Wait. What am I apologizing for? Existing? Having needs? What?!
Does that sound familiar to you? It sure does to me. If you have issues with saying “I’m sorry” too much (or not enough), you’ll be really interested in this guest post from Bryan Bushman, a clinical psychologist and blogger who wants to help you figure out the right time and way to say “sorry.”
Bryan Bushman, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who has been working with trauma survivors for 10 years. He is the author of Becoming Okay (When You’re Not Okay) and more of his writings can be found on www.drbryanbushman.com or http://findingyourway2okay.wordpress.com.
The Problem With Saying “I’m Sorry”
Some people who have been traumatized struggle with boundaries; they may have difficulty knowing when or how to say “no” or make requests. This is not because people who have been traumatized are weak, inferior or stupid. Trauma engages the fight-or-flight parts of the brain. It causes us to collapse within ourselves and remain silent when silence is no longer adaptive. Soon any conflict (real or perceived) can trigger feelings of numbness or dissociation. These symptoms can be as extreme as experiencing a flashback or as subtle as “going with the flow” – even if we don’t like where the flow is going.
Frequent numbing or dissociating can complicate human relationships. For instance, as a clinical psychologist, I’ve noticed that it can be difficult for many people to say the words “I’m sorry.” Although most of us intellectually understand the importance of taking responsibility and initiating interpersonal repair, saying “I’m sorry” can trigger strong feelings. At one end of the spectrum are people who never or rarely admit to wrongdoing. For them, saying “I’m sorry” communicates a sense of vulnerability or weakness that can be deeply unsettling – especially if doing so reminds them of the vulnerability or weakness they experienced during the abuse or trauma. At the other end of the spectrum are persons who say “I’m sorry” excessively. They apologize for everything – even for things that are not their fault. Their sense of voice or choice evaporates, as they collapse within themselves. It’s as if they plead, “Please don’t hurt me”… even when they are safe and have done little (or nothing) wrong. It’s possible for a person to switch back and forth between both ends of the “I’m sorry” spectrum: one moment he or she may numb (i.e., be unwilling or unable say “I’m sorry” when doing so would be appropriate); the next moment the same person may claim responsibility for everything (i.e., apologize in an over-the-top way for things that are relatively insignificant). Such switching may be similar to the chaotic environment the person experienced when he or she was abused or traumatized. Either way, this blog is intended to help people on both ends of the “I’m-sorry” spectrum.
For those who rarely say I’m sorry…
First, recognize the source of your difficulty. It may not be due to pride or being “stubborn.” Instead, realize that you’re probably struggling with shame. If this is you, then consider…
- You can say you’re sorry for your part a problem without saying you’re sorry for everything. Be specific in your apology. Most problems are multi-determined, which is a fancy way of saying that assigning fault or blame is rarely as straightforward as it appears. As the old saying goes, it usually takes “two to tango.” There is a difference between, “When we fought last night, I shouldn’t have yelled and threatened you” vs. “I’m sorry for last night.” The first example is specific; the second example is vague. Being specific still allows you to state your truth without giving away the entire farm. For example, if you’re indeed “sorry for last night”, does that mean you’re sorry for everything? Does it mean you entire point was invalid, or are you really apologizing for how you expressed your point?
- Give yourself some time. Don’t use “I’m sorry” as a way to avoid a confrontation forever. It’s fine to ask for some time to think about a problem so you don’t blow up, but it’s your responsibility to re-address the situation at a time when everyone (including you) is thinking clearly. You can’t side-step problems indefinitely, but timing matters. In other words, don’t try to offer an apology late at night when you or the other person are tired, angry or discombobulated. Such interactions rarely end well.
- Recognize the strength inherent in apologizing. I’m willing to bet that most of the people you respect are willing to admit their faults. There is something healing about reconnection. In fact, I would say that most families that stay together are not families that never fight, but families that are willing to reconnect after the fight. When you feel weakest may be when you are actually strongest. Be willing to initiate repair. The respect you demonstrate for yourself and the other person is more important than your temporary discomfort.
For persons who over-apologize or say “I’m sorry” excessively…
- Ask yourself: Am I apologizing because of actual danger? Is my sense of danger based on what I’m experiencing in the present or what I’ve experienced in the past? “Safety first” is an important concept. It’s very difficult to correctly repair any relationship if you are in danger. Therefore, before apologizing, you may want to ask yourself if there is something in the relationship that is truly threatening. You may first need to take bold action to keep yourself (and others) safe before apologizing; otherwise, you’ll be putting the cart of healing before the horse of safety.
- Ask yourself: “In what way am I sorry?” There are actually different versions of “I’m sorry” so it’s important to clarify your purpose:
- One “I’m sorry” is essentially like saying, “I’m sorry for your loss.” If I go to a funeral and say “I’m so sorry”, it’s assumed that I am not admitting to having killed the deceased. Instead, I am saying that I recognize the pain felt by the grieving person, and that I feel empathy or sympathy for them. I have no problem with this version of I’m sorry… as long as you clarify for yourself that this is coming from a place of compassion – not personal responsibility.
- Another version of “I’m sorry” is essentially like saying, “I’m sorry for what I’ve done.” I also don’t have a problem with this type of apology, as long as you are apologizing for a behavior (yelling, hitting, etc…) and not for experiencing an emotion (see below). Here again, it’s important to be specific. Say specifically the behavior you are sorry for; otherwise, you’ll communicate that you’re a sorry excuse for a human being or that you’re sorry for being different in some way… and this only increases shame and isolation. Such apologizes are not productive because they don’t focus on the problem behavior. It’s as if you’re saying, “Okay, I suck… happy now.” Others may perceive this as a “guilt trip”, and – even if they don’t – it’s not the kind of apology that repairs relationships anyway.
- The final “I’m sorry” – and the one that can be the biggest problem for some trauma survivors – is essentially like saying, “I’m sorry for having a thought, a feeling or a need.” We’re all different, but – despite what was learned through abuse – different doesn’t mean someone is “bad”; it only means that someone is … well… different. Instead of saying you’re sorry for being different, it would be better to say, “I’m sorry this difference between us is uncomfortable, but I have a right to my opinion (or my need, or my feelings, or my perspective, etc…). I may not be completely right, but – for right now – this is how I see things or what I need.” Not everyone will welcome this type of feedback. Sadly, there are toxic people in this world, but it’s important to communicate our basic emotional rights. If we apologize for our feelings, thoughts, needs or opinions, our sense of shame, anxiety and/or isolation will grow.
- Give yourself some time. Unlike those who rarely apologize and request time so they can manage their anger (see above), persons who over-apologize may feel numb and apologize because they feel it’s expected of them. Over-apologizing can become a compulsion because – in the past – the person was abused or shamed if he or she didn’t immediately accept full and complete responsibility for everything bad that happened. Therefore, give yourself some time by saying, “I don’t know how I feel about this yet. I need some time to think.” Get yourself into a safe space emotionally and physically. Doing so will give you time to consider how you want to respond. This way you don’t feel like you’re committed to taking full responsibility for something that may be only partially your fault.
Apologies in the World
To those who have not been abused or traumatized, saying “I’m sorry” sounds easy… as if it is simply a matter of pride. But for survivors of trauma, saying “I’m sorry” can be very complicated. Apologizing can be associated with deep feelings of humiliation, victimization or vulnerability, and the difficulty of experiencing such feelings should be acknowledged and respected. With time and practice, however, repairing our relationships becomes more natural and less threatening. If relationships are based on mutual understanding, safety and cooperation, saying “I’m sorry” can be the balm needed to heal ourselves, others and society.