I Sure am Sorry I Got Caught Robbing that Bank

This is my new expression whenever I hear someone close to me offer a pseudo-apology.  Readers who have kept an eye on this blog lately know I have posted instructions on the correct—and incorrect—ways to apologize.  Not to throw anyone under the bus, lately I have heard quite a few apologies that, candidly, miss the mark.

To recap the basics, “Robbing that bank was wrong,” expresses regret for my actions.  “I sure am sorry I got caught robbing that bank,” expresses regret for the consequences of my actions but no regret for my actual actions.  Other consequence statements are:

I’m sorry you feel that way.
I’m sorry you misunderstood me.
I’m sorry you took it that way.
I’m sorry you got frustrated.

See the difference?  All this regret is about what YOU did, not about what I did.  It says, “This situation went south on your side of the street.  My side of the street is looking pretty good over here.”  A genuine apology requires taking responsibility for what I chose to do or to say.  Expressing sadness or regret for another’s response is nothing more than deflection thinly disguised as an apology.  It is not a legitimate apology.

Now let’s throw in a curve ball for extra credit.  Are either of these statements a legitimate apology?

I’m sorry my words frustrated you.
I’m sorry my actions hurt your feelings.

Nice try, but these examples STILL express regret for consequences.  Just throwing “my words” or “my actions” into the sentence does not constitute taking responsibility for the wrongness of my words or actions.  That would look more like this:

I said something I shouldn’t have said.
I didn’t intend harm, but I see now I caused it and I regret what I did.

Now for advanced placement apology, what should you do if you actually believe you did absolutely nothing wrong?  Let’s say you are convinced your side of the street is spic-and-span, and the person who is upset with you is overreacting or is reacting to something other than what you actually did.  I always say when in doubt, go with the truth.  Acknowledge the person’s feelings and ask for their help to see their side.  Something like this:

I see you’re upset.  That’s distressing because I care about you.  Will you help me understand exactly what I did?

I hope you don’t get, “It’s your tone of voice,” or “You flashed that look,” because subjective observations aren’t terribly actionable.  I hope you get an answer that is truly illuminating, and you should be prepared to receive (i.e. don’t block) those rays of illumination shining your way.  You might, however, get an answer you don’t understand.  You may have to ask questions to grasp exactly what sparked the response.  You might also sense the person is responding to something you didn’t actually do or say.  Sometimes a harmless comment triggers a harmful memory.  Can you find a gentle and compassionate way to ask the person if there is an older, deeper wound swirling into the present angst?  Draw on your spiritual strength and compassion to turn conflict into an opportunity to encourage healing and intimacy.

If, failing all of this, you can’t rise above the blame game and remain convinced of your blamelessness, ask for time to think before further discussion.  A little distance can change your and the other’s perspectives.

Join the conversation.  Can you share examples of an apology gone wrong?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Growing Up is Hard Work

A friend and I were talking last night about adolescence.  We all follow the examples our family role models give us in childhood, and we all decide which examples to continue following and which to discard at some point when we “grow up.”  My friend said she had a “screw you” attitude in her 30’s when she did that work.  My parents were enormously supportive and supported me financially through college.  Despite that, however, my adolescence was so tumultuous so early, I pressed the eject button (boarding school) at 15.  I told my friend that as a mother, I wondered how to prepare my daughter to make those decisions with hopefully less volatility than I had experienced.  She told me I should write a blog post about it, so here it goes.

My daughter was a prolific little writer at a young age.  By kindergarten, she was capturing observations and ideas, albeit with atrocious almost-phonetic spelling.  We didn’t (and still don’t) have cable or other TV service, but we did have an old TV hooked up to a VHS player (remember those?).  Watching the occasional Disney program was possible and kind of a treat for her.  In exchange for that treat, I asked her to do a 3-part written exercise.   The first part was choosing a character and writing five observations about the character’s behavior.  The second part was indicating for each of the five observations whether that character liked that quality about himself.  The third part was indicating whether she would want that quality for herself.  We did this repeatedly for years (until she became a better negotiator), and her observations were just sublime and very, very cute.  My hope was to inoculate her at an early age against the ravages the media project onto young girls.  If she had a deeply rooted habit of filtering what she saw in the media, then perhaps she wouldn’t indiscriminately ingest or emulate whatever she saw on-screen.

