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The Power of a Heartfelt Sorry
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim on Apr 12, 2017
If I can impart just one bit of relationship advice to our sons before I no longer have any influence on their development, it is this:
A genuine apology from the heart can heal, nourish, and inspire in ways that no amount of money or counselling can.
I feel this holds true in every type of relationship, be it between life partners, parents and their children, friends, work colleagues, and businesses and their clients. Based on my life experiences thus far, I can't help but believe that the majority of us humans don't fully understand the value of delivering a heartfelt sorry.
In the moment that we realize that we have made a mistake or we are told by someone that we have hurt his or her feelings, whether our mistake was purposeful or inadvertent, do we have the emotional intelligence to process our mistake, take full responsibility for it, and deliver a genuine apology?
Doing so requires significant vulnerability and that we potentially expose ourselves to unsavoury treatment by those who don't have the maturity to appreciate the courage it takes to be vulnerable. The way I see it, if a person is not understanding and gracious in responding to a genuine apology, we can learn to not give said person our life energy going forward. So ultimately, we don't need to fear being chastised for owning up to a mistake - the two possible outcomes of offering a genuine apology are to gain trust and forgiveness or to gain clarity on who we wish to spend our life energy with.
I think most of us are similar in that when we feel that another person is truly sorry and expresses remorse without shifting the focus to anything else, it's only natural to feel compassion and respect; essentially, it becomes impossible not to fully forgive.
When people won't take full responsibility for a mistake, when they pretend nothing happened or present excuses or even try to shift the focus by criticizing others, forgiveness is harder to generate, isn't it? Without a genuine apology, resentment sets in and relationships enter a death spiral; some spirals last decades, others last a few seconds, but entrance into a relationship death spiral of any length often begins with a lack of understanding of the value of being and saying sorry. Yes, for a sorry to have impact, we actually have to be sorry from the heart.
My first opportunity to learn this priceless life lesson came when I was in my late 20s. I was fresh out of school, had just completed two years of running a successful clinic in Alaska and a residential internship in fasting supervision in California. When a patient asked for my thoughts on a lump that had formed along the side of her trunk a few days into her fast, without measuring my thoughts, I told her that it was likely a natural consequence of detoxification that occurs with fasting, and would disappear on its own. Later, it became clear that the lump was an infected sebaceous cyst that required drainage and proper dressing. When I saw this patient a day after she was treated, I felt an uncomfortable coldness. It took me a bit of time to process her energy, but once I realized that she was rightfully upset at me for initially misdiagnosing her lump, I told her how sorry I was for my mistake, and that I would be more measured and careful in all I did and said going forward. In expressing my remorse, I felt an enormous shift of energy as she was able to forgive me and both of us were able to feel the relief that was generated by her forgiveness.
My time running a residential fasting clinic involved countless bedside chats where family members looked to me to act as a mediator as they tried to overcome the wounds of chronic disagreements and painful fights. Even with guidelines in place to use "I feel" statements and to give one another the opportunity to voice lingering resentment, I consistently found that the biggest killer of progress was inability to put one's own resentment aside for a moment to fully feel the other's sadness so as to genuinely be and say sorry from the heart.
A typical exchange from those chats:
Jordan: I feel hurt when you undermine me in front of the kids, like last week when you excused Mark from the consequence that I set down for him speaking to be disrespectfully - sometimes, you act like you are the boss of this family and that what I say doesn't really matter.
Terry: But that's what you do to me all the time!
Terry clearly has her own point to make, but in order to foster healing and give their relationship a chance of being healthy, in the moment Jordan shares something he is genuinely resentful about, Terry might strive to validate the specific instance that Jordan is speaking about. As an example script, Terry could say:
I'm sorry that I made you feel that way. I recognize that we are parenting the children together, and I don't think it's fair for either of us to feel like one is dominating the other, that one of us has the final say in anything that happens with our family. Next time, I will talk with you first and we can decide together if we can modify any consequences that we have set for the children.
