Saturday, July 02, 2011

All The Ways We Apologize

“I’m sorry.” My mother warned me when I was little to never say this more than was necessary. “If you say it when you don’t really mean it, you won’t mean it when you really do.” In particular, she was vigilant about warding off apologies for non-apology situations – saying “I’m sorry” when you bump into someone in the store (“Say Excuse Me,” she corrected), saying “I’m sorry” when you are actually being sarcastic (put a peri-menopausal mother and a lone teen daughter together in a house and you get that one a lot) and “I’m sorry” when you are trying to be sympathetic (“I’m sorry is for when you are taking responsibility,” she would intone, “not empathizing”).

My mom could be a pain in the ass about a lot of things, but the older I get, and the further I get from her death when I was nineteen, the more I think this was the clearest she ever was. In particular, I watch closely in my classes as students use anything BUT the words “I’m sorry” to apologize. In “Listening In,” I covered apologies regarding how we hear someone else’s words (apologizing for our own perceptions). In “Speaking Up,” I covered apologizing for our opinions (apologizing for our own experiences). In this essay, I want to delve deeper into all the ways we apologize without ever saying those words, and in particular, the ways we hedge, judge and prepare others for what we are going to say, or deride our own words as they are exiting our mouths.

“I just want to say before I share,” is a bad sign, a red flag in the entry of the roadway of listening to someone’s writing. For the first couple of years I taught, I followed Natalie Goldberg’s rule of sharing nothing before you share – even if it is a beneficial detail. But conversations about process are some of the most interesting things shared in my classes, and I got looser about those boundaries over time. However, I was never able to clarify what I meant by “process versus apologies” and slowly but surely, the clever and heavily socialized language of my students crept in apologies masquerading as process. For instance:
“I just hated this piece the whole time I wrote it.”
“My process is that I really don’t want to share it because it sucks.”
“This isn’t apologizing; I know that there’s really nothing in this piece.”
Judgments are subtly, and not so subtly, snuck into all of those process statements. Now I am getting strict again, and allowing no comments before sharing (save the bare minimum explanation – “Suzanne is my sister,” for ex), and making sure that any comments the writer/reader shares after sharing are connected to process and not apology.

I can see the cringing, see the students who gesture an old fashioned key in front of their lips, pretending to hum back their own self-hatred. Some have asked “If I am thinking it anyway, why can’t I say it out loud?” The answers to that are this:
Don’t believe everything you think.
And, Just because you think it doesn’t mean you should say it.

In “Speaking Up,” I talk about the power of saying things, and point out that by vocalizing our pain, we can often move through it. However, by vocalizing our judgment, we are not vocalizing our pain. We are vocalizing our barriers and forcing distance between ourselves and others. It is important to recognize our resistance to sharing, to being vulnerable. It is equally important not to empower our resistance by believing it.

For example, a woman said before reading the other week that she found her writing to be “not very detailed, so I am not so sure about sharing it.” I warned her that that was an apology, and she fought back gently, saying it was just an observation. I clucked my tongue and told her to read.
After she was done, she took feedback, and many folks noted how mentally intimate the piece was – so close to her thoughts, her opinions and reflections right at the surface. Someone went even so far as to note that in the past, she has felt distance in the students’ writing, as if the details – which she usually uses a lot of – themselves were engaging perceptually but held the reader at bay. I asked the student if that helped her to understand that “details” are not always the color of the cat’s fur or the sound of the rain. She nodded. I asked her if she understood that her comment before reading was a judgment and not an observation. She nodded. Then, and this is a particularly good class with a lot of honesty and trust, another student said:
“When you said that about your own writing, I thought ‘I wonder if she thinks that about my writing, that it isn’t as good when it isn’t as detailed?’”
The student who had shared teared up. She didn’t think that, of course, but her judgment spread around the room once she released it. The listeners had felt the pain of her rejection of her own piece – that alone is enough, a warning that we have let the self-hatred and apologies take over.

“It’s short, don’t worry.”
“I’ll just read half of it.”
“It’s different than the other pieces, but whatever.”
“I’m not sure I did the assignment, but I’ll read anyway.”
“The piece is really non-coherent.”
-Passive voice (“It is…”) rather than I statements
-Seeming I statements disguising a judgment (“I’m not sure I did the assignment”)
-A sense that there are rules (“I didn’t do the assignment”)
-The word “just” (90% of the time this word is a toxic hedger)

These are apologies. These are judgments, classifications, conclusions. When I studied improv theater back in the day, the sole most important instruction was never to offer the person who followed you a block.
“If the next person is supposed to come up with something to say, don’t say ‘So that’ll take care of it. All done,’ before they speak. Give them an opening.”
Giving a closing shows we aren’t ready to let others in, under the misdirection that we aren’t worthy of receiving others. Inadvertantly, we can accidentally send the message that others aren’t worthy, instead of, or in addition to, ourselves

The following statements are process statements, which are open, vulnerable and most importantly, not apologies, when stated after sharing. These aren’t hard and fast rules – read them to yourself, after reading some of the other examples, and hear the difference in tone and intention.
“I feel really vulnerable right now.”
“I am really uncertain about how I feel.”
“I struggled the whole time while writing this.”
“I can hear my own self-hatred in the piece.”
“I had a hard time following my own thoughts.”
What are some of the characteristics here?
-I statements (I think, I feel – owning our own experiences)
-Looking at our actual experience instead of the result
-Listening to our own selves and being able to parse out experience from judgment

You can practice listening to and giving apologies all the time in your regular conversations. With lots of opening and space, and as little irritation as we can bear, notice how often, how many times a day and in how many ways you apologize for yourself, for what you have done, even for how you think or feel. Notice in particular how often others do this, and, not because they struggle more but because they are socialized to do so, how often women apologize or resistance or demote their experience in favor of someone else. Notice how men are not socialized to do this but do it in different ways – putting forth opinions instead of feelings, making decisions for others, holding silence but giving off judgmental or defensive energy.

Deep down, we apologize so much because we think there is, we are, something to apologize for. I’ll give you a hint:  It’s not your writing you are apologizing for.
It’s you you are apologizing for.
Guess what? You don’t have to apologize for yourself. Ever.

This is, overall, why we need such attention, such a practice of noticing and retraining ourselves not to apologize. We noticed when we stand by our experiences and opinions and perceptions that we feel vulnerable and raw, open and sometimes scared. However, that kind of state is the only state that inspires trust. If we apologize for ourselves and then provide a space so that others can be honest, the double standard will get in the way.

I will close by saying that apologies certainly have their place. When we have misspoken (see again “Speaking Up”), when we have opened our mouths without a sense of mindful speech, when we have offered an opinion where silence or perception (see again “Listening In”) would have better suited the situation, that’s when we can apologize. Even then, my mother’s voice in my head reminds me, do it once and really mean it. Each time we say it to the same person for the same situation, it loses strength and meaning.  Perhaps, like women’s eggs, we have a limited amount of apologies to use in a lifetime. So use them when they are necessary and appropriate and don’t give them away to your self-hatred. Save them for when someone needs you to stand up for them, or for when you need to be responsible for yourself. Those kinds of apologies will actually help your self-esteem. And the practice of not apologizing for yourself all the time will save precious time and voice for more powerful listening and being listened to.


  1. Brilliant, cuts to the core. As someone who has long suffered from saying needless apologies (and still has to watch herself with this ugly habit), I get everything you're saying here. You're totally right -- when someone is apologizing for her writing they're really apologizing her herself and some inadequacy she perceives.
    Lovely writing, wonderful way to articulate this.

  2. *huge hugs* Thank you for this entry...

  3. Just because you think it doesn’t mean you should say it. Yes. I love this whole piece.

  4. Thank you, all. This is a part of a longer set of essays to become a book on teaching contemplative writing - your feedback is helpful!

  5. This is spot on. It's really hard to stand by without trying to make yourself smaller.

    When I lead writing workshops I often use the tool you shared of echoing to give feedback to the writer. It's been very interesting to bring that to different groups of people and see the sometimes visceral reactions.