I can’t run a blog about mental health without spending a good bit of time talking about relationships. Our relationships with others start shaping our personalities from the time we are born. As we go through life, our personalities affect how we will relate to other people. A couple weeks ago I wrote about mistakes, and how working through mistakes can strengthen relationships. Today I’m writing about apologies.
I think a common experience of childhood is being told to apologize to someone. If you recall the entry about moral development, perhaps you’ll recall that children make moral decisions for one of two reasons: to avoid punishment, and then to earn reward. It isn’t really until adolescence that a person will start to see themselves as a member of a society. The person will not fully grasp the consequences of their actions on an altruistic level, they will at least understand the need to maintain relationships in order to function in life.
It’s not possible to have relationships without conflict. If you know of a relationship in which the parties say that they never disagree, there’s a problem. It’s a loss of individuality, but that’s a topic for another blog entry. In my entry about mistakes, I talked about how mistakes can be learning experiences that can help relationships to grow. Now I’m going to take it a step further, and talk about how.
A true apology must involve taking responsibility. This can’t be the non-apology of “I’m sorry you got your feelings hurt.” Even if I had absolutely no intention of causing harm, the damage is done. The person doing the apologizing can phrase it as, “If I’d known…I never would have…” For example: “If I had known your goldfish had drowned, I never would have made a joke about fish drowning.” It’s part of our experience as human beings to want to be heard and understood.
It’s tricky when we don’t feel we have done anything wrong. When this is the case, it’s easy to fall into the traps of the power struggle, and the non-apology. Neither of these, however, maintain, build, nor support healthy relationships.
Next comes acknowledging the harm that’s been done. Whether we intended to do harm or not, it needs to be acknowledged. This is the heart of the apology. It’s how we communicate that we are hearing and understanding the other person’s experience. If you’re not sure what the other person is feeling, ask! Let them know that you are trying to understand how they are feeling so that the two of you don’t end up in the same conflict again. Try not to parrot back to them what they’ve said. Let’s avoid, “I was hurt when you said fish can’t drown.”
“You were hurt when I said fish can’t drown.” Take it one step further: “I was hurt when you said fish can’t drown.”
“So when I made that joke about fish drowning, that upset you because Fluffy the Goldfish did drown. I’m sorry for upsetting you.”
So now we have taken responsibility, and acknowledged the harm we have done. But if anything is going to change long term, we must learn from the experience. We have to be willing to let our guard down, and accept this place of vulnerability. It never feels good to know that we have harmed someone we care for, but when it comes to relationships, it’s inevitable. Once it happens, we can’t take it back. But the best way we can show that we truly regret the consequences of what we have done is to learn from it. We learn about the other person. We learn about their point of view. We learn about their needs, how they communicate, what they expect, and their priorities.
We continue to put weight and meaning behind our apology as we move forward by doing better. We allow ourselves to learn from the experience. Ideally, this happens not just on a small scale with the person with whom we originally had conflict, but across other relationships as well. In the entry about mistakes, I wrote about someone in my life who needed better communication from me. This has taught me to be more aware of my level of communication in other relationships as well. It has also taught me to listen more carefully to what the person in that particular conflict is saying. That whole situation could have been resolved so much sooner if I’d been listening, instead of just being defensive. So part of my apology involves doing what I can not to hurt that person the same way again.
Conflict and mistakes are part of relationships. They also have the potential to be learning experiences. An apology is not always going to be a cure for what has gone wrong. There are times when a relationship may not be salvageable. In these cases, the best we can do is learn from the experience as we move forward. So if anyone’s goldfish has in fact drowned and you were upset by my use of that as an example, I am sorry.