This week I listened to Brene Brown’s two part conversation with Harriet Lerner on the art of apologising. You can listen to it here. I found it very insightful and also thought provoking in light of the next chapter in Kathleen Dowling Singh’s The Grace in Aging, which focusses on forgiveness as liberation from aversion. According to Kathleen, as long as we are caught up in our story of ourselves and our story about others and life in general, then we are stuck in aversion – liking and disliking what has happened, what is happening and probably also what will happen.
Alongside this, Harriet suggests that apologising can be part of the process of forgiveness, but she’s clear that forgiveness isn’t necessarily the outcome of an apology. In fact, she specifically states that an apology isn’t a relational bargaining tool. You don’t apologise as a means to being forgiven – you apologise to grow, to be your best self, to live more fully aligned with your values, to maintain integrity and to practice authenticity.
But she also says that offering an apology is an act that brings gifts for all concerned. The gifts to the hurt party are many and varied. Receiving a heartfelt apology calms your reactive processes, releases you from anger at the offender and gives you a space of emotional safety. You feel seen and validated. You are assured that your feelings matter to the offender, who cares enough to see things from your perspective, to risk making the apology, to put things right where appropriate and to make an effort to avoid repeating the offence.
The gift to the one offering the apology is more of a long term thing. Making an apology often feels like you are choosing to be vulnerable (so hard), admitting to mistake or failure (again, hard), opening to more anger and story telling about how awful you are (seriously risky), giving away authority/edge/power (parental nightmare) and handing over a tool for later manipulation or ongoing accusation (general nightmare).
But Harriet assures us that we grow in the process of taking responsibility for our actions and for being able to recognise when we have operated at the cost of another. We grow when begin to create space to observe our actions/thoughts/feelings without identifying with them, and so we can orient ourselves to the fullness of reality – not just the self-referential part that we inhabit and perceive. We grow in integrity, equanimity, courage and self respect when we live into our best self. Plus, the relationship grows in intimacy and trust when we feel seen, heard, validated, accepted, honoured, respected, cared for and experience ongoing commitment to shared vulnerability.
So there are two aspects of forgiveness for you to reflect on here and I think they are intertwined and complementary.
Seeing through the story
Forgiveness and the liberation from aversion is a process of seeing through the story you have been telling yourself about your wounds. This isn’t about discounting pain or discrediting real wounding. It’s more like recognising that blaming, holding grudges or vilifying the offender can become props for stories of resentment and hurts, frustrations and disappointments. So returning to the memory and holding on to the story of the origin of the pain is actually creating and feeding more suffering – suffering that is likely spilling out into other areas and relationships in your life. We can get trapped in returning to gaze on the train wreck of our story of pain, and we can get trapped by feeding feelings of injustice and punitive desires for justice.
In the body, the storied feelings generate stress responses in the body that feel like increasing heat in a pressure cooker: we’ll need a way to let off steam; we’ll need a target, an enemy to harm. And this gets complicated when our stories include judgements of ourselves. We become the target for punishment.
Forgiveness, then, is seeing a bigger, broader, more inclusive and expansive story – one that allows for nuance and mystery and process. Forgiveness is also a practice of letting go of judgements in the light of the larger story and because the larger story makes it obvious that judgements are harmful. Judgement obstructs compassion, connection and interbeing. Even if we never speak them aloud, our judging look is directed negativity toward another. It’s covert bullying. And self judgement is self harm.
forgiveness and judgement reflection questions
Where is this live for me right now?
What story of pain do I return to most often?
Who am I aware of hurting by my judgement? (spoken, unspoken, indirectly hinted at)
What are the things I judge/blame/punish myself for?
Apologise with heart
While there is the internal aspect of letting go of the story of judgement and aversion, there is also the external aspect of taking responsibility for yourself and being able to admit when you are wrong, have fucked up or otherwise failed to be wholly, fully and lovingly present in the world.
Harriet gives nine rules for how to give an effective heartfelt apology. I’ll give you a quick run down of them, so listen to the podcast if you want more in depth explanation and examples.
First, though, a word on how to respond to an apology.
Most of us, upon receiving an apology say something along the lines of ‘that’s ok.’ Harriet does not think this is adequate or appropriate. She counsels instead you say:
“Thank you. I appreciate your apology.” Then you let it sink in and enjoy the moment. You may have more to say about what the other person did that was hurtful. Save it for another conversation. Let them know there’s more, by all means, but also let them know that you’ll take it one step at a time.
Here are the nine rules:
- Keep your but out of your apology. No ‘I’m sorry buts’. If you want to call out bad behaviour do that, but don’t dress it up like an apology.
- keep your focus on your action that caused harm, not on the reaction of the other: ‘I’m sorry for my insensitive joke’, not ‘I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt by my joke’.
- make restitution or reparation where you can – you broke it, you replace it/fix it
- don’t overdo it. If, realising that you have caused someone else pain, you make an apology that is so emotionally charged that they end up having to comfort you – you have overdone it.
- don’t get caught in blaming, even when there is fault on both sides. Apologise for your part even if the other person doesn’t recognise their part. Even if you didn’t start it. Apologise for what’s yours and let it go. Be your best self.
- do your best to avoid repeating the hurtful behaviour. Work at it, otherwise your apology is worth nothing. (Guilt is a useful tool here as motivation to achieve change. Remember: guilt =I made a bad choice, did a stupid thing, didn’t think that through….I can do better. Shame is not useful. Shame = I am bad, I am stupid, I can’t get anything right…I am a waste of space and can never change because I’m made this way)
- don’t use your apology to silence the other person – saying sorry isn’t a way to avoid hearing the hurt or having the hard conversations.
- keep your apology respectful of the other’s reality. If they aren’t ready to receive it, wait.
- expect nothing in return for your apology. Not forgiveness, not reconciliation, not a reciprocal apology. Apologies are not bargaining tools in relationships to get what you want.
Apology reflection questions
Which of the nine rules is hardest for me and what is it I am resisting?
Who do I need to apologise to and what do I need to work on to do it well?
What might need to happen for me to risk making a heartfelt apology?
What might need to happen for me to truly receive a heartfelt apology?
That’s a lot to process, so the processing is a practice this week. It might help to set aside a regular time each day to touch base with these reflection questions and see what is rising, what conversations have triggered insight or memory or connection, what feelings are on the surface and demanding your attention, what thoughts are swirling and what you are sensing in your body-breath-being.
Draw back the curtain
The story we tell ourselves forms a backdrop for the drama of our lives to play on, so it’s helpful (and wise and kind) to practice drawing back that curtain and recognising that it’s a story constructed from a partial perspective and with more than a few out of focus spots. Your body sensations are the best clue to when you are in drama, because the body does not lie – so practice attending to the body’s subtle and the not so subtle indications of stress pressure cooking. How fast is your breathing? sweaty palms? dry mouth? tingling fingers? numb feet? prickles between your shoulder blades? need to pee? craving fats? loss of appetite? I’m guessing…what is your body’s stress tell? Listen. Notice. Don’t try to change anything, just thank your body for telling the truth, and then ask yourself: what’s the story I’m telling right now?
It may be that the timing is right for you to make a heartfelt apology. It could be that your integrity demands it of you and that the opportunity is given to you. Be courageous. Be humble. Be wholehearted. Do your best with the nine rules.