Healing, Step Two: Apologize

“We must apologize for the hurts we’ve caused.”(From “Seven Steps to Healing” byEdgar Villanueva in Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides, second edition, copyright 2021, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc, Oakland, CA) Today we look at step two of Edgar Villanueva’s “Seven Steps to Healing” as applied to interpersonal relationships: Apologizing for the hurts we’ve caused.

Don’t Kiss and Make Up My mother hated conflict. My mother was also a single parent to three kids who were nearly always in conflict. I’m sure it was way too much a lot of the time. I get that, and I’m not mad at my mother for this? But she really didn’t have the spoons to do this part well.

Whenever we got into fights, my mother would tell us to stop it, say we were sorry, and then to literally kiss and make up. The very last thing I wanted to do when my brother had harmed me was to put my lips on his cheek, (I did not want to be anywhere near that close to him,) and to pretend that everything was okay. I also wasn’t so crazy about saying I was sorry for things I was not sorry for, nor did I want to hear him lie and say he was sorry. I knew good and darned well given the opportunity he would do the exact same thing again. Furthermore, he would have more data on how to not get caught next time.

Everything was not ok. Furthermore, I was not okay with lying and saying things were okay that weren’t. I was not sorry that I had hurt him for hurting me.

This might be why I am such an ardent believer in the power of truth. So thanks for that part Mom. As for the rest, this is
what interpersonal healing looks like.
“Iffy” Apologies Sometimes, in order to be more honest, one of us would say, “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” While this is slightly more honest, it still refuses to empathize with the other person. There is no if around the hurt when you hurl a lacrosse ball at my head. The lump on my forehead is not a vague possibility.

Emotional and psychological hurts are harder to see, but they are just as un-vague. If someone tells you that you hurt them, there is no cost to you in imagining what that hurt was like for the other person. It does not detract from the harm you incurred if you allow your heart to be tender toward them, empathically reaching into their world and caring. The only time this becomes costly is if your ego is wound up in the process.

The Ego Trap We resist owning up to harming the other person for a variety of reasons:

  • We are too caught up in how much the other person hurt us to go there.
  • We are caught up in who is “right” and “wrong” in the situation. (This is the wrong conversation. While change points may very well need to be negotiated, we have to first meet human to human and understand how we have affected one another if we are going to get anywhere helpful in that change point negotiation.)
  • We don’t want to feel like bad people. (This is also the wrong conversation. That’s about shame. It serves no good purpose here. You can read more about thathere.)
  • We are thinking hierarchically. Owning up to our misdeeds means we are now “one down” on the illusionary hierarchy of humans. Spoiler alert! There is no hierarchy of humans.)

Seeking Anesthesia Do you see the common element in each of these points? When we are not apologizing, or apologizing poorly, we are focussed on ourselves. We perceive the other as an enemy. We humans have a bad habit of demonizing our enemies, labeling them with terms that attempt to strip away their sacredness as human beings.

I believe this is a type of anesthesia. We are wounded. We want to feel strong. Anger, revenge, over-simplified justice that obliterates the person we see as an offender all help us to feel strong when we have been left vulnerable. This is understandable, but not at all useful. Our actions harm the other. Now they feel justified in doing the same in retaliation. This only leads to more violation, non-personning, and escalated offenses. It’s an endless circle of pain.

Purpose The purpose of an apology is to re-humanize both parties. I see you. I see that my actions have harmed you. While I still stand by why I hurt you, it matters to me that I hurt you. I’m reaching out to you with the kind of understanding and empathy that I hope you can offer in return. Regardless of what you choose, I choose to see you as a human being, to value you, and to work toward finding a different way to address the things that aren’t ok between us.

I apologize for the harm I have caused you.

Next Up: Listening Once we step away from our egos and recognize the sacred humanness of the other person, we have the emotional generosity required to hear and consider what things look like from the other person’s perspective. Stay tuned!