Saying Sorry: When Nothing Is Gained From Apologies
In today's Sunday Letters I am taking a look at “saying sorry”, and what I see as a retrogression, a perpetuation of victim mentality in so many of us. Some of you will steadfastly disagree with the thrust of my argument, highlighting the moral necessity of recognising when we inflict hurt. Others of you I hope will see the validity of it. Whatever your interpretation, it is my firmly held view that to seek or to offer an apology on foot of some perceived wrongdoing is to rob ourselves of something important.
Let me explain.
The other day I gave my two boys the job of clearing out the dishwasher – that incredible modern convenience that I adore so much.
It was one of their usual jobs around the house, and not surprisingly for this particular job, there was a casualty.
They were messing about, and the BB8 Star Wars mug hit the floor breaking into a hundred pieces.
Both of them stood still and silent, looking at the scattered random array of fragments that surrounded their feet.
Faithful to the second law of thermodynamics, the process wasn't going to reverse with the pieces suddenly rearranging themselves back into a mug no matter how hard we all stared at them.
“Sorry Dad”, my eldest son said.
His head was low, and I could see that he felt regret and shame at what had happened.
Later he admitted to feeling guilty at breaking his brother's Star Wars mug and afraid that he would cop harsh words from me.
From where did he get this idea?
Who taught him to have this automatic emotional response to what was a minor occurrence?
Did I teach him this?
Did his peers or was it perhaps the TV?
The fact is it was all of this.
The total of his 12 years life experience within this social environment, which includes me, has taught him to have an automatic negative emotional response to phenomena such as this.
The majority of us have the same negative response ranging from mild to acute, and we train the younger ones in kind.
I believe these responses to be profoundly detrimental to the healthy development of human beings and I see it as my job to reverse the program in my kids.
You've Nothing To Apologise For
In the past, regrettably, I've reacted abrasively to these things.
“Ah for Christ's sake, would you be careful what you're doing”, would be the usual senseless knee-jerk response.
As if a negative reaction will repair the situation or offer my kids an opportunity to come up with creative ideas for problems they may encounter in the future.
On the contrary, a negative reaction from me will have the opposite effect.
It seems that my reaction is usually determined by the mood I am in rather than the inherent nature of the event I experience.
Now here we are again, and I recognise that I need to pull this back from the edge.
Not only did my reaction matter to the self-esteem of my son who broke the mug, but it also mattered to my younger son who owned the mug.
What happened next would set the stage for how they would process this and similar events in the future.
“Don't apologise”, I said. “You have nothing to apologise for. It's only a mug, and it can be replaced”.
He took a deep breath, and within a couple of seconds, he began to come back.
The chagrined kid with the expectation of a scolding disappeared, and the real him returned.
I explained to them both how feeling the need to apologise for these trivial things puts us in a lower place, recoiled and small, our confidence dependant on someone else's acceptance and approval.
I think they got it.
I hope they got it.
About An Apology
All that day I thought about the apology.
I considered why people are either compelled to make apologies or not and why the rest of us think we need them to do so.
I thought about our whole system of crime and punishment and how it's built on this need.
The Catholic Church came to mind and the outrageous crimes their members perpetrated, and continue to commit on weaker members of society.
Surely the Catholic Church should apologise unreservedly?
I considered romantic relationships and our almost universal need and that of our partners to have each other comply with our ideas of what constitutes proper behaviour.
From completing household chores to raising children and paying bills to sexual behaviour, we all need the other to comply.
If you break the rules and hurt your spouse then surely you must repair the relationship by apologising, right?
I thought about accidents and the coincidence of events unplanned or premediated by either party.
Are apologies required in those cases?
In all human interaction, it seems the general consensus is that where there is hurt or offence, the onus is on the apparent perpetrator to provide the repair to the other through some form of retribution.
It is assumed that offence and hurt are given, not taken.
In all of that consideration I have come to the following robust conclusions;
- No matter what the apparent crime, no matter how trivial or grievous, our need for an apology places and keeps us on the brink of victim mode always dependant on circumstances and other people to maintain our equilibrium.
- Believing we need to apologise leaves us belittled and shameful, perpetually walking on eggshells for fear of offending others, dependant on circumstances and other people to reinforce our sense of self.
We Don't Know Who We Are.
Whatever victim/aggressor scenario you can bring to mind, be it trivial or severe, you will find that the core issue for both sides is that we do not understand who we are.
Our sense of self is built through interaction with others, it becomes who we are and we will rigorously defend it no matter what, often to the detriment to the other.
In this exchange we invest ourselves to varying degrees in others, in their opinions and reactions to what we think, say and do.
Men and women, children and teenagers the world over compare and contrast themselves against their peers and social groups to make sure they comply with standards.
We talk openly about our membership of social groups as a sense of belonging.
Perhaps what it really is, is an inability to be truly stable in an independant sense of self.
We need the group to make us whole.
What we seem to be missing in this exchange, is the degree to which we invest ourselves in others is the degree to which we feel hurt or betrayed when they fail to meet our expectations.
In short, our overreliance on others sets us up for a fall.
As extensive studies into childhood development have shown, our self-concept and secure sense-of-self develops from the very first days of infancy and continues into teenage years and beyond.
Therefore what we demonstrate to our kids, our automatic reaction to unfavourable circumstances contributes to their ideas of themselves and the world they live in.
Monkey see monkey do in other words.
Breaking The Pattern
Too many of us are apologetic about what we want and what we wish to experience in life.
So much so that we never try for fear of offending someone.
We subjegate ourselves to other people and organisations and live by their rules instead of that which we inherently feel is right, true and proper.
What we don't understand is that other people's offence, hurt and emotional damage is entirely their own.
If I feel hurt by your actions, then that's my problem.
That's my shit to sort out.
It's not up to you to make things better for me. Anyway, why would I want you to?
Stuff will happen that I cant control and always does in the course of human activity and if that hurts me then I have some emotional growing to do.
Forcing you to comply with my ideas of right and wrong might work for a short period but enventiually I will suffer the compounded consequences of that.
My need for you to behave in a particular way merely shows me my weakness.
And that's where the opportunity for me to break the damaging pattern comes. A pattern it should be said, that has likely been building since childhood.
So what's it gonna be?
You Don't Owe Me An Apology
You don't owe me an apology.
It's not up to you to mend my fragile self.
In fact, if you apologise just to make me feel better, especially for something you feel you're not responsible for, you merely intensify my fragility and I learn nothing.
You rob me of the opportunity to find out something about me that's been hiding, or rather something that I've been hiding from.
I'm not taking a “fuck you pal” attitude, that's still a defence of the fragile me.
But rather it says; ok, I accept responsibility for how I feel. It's not your fault.
The world is immeasurably diverse and complex and I assert no certainty on this subject for anyone else except for myself.
I'm preaching to nobody. I want to make that clear.
What I've outlined in today's article is merely what I have come to understand for myself.
The irony though in all of this, is that when we stop looking for that something, we tend to find it.