I made a mistake. I did something, perhaps an accident or perhaps it was behavior outside of my own values, and it had negative consequences for an emotionally sensitive or emotionally volatile loved one.
Should I say I’m sorry? Is that validating?
My (dialectical) response is “it depends, sometimes yes, probably no.”
“I’m sorry” is a way of saying “I feel full of sorrow.” It’s about my feelings, not about yours. Remember our brains are wired such that empathy is often not possible when one is in an intense emotional state of mind. “I feel full of sorrow” is unlikely to resolve another person’s dysregulated anger.
In other words, if you are furious with me and I say I’m sorry, it just might be satisfying to your angry, attacking mind that you are causing me pain. That satisfaction might relieve anger just a little. However, I have seen many blank stares by persons who are emotionally charged when someone says, “I’m sorry.” It can trigger shame, guilt, helplessness, and then even more anger.
What about “please forgive me,” is that better?
“Forgive me” is asking you to “give up the desire or the power to punish me.” It is asking you to change your wants or needs or to let go of that power that anger seems to be giving you. This is a change strategy. We may as well say, “please just calm down and let go.” That’s not validating. It will probably make an emotionally charged situation worse.
The etiology of the word “apology,’ a word that comes to us from Greek, is “to speak in one’s defense.” Self-defense is not validating, and it often sustains or increases the other person’s dysregulated anger.
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy we speak of “repair.” If I realize that I have done something wrong, I would look to repair the injury that I caused. How to make a correction, or even better, an over-correction would guide my words and actions, especially if I truly felt remorse for what I had said or done.
So how can we repair the damage? That depends on what exactly was the harm or distress that we caused in ourselves and to others.
If it is possible to actually fix the negative consequence, then we want to make that repair. If I broke your glass, I should buy a replacement. Even better, I might “overcorrect” and buy a set of 4 glasses and a bottle of soda to repair the damage that I caused.
What if I had no money to buy a replacement glass? At a minimum I should pick up the broken pieces and clean the floor! I might offer to mop the whole floor and wash the dishes (without over-insisting if the offer is refused). This does not replace the glass, but maybe it is the best possible repair I can make.
If I yelled at you and said negative or pejorative things about you, I cannot unsay them. I can only repair the damage by speaking from a place of kindness and compassion consistently for a long period of time. The best thing I might do to repair the damage in the present moment is to communicate the recognition of the damage that I caused and to begin with kindness and compassion right then and there, validating the pain or distress that I caused as legitimate. And making a genuine commitment to me and to you that I will try, to the best of my ability, to not repeat that behavior.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” or constant apologies do not fix a problem. Berating ourselves out of guilt and/or shame is not helpful. We have to repair the harm that we caused. Don’t get me wrong. DBT is not “never having to say I’m sorry,” but “sorry” alone is just not validating.
The best repair may be acknowledging the damage that the behavior caused, making a genuine commitment to not repeat the problem behavior, and following through on that commitment. That is validating the injury or distress that the other person is experiencing as a result of our behavior. Instead of "I'm sorry," think about something like, “I can see how my behavior caused so much pain and distress. I would like to find a way to repair that suffering that I caused you by changing my actions now and in the future...” and suggest an over-correction/repair. And, as always try to remain calm, centered, and patient as you listen to the response.
If you want to learn more, sign up for my next workshop for families of persons with symptoms of, or a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. The next workshop starts Friday, March 18.
Corrine Stoewsand, Ph.D.
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