problematic. It’s as though I’m saying, “I’m sorry I’m fucking up as your mom,” when really what I mean is more, “thank you for your patience and continuing to love me even as I learn how to do this complicated thing of guiding other humans deeper into the world that makes me see my own shit more clearly than anything I’ve ever done before.”
Helga Beers, who teaches yoga and Family Constellations work here in Victoria, says that the originator of Family Constellations teaches that parents never need apologise to their offspring. The parents gave life. After that there is nothing to forgive. And I just don’t get it. I’ve heard her say it a bunch of times and I just really, really don’t get it. I’m totally open to it being due to some lack of understanding on my part. It may indeed be true in the Family Constellations worldview that the parents never owe the children an apology, having given them life. But that doesn’t yet fly in my worldview.
There are moments where I, as a parent, fuck up. The apologies don’t work if I go fast, “I’m sorry I spoke sharply, but you still did this and I still think that this is wrong.” Maybe it works better for my kids when I go slowly, “I’m sorry I spoke before I understood what was going on for you. I feel sad that we lost connection. Could we try again?” Though, really, from a kid perspective, we all just want to know that we are loved. We fuck up AND the love is there.
I’ve also been at the receiving end of blanket apologies from my mom that were really hard to take, along the lines of, “I’m sorry for being such a shitty mom.” Which doesn’t work: I was left needing to reassure that it was not so, and the smaller, much smaller than my mother’s whole mothering, details that we were trying to work through got lost. So maybe I get the Family Constellations perspective a bit. Maybe.
In my other recent apologies, which, really, have tended to be addressed to either my mother or Todd, what I feel is more of a mutual fumbling towards understanding. For my part, trying to put words to complicated feelings and trying not to apologise for feeling the feelings, but to apologise most often for the sharpness of my automatic defense that comes up when feelings hurt – for the brusqueness of my words and the pushing away of connection. These are more layered, nuanced apologies. “I’m sorry for saying _____, I was feeling _______, and I didn’t understand exactly what you were saying so I reacted strongly. My feelings hurt.” “I’m sorry too, that’s not how I meant for it to come out.”
Saying “I’m sorry,” for something specific in a relationship that is built on trust is sweeter by far than saying, “I’m sorry I exist,” from a place of shame. It’s a way to flail and be human and be seen and still loved. And, at first, it’s scary as shit to be that vulnerable.