Growing up, my friends thought my dad was too strict with me. It was all I knew though. I had very clear lines drawn in the sand (not really sand, that would be messy), and I was expected to stay in my lane. When I came too close to the line, that was not okay. When I crossed the line, that was almost always cause for a very loud and passionate explanation about the errors of my ways (some people call this yelling) followed by an hour spent in my room, alone. Because I’m old, that also means no electronics, or other forms of entertainment. I used to lie on my bed and try to make patterns out of the stucco design in my ceiling for an hour, while usually feeling a combination of irritation that what I did doesn’t warrant this, and bad for upsetting my dad.
Eventually, though, my dad would come back to my room and talk to me. This was the pre-release-from-time-out routine. He always sat on the edge of the bed, and he would begin his talk with, “You know, this is harder on me than it is on you.” Of course, I’m thinking, “Really? I heard you outside laughing with the neighbors. Did you catch the part about how I’m restricted to my room for an hour, searching for designs in the ceiling?” He would go on to say, “Just because I discipline you does not mean that I do not love you. In fact, I do this because I do love you.” And finally, he would always apologize. He would say, “I’m sorry I yelled at you.” He would explain, “I don’t want to lose my temper with you, and while I want you to behave, you don’t deserve to be yelled at.” And that is a dance we did more times than I can count. I crossed a line. He yelled. I searched for ceiling designs. He reinforced his message. Then he apologized.
When I reflect on the most powerful lesson from those time-out experiences, it was the power of an apology to communicate love. For many people apologies are hard. For some people an apology is synonymous with blame. So the experience of apologizing for them feels like they are saying, “You are right, I am wrong.” However, apologies are not about right and wrong. Apologies are about repairing hurts and communicating care.
I find apologies to be quite cathartic. At the core of an apology is the understanding that we are human. We will make mistakes. Not only will we make mistakes, we will also be able to repair the mistake. An apology is an understanding of our humanity, of love and forgiveness.
A good apology involves the ability to take responsibility for something we did that ultimately caused hurt to someone else. This typically starts with, “I am sorry I…” In the event you find yourself saying, “I am sorry YOU…” it’s time to try that again. We cannot apologize for how someone else feels, as in, “I am sorry you feel hurt by my words.” An apology starts with the recognition of responsibility. This, however, is not the same as blame. To be responsible for saying something that caused pain to someone else is not to suggest that you intended to, or that you wanted to hurt him or her. It is simply an acknowledgement that the words that flew out of your mouth landed on the other person in a way that felt hurtful to them. To apologize for this is to acknowledge that your words caused them hurt, EVEN if you did not intend for that message to be received that way.
For example, “I am sorry my words hurt you,” that provides the hurt party with relief that you understand their pain. Even when you do not mean to hurt someone, and your intentions are misunderstood, an apology is a statement of responsibility for your part in the communication. It is not about blame. It is not a statement that you are wrong, they are right. An apology is not about right or wrong, it is about ownership for that which causes hurt to another. And apology is simply another way to say, I love you.