We also routinely undertook this 3-part exercise focusing on various family members, and none more often than me, her most influential role model.  She got bored of making observations about me, but she was pretty good at ginning up new material, nonetheless.  My hope here was that she would gain proficiency in distinguishing specific behaviors and know on a deep level that she was free to make choices about her own behaviors.  To be just a little bit more honest about it, I hoped she would be able to hate things about me without hating me entirely.

That, my friends, is the grand experiment.  She is 13 now, and  I don’t have an objective vantage point from which to assess whether the media inoculation or individuation preparation is working.  I marvel every day at the exquisite creature she is becoming, though.  What I admire most is how comfortable she is in her own skin.  She must have inherited those genes from her father.  To one acutely uncomfortable until her 30’s, it’s alien, astounding and the most outlandish blessing.  Whether it’s her father’s genes or somehow traces back to those early childhood exercises, she seems ready for the next stage in her life.  You’ll have to check back with me in another five years to see how the experiment panned out.

Join the conversation.  What helped you find your individual identity?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Healing from Shame


The tentacles of shame can reach through decades of a person’s life, wrapping around seemingly unconnected events and wrenching the joy from life.  I have friends whose shame originated in childhoods in which they never felt up to grade.  They always felt deficient in some significant and identity shaping way.  For some it was a constant stream of criticism.  For others it was as seemingly benign as a home focus on appearances rather than on the truth, subtly but unmistakably suggesting that the truth is never good enough.

I also have friends whose shame reaches up out of childhood trauma.  That trauma might have been the sudden loss of a parent or, as the Penn State abuse scandal tragically highlights, more often than we want to acknowledge it is child sexual abuse.  The child is made to feel that he is in some way culpable for his own abuse, or in an insidious distortion of logic, the child believes the fact that the trauma happened stands as proof that it was deserved.

The truth, though, is that shame has little to do with the bad things that happened to someone or the bad things someone did.  It has everything to do with the lies that someone started believing about himself when he tried to make sense of a bad situation.  Believing a lie—that the truth is never good enough or that children are responsible for adult actions against them or that you are not credible and no one will believe you—keeps the tentacles of shame alive and strong.  Even incredibly successful people suffer from shame.  In fact, it is their unending need to prove to themselves that they are good enough that propels their success.

While some lies are memories from a long past childhood, or “childhood tapes,” other lies get constant reinforcement.  Many messages propagated in our media, particularly those that connect one’s worth to appearance or wealth, are lies.  Anyone with a TV is constantly exposed to them.  When thinking about parents who won’t forgive, I realized that elderly parents can perpetuate shame lies also.  In the case of forgiveness, people may hold on to resentment because it is the only connection to another person they think they need in their lives.  Paradoxically, the resentment is rooted in intense desire—not rejection.

Similarly, disapproving parents might ache for the time when their kids prized their parents’ approval.  As kids grow up, they find their satisfaction not from parent approval but from the mark they are leaving on the world—in their careers, relationships or communities.  Parents may perpetuate criticism hoping against hope that the adult child will respond by seeking the parent’s approval again.  In any case, it is a lie.  More specifically, it is a manipulation designed to elicit a certain response rather than an honest observation grounded in reality.  The notion that one needs a parent’s approval is a lie as well.  Is it nice to have?  Certainly.  Is it necessary for happiness and joy?  By no means.

Healing from shame doesn’t happen magically when we recall the events that triggered it.  It is when we call out those lies and speak the truth about ourselves to ourselves that true healing begins.

