How To Accept An Apology

This is a companion piece to my infamous "How to Fuck Up" post -- because, just as surely as you will fuck up some day, it's certain that someone you know and interact with is likely to fuck up, too.

And really, since you're as likely to be on the "fuckup-ee" end of the fuck-up as you are to be on the "fuckup-er" end, it might be a good idea to get some practice accepting those apologies in the way you'd like others to accept yours. Dontcha think? Or dontcha?

I'm assuming that you've already read the other post, so you know all about what I consider a "real" apology. In this exercise, I'm going to assume that you've actually received a real apology (because if you haven't, then you haven't been really been apologized to, so there's nothing for you to accept).

(Note: This post is focused mostly on how accepting an apology bears on relationships with people and groups you actually care about having relationship with, but it may be more globally applicable -- I just haven't taken it there.)

There are two basic scenarios that I've experienced once I've received a real apology:

Scenario 1

  1. FuckUp-Er apologizes to me.
  2. I feel a rush of relaxation move through me, and usually, whatever stony guard I've built up during the fucked-up interaction seems to melt away -- usually immediately and for good.
  3. The slate feels clear and clean.
Scenario 2
  1. FuckUp-Er apologizes to me.
  2. I do not feel that rush of relaxation.
  3. In fact, sometimes, I feel even more irritated.
When Scenario #2 occurs, I find that the first thing I think is something like: "They didn't really apologize."

If I go back and check, though, and find that they did acknowledge, apologize, and amend, and I think they really did apologize -- I usually find that I have other stuff going on internally -- like
a) I don't think they are sincere, or
b) I don't trust that they are actually going to do something different in the future, or
c) I find that their apology seems not to cover the scope of what I'm pissed about

The fact is, if any of these things are true, I think the person who really has a problem here is me.

Here's why:

Let's say either a) I don't think the apology is sincere or b) I don't trust that they are actually going to do something different in the future.

Essentially, I am saying that the person is apologizing in bad faith -- and if I'm saying that, what does it say about the fact that I'm continuing to interact with that person?

I'm essentially admitting that I don't trust them -- so I think I need to dig into that and see what the source of my mistrust is.

Is there something that I've actually witnessed in this particular person's behavior (toward me or toward someone else) that makes me think that they don't mean what they say?

If I find that I believe that this individual person is unworthy of my trust, based on actually observations I've made of them -- then what the hell am I doing continuing to partner with them/work for them/read their blog/pretend that we're friends?

When I continue such interactions, knowing that I don't trust that person, I think that's my bad -- and it's likely that I'm going to feel pretty peevish about betraying myself in this way (hence, my escalating irritation).

Now, what if I examine the observations I've made of this particular person and discover that I don't think it's their individual actions that I don't trust? What if I find out that I'm defended and cautious because I've been screwed in the past by people who might be like them in some way?

Well, again, I think that's my problem.

I'm not saying that I'm "bad" for feeling cautious (for example, if I'm cautious around straight people in general). I'm not even saying that it's unwise -- Maude knows I've had my share of experiences with straight friends who make witless remarks that demonstrate their straight privilege.

I'm saying that the caution belongs to me -- it's mine.

It's quite possible that a situation could arise where a straight ally might make a gaff, then apologize quickly and quite sincerely, and my past experience could harden me to it -- but I try to be very aware when I hear my internal thought-process running along the lines of "Straight people -- you can't trust 'em!" -- because this is exactly the kind of broad-brush bias that I don't want to be painted with as a queer.

These days, if I find myself in a situation where I feel particularly surprised and shocked at the speech or action of someone I previously considered an ally, I try first to assume "friendly intent", and I'll go a long way to get to the bottom of what's going on if the other person's amenable to it, because I'm currently more interested in seeing if people will transform than deciding that they're all out to get me.

So, what happens if I actually do trust them, but c) I find that their apology seems not to cover the scope of what I'm pissed about?

If I find myself saying/writing things in the course of attempting to accept an apology like:

"Yes, you apologized, but there was this other time that you did (x/y/z) . . . ", then the truth is, I'm dealing with backlog.

Nasty, erosive, relationship-destroying backlog -- times where I didn't speak up when something bugged me, and then didn't speak up again, and again, and again -- and now there's this morass of feelings that I've got -- and yes, for sure, this one little apology for the thing we're dealing with now is not going to heal all that.

And guess what?

Once again, I think that's really my problem. I didn't speak up. I let things slide. The other person has absolutely no control over what I choose to do, so how in the world can they be responsible for my pent-up, stewing, brewing anger?

Yes -- "anger" (maybe even rage) -- not "mad". I think "mad" is a real emotion that happens in the moment, and that "anger" is the result of suppressing mad.

Mad is in the present. Mad is: "You're whistling, and it's bugging me."

Anger is: "You whistled yesterday, and the day before that, and NOW YOU'RE WHISTLING AGAIN!!!!!"

Anger is in the past.

Don't get me wrong -- I have no problem with feeling "mad", or even being "angry" -- I've just found it incredibly helpful to know what I'm actually feeling mad or being angry about.

See, the problem with anger backlog is that, once you have it, you're not really mad "at" that person anymore -- you're mad "at" yourself -- for not speaking up, for not putting a stop to it -- so it will not matter how many times they apologize to you, or in what manner -- because they're not who you're mad "at"/angry "with".

Here, Let Us Pause for A Brief Explanatory Break:

The scare-quotes around "at" (above) exist because I actually think it's sloppy emotional communication to say I'm mad "at" someone.

My emotion is entirely internal -- yes, it might have been stimulated by something someone else did, but the feeling still belongs to me.

If I direct my mad "at" someone -- try to use that energy to make them "wrong" and "bad" -- rather than directing toward action to rectify the speech, action, or event that's stimulating this essential response in me, my experience is usually that the "mad" just builds up, turns to anger, and toxifies me.

I believe that the purpose of "mad" is to motivate us to align things that are out of alignment in ourselves, our relationships, and the world. When mad is used correctly, it fuels change.

Mad can actually feel good, sometimes. It's a highly energetic emotion -- your blood gets pumping, your get off your ass and start talking, or writing, or taking action, or yelling -- think about the sensation of "Righteous Wrath" (which is probably actually "anger" anyway -- but I won't go off on that right now. I mean, I could -- but I won't).

My experience of "Righteous Wrath" is that it nearly always arises when I've been holding back/not speaking up/biting my tongue. I wait until the person does the thing that I've been mad about just one more time, in a way that I can absolutely, positively point to (usually with a trembling, pontifical index finger) and say "There! You see? You did it!" (And inside, a nasty little voice says: "Ah-ha! I've got them now!!!!!", and I ride, ride, ride the energy of my Righteous Wrath.)

That can be addictive, that energy -- the Red Bull of the emotional realm -- but let's be honest about how nutritious a steady diet of it is going to be for any relationship you actually want to keep.

/As-It-Turns-Out Not-So-Brief Explanatory Break

So, when you are presented with an apology that you think is genuine -- which includes the four As -- here's what to do:

If you feel that Scenario #1 rush of relaxation, rejoice in that fact that something in the world has gone awry and been brought back to balance. Tell the person who apologized that you accept their apology, and that you're ready to go forward with them to a new moment.

If, instead, you find that you experience symptoms of Scenario #2:
  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. Tell the person that you really would like to accept their apology, but that something doesn't feel quite right to you. If you need it, ask them for a little time to discover what's going on for you.
  3. Examine whether you trust this person or not, based on your experience of them. Perhaps more importantly -- ask yourself if you want to trust them.
  4. If you don't trust them, stop having these interactions. You don't trust them. If you keep relating to them, I see (with my prodigious psychic powers) . . . . a train-wreck in your future.
  5. If you do trust the individual, but still feel unsettled, ask yourself whether this person belongs to a class of people that you generically mistrust, and think about whether/how that generic mistrust may be affecting you and your relationship with this individual.
  6. If trusting their sincerity and good will about future action is not the issue, but you find that you have backlog with them, accept their apology for this occurrence graciously, and then -- clean your shit up! if you want to have a relationship with them. Do this separately from the apology acceptance. Start with something like this: "When we were talking about what happened, I really felt and accepted your apology for what you did, but I noticed I had some lingering feelings. I realized that I haven't been honest with you -- I've been holding some shit back about things that have happened in the past. I'm sincerely sorry about that. I want to clear them up now."
Unless I ascend in the next five minutes, it's pretty likely I may make another mistake in this lifetime, or interact with someone who will make a mistake in this lifetime.

I like knowing how we might find our way back to grace.

Posted byPortlyDyke at 9:07 PM  


OuyangDan said... January 8, 2010 at 4:33 AM  

Wow, I've missed you!

Sometimes, and maybe I haven't examined all of the scenarios you have laid out, I feel like I am entitled -- once in a while -- to not immediately accept an apology. I feel like sometimes we are expected (especially as women) to get over things quickly if someone apologizes and not hold grudges. I want to be able to hurt just a little longer so that I can work through it for whatever reason, especially if I feel genuinely hurt. I don't always want to move on that quickly. It might say more about me...but most of the time, yes: If someone apologizes, I can see that these scenarios fit.

PortlyDyke said... January 8, 2010 at 10:31 AM  

Hey OD! I think everyone has the "right" to take as long as they want to accept (or not accept) apologies.

What I've found is that, if I don't feel comfortable with accepting the apology right away, it's usually because the feelings I'm having aren't just about the thing that's just happened with me and the other party -- there's more under the surface, and I heartily endorse taking the time to figure out what that is!

Just as I don't think someone should apology unless they really feel they've done something to apologize for, I don't think they should accept an apology when they really don't accept it.

NameChanged said... January 8, 2010 at 6:27 PM  

Portly! You must be psychically connected to me. I was just sincerely apologized to yesterday. I am currently in a strange stage of acceptance. The apology came from a student who verbally assaulted me, and he is still in my class. I trust his sincerity, but I do not feel that he and I can continue to interact in a teacher/student way because there are legal proceedings beginning and I will be called to testify. I accept that he is remorseful, and he has changed his behavior, but I fear that if the he doesn't get a satisfactory grade from me, I may be at the wrath of his parents.

/making it all about me.

I've missed you. :) Thanks for a great post.

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