When I made the conscious decision to get back in touch with emotions again, there was no way I could only do it in some aspects of my life.
For instance, I’m mortified that I wrote “made the conscious decision to get back in touch with emotions” because that sounds like the hogwash a yoga teacher you’ve never met before this moment might say to you when she senses tension in your traps.
But I wrote the truth even if it comes off to me as saccharine, and I’ve got to stick with honesty all the time or not at all. Perhaps you’re the type who can easily flow between those places of truths and lies; that’s just fine, and frankly I’m a bit jealous, because that is my default easy place.
There are alarm bells that go off in my head now when I lie, and I can thank therapy for that (thanks a LOT, jerk therapy). When I hear or think it, I automatically go into checklist mode: Why are you lying? Are you lying because it’s convenient? Are you in defense mode? Is it just for fun? Are you bored?
Usually, though, the answer for lying is, “I don’t want to admit to something because admitting wrongness is tantamount to showing weakness.”
So when I began to chip away at my dammed-up feelings, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy and I had to be all in like when I gave up booze, because I’m not great at the in-between.
I’m lucky, because there was plenty of positive reinforcement when I first started sharing what I was actually thinking and feeling; my wife and my friends and family were appreciative that I trusted them to tell the truth, and they showed me it would not, in fact, kill me.
But there are times when sticking to honesty is harder, especially when you know that you’re on your own, you’re the only one making you do this, and the only way you can fix the problems in front of you is sacrificing your pride.
Yes, I’m talking about apologizing.
The following is what I’ve learned about really apologizing. Funnily enough, I’ve known all these steps since college, where I was a communications major and we were actually tested on this.
Theory is fine, but putting it to practice is difficult. But like I tell my sisters: I fuck up so you don’t have to, so watch and learn, bros. [Wife’s note: Her work has paid off and she is better at this, so she’s not just pulling your chain.]
Let’s say I’m having an argument with my wife. Let’s say she brings up recent behavior on my part that maybe I didn’t realize was hurting her feelings, but now that she’s telling me about it, I can totally see what she’s talking about. (I know it’s vague, but I’d say 80 percent of arguments or discussions follow this pattern for either person.)
My immediate impulse is to cover and run, to listen while she’s talking and start thinking of reasons why I could have possibly done that that aren’t the reasons she’s giving me. If this does end up coming out of my mouth – that I’m going on the defense – I have started to paint myself in a corner.
Instead of listening to what she’s telling me, I’m trying to think of ways she could be wrong, not trying to imagine how she could be right. Instead of opening my arms and heart and ears, I’m battening the hatches and hunkering down.
But, like you, I’m smart. When this is happening, I can feel a small wiggle in the back of my brain, something squirming, saying, “Why are you trying to burn this down when you know you’re wrong?”
Apologizing, though painful for the prideful, is important in this case. Because even if I didn’t think I was hurting her feelings, she’s telling me I was. So what is my end game with my current strategy – make her feel badly for bringing up an emotional issue that she’s uncomfortable with? Make her feel like dirt for being honest with her own feelings?
When I started looking at these situations that way, I realized there’s so much more to give and take within apologizing than merely winning or losing. It’s telling the other person you hear them, you see them, and you respect them enough to take their account into consideration.
In this situation, here’s how it goes:
Step 1: Express Remorse
It’s not an apology until you say the magic words, “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize.” You may want to follow those two words up with a nice big “…but,” and I’m here to tell you JUST DON’T. Do not ruin the genuine sentiment of “I’m sorry,” with a caveat because that just shows how not sorry you actually are.
In the case of Molly vs. Her Wife, this would look like me swallowing my ego and saying, “Wow, I didn’t know that made you feel like that. I’m really sorry.”
Step 2: Take Responsibility
This is that piece of emotional honesty that sucks. Admit where you erred. Say it out loud. Take responsibility for your actions or words or behavior. If you were doing or saying or behaving in a good way and were praised for it, it’s not like you’d fight that kicking and screaming. The same has to be true with when you’ve screwed up. Don’t weasel, don’t waffle, and don’t whine.
“I can totally see how my behavior came off that way. It’s important to me that you know I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I definitely see where you’re coming from and it was my mistake.”
Step 3: Make Up For It
This step is also called “making amends,” which is a nice way of saying you’re going to be bold and open and honest with this person right now and you’re going to explain how you are going to make it up to them. This works well with step 2, because it gives you concrete ways to show that you’re actually remorseful.
“Now that I’m aware, I’ll definitely keep that in check through (specifics. Give specific ways you’ll rectify your behavior). If you see it again, please call me on it. Thank you for telling me.”
Step 4: It Won’t Happen Again
The final step in the process seems easy enough in theory, but in practice, it goes beyond this one conversation. You can say the nicest apology in the world, but if you keep repeating the action, it just shows you’re a good bullshitter. Your actions have to match up with your words, and that’s where personal integrity comes in.
“I’m sorry I hurt you, and I promise it won’t happen again.”
You’ll notice through those four steps that nowhere in there did I give myself any wiggle room. Like I said before, if I’ve got room to wiggle, I’ve got room to screw it up. If I’m wrong, I’ve got to be wrong, plain and simple, and it’s not her job to make up for my mistakes.
Now, of course I should mention that you don’t want to be a doormat just because someone tells you about something you may or may not have done. That’s why apologizing is a conversation – you’ve got to listen to them and be open to what they’re saying, but they’ve also got to extend the same courtesy to you.
But most of us know when we’ve messed up. And given the lack of appreciation for the truth or for apologizing we’ve got in our headlines and our politics right now, it’s more important than ever that we try to take personal responsibility for ourselves. It’s not easy, but it’s one of the simplest and most honest human connections there is.