"Do I Have To?" and Other Questions About Apologizing
There's a lot of buzz around our new course, Heartfelt: A Course on the Power of Apologizing -- the course opened this week, and people are having lively discussions about all the different types of apologies that we encounter every day (and that includes the apologies that we deserve, and don't get!). We're seeing several questions that are appearing in conversations around the internet, so we thought we'd ask Harriet Lerner, who co-teaches this course with Brené, to share her wisdom in answering them.
One question that kept popping up was around the topic of apologizing too much. "What about over-apologizing?" Tracy asked. Clara chimed in: "My daughter has the opposite problem -- she apologizes for everything, even things that aren't her fault. I'm worried that she's going to grow up to be a self-effacing doormat if this keeps up. I've talked to her about it several times, and nothing changes."
Harriet: The greatest risk for being an under-apologizer is being raised male, and the greatest risk of being an over-apologizer is being raised female. My generation of women was raised to be guilty and apologetic if we were anything less than an emotional service station to others. Many women over-apologize to a fault, and we need to tone it down and get a grip on that endless stream of "sorry's." Over-apologizing disrupts the flow of normal conversation, undermines your authority, and will irritate your friends. If you've forgotten to return your friend's Tupperware, you don't need to apologize numerous times, as if you've run over her kitten. Save your apologies for things that matter.
So, Clara, your daughter is in very good company! That said, my advice is to ignore your daughter's over-apologizing, at this point. Just let the "sorry's" slide on by you. You've made the point several times, and have observed the result of your experiment -- nothing changes. It won't help to do more of the same. More importantly, your daughter's behavior says nothing about the kind of person she will become. Our children's lives will take many surprising twists and turns. If you start to label her (even in your own mind) as weak or submissive, this can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Jeff asked, "Is it possible to genuinely feel sorry that someone feels hurt by what we've said, but not feel sorry for expressing it? A friend of mine was upset when I told him he was monopolizing all the time in a work meeting, and no one else could get a word in. He's upset with me and wants an apology, but I think he needs to look at his behavior."
Harriet: You obviously can't give a heartfelt "I'm sorry" for something you don't feel sorry for saying. Your friend obviously got defensive here, while your intention was to give him valuable feedback. But remember, even the most difficult things can be said with kindness and respect. People don't listen well when they feel judged or shamed. Consider how you might put things in a different way -- for example, you could have said, "You had great ideas at the meeting, but I found it difficult to find the opportunity to share my own."
It's also true that whoever was leading the meeting had the responsibility to ensure that other voices were heard. Consider whether you might want to apologize for your part in hurting his feelings, even if you believe your part was a teensy fraction of the whole picture.
Several folks had questions about people who don't apologize at all. For example, Karen shared: "My dad showed up an hour late to my wedding, and when I asked him for an apology, he said, 'I don't apologize.' And you know what? He really doesn't! What do I do with this?"
Harriet: In our course, Heartfelt, I explain why some people will never apologize -- but let me suggest a first step for talking to your dad: don't request or demand an apology. It won't help. Instead, find a calm time to learn more about your dad's beliefs about apologizing. One of the most courageous acts we can do is to learn to ask good questions to our difficult family members. For example, say, "Dad, tell me more about why you don't apologize." Be curious, without trying to change or convince him. Report back on the results of your experiment!
And finally, Catrina asked, "Do we need to forgive a family member who betrayed us, and who will never apologize or feel sorry for what they did?"
Harriet: One of the painful realities of every person's life is that some key people will behave badly and will never see it, validate our reality, listen to our feelings, or feel the need to apologize. This is the human condition for which the proposed solution to our pain is often forgiveness. But the truth is that we do not need to forgive a non-apologetic wrongdoer to heal. Of course, we need to let go of the corrosive effects of anger, bitterness and hate. And it's important not to demonize people, because every person is better and more complex than the worst things they've ever done. But we can achieve peace and healing with or without forgiveness..
Thanks so much for your wisdom, Harriet! To learn more about what it takes to make a heartfelt apology, be sure to join us in Heartfelt: A Course on the Power of Apologizing, now available here on COURAGEworks. (Use code CWTRIBE for 20% off when you register.)