Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Might of Apology: A House of Mud Leaves Dirty Tracks

“I’m sorry”

That’s all I ever wanted to hear.

Apologies imply accountability for actions, and to be accountable implies a level of maturity and self-esteem. A person who has developed self-worth as solid as a brick house can take a few hard knocks (through constructive feedback or self-examination) and remain firm and standing. But if your mortar was simply mud, and your wall built with sticks, it is too fragile for the Big Bad Wolf or anybody who may come by huffing and puffing. People living within stick walls of self-esteem can rarely accept criticism or offer apologies.

I grew up in a house made of sticks constructed by parents whose houses fared no better. I both longed for apologies, yet was unable to give them myself. I began to turn this around when I began a 12 step recovery program. The steps advocate taking a “searching and fearless” moral inventory of yourself, your behaviors, and the effects on others. And even beyond simply counting your missteps, you are encouraged to go to everyone you have harmed and make direct amends (except when to do so would cause them more injury). Gulp. I could feel the wolf coming to reduce me to toothpicks.

As I sat down with the people I had harmed and sincerely said I was sorry, I could feel the bricks begin to replace dirt, and my once muddied path became clean. The repair to my relationships was ten-fold, and the repair to my soul was a hundred-fold. It is a tragedy that so very few people understand the healing power of apology.

My father was the King of Mud Houses, and he always thought he was right. Never throughout my childhood did I ever hear him say, “I’m sorry” for any offense major or minor. In my process of healing, I asked my father several times to apologize to me. At first I wanted an apology for the incest, but later I “watered it down” and simply wanted him to apologize for something – anything. It was not until seven years of silence had passed between us, and he developed a terminal illness, that he was finally prompted to offer the only statement of remorse I would ever hear. He said he was sorry for how his lifelong compulsive overeating and obesity had affected me.

It was long overdue, but it made all the difference.


  1. You bring up so many sides to apologies in this post. I hardly know where to begin in my response.

    Apologies are so powerful. To simply have an acknowledgement of wrong done. Wow! What an incredible thing to experience. To me...it is amazing that you got ANY kind of apology at all from your father.

    I find it ironic that my father insisted that I was being unforgiving, yet he never acknowledged what he had done...and never apologized for anything. How can I be unforgiving if he never even acknowledged what he had done?

    As for me apologizing...I have found myself completely tongue tied in some instances where I knew I needed to apologize. It is almost as if programming were triggered or something. The thought would run through my head that they would not understand...or they would think I was even weirder than I felt I looked to them already...or...(fill in the blank). It was like there was this huge block and I would feel totally helpless. I felt like it would do no good to apologize.

    There is so much surrounding this subject. I am glad that you brought it up.

    As a side note, I am listening to the recording of the webinar as I am writing here. It is impacting me again...just as it did then. Thank you!

  2. Hi One Survivor,

    I have set up this blog to review comments prior to posting (mostly in order to screen out potential offenders). I love that you are using this blog and seem to be connecting to the articles. When you send me a comment, please let me know if you would like it published, and I will be happy to post it. I just felt like I should ask for your permission.

    Yes, apology is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful healing tools we have to repair relationships. Today, I find myself being able to apologize almost naturally. It just feels right and good. I think once I started "forcing myself" to say I was sorry through the 12 steps -and felt the amazing results, there was simply no going back to my old ways of refusing apology.

    I am so grateful that now my kids hear me apologize to them - and they have learned to apologize to others.

    In addition to our abuse issues, we largely live in a society that refuses apology. We settle wrongs through litigation instead of simply admitting shortcomings. I was encouraged by an article I read recently in Time magazine saying that some doctors have been avoiding law suits from patients by simply admitting that they made mistakes. All the patients really wanted was to hear the words "I'm sorry." People crave acknowledgement for wrongs. Obama was looking into this as a part of the health care reform issue. Bravo! God, I love this President!

    I also think it is powerful when an entire country offers official apology for wrongs, such as Germany for it's actions in WWII. Both the House and the Senate just this year passed a resolution apologizing for slavery. African-Americans had to wait over two hundred years, so perhaps I didn't have it so bad having to wait 40.

    But what really, really sucks is when you never get it at all. My heart goes out to everyone in this situation. I fear I might have gotten really stuck in my bitterness had my father not given me that crumb of apology.

    In some respects, what you shared about your father seems like a hidden admission of his wrongs. If he pointed out your lack of forgiveness, it seems to me that he was strongly implying that there WAS some wrong to forgive. Of course, this is a twisted and sick way to go about acknowledgement (par for the course for an offender - it's all about them, isn't it?), but can you see this perhaps as your "crumb"?

    By the way, you deserve much better. But if this is all you ever get, can it be enough to embrace and offer you some hope of peace?

  3. Hi, Bonnie, you are more than welcome to publish my comments. If I did not want them published, I would either email you instead...or just let you know in my comments. :-)

    I don't need an apology to have peace...but it sure would be nice to have one.

    As far as giving them, it is empowering to me to give it. I am the type who cannot bear to think that I have hurt someone. I am pretty quick to apologize when I know I have caused pain. Apologizing is a form of making amends.

    However, interestingly, the only people I really have a great deal of struggle apologizing to are typically cult connected people. I think that is because of programming that gets triggered and sets off all kinds of weird thinking interferes with my ability to apologize. I think it might be designed to keep me locked in and trapped to them.

    For whatever reason, I have always believed in keeping short accounts...even before I got into recovery. I was very blessed in that. :-)

  4. You write of "watering down" what you wanted in the way of an apology. One thing I notice about those who are determined to heal...they find a way to take what they can get and maximize it.

    I think that we survivors...and only we...can truly determine what is absolutely needed for our own healing. I am not discounting the God factor here. I am just saying that we can determine if we can allow ourselves to heal with less than what is ideal...especially if what is ideal is not forthcoming.

    You took an apology that really did not relate to the abuse at all...and were able to make it cover more than it really did. You found healing in that. You could have chosen to stay stuck forever, but you didn't. You decided that his apology was enough. I think we survivors have more power than we realize.

    I see acceptance within this. We want more. We long for more. Our hearts cry out for more. Yet...we learn to accept the reality that we are not going to get the more that we crave. So...like making lemonade out of lemons...we make the most of what we have been given.

    Thank you for sharing this. I think it is a very important lesson. We are stronger than we think. We are more creative than we think. We are more powerful than we think.

  5. Hi One Survivor,

    Wow! That was one powerful comment you left! Thank you! You are so right. The power to heal is always within our reach, if we are able to grab for it in our own unique ways. By the way, I posted a couple more articles that I thought may be helpful, or at least generate some thoughts.

  6. "Apologies imply accountability."

    How can I apologize for something I refuse to take responsibility for? On the flip side...how can I realistically expect an apology from someone who refuses to acknowledge...or even accept...that they have done anything wrong??

    What is so difficult about accepting responsibility? About accepting that we have done wrong? Many of us grew up in a family system where you are what you do. If you do good...you are good. If you do badly...you are bad. It can really be a fight to get past the "I am what I do" kind of mentality to the "I am who Yahweh/God says I am" mentality.

    For me, I had to make a conscious choice to believe what my heavenly Abba said about me rather than what I was told growing up. It wasn't easy, but the more I focused on that, the more I began to change inside. The more I changed inside, the easier it was to accept that I had done wrong...and it did not make me a bad/evil person. It just made me a human in need of her Creator.

    Being able to accept my own frailties also made it easier to accept the frailties of my abusers. It made it easier to accept that I may never get an apology. Do I like the idea of not getting one? Nope. But I can live with it.

    Hope that made some sense. This is my perspective.