An Apology Should Not Have the Word, “But,” In It…

by The Discovering Alcoholic on May 27, 2009

Thank you author and speaker Lisa Frederiksen of Breaking the Cycles for this regular series sharing her decades long experience of dealing with family alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Click here to see the rest of the series.

Breaking the Cycles at The Discovering Alcoholic

How many times have you had someone say something to you like, “I’m so sorry I yelled at you, but you kept telling me what to do!” Do you walk away thinking, “Wait a minute…he’s not sorry. In fact, he’s saying his yelling at me is my fault.”

Frustrating isn’t it? You get all set to believe when they start that they’re really going to let you know how much they understand that what they did was wrong or hurt your feelings or embarrassed you. And, then, they add the word, “but,” followed by any number of excuses or reasons for doing what they did.

Unfortunately, most apologies are this way when you live (or lived) in a family with unacknowledged/ untreated alcohol abuse or alcoholism because we interpret being “wrong” as somehow being bad. As a result, it’s hard for many of us to say we’re sorry. We often say something like, “I’m sorry your feelings got hurt, but I was just trying to help you.”

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This was an actual apology I made to one of my daughters a few years ago — she was telling me of her summer plans, and I launched into what I thought she should do, and I could tell she was shutting down. So I offered up that apology, and then flustered, said something not so nice because she hadn’t responded with something like, “that’s okay,” and I got off the phone.

Do you see how this kind of an apology made it her responsibility to “unhurt” her own feelings and protect mine at the same time?

But a true apology is when we honestly take responsibility for our part and leave the “but” out of it. After I thought about what I’d said to my daughter (and now that I have done a lot of my own codependency recovery work, I actually think about these things because I felt very anxious after our phone call which is my cue that I’m uncomfortable about something), I called her back and said, “I’m sorry I interrupted your telling me about what you wanted to do this summer and instead jumped in asking how you thought you could possibly work and go to summer school at the same time. That must have made you feel like I didn’t trust your judgment or your ability to think it through. I’m really sorry.” [And that was the end of my apology. No “but.”]

With this kind of an apology, my daughter felt like I really understood what I’d done (I know this because she said a sincere, “Thanks, Mom.”). And the bonus?

With these kinds of apologies, I free mind space for myself, as well. I didn’t have to keep replaying the conversation in my head in those hamster-wheel-type thought processes trying to rationalize why I was right in what I’d said because “I was only trying to do what was best for her,” followed by “nothing I seem to do is good enough or right,” which somehow justified my response, yet never really does. All the while, keeping me stirred up and anxious.

Being honest with ourselves about our part in the exchange and then sincerely apologizing for our part, will make us feel SO much better. The extra, double bonus is that the person we’ve apologized to will feel like we truly understand the nature of our wrong-doing and that we really are sorry for what we did. And mostly importantly, it helps that person learn to trust it’s really okay to trust us.

So, next time you need to apologize, before you launch in, think about what you can say if you can’t use the word, “but.” You’ll likely come up with an apology that’s entirely different than the one you may have first considered.

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