Sunday, April 12, 2009

Spring Clean Your Soul: The Art of Apologizing

Easter is a time for renewal of the world around us. Even in the ch-ch-chilly days of East Coast living, you see tiny crocus and other buds stretching, reaching for the warmth of the sun trying to add some color to our otherwise gray Spring. Growing up in Texas with luscious green grass and colorful bluebonnets in March, I didn't really appreciate springtime until I lived in Rhode Island where we don't see a Spring day until Summer. It is also a time for the proverbial "spring cleaning" fingers start itching to dig out my kids closets and organize my junk drawer. The landscapers come and scoop away all the sand from the thawed roads and rake up broken branches and wayward leaves. With all this spiffing up around us, I think it is also a great opportunity to spring clean out our souls. A great place to start is by clearing up any unfinished business you have with anyone in your life. Maybe you owe someone an apology?

Saying "I'm sorry" comes easy to some people. The words spill from their mouths effortlessly like water from a fountain. They apologize for everything and anything as if they are sorry for breathing your same air. Most of the time it doesn't make any sense when they mumble: "sorry". This type of apology is mindless, souless and useless; it is almost a habit.

In the same vein as this, but definitely a step up, there is the basic apology that is easy to do and to say and usually occurs the second we bump someone, interrupt them or cause some sort of minuscule infraction. The majority of us are able to accept and apologize sincerely and succinctly. Children, on the other hand, tend to see life in black-and-white. I've been trying to teach my children that it is necessary to say "I'm Sorry" even when you accidentally hurt someone. My son will unintentionally step on my foot. After the pain subsides and I am able to speak, I will ask him to make amends to me. His tearful argument is: "I didn't MEAN to do it, so I shouldn't have to apologize." At this point, I pull out my dusty mind file on Newton's Third Law of Physics: For every action, there is an equal reaction (or consequence). Sometimes even mindless accidents cause consequences that require tending.
The most difficult part of apologizing is to fully understand and take ownership in your own wrong doings. Many people tend to make excuses and justify the reasons for their actions: "It is OK I said that because I was tired, or drunk, or pissed off." I call this the "but apology": "I am so sorry for hurting your feelings, but.....blah, blah,blah..." For me, excuses tend to negate the whole apology and make it untrustworthy; it says that "this might happen again given the same circumstance." As a recipient, I might accept the apology BUT it would be very difficult for me to trust that person again.
I don't think you should even try to make reparations until you sincerely accept responsibility for your actions and are willing to humble yourself. If you truly aren't sorry and you don't care what happens with your relationship and you can move onward in life with a peaceful soul, then don't say a word. It would be a lie. But, if you want another chance and wish to clean up your soul of unrest, here is the best way (I think) to do it:
  • Make sure you apologize as close to the offense as possible. It may be right away. It may be after a day or so if you had a heated argument and things need to cool down. Screaming "I'm sorry" with clenched fist and spit flying from your angry mouth doesn't count. If it has been a while since the offense, just know that it is never too late to start healing an old wound. Hearts have amazing healing powers when feed a lot of TLC.
  • Try if at all possible to TALK to your offended party. In my experience, emailing, texting, or any other electronic messaging is the worst way to say "I'm sorry." Words are read with a different voice than your own and can be taken out of context and misconstrued.
  • Once you are ready to talk, say simply that you are sorry for the specific offense. Speak in first person and NEVER apologize for the other person's feeling. "I'm sorry you feel that way" is NOT an apology: they are just more fighting words, if you ask me. You may want to validate their reaction, let them know how you feel about them and possibly offer an explanation and plan for the future. An explanation IS NOT an excuse. For example: "I am so sorry that I hurt your feelings so badly. That is the last thing I want to do. Your friendship means the world to me. I was angry with my boss and I took it out on you. In the future, I will try to communicate more so you know what is going on and I won't treat you unjustly again. Please forgive me."
  • Sometimes apologizing opens up a space to talk about what happened. Again, the best thing to do is to focus on your actions and reactions. Don't preach and teach by telling the other person how they should've felt or what they should've done. Don't dig up things that happened in the past that have nothing to do with the issue at hand. The focus should be on the current wrong doing and the recipient. Simply stick to your apology, be understanding if they still need some time to think, and be patient as their wounds heal.
  • Once it is over and all is forgiven, it is now time to move forward. Don't continually apologize: you've already done that. Don't keep asking if the person is still mad at you: that makes you seem impatient and selfish. The faster you move back towards normalcy, the better. Just take into account that this normalcy is different than the normalcy before the infraction: you've learned more about yourself and you've made promises to change and keep tabs on your future actions.

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