One reason apologies feel hard to offer is that they’re colored by fear — fear of feeling shame, fear of feeling judged, fear of offering an olive branch that is not returned. To apologize, we must find ways to anticipate not only what will go wrong, but also what could go right.
I have to apologize to someone tonight. I spoke meanly to her. The underlying message I wanted her to hear was lost in my frustrated delivery. I turned my other cheek one too many times and finally I snapped at her instead of gathering my thoughts and finding a better moment.
I pride myself on having cultivated a greater ability to turn the other cheek, but there is a downside to that acquired skill. Things gather.
As I contemplate the apology, I notice that fear colors what I’m anticipating may happen. All the images in my head cluster around fear: She will lash out. Others will hear. She will not accept the apology. She will write me off. She will be holier than thou. She will insult me as someone who cannot walk my own talk consistently. I will feel shame.
Fourteenth century Sufi teacher and poet Hafiz said, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.”
So I trick my mind into better mental living conditions. I shove fear mentally into the corner, making room to consider what else could happen: A heart-to-heart conversation, too long put off. An acknowledgement of her own contributions. An apology in return. I will feel acknowledged. I will feel gratified that I stepped up to walk my talk.
But fear slithers out from its corner. I turn again to catastrophizing, lured to think the worst will happen instead of the best. We are wired for this — we survived the lions on the plains by developing a negativity bias, a sensitivity to negative events and possibilities.
It is just a bias, though, real but not true. The feeling is real but the circumstances are not presently true. There are no lions. It is as possible that things will go well as it is that things will go poorly.
So why allow fear to inform my decision to apologize?
I realize: Fear is the enemy of apology. And yet, with just a trick of the mind, apology can become the enemy of fear. [click to tweet this]
Stepping up to difficult conversations
If this topic interests you, you might enjoy a four-part series I wrote a while back: