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Apologizing Can Heal Broken Connections

If someone mistreats us, receiving a real apology can make a big difference. However, to give such an apology is often hard. Because of internalized criticism and other hurts, we often struggle with feelings of guilt and defensiveness. 

Most mistakes are little mistakes. However, even a little mistake can pile on to our entire history of being on the receiving end of other people’s errors. A mistake coming our way can add to a “mess” already in our minds. We experience distress and confusion because we weren’t able to clean up each hurt as it arrived. If we had been able to do that, our present lives would have more space for fun; great thoughts; and deep, strong relationships.

Years ago, when my children came home from school and immediately started yelling at me that I was the most stupid adult they had ever seen, I often responded with an apology. I knew that they must have been treated badly by their frustrated teacher. I also knew that my apology was for all the oppression they had to face every day as young people. My apology always helped, and led to more trust—in their own thinking and in me.

When my children hurt a sister or brother, I often told them to apologize. I remember them saying, ”I’m sorry,” and then me saying, ”No, not like that. It has to be for real.” We all struggled, and I made mistakes, but there was something important about apologizing that kept me trying.

I learned something crucial about apologizing at the International Women’s Conference in Beijing (China) in a meeting led by Maori women. They showed a video in which women struggled with the pain of incest. The women found that they could heal if they could have a meeting with their whole family, including the abuser. In the meeting they told their story, showed their feelings, and shared how the abuse still affected their lives. After that the abuser was asked to apologize. From that moment on, the women were much stronger and had the courage to build their own lives.

Last week I tried to explain to a dear friend what had made me feel distant, and she got defensive and acted victimized. Afterward I cried in a Co-Counseling session—feeling stupid, confused, and awful. My counselor asked, ”What do you need?” I answered that I needed an apology. The counselor suggested that I talk to my friend and ask for what I needed. My mind went blank, and I felt more stupid. The funny thing is our minds often keep working even if we do not keep trying to figure something out. A few days later I was suddenly excited by the following thought: When we apologize for real, the person to whom we apologize notices that intelligence is operating rather than a rigidity (such as defensiveness), and is encouraged. A real apology is healing for everyone involved.

On the other hand, when someone tells us how he or she felt hurt by something we did and our response comes from defensiveness or guilt, the chance for healing is missed.

I’ve found that following a mistake with a real apology

* Heals the broken connection

* Shows that intelligence is working

* Works toward trust in one’s own thinking

* Helps us face what we have to face

* Leads to sharing the things that matter

* Takes responsibility for the relationship

* Leads to interrupting oppression more intelligently and connectedly

* Comes from love and power.

Following a mistake with guilt or defensiveness

* Leaves us isolated and distant from each other

* Offers no intelligence, just feelings

* Confuses us

* Leads everyone involved to feel bad and powerless

* Adds another layer of internalized oppression

* Leads to arrogance, when guilt causes us to deny or ignore hurtful behavior

* Leads to patterned caretaking, in which feelings of ”wanting to help” come from trying not to feel bad

* Comes from fear.

If you are like me, when you are the target of a mistake you beat yourself up and tell yourself, “Get over it. The feelings are old and just have to be discharged. Quit whining.” You blame yourself for not feeling or doing better, and as a result the incident soaks up more and more of your attention.

When I am in the oppressed role, I can instead stand up for myself. I can take myself seriously as someone worthy of love and caring. I never again have to accept being treated in a disrespectful way. I can live a full and joyful life.

When I am in the oppressor role—for example, when I am around children—I can take responsibility for outwitting oppressor messages. I can interrupt all disrespectful behavior. I can apologize when someone is affected by my, or someone else’s, oppressive behavior.

The thing we apologize for does not have to be a mistake that we personally make. It can be a mistake made by our family, group, or country. The Prime Minister of Australia recently apologized for the long-standing mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians. It was a first step in healing—a step that can get the dominos toppling toward a better world.

Wytske Visser

Fryslan, The Netherlands


Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00