It wasn’t even lunchtime, and already I’d offered unwanted advice to an adult child, forgotten to use my coupon for cappuccino and to ask for nonfat foam. Then I bumped into an associate whose phone call I hadn’t returned. When he asked for my business card, I realized I’d run out.
I’ve done variations on these things a thousand times. But here’s why this morning stands out as a milestone in my life. I didn’t apologize — not even once.
If you have the urge to applaud my accomplishment, we probably issued forth from variations of the same mother. Mom, like many of the women who birthed and raised boomer daughters, was part of a generation that grew into adulthood toughened by the Great Depression and World War II. Developing steel cores to get by, they considered apologies a sign of weakness.
In many ways, their strength is admirable. But I know from listening to their adult daughters in my spiritual retreats that many of us decided from an early age to do things differently. We would allow ourselves to be sensitive and vulnerable. We would try to see the part we have played in every interaction. The result: Whereas many of our mothers apologize for nothing, our generation of women has the tendency to apologize for everything.
For instance, if I were to notice that someone had a spinach stalk between her front teeth, I wouldn’t just say, “There’s something stuck in your teeth.” Rather, backing into it with a Hugh Grant mumble and a deep Japanese bow, I’d offer something along the lines of: “Pardon me, I know I have no right to point this out to you, especially since I have done the same thing about a million times, so please forgive me when I tell you that you seem to have something caught between your otherwise beautiful teeth."
Breaking the habit of using excessive apologies as a lubricant to social relationships is hard, especially when what underlies that behavior are feelings of personal inadequacy. As one of the high-achieving women in my retreats commented, “Underneath it all, what I really wanted was for Mom to let me know I was good/kind/worth loving.” Many of us nodded in agreement, realizing that laced through many of our apologies was the memory of Mom’s deeply engrained, ongoing commentary.
It used to be, I could barely pay a utility bill without a dozen internal mea culpas in response to my imagined mom scolding me for not having started to save earlier for retirement. And heaven forbid I should spend an entire evening parked in front of the TV.
There’s nothing “wrong” with wanting to do things differently from our parents. In fact, separating and “individuating” from them is a necessary step along the journey to psychological maturity. And yet, we will never reclaim our innate capacity to experience, express and act on authentic feelings if our actions are directly tied to Mom (or Dad), whether by seeking approval by doing it just like them or rebelling as a way to prove how much better we are.
So how does one break the apology habit? Recovery begins when you admit you have a problem. It took me a full year, but I did it. Today I can even bring something clearly store-bought to a potluck and hold my chin proudly aloft. Want to know how I did it?
First, there was an intervention. Hearing me rehash old guilt about my parenting skills every time he uttered a minor complaint about his life, my adult son had finally had enough. “You apologize for too many things,” he noted lovingly. For which, of course, I effusively apologized. After a moment of stunned silence, followed by peels of laughter, I told him he was right and vowed to change.
I worked hard to catch myself before apologizing for the papers strewn about the front seat of the car or admitting I’d taken a nap in the middle of a workday. And whenever I did manage to refrain, something truly amazing happened: The world didn’t end. I started to live my life without worrying whether I was living up to others’ expectations or subconsciously reacting to something from the past.
The full-fat foam on my cappuccino didn’t kill me (in fact, it was delicious). Equally pleasurable was giving up high heels, even if I was the only one at the party wearing rubber-soled flats. I even managed to tell a friend that our lunch spot needed to be more convenient to me this time. If I feel like putting expediency or my comfort first, so be it. I am done apologizing.
It’s not just me. I think this shift is a consequence of aging, or where we are in life. A few weeks ago, I caught a cable newscast featuring Hillary Clinton on official business, plain as unbuttered toast, hair tied back, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and only a dab of lipstick.
When an interviewer asked about her apparent lack of concern for her appearance, the Secretary of State replied, “I feel so relieved to be at the stage I’m at in my life right now, Jill, because if I want to wear my glasses, I’m wearing my glasses. If I want to pull my hair back, I’m pulling my hair back.”
No embarrassment, no long preambles or explanations, no guilt and, best of all, no apologies.
Of course, there are times when it is not only appropriate but important to say we’re sorry, like when we inadvertently hurt someone or make a mistake that results in a problem or burden for others. There are plenty of things I wish my mother had apologized for. I still chafe when I recall her telling me I was dumb as a goose for not taking a job that would have made me miserable, for example. Had she told me she was sorry — even later — I would not have considered her apology a sign of weakness, but rather a show of strength.
Over the years, I’ve learned a number of lessons, rectified some deficiencies and worked hard to come to accept the concept of “good enough.” And for all this, I’m really, truly not sorry.
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