In the words of Elton John, Sorry seems to be the hardest word.
While apologizing is hard to do, it gets easier with practice, whether you are doing it yourself or accepting it from someone else.
I recently had a situation with my teenage son who recalled an instance of being spanked when he was little. It seemed to come up in conversation a few times in a joking way with siblings that brought it to my attention. He felt wronged.
I felt defensive for a host of reasons. As a young parent, I tried some of the things my parents did and didn’t feel right about them. It took time to develop my own ways of discipline that I felt were kind and fair. Parts of his story were embellished. He was only 3 at the time. He's currently nearly an adult. So why now?
Regardless of why it became a topic of conversation, the truth is it was affording me a chance to apologize and him a chance to let it go.
I tried to explain some of the thoughts I had about it. He said, “Wow, that doesn’t sound like an apology at all. Sounds like a “Sorry, not sorry.”
He was right. I was using qualifiers and the context of that time was irrelevant now, especially to him. I thought about experiences in my life where apologies had meant something because they were honest and straightforward and I realized it really only boiled down to a few things.
1. No excuses
The moment you apologize while also excusing your behaviour, you are nullifying the apology. You are giving yourself justification for why you did what you did. We’ve all done this and it basically means both parties walk away feeling unresolved. For instance:
I only said what I did because YOU hurt my feelings.
I’m sorry YOU feel that way but you’re too sensitive.
Honestly, what did you expect me to do after what happened?
Sound familiar? That's because it's hard to admit when you're wrong.
2. Own your junk
In any bad situation, you are only accountable for what you did or said, how you behaved and your reaction. See if you can identify what your part was and take ownership of it. Interestingly enough, the key to your relief is acknowledging your failure, not anyone else’s. For example:
I handled things poorly and I am sorry for it.
I was too upset to think clearly and I overreacted.
I said things I didn’t mean out of frustration and hurt. They were spiteful.
I had no clue what I was doing and as a result, made a lousy choice.
3. Expect nothing in return
Surprisingly, the power of a true apology does not rely on the other person forgiving you. It relies on you taking account of your own mistakes and trying to do better. You don’t need absolution from the other party for what you have done wrong (even though it's nice to hear) because you are giving it to yourself by honestly trying to change and not repeat the behaviour again in future.
It may seem that as a parent, I had the right to do what I felt was necessary at the time. In some ways that was true. Most of us were spanked and lived to tell about it. But some kids out there were spanked excessively bringing about a lot of shame and therapy in later years. Regardless, fear was not what I wanted my parenting legacy to be.
I waited until a few days had passed and tried again.
I told him I was sorry I had ever spanked. I explained that I stopped because I felt that other methods would discipline with more kindness, and that I had been wrong. I acknowledged that spanking had hurt him.
He said, “Okay, mum. I know you love me. I’m not traumatized or anything.”
So was it just a test? The teenage brain which so interestingly focuses solely on itself until wronged, then focuses on everyone else? Perhaps. But for me it was a chance to clear the slate. And I’’m grateful for that.
The topic has come never up again.