Over the holiday I inadvertently upset my sister. It was a misunderstanding, but I hurt her feelings. When I realized what I had done I felt awful. In fact, I lost sleep over it and made a point of going to her house the next day to apologize.
Today, though, I realize I really didn’t do that as well as I could have. I’m not even sure if I said the words “I’m sorry.” I told her how awful I felt, that I hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings and that I wanted her to know what I had been thinking at the time, but I don’t know if I said I was sorry or not. So, now I’m beating myself up for not only being inconsiderate but also for making a bad apology.
Fortunately, I am in good company this year. 2017 has been the year of “I’m sorry if…” and “I think I owe you an apology…” and “To anyone I may have offended…” kinds of statements from public figures who have been trotting out their words of regret in record numbers. Some of them did as I did and tried to justify their words and actions from their own point of view, and that is entirely the wrong thing to do.
A good apology is not about explaining yourself. It’s about empathizing with the other person. A clear explanation will help the other person’s understanding, but it doesn’t mitigate the hurt. Only a genuine expression of sorrow does that.
This has got me thinking about how hard it is sometimes to say “I’m sorry,” and wondering why. It’s easy to apologize for small social blunders like blocking a cart in the grocery aisle, but it’s really hard to apologize for hurting someone’s feelings. I think it’s because, even if we are loving, caring, sensitive people, our lives are focussed on our own issues, our own needs, and our own actions. Just in taking care of our own business every day, we perceive of other people only to the extent that their lives interact with ours.
We may be walking about in our own personal bubbles thinking we are pretty good people, all things considered, and then once in a while, our bubble will bump up against someone else’s. We may even burst their bubble. We can look at the damage and say “Oh, gee. Look at that. What a mess.” We can see it’s a mess, and other people might tell us it’s a mess, so we know it’s a mess. Someone might even point out that we caused the mess, but from our point of view, it wasn’t us, exactly. It might have been our bubble, but it wasn’t us. After all, we are good people.
That’s why we keep reading about the non-apology apology of the latest actor, or film director, or politician to do or say some really inappropriate. They know they are somehow connected with the hurt someone else feels, but they don’t identify themselves as being the villain because, generally speaking, they see themselves as good people. What happened was not intended to hurt, was not deliberately cruel; they were just being themselves and the hurt was just an unfortunate by-product.
And that, right there, is the problem. You can’t say “I’m sorry” if you don’t identify yourself with the consequences of your behaviour. For that, you have to step out of your own bubble and look back at yourself. Only then can you see yourself as others see you. When you can say “Oh, gee. Look at me. What a mess,” then you can say “I’m sorry.”
So, that’s what I’ve been doing this morning; looking back on myself. I would like to say to anyone I might have offended that I am sorry, but then that would just be another non-apology apology so I won’t say that. To my sister, though, I can genuinely say “I am sorry for being thoughtless and for hurting your feelings. I will do my best to be more sensitive in future.” And if I fail in that, I hope someone will burst my bubble for me—in the nicest possible way, of course.