Join the conversation.  Are there lies that you believe about yourself?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Public Apology

 

George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, is in the news today for his public apology.  Here is what he said:

 

“I want to tell everyone, my wife, my family, my parents, my grandmother, the Martins, the city of Sanford and America, that I’m sorry that this happened,” he said, staring into the camera lens. “I hate to think that because of this incident, because of my actions, it’s polarized and divided America. And I’m truly sorry.”

As difficult as it is to release resentment in an act of forgiveness, it is also hard to admit one’s wrongs and to ask humbly for forgiveness in an apology.  Unfortunately, this is not what Zimmerman has done.  His words do not suggest he has taken responsibility for his choices or that he recognizes them as wrong.  Expressing regret for the consequences (“I’m sorry this happened”) is rather different from expressing regret for the choices (“I followed when dispatch said not to”).  In fact, Zimmerman said specifically that he does not regret his actions. “I’m sorry I got caught” vs. “I was wrong to rob that guy” is a more obvious variant.  It does not count as a genuine apology in my book.  My teenage kids wouldn’t even try to get away with a deflection like that.

Another deflection often heard in psudo-apologies is, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  Like the statements above, this offers commentary on consequences while failing to assume responsibility for the precipitating actions, and so this, too, is not a legitimate apology.  Worse, it defects blame onto the one who expressed feelings, adding insult to injury.

Zimmerman takes the deflection one step further by throwing God into it, stating it was God’s choice, not his choice.  It is hard for modern believers to conceive of murder as God’s will, although there is plenty of it in Judeo-Christian scriptures.  Ancient scriptures notwithstanding, ascribing feelings or desires to God is a slippery slope.  Anne Lamott said it best:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

What is the right way to make an apology?  My godfather taught me this handy script:  “I realize how wrong I was. Will you forgive me?”  We have banned the word “sorry” when making an apology in our house (too many ways it can go wrong with teenagers), and we try to use this instead.  The useful thing about it is it separates actions from consequences and encourages us to examine whether we have genuine remorse for our choices. We’ve learned it is best not to try to fake an apology if genuine remorse is absent. In a heated moment with frayed feelings, asking for time to think about one’s choices is infinitely more respectful than forcing an insincere apology or deflecting blame.  Simply acknowledging that one’s actions merit introspection sets the stage for healing.

Join the conversation.  What did you think of George Zimmerman’s apology?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

When Parents Won’t Forgive

A woman struggling with forgiveness made a profound impression on me once.  I met her in a reconciliation workshop, and her struggle was with her mother.  Although her mother was in her 90’s, she refused to forgive her daughter for hurtful episodes in adolescence.  The daughter, elderly herself, had expressed sincere remorse and asked for her mother’s forgiveness repeatedly through the decades, but her mother refused.

Recent posts examined reasons for clinging to resentment rather than choosing to forgive.  One reason mentioned is thinking I need to keep someone who did me wrong in my life somehow, and if the relationship is badly damaged, my anger and resentment may feel like the only thing left between us.  Have you ever had a romantic relationship that intellectually you knew was over even though your heart still ached for intimacy?

That doesn’t describe the woman’s relationship with her mother, but it may come closer than it appears at first glance.  Adolescence is an exquisite time in parent-child relationships.  Parents embrace their children as the young adults they are becoming, and simultaneously their children still depend on them heavily.  It makes for an intense kind of intimacy.  The challenges of adolescence only amplify the intensity.  One could make the case that it is the most challenging and most intense stage of relating in a parent and child’s entire lifetimes.

And where does it go from there?  Adolescents grow up.  Maybe they move away for school or a job.  They become independent emotionally and financially.  They find partners and perhaps start their own families.  Along the way, emotional bonds to parents make way for stronger emotional ties to new people in their adult lives.  A parent who aches for intimacy and intensity with her long grown child might cling to resentment, as misguided and destructive as it sounds, because it is the strongest connection back to a more intimate time that she can lay her hands on.

