How to Be Sorry

blue soapbox  First: walk around with a sense of constitutional wrongness that makes you feel compelled to apologize all the time.  Be baffled that people tell you to quit saying you’re sorry.  Like prayer, like worry beads: what harm is it doing?

When others talk about how difficult it is to admit to being wrong, think to yourself, “Well, at least I’ve got that one covered!”

Begin to figure out that you do not have that one covered.

You’ve been doing your share of interfering, judging, interrupting, lecturing, resenting, gossiping, rolling your eyes, and generating negative energy in spite of all the apologetics.

Resolve to improve all around.  Find it amazingly hard to kick the apology-as-default habit.  Apologies have been helping you manage anxiety, and you haven’t found a good substitute.  Meanwhile, you have less of a clue how to be sorry for real than you’d like to admit.

Slowly get better at saying things like “you know, you might be right,” and meaning it.  Notice yourself becoming more curious, less agitated, about your missteps.  “My fault,” you are now able to say.  “I should have done x, and instead, I did y.  I’m going to try to do x next time.”  You concern yourself with learning all this rather than teaching it.

Notice something surprising: it’s become easier to apologize for your own misdeeds than to tell someone, graciously and effectively, that their behavior is bothering you.

Start to experiment.  Maybe someone you like has disappointed you, and you desperately want to avoid conflict by pretending everything is OK.  See what happens if instead, you say mildly, “I’m disappointed.  I’d made other plans and was late.”  Or:  “I felt a little judged when you said x just now.”

Or maybe you’ve spent some time with an acquaintance whose idea of conversation is to bombard you with grandiose rhetoric as if there’s no tomorrow.  You are itching to let off steam privately by complaining to someone else about this boorishness.  Instead, you tell the person directly that you feel talked down to.  You mention that you’d appreciate being asked about yourself occasionally.  You’re nice about it.

Notice that the person doesn’t attack you but, rather, agrees.  Notice that the behavior does not subsequently change.  Notice your sense of accomplishment anyway.

Slip back, sometimes, into pretending.  Slip back into sorry-hood.  But find yourself able to snap out of those states more quickly.  Notice that you’re not quite as anxious as you once were.

Of course, you’re still easily triggered by false apologies around you.  For example, you want to excoriate White House correspondent Helen Thomas for the shockingly ill-informed and ethnically tone-deaf comments she made recently about Israel and Jews—and for her then squandering a teachable moment on a Washington-politician-style statement of pseudo-regret.

In fact, you set out to write a column about Helen Thomas and her so-called apology, but wound up writing this instead.

Notice that you’re not sorry.

Published in The Piedmont Post, June 30, 2010

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12 Responses to “How to Be Sorry”

  1. Erica Says:

    BRILLIANT! I can’t WAIT to see what’s on for next week!

  2. Elisa Says:

    You just delved into our secret selves — and then kept excavating. Your description of our self-justifications was uncanny and almost scary.

    I just googled the phrase “I’m sorry if I have offended” and received the following report: About 3,630,000 results (0.28 seconds). Happily, many of these links were to articles or essays that pointed out these were not real apologies.

  3. Lisa Braver Moss Says:

    Elisa, thank you so much. That’s a funny google story. It’s odd — the more I practice this stuff, the less triggered I am by the inadequacy of other people’s apologies, at least in my own life. (I still reserve the right to shriek uncontrollably at, for example, BP executives who have the nerve to go on TV and say incredibly offensive things in the name of apology.) Thanks again for your thoughtful words.

  4. Miriam Pollack Says:

    Beautiful, Lisa. Another multi-faceted gem! Love, Miriam

  5. Margo Says:

    I feel so honored to get to read these deeply personal, yet totally universal pieces. This one struck a nerve for me.

    I recently read that apologies often come out of a sense of fear, so I’ve been trying to track that and ask myself what I am afraid of each time I say sorry to someone. To see if it’s a genuine apology or a protective mechanism.

    Thanks so much for another fabulous piece.

    • Lisa Braver Moss Says:

      Thank you, Margo. If a false apology comes out of fear — and even if a genuine one has an element of fear attached to it — I think genuine apologies also carry some exhilaration. Thanks for your kind words.

  6. Georgia Says:

    Have you given any thought studying to be a rabbi? This column has a wise ring to it!

    • Lisa Braver Moss Says:

      LOL! Better idea: Instead of studying to be a rabbi, I think I’ll write a novel steeped in Jewish thought — a novel in which the main character is asked at one point (by a rabbi) whether he’s considered studying to be a rabbi. (True!) Stay tuned — The Measure of His Grief is forthcoming, Fall 2010.

  7. jamie edmund Says:

    i apologize in advance for sounding like a know it all. your column describes better than i have heard before, my idea of adult maturity. i apologize for apologizing.

  8. Michele Says:

    I apologize if I don’t understand what you’ve concluded from this examination of apologies– those that are sincere, knee-jerk, done out of fear, as a means to control anxiety, or in my case, the apology that inadvertently sounds like a criticism!

    Certainly, this piece has an “al chet” quality to it that deserves study during the Yamim Noraim, the days leading up to Yom Kippur.

    It seems like apologies, like everything else in life, require constant calibration and the consequences are never entirely predictable.

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