When We Need an Apology But Are Never Going to Get One

Why is it so hard for some people to say “I’m sorry”? It’s remarkable how difficult these two simple words can be to say out loud. I’ve been gifted with my share of never-sorry people over the years. I say gifted, because not getting the “I’m sorry” I’ve craved and (I thought) deserved has forced me to investigate the psychology of apologies, as well as my own relationship with apologies and the absence of them.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why some people refuse to say I’m sorry even when they know they’ve done something that caused harm, and even when the offense is small and seemingly not a big deal to take responsibility for. Recently, I was confronted with a friend who refused to say she was sorry for having misplaced an object she borrowed. It wasn’t there when I needed it, so what? A simple “I’m sorry” would have put the whole thing to bed in the number of seconds it took to say those two words. But those two words were never going to happen, and I, in my less-evolved incarnation, kept at it until I was exasperated, angry, and demanding an apology for something I didn’t really care about.

Boiled down, to say I’m sorry is to say that I did something wrong. For some people, admitting that they did something wrong is not possible, even when they know it was wrong, and even when they feel bad about doing what they did. It’s odd to witness, but this never-sorry person can actually be sorry and still refuse to utter the two words that would both acknowledge their remorse and right their wrong.

To be able to admit that we’ve done something wrong requires a certain level of self-esteem or ego strength. People who are deeply insecure can find it challenging to say I’m sorry in part because a single mistake has the power to obliterate their entire self-worth. The idea that they could make a mistake and still be a valuable and good person is unthinkable for someone whose self-esteem is severely lacking. An apology is an admission of fallibility, which can trigger the vast reservoir of inadequacy and shame they carry, and thus threaten the fragile narrative they’ve constructed about themselves. For a person with a damaged sense of self-worth, acknowledging error can be tantamount to annihilation.

So, too, there’s the person who was blamed relentlessly as a child, who from a young age was told they were responsible for every problem that arose and punished accordingly. As adults, such people tend to go in one of two directions. Either they apologize for everything, even things they haven’t done, or they refuse to apologize for anything, even things they have done. For those that end up the latter, they decide, consciously or unconsciously, that they will never again accept blame of any kind. They’ve closed the door to anything that holds a whiff of it. For this sort of person, saying I’m sorry puts them in touch with the feelings attached to their early experience of being deemed inescapably guilty and bad. Having been unfairly and indiscriminately held responsible for everything wrong, there simply isn’t any psychic space left for responsibility, even when it’s appropriate.

And then there are those who refuse to say I’m sorry, because they lack empathy and don’t actually feel sorry that you were hurt by their actions. They believe that an apology is only appropriate for situations in which they purposefully caused you harm. There’s no sorry deserved or indicated when the pain you felt was not intentionally caused, and thus not technically their fault. Your hurt, in and of itself, has no particular value.

I’ve touched on only three aspects of the never-sorry individual, but there are many more reasons why some people cannot or will not offer those two important words to another human being. To be able to say we’re sorry is to be able to be vulnerable, which is too scary, sad, dangerous, or any one of an infinite number of too’s for some people. To say I’m sorry is also to acknowledge that I care about how you feel, care that you were hurt. I care enough about you, in fact, to be willing to put my ego aside, stop defending my version of myself for long enough to hear your experience at this moment. I care enough about you to be willing to admit that I’m imperfect.

To receive a sincere apology is an incredible gift. We feel heard and acknowledged, understood and valued. Almost any hurt can be helped with a genuine, heartfelt I’m sorry. When another person looks us in the eye and tells us that they’re sorry for something they did that caused us harm, we feel loved and valued; we feel that we matter.

When someone apologizes to us, we also feel validated and justified for being upset. The apologizer is taking responsibility at some level for the result of their actions, intended or not. And when that happens, our insides relax; we don’t have to fight anymore to prove that our experience is valid, that we are entitled to our hurt and that it matters.