Please note that this alternative script has Terry taking ownership of Jordan's pain - I'm sorry that I made you feel that way. Many prefer to say "I'm sorry that you feel this way," which translates to "I'm sorry your unreasonable mind took it that way" - not what we're shooting for when looking to heal a fractured relationship.
A memorable exchange between an adult daughter in her late 30s and her mother in her late 60s:
Daughter: Mom, you expect so much of me, to be married by now. Why can't you just want me to be happy and healthy? You didn't even save any money to help me with my education. All of my friends' parents helped them with tuition.
Mom: When you become a mother, you will understand my heart. How can you be happy without having your own children? Who is going to help you when you are old and sick? About your tuition, your dad and I expected you to get a full scholarship, that's why we didn't save anything for your education.
How else might mom process what her daughter has shared, and how might she respond to encourage healing and forgiveness?
I didn't realize how much stress I give you - I don't want to stress you out so I will be more careful about not giving you pressure. I regret that your dad and I didn't have the foresight and discipline to save some money for your education - looking back, I wish we had. I am really sorry we couldn't create more opportunities for your future.
This isn't to say that we need to permanently swallow our own thoughts and feelings on contentious matters, that we should always bow low and take one for the team. Maybe mom did save and help to the best of her ability but she didn't have much support from her husband, which made it impossible to build an education fund for the children. And in the first example above, maybe Jordan undermines Terry just as often. The point is that when someone in our circle of life expresses resentment over something, even if we have a different point of view on the issue at hand, to best support the relationship, it's vital that we do our best to understand, acknowledge, and even own the other person's feelings.
Maybe Terry feels that Jordan is being hypocritical, but this doesn't change Jordan's feelings of resentment in the moment. By acknowledging Jordan's resentment, apologizing, and expressing a desire to be supportive, Terry gives Jordan the relief of being heard and understood, which generates capacity to overcome resentment and to forgive.
When a parent takes responsibility for his or her shortcomings and offers a sincere apology like in the alternative script above for mom, what decent daughter or son wouldn't melt and instantly forgive? On the other hand, when mom tells her daughter "I only want what's best for you, and it's your fault for not getting a full scholarship," the daughter's resentment only grows stronger.
Of course, there are some in this world who consistently look to take advantage of those around them. Some people repeatedly do what they want regardless of negative consequences to others, and have no shame in offering meaningless apologies. I would suggest that such people are not worth spending our life energy on - by offering such people empathy and even apologies for their grievances, we only cripple them further. As the Irish would say, such people need a bit of tough love, and sometimes, tough love means moving on and letting them know what won't be tolerated.
But when someone we know to be a decent person takes the time to thoughtfully express genuine hurt or discontent about something, let's remember the power we have to facilitate healing with a genuine apology. Developing the maturity to offer such empathy and a heartfelt sorry is freely available to all of us - we just have to recognize the value of developing this level of emotional intelligence.
Let's be clear that this isn't easy. How many people do you know who can receive criticism but can put their own hurt, defensiveness, and anger aside until they have first helped the other person feel whole again? We're almost talking land of unicorns here. Really, when you're having a heated argument with a loved one, how often does your loved one put all his or her stuff to the side and place the entire focus on your feelings until you feel heard, validated, and ultimately, cared about? This is what it comes down to, doesn't it? When the other person doesn't give us the empathy that we need, we feel he or she just doesn't care about us, or they care a whole lot more about themselves.
For a relationship to be relatively healthy, I believe one partner needs to develop and consistently display this level of maturity. Someone has to go first, someone has to put their resentment on hold first, someone has to apologize first, someone has to let the other heal first.
What do you get when two people consistently do this for each other? A truly special, magical relationship that everyone deserves, but sadly, few people experience.
Let's raise our goblets to the healing power of being empathetic and offering a heartfelt apology, especially in moments when we have strong reasons to want to do otherwise.
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