I have always known, vaguely, that I suck at apologies. And I know that that is a terrible thing to be bad at, if I want to be good at relationships.
The problem is that true remorse is required for a real apology, and that acceptance of wrong-doing is required for true remorse. Here is where I always fail, because, while I absolutely can regret that a situation happened, and can wish that I hadn’t contributed to the situation, I can never seem to bring myself to acknowledge that I was wrong. Let’s look at an example:
Last night it was getting late, but my uber-busy husband (Bear) was sitting up, doing after-hours coding for work, as he has been doing most nights for weeks. I went up to take a shower, and when I came down to get him, I didn’t notice that he was particularly focused on a problem: I chatted at him, and he snapped at me. I was taken aback, and annoyed at being treated in that way, but on the other hand I understand that feeling of being interrupted while I’m concentrating, so I decided to just leave him alone, a bit coldly. My reasoning was that I would give him the space he needed and not pressure him to come upstairs, but also let him realize that he had hurt me. Punish him by giving him too much of what he wanted, if that makes sense. (Now, don’t hate me or think that I’m super cruel. I’m just being really honest here; I know I can’t be the only one who lets my emotions guide me to commit small cruelties towards the ones I love most.) But Bear immediately recognized he had hurt me, and he apologized. Not ready to forgive him just yet, I said it was okay, and made to leave. He decided then to come upstairs with me, and over the next half hour as he was getting ready for bed, I could tell that he was really sorry. At this point I was well over it, but he apparently couldn’t forgive himself unless I formally forgave him, which I did (which was, ironically, hard for me to do, not because I didn’t forgive him, but because it was barely enough a kerfuffle to require an “‘I’m sorry.’ ‘I forgive you.'” to begin with).
Afterwards, as I lay in bed thinking the matter over, I considered what would have happened if the situation had been reversed. As it has been, many times. I am most definitely not above snapping at my husband if he interrupts me. But I think I am much more grudging in my own apologies, because, it seems to me in the times when it has happened in the past, that I was not truly at fault for snapping. Unlike in last night’s situation, where (in my mind) I appeared as a hapless victim who could not have known that I was interrupting, in past situations when I have snapped, it was because it was deserved; the interrupter should have known, should have been able to tell, that I was busy. Somehow I cast myself as the victim when I am both the snapper and the snappee.
So, I know what you’re thinking, because I’m thinking it too: I am a horrible, self-centered bitch! I have no empathy! I think the universe revolves around me, and I fart rainbows! Well, I know, logically, that this is not true (except for the farting rainbows part; I totally do that). I do feel empathy for people, all the time, but the problem comes when I have to choose between feeling empathy for someone else and seeing myself as being wrong. And finally, we come to my point: I have lived my entire life in fear of being wrong. Being wrong is BAD. If I am wrong, ever, it means I am not pure, not good, and there is no hope for me.
Other people can be wrong; I can accept them and love them in all stages of rightness-and-wrongness. They can be flawed and lovable all at once. BUT NOT ME. Deeply ingrained within my psyche is the message: “If wrong once, wrong forever and rotten to the core and unworthy and unlovable and nononono this cannot be; therefore, never wrong.” I live my life walking a tight-rope of rightness above of drop-off of wrongness. (And I’m not talking righteousness versus sin; I mean being right; always having the correct answer and the correct response, never making a false move or acknowledging that I don’t know something.) But if I cannot accept that I can be wrong, then I cannot truly accept responsibility for my actions. I cannot truly feel remorse. My apologies cannot truly be sincere.
This is not to say that I do not recognize when things go badly, and try to change my behaviors in the future; I do. But I tend to think of it as “avoiding getting into a similar situation,” which involves modifying my behavior, but not really admitting that I was at fault. I understand this is complicated and probably somewhat psychotic, but I am writing this all down here because I don’t think it’s all that rare. I think this might be typical, actually. The major religions teach us that, in theory, “all humanity is flawed,” but at the same time they tell us “SIN IS BAD DO NOT SIN LOVE THE SINNER HATE THE SIN.” It’s an untenable, impossible-to-live paradox. And I have so, so, so much internalized guilt from my Catholic upbringing. And on the other hand, we have the Perfectionist personality, which is also who I am. Perhaps this stems from a religious upbringing, too. And the paradox is this: How can I be perfect if I am flawed? But I MUST be perfect.
I honestly think that many people are like me in this. And I think that we, those of us who cannot acknowledge and forgive ourselves for not being perfect, NEEEED to wrestle with it. We need to strip down to our skivvies, to our souls, and grapple on the floor with the reality of our imperfection. We need to take down the layer of false pride that forces us to hold ourselves apart, but I mean for real, not just in a fancy show of “I’m so human; I’m so flawed” repentance. We need to force ourselves to confront our imperfection, not as an excuse, but as a way to see the real people that we are, the real impact we have on others, every day. Only when we do this can we make better human connection. Only when we can say “sorry” and mean it, every time.
I think this one quality in my husband, above everything else, is what makes me love him more than anyone else on earth; he is truly generous with his soul. I have tried for years to emulate him, but somehow I haven’t yet succeeded. I will keep trying.