Saturday, November 2, 2013

The trouble with apologizing

The trouble with apologizing is that it sets up a dynamic where one person is perceived to be in the wrong or falling short and the other person now develops an expectation.

Sometimes this is exactly how it needs to be. When you wrong someone, of course you should apologize. Own your behavior and take steps to improve.

But apologizing can be dangerous. It can be part of an unhealthy power dynamic where one person becomes the "wronged" one and the other the "appeaser."

I found myself apologizing this morning to a loved one for not being as available as they want. And it suddenly it reminded me of an ex who apologized to me for being emotionally closed. "I'm sorry I'm this way," they would say.

I appreciated this. At first I would feel validated and then indignant.

I would think well if you KNOW you're that way and you know I need it to be different, and you want to KEEP me, then don't be that way. But he couldn't be open, it wasn't part of his nature. Trauma and all that, but it doesn't even matter why, it's just the way he was.

It's important for me to remember this because that's one of the few times I was in the role of being unpleased. Usually I'm the one trying to appease, apologizing for falling short. Going back to that time is humbling because I can see how deeply I held the belief that I was "right," that I "knew" how things should "be." As if it's up to one person of a partnership to set the agenda.

How self-centered is that? I never even thought of myself as a self-centered person but in that dynamic, my needs overpowered my sensibility. I couldn't quite see that I was knocking on a door that wouldn't open.

So remembering that is humbling.

Lately I have been apologizing to a needy family member for not being able to call/email/etc. as much as they want. (They want far more than I can give.) I found myself penning yet another apology this morning.

But by apologizing, I am setting up the expectation that I recognize what they need and that I am falling short. The truth is, I don't want the kind of connection they want.

We both want different things. This now presents a conflict: who gets their needs met? Me, for more space, or them, for more connection?

I set up the dynamic (years ago actually) that I will bend and accommodate. I act like an apologetic employee, always falling short at work.

So, two people with differing desires isn't the issue -- that happens all the time. It's how both handle it.

I can see dysfunction so much more clearly than I used to.

Normal people reach out. If the other responds in kind, then they become closer because they are both available to each other at similar levels. This is how relationships develop and grow.

Most angst stems from this part being uneven.

So, normally, if a response is not reciprocated equally, then the one reaching out recognizes this. They can now do one of two things: either adjust to match or get their needs met elsewhere. (Or both.)

A dysfunctional response, however, is to become upset.

If one can't assess whether they can actually get their needs met from someone, they will keep trying and continue to feel disappointed.

It's like eating at a restaurant that serves terrible food and expecting different results each time.

I wonder where the expectation comes from.

Maybe that person used to meet a need but no longer can?

I think some unhappiness in life is an inability to be flexible. Dynamics between people constantly change. They're fluid. We desire to see others as consistent forces (even our language reflects this: "he's my rock" -- what is less fluid than a rock?) but if work or illness or some other thing tugs on one end, the rope shortens and there's less to go around. One person's circumstances affect everyone they're attached to but if there's elasticity in our emotional bonds, they can absorb the inherent heaving back & forth.

The answer isn't to apologize, but to set expectations then. Maybe if I didn't apologize but helped them understand what I'm capable of, they can stop believing I'll one day be available for that 8-hour phone call. They can find another phone pal and our bond won't be strained by the roles of dissapointed vs. disappointer.

This letter to Dear Amy illustrates the rut:
DEAR AMY: When my mother was dying, she asked a lifelong family friend to be like a sister to me because my own two siblings were always mean to me, and my mother knew they would continue to be after she was gone. The friend, an only child, was great for about four years, but then she stopped returning my calls and once went several months without contacting me. Every time I want to go home, she is conveniently unable to see me and she tells me whoppers about her guest room being unavailable. I have known her since I was a baby and have listened to petty criticisms of people we both know without comment. When I told her I really wanted to come home after many years away and said I needed a connection because I am totally alone, her response was, “Get used to it.” I live in another state and have friends but wanted to maintain a hometown connection. How should I handle this? Why did she make the promise to my mother if she was not going to keep it? It is heartbreaking because I have no family ties left. -- Heartbroken 

DEAR HEARTBROKEN: It is a tough truth to impart, but I have to tell you now that nobody owes you anything. People make promises and break them. You may feel wounded, hurt, upset and depleted, but you simply cannot make someone give you what she doesn’t want to give. Your job in life is to look after yourself and to find ways to get what you need — emotionally and otherwise — so that you live your best possible life, without being mired in anger and hurt over the past. And so now you need to let it go. Find a way to move on. If you don’t have any family members to rely on, you’ll have to create your own family from healthy relationships with friends.
It becomes obvious now, that the expected dynamic between those two is that the writer is owed something she's not getting, despite repeated attempts. We don't know the reasons for the relationship shift but the writer doesn't really see her next steps. Maybe it's good that the other person didn't apologize, although she could have been more sensitive and direct, acknowledging the expectation and explaining that she is unable to fulfill it.

I have been told I analyze too much but I like it. I didn't always learn good patterns growing up and I don't always instinctively understand what's healthy. Self-examination helps me react logically and not emotionally.

Disappointingly, awareness is often lip service at first. But eventually it penetrates to a deeper core. Like six pack abs for the psyche, it requires regular effort to realize results.

This is probably the first time I am really seeing how much I apologize and that it's not really a great thing to  be self-deprecating all the time.

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