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What We Can Win by Apologizing

Why making a mistake is such a big deal has been puzzling me for a long time. Just now I had some fresh thinking.

In the Netherlands we get harsh criticism when we make a mistake, so we put a lot of energy into doing everything right and correct. Being occupied in World War II made it all the more tight, I think. Apologizing is mostly seen as a weakness, as giving up on one’s pride. Taking responsibility is not often done openly. My best thinking is that apologizing is the first step toward healing a broken connection (including with myself) and is about reclaiming my integrity.

I have more difficulty with making mistakes when I am in the oppressor role. When I am the oppressed, I can deal with it more easily because part of the blame is not mine.

If I want to free myself from handed-down fears, there is no other way than to do something and risk doing it wrong. In deciding to go for it when I can sense a situation should change, I have to give up feeling small and insignificant. Often I cannot figure out how to give my best thinking without the chance of making a mistake.

I speak up more. Doing so can bring up lots of old terror, but it can also be fun and energizing. I do trust my good intentions and know that I will apologize if afterward I can tell that something I did was off or wrong. In this slow process of taking a stand, I enjoy the big gift of feeling more hopeful, confident, grounded in life, and (sometimes much) better about myself.

One example: I write columns for the paper of my neighborhood. In this part of town there are about seven thousand people, from fifty-seven countries. Last November I was shocked by a law that allowed the foreign police to take a young man away from his family, who had come to our country as refugees long ago. I wrote a column about it and spoke up against the law and racism. My goal was to help people talk and think about it. It felt like a huge risk to send the column in. I was not sure if my mind had thought things through enough. I sent it in anyway and felt terrified. After a week I received a letter from the editor; it said she was moved by my writing. After the printing I got appreciations from some more people. I still worry a bit that I may have hurt someone’s feelings by missing a crucial detail.

After I decided to speak up more, I often said things in a way that was restimulating to others, and myself too. I made mistakes and corrected some, apologized here and there. What I’ve noticed recently is

  • I am suggesting things a bit more elegantly.
  • I get less urgent and restimulated if what I suggest is rejected. (New ideas have to sink in before people can think about or agree with them. That is never personal, it is just human.)
  • I notice and interrupt unaware actions in a more natural way.
  • I am more relaxed and flexible with disagreements. I more often agree to disagree, and stay connected.

It feels as if I have pushed a door to where there’s a small opening. The old recordings keep pulling me backwards, saying this is too good to be true, but an ongoing curiosity leads me to take another peek now and then and wonder what it would be like if I dared to walk through that door—like being powerful could be a choice.

By deciding, and doing several big sessions, I developed an understanding of what we can win by apologizing for real. Apologizing is not the escape from feeling bad, not getting forgiveness for the mistake I made, but the start of trying to act differently for the growth of my integrity. That is healing and breaks down all that interferes with my natural strength.

Wytske Visser

Ljouwert, Fryslân, the Netherlands

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