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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: Is Saying I'm Sorry Enough?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Is Saying I'm Sorry Enough?

A stiff apology is a second insult.... The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt. ~G.K. Chesterton

Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future. ~Paul Boese
(I have tacked on a few more quotes for thought at the bottom of this post)

Recently, a friend of mine who went through a bad ordeal a few years back got a surprising phone call from the person who had hurt her. Her old friend called up to ask forgiveness. The friend owned up to the things that she had done that had caused hurt and bad feelings, and said she was sorry.

My friend was moved. She was relieved, and happy. She felt understood and hopeful for the future. She wanted to feel relieved of her anger and resentments, and she wanted to live in forgiveness and friendship. There are enough sorrows in the world. My friend wanted peace and healing. She wanted to let it go.

Somehow, though, even though she told me she was gracious and accepting, in her heart, she was not quite there. Not quite where she wished she could be. Somehow, after the first few glowing hours of hearing her friend's acknowledgments and apology, she began to remember again, the pain her friend had caused, the betrayal she had felt for several years. She began to rethink the apology and shoot holes in it. She wondered if her friend was truly sorry, or just wanted to feel better.

Her friend's behavior had caused a great deal of embarrassment, loss of money and opportunity. Not to mention the loss of the friendship, which was so precious to her. Her friend's apology did not include any plans for reparation, or compensation. Suddenly, it seemed like a ruse.

In my office, when I work with emotional pain and suffering, with couples who have betrayed each other in some way and it comes to apologies, it can often feel like the words are just not enough.

Even after many years, and many I'm Sorrys, old hurts can crop back up and poke holes in the present, and threaten to side track the future. Often, the person who was hurt experiences a retruama on occasion. Or a flash back to all the bad feelings of shame, frustration, pain and anger. The I'm Sorrys seem all at once contrived, self serving or insincere. The temptation to demand more, to drag up the past and rehash it yet again can loom large, but often rehashing can cause problems in the here and now.

Sometimes when the urge to rehash and demand more surges, we have to ask why now? What is going on in the present, what feeling or situation in the moment is causing a repeat of old stuff. Why are things suddenly (or not so suddenly) not enough. Why is the past not left to the past? If the hurt pair want to stay resolved, but one somehow feels like the restitution was not complete, old pain can pop back up and bite at any time. Sometimes, the hurt party feels that money needs to be repaid, or public statements need to be made, or rescinded, or property returned or repaired. And sometimes, there may be not be any amount of restitution that would seem adequate.

Perhaps more admissions of wrong doing and regret are needed, more reassurance. At a certain point, the apologizer does not feel so bad anymore, and is happy to have put things behind him/her. What then? Or what if the recipient filters the apology through his or her own insecurity, doubt or unconscious positioning of victim hood? What if the recipient needs to hold onto the resentment for reasons not readily understood. Sometimes, even, we may wish we could let go, but find ourselves feeling the bad feelings anyway. What then?

How do we decide when to stop punishing those who have hurt us? We do tend to want to punish those who frustrate us. How much suffering is enough? And surely, some of the worst emotional pain is feeling anger or hate, especially toward someone who is loved, or once was. Letting go of anger is no easy task of course. Apologies can go a long way, but sometimes they don't fix the ache quite right. What's there to do, then?

Well, this, I think: At some point we make and remake a decision to either be right or be married. To be angry or be friends. To drag up the past or to stay in the present and keep a future possible. Of course we can have many feelings, but if we live in the bad ones, or insist on them coming up too often, we risk pushing away that which we really do wish to keep close. We don't have to put ourselves or others in vulnerable situations again. Perhaps we will never really trust completely. Or get rid of the nick in our heart. Perhaps what was lost is lost. The friendship will never be exactly the same again. We will not lend ourselves out quite the same way as we once would have, or would like to. The feeling won't be what is was. Sometimes, the damage that was done cannot be wholly repaired. The relationship can be mended. Pleasantries can resume. Social graces, sexual relationships, and good wishes can return. But there may have to be a newness to things, since the old is not the same as it was.

The couples I work with who are inching their way back from infidelity face this issue all the time. Where is the restitution? There is no money value, no property to replace or repair. For some emotional wrongs, when more than an I'm sorry is needed, how can you back an apology with something concrete? What would count as payback?

One possible answer is this: self study. A sincere and honest willingness on the part of the apologizer to learn about why they did what they did. For some hurt spouses, this goes a long way. It seems to scratch the itch for compensation at least a little. It may not be as gratifying as revenge or punishment, but its the higher road for sure. And it can bring a true and lasting relief. It can make an apology really hold.
Of course, in many if not most hurts, the hurtee does have some role in what happened. Taking a look at one's own role and owning up to any contributions, conscious or un, that may have contributed to the problem can pave the way towards hearing and accepting apologies.
Another answer is time. Time and new memories. New experiences that overshadow the old ones. Good feelings that trump the bad ones. Days and weeks and years that go by and smooth over the pointy edges of pain. When the hurt partner can hold his/her demands for more, just a bit, and the apologizer can continue to show up, and show effort, there is hope upon hope.

Some folks are loyal to their pain and suffering, and rightfully protective of getting hurt again or falling into the same old patterns or problems. Character does not change that easily after all, even if behavior can and does.

Sometimes, on this subject I am sad and cautious. Hopeful and forward looking, but honest. We cannot take an eraser to the past. We can only look to draw a new future. Hanging on to resentment does not protect us from getting hurt again. Saying I'm sorry does not wipe out memories, even if it goes a long way toward healing pain and moving forward.

Good discussions to the right ears can go far toward sorting through what we need and why, and toward learning more about our own personal patterns and the fears that may be contributing to the mix. Good discussions can help sort through the waters of feelings new and old, and help with figuring out when to rehash and when to refrain, when to overlook and when to look back, and when to ask for more and when to appreciate and accept what is. We have to bear unbearable feelings sometimes in order to live through them and move forward. Some relationships are worth the struggle, worth accepting a sincere apology and putting the past to rest. It may not be easy, but we can choose, sometimes a thousand times in the same hour, to do it.

Some quotes for thought:

It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend. ~William Blake

True friends stab you in the front. ~Oscar Wilde

The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people halfway. ~Henry Boye

You can make up a quarrel, but it will always show where it was patched. ~Edgar Watson Howe, Country Town Sayings, 1911

Forgiveness is the sweetest revenge. ~Isaac Friedmann

I think its about forgiveness. Forgiveness. Even if you don't love me anymore ~ Don Henley


Shen said...

If you get the chance, you could read the posts I put up about a retreat I went to in November. I know it's a lot to read (there are 12 entries, all labeled "retreat") but it really speaks to the concept of hearing "I'm sorry".

Melissa Groman, LCSW said...

Thanks Shen, I just stopped by. What a powerful experience (left you a comment on your blog as well). Big subject, forgiveness, but I hear that you felt peace, and I think that peace is what happens when we forgive, though I don't think its simple, not at all, really. I would love to continue to hear your ideas. As always, I am glad you stopped by.

Runaway Child said...

Wow,Just stumbled upon your blog, fascinating .

Shen said...

I remembered this post, today, when someone forwarded me a Youtube video link.
It is about forgiveness.
It is a profound vidio that I think you would find very moving.

There is a link at my blog, posted today.