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How to apologize, how to not apologize, why it’s hard, why it’s not hard for the reasons you think (guest post)

April 28, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on May 4, 2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

This morning I had a procedure scheduled. It’s a medical test that takes 4 hours, and involves eating radioactive eggs. I’m not going to talk about the test, because it’s not really related to what I want to talk about it, but I thought I would mention it because I had this intuitive hunch that mentioning radioactive eggs would be attention grabbing.

I didn’t actually have the test because I forgot my prescription. I forgot the prescription so thoroughly that I never even thought to bring it at any point. In fact, while I can say with certainty that I held it in my hands at one time, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist any more. 

And that’s totally on me. I had to get there at 7:30 this morning, and I stumbled in, in my sweats and definitely not brushed hair. And when she asked for my prescription, I wanted to tell her how much stress I’d been under, and that I don’t seem to get along with mornings any more, I mean, look at me. I wanted to ask her why the fuck they don’t fax over to the doctor to get the prescription for early morning procedures? You can’t expect people to remember that sort of thing! But instead, I looked at her, and I said “I’m really sorry. This is 100% my fault. What can I do?”

It felt so good. I cannot recall in my memory, the last time I had the opportunity for such a pure apology.

I’ve seen a lot of articles about how to give an apology. Without exception, the tacit or stated assumption in these articles is that it’s hard to give an apology because of pride. Every guide I’ve seen is about how to admit you’re wrong when you’re unequivocally wrong but your ego won’t let you admit it.

But I don’t think that’s why it’s hard. At least, that’s not why it’s hard for me. 

I watch a lot of soccer. One thing I’ve noticed is that everybody hates the referees. No matter what call they make or don’t make, somebody is upset. And sometimes they make a bad call. In soccer, they don’t stop the game to look at video footage. The ref on the scene makes the call in that moment based on what they saw or didn’t see.  And sometimes a bad call decides the game – sometimes a really important game, and they just have to live with that. Do you know what they do at the half time and after the game? They look at the video footage, and they look at what they did wrong. And a ref has to be able to look at a bad call, and learn what they can from it, and move on with their life. They have to look at that bad call, and know that they did the very best that they could, or know that they could have done better, and that everyone hates them for it, and they have to go back out there and get on with their life.

What do we apologize for? I have to say, I’m so messed up when it comes to apologies that I’m not even sure anymore. Is an apology the same as admitting I made a mistake? I don’t think so. I think something more is expected. A ref doesn’t make an apology. Everyone knows they made a mistake, they know it, but it comes with the job, and they can’t stop it from happening and neither can we. Making mistakes comes with the job of life. Every moment is the culmination of my experience and my training and my instincts and how tired I am and what I had for breakfast this morning and a million variables that I.don’t.have.control.over. I made a mistake, and I am also breathing.

Is an apology the same as acknowledging that my actions hurt you? Certainly not. We hurt each other sometimes, and we are also breathing. I know when you are looking for an apology you want more than an acknowledgment of your emotional reality. 

Is an apology a plan of action? I think this is closer. I think an apology is an admission of my mistake, and acknowledgement of the price you paid for my mistake. But most importantly, an apology comes with a plan to prevent the hurt in the future. But if I made a mistake, and I am also breathing, sometimes it is hard for me to make the kind of plan that will actually work.

I can remember next time to bring my prescription. I acknowledge that I wasted a technician’s time, and I feel bad because she’s a real person. I can do something about that, by putting a reminder on my calendar next time. This is a change I can make. 

But did I do something that hurt you because I was grumpy or sleepy or daydreaming or distracted or confused? I will make that mistake again. I am also breathing. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.

Is an apology about what is wrong with me? No. But how many people think it is? How many people think it’s not an apology until someone is grovelling? Too many. 

I have a place inside of me. A weak spot that is made of self hatred. I have a lot of trouble apologizing when I don’t have a clear plan for correcting it. When I made the best choice I could and I’m not sure what to do differently in the future. When I’ve made a mistake and I am also breathing. First I try to blow it off, and when that doesn’t work I become defensive. I don’t really know how to apologize, because apologizing used to be paired with self hatred, and I don’t know how to un-pair it. I don’t know how to separate a request for an apology with a request for my self hatred. And once the conversation makes three or four rounds I only want to crush myself into oblivion. 

And that’s not helpful.

I don’t think it’s that hard to apologize. And it feels good. It feels like growth. It feels like responsibility. It feels like resolution, and peace. I feel robbed of that peace.

I don’t think we need another article about how to apologize. I’d like to see an article or two about all the ways a sincere apology is claimed and then used as a weapon against someone. Against a child, against a loved one. I’d like an article about how when that happens we have to build cages around the chasm of shame and self hatred that our apologies dug inside of us. 

Apologies could go a long way to healing our relationships with each other and ourselves. But let’s stop ignoring all the damage that the perversion of the apology has done to us. We have to fix that too.

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