What can the adult child do about it?  Not much.  A post a year ago examined Jewish wisdom for seeking forgiveness, but ultimately, forgiveness is at the sole discretion of the one holding the resentment.   The unforgiven child has choices, too.  Setting appropriate boundaries is healing.  The boundaries may inject more emotional distance, but they may also allow the adult child be present to the parent’s angst.  Recognizing that the resentment is rooted in intense desire—not rejection—may open a new window of compassion on a parent living in an angry past.  That awareness doesn’t compel anyone to endure to an occasional vituperative rant, but it does allow one to see the rant for what it is and to cherish the holy spark of love buried deep in it.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever found a holy spark buried deep inside a painful episode?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Putting the Fun in Dysfunctional

I haven’t written much about family.  To put it in euphemistic psycho-speak, family is a personal growth area for me.  To be more blunt about it, I am tangled up in a bunch of splintered, fractured, impaired and unresolved relationships, and the only commentary I’m equipped to offer is more like that of the junior reporter in a rain slicker staggering against the wind and rain as she reports on the approaching hurricane than that of the news anchor safely ensconced in the studio.  My husband (the second one) likes to say we put the “fun” in dysfunctional.

I have come to realize, perhaps reluctantly, that family, for all its messiness and imperfection, has inescapable spiritual significance.  Hospice chaplain Kerry Egen explained it as poignantly as anyone in an article she wrote about what dying people talk about.  Early in Egan’s Harvard Divinity School training, and having just started work as a student chaplain in a cancer hospital, a professor asked her what she talked about with patients.  She said patients mostly talked about their families and she mostly listened.  The professor derided her not only privately but also in class for failing to address big spiritual issues like God, religion and the meaning of life with people nearing life’s end.  Although ashamed and full of self-doubt at the time, 13 years later Egan says she would answer his question exactly the same way but with confidence.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don’t live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories. We live our lives in our families: the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

Egan points out that family is where we first experience love.  It’s where we are first cared for and where we learn to care for others.  It’s where we learn to trust and where our trust is first betrayed.  It’s likely to be the first place we were hurt by someone we love.  For many people, it is where we receive our deepest wounds.  Some people respond to the wounding by repeating hurtful family patterns, while others respond by creating families that become the ground for healing and hope.  Family is where we confront our spiritual reality in the midst of our daily living.  It’s the framework in which we wrestle with the big spiritual questions about God and the meaning of life.

Egan shows us that this crucible where life’s journey begins is also where we return at the journey’s end.  Our experience of family—the brokenness and the healing—gives us our most descriptive language for expressing the content of our human souls as we encounter the divine.

Join the conversation.  What significance has family had on the search for meaning in your life?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

From Haute to Hot

With three tween/teen girls out of school for the summer, our family is heading out of town for a few weeks.  We will spend half the time in France and the other half in Ft. Worth, Texas.  Traveling with one set of grandparents in France, we will work our way up the Burgundy wine region from Lyon to Dijon for half the time and spend the other half in Paris.  The adults on the trip would probably prefer to spend all the time in Burgundy, but the girls have never been to France and want to see Paris.  Who can blame them?  I haven’t been to Burgundy or Paris, at least not for practical purposes, either.

In a case of rather aggressive scheduling, within an hour of our evening arrival at home from abroad, we will exchange our luggage for sail bags and depart for Cowtown.  The girls start a sailing instruction camp bright and early the following day.  Jet lag, get thee behind me.  In years past, my husband and I have taken turns working remotely while staying with the girls in Ft. Worth, allowing the other to tend to business in the office or on the road.  I’ll lead out with the sailing party so he can stay behind and catch up in the office.

I am not taking a computer overseas, so my ability to post while there is uncertain.  I have written an essay with a bit of a metaphorical twist on family travels, and it is scheduled to post next week.  If I find that I am able to post and there are tales to tell, I promise to do so!  In the interim, please wish us safe (and peaceable) travels.

Join the conversation.  What are your travel tips for France or for traveling with teens?