I recently told a dear friend about something she was doing that, for me, was damaging the friendship and making me not want to spend time with her. I was nervous to tell her given that I’ve been around more than my fair share of never-sorry people, who react to hearing anything negative about themselves by attacking the one bringing it. But this friendship is important to me, and I couldn’t just let it go; I needed to express what wasn’t working. I had to take the chance that telling her my truth, kindly, might lead us to a better place.

What happened was deeply healing. I told her my truth, how her behavior was painful for me. She listened, and then she said something amazing; she said I’m sorry. She was sorry she had caused this hurt, even if it was unintentional, even if she didn’t know it was happening. She went on to say many other love-infused things, but she didn’t need to, she had me at I’m sorry.

This is not an essay on how to make the never-sorry person say sorry. For the most part, I’ve failed at that task so far in my life (I’m sorry to say). What I’ve gotten better at, however, is accepting the things I cannot change and putting less energy into the fight for an apology from someone who doesn’t have the capacity to offer it. And I’ve gotten better at honoring my craving for an apology when it arises and providing myself with the kindness and legitimization I’m seeking. The more I practice awareness in the absence of apology, the less I need the apology to validate what I know to be true.

When hurt by another, our bodies are hardwired to need an I’m sorry in order to relax, move forward, and let go of the hurt. But sometimes when we can’t get the I’m sorry we think we need, we have to learn to relax on our own, without the other’s help. Trusting and knowing that our pain is deserving of kindness, because it is, and that our truth is justified and valid, because it’s our truth, is the beginning of our independent healing process.

In this season of giving, receiving, and gratitude, consider the profound value of a simple and sincere I’m sorry. When you’re lucky enough to receive a genuine apology, take it in, feel the majesty of what this other person is offering, receive their willingness to be vulnerable and accountable, to take care of you instead of their own ego. That’s big stuff. So, too, when you recognize an opportunity to say I’m sorry and mean it, relish the chance to give that experience to another, to step up and perhaps out of your comfort zone, to let go of your me story and be generous. And when you can, honor the profundity of the gift you’re giving. I’m sorry and thank you are really two sides of the same coin.

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Can a Relationship Recover From Resentment? How to Clear Out Resentment and Rediscover Empathy

As a relationship therapist, I am often asked “What’s the biggest problem couples face?”  The easy answers are money and sex, but neither would be exactly true or at least not what has walked into my office or my life.  The most common problem I see in intimate partnerships is what I call, t

As a relationship therapist, I am often asked “What’s the biggest problem couples face?”  The easy answers are money and sex, but neither would be exactly true or at least not what has walked into my office or my life.  The most common problem I see in intimate partnerships is what I call, the battle for empathy.

Paula tells Jon that she’s upset and hurt by something he said, a way he responded to her opinion on a family matter.  She asks if, in the future, he could say that same thing with an attitude of kindness and/or curiosity and not be so critical, simply because her opinion differed from his.  Jon reacts to Paula’s feelings and request by aggressively inquiring why he should offer her kindness and curiosity when last month she had shut down his experience over a different family matter and treated him unkindly.  Paula then attacks back, explaining why she deserved to behave the way she did in the interaction last month, and why her response last month was a reaction to what he did two months ago, which she believes was unkind and aggressive.  Jon then barks that he was entitled to his behavior two months ago because of the unkind and critical thing she did three months ago… and back and back in time it goes, to a seemingly un-findable place before the hurting began.

Couples do this all the time; they fight for who’s deserving of empathy, whose experience should get to matter, whose hurt should be taken care of and whose experience should be validated.  Often, partners refuse to offer empathy to each other because they feel that, to do so, would mean admitting that they are to blame and thus giving up the chance to receive empathy and validation for their own experience. Boiled down, if I care about the fact that my words hurt you then I’m to blame for causing you that pain, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the truth of why I said those words, or more accurately, my experience of why I was entitled to say those words, will never be validated or receive its own empathy. Empathy for you effectively cancels out empathy for me.

As hurt and resentment accumulate in a relationship, it becomes harder and harder to empathize with your partner’s experience because you have so much unheard and un-cared-for pain of your own. When too much unattended pain is allowed to sedimentize between two people, it can be nearly impossible to listen much less care about your partner’s experience. Over time, unhealed wounds create a relationship in which there’s no space left to be heard, no place where some injustice or hurt from the past does not disqualify your right to kindness and support, which just happen to be the essential components of intimacy.  For this reason and many others, resentment is the most toxic of all emotions to an intimate relationship.

So, what is to be done if you’ve been in a relationship for some time and hurts have built up and led to resentment and unresolved anger and pain.  Is there hope for empathy to regain a foothold in your relationship so that true intimacy can begin flourishing once again?  What is the way forward when it feels like there is too much toxic water under the bridge, too much wreckage under your feet to find your way back to a loving bond?

If you asked me if it’s possible, if there’s hope for empathy to re-emerge in your relationship, even when resentment abounds, the answer is probably.  But if you asked me whether there are ways to try and rebuild the empathic bond in your relationship, I would answer with a resounding yes. Yes, you can try and yes, the only way you can know if what’s probable can become possible is to name it as a problem and give it your very best effort.  One thing you can know for sure is that if you don’t try and address the resentment, it won’t go away by itself.

So, what to do?  I suggest, first, that couples set an intention, together, to re-create empathy in the relationship.  While this is not necessary, it helps to start with a conscious decision that’s named. Perhaps both of you want to deepen the intimacy or trust, or perhaps just ease the resentment.  The intention can be different for each of you, but what’s important is that there’s an agreed upon desire and willingness to bring attention to this issue in the relationship. Sometimes one partner is not willing to set such an intention, often because of precisely the resentment that’s being addressed. But if that’s the case, nonetheless, you can set an intention on your own; while it’s not ideal, it can still bring positive results.

Once an intention has been named, I recommend making a deal to officially press the re-start button on your relationship.  You can ritualize/celebrate this relationship re-start date as perhaps a new anniversary, the day you committed to begin again—without the poisons of the past.  It’s important that you mark this re-start date in some tangible way that makes it real and sacred.  A re-start date means that as of a certain day and time, you are beginning again, so that when you express your feelings to your partner, those feelings matter simply because they exist, and cannot be invalidated because of something that happened in the past.  Pressing the re-start button means you get a new point zero, a point at which you are both innocent and entitled to kindness and support.  A clean slate.  This one step, albeit manufactured, if agreed upon and followed can open up a brand-new field in which to be loving and meet and take care of each other once again.

Along with this, I recommend beginning a new way of communicating with each other.  I call this new way the taking turns way.  Taking turns means when one partner brings upset or anything difficult or less that positive to the other, she is heard and understood fully.  The experience of the other partner, what we might say caused him to behave in the way he did that created the upset, is then held for the next day. While again I am suggesting an imposed way of communicating around difficult issues, this process can encourage non-defensive listening and even compassion.  Because you know that your time to tell your side of the story is not coming until tomorrow, you are more able to hear, listen and be present for your partner’s experience.  You can also try mirroring back to your partner, through words, what you are hearing him say and feel.  And to do this mirroring until he feels that you have correctly “gotten” his experience.  Being able to hear your partner without defending yourself (since it’s against the rules for now) can lessen the chances that the exchange will end up feeding new resentments. So too, taking turns at expressing your experience, knowing that you will get to be listened to, without rebuttal, that there will be a guaranteed safe place for your experience to be heard, will ease your anxiety, anger, desperation and despair.  It will also vastly improve the possibility of building a newly empathic bond.  By communicating one at a time (with a breathing and sleeping break in between), at least for a while, you are creating a garden for kindness, curiosity and support, the defining aspects of intimacy, to at least have a chance to take root and bloom.

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When We Shame Ourselves: How to Unhook from Self-Shaming Thoughts

For many (dare I say most) people, spending time with parents can unleash some pretty strong emotions. No matter how grown up we are, our original family can put us in touch with deep hurts, primal longings, unmet needs… a tsunami of feelings. If we want to challenge every ounce of peace, wellbeing, compassion, wisdom and strength we’ve earned over a lifetime, we need only spend a weekend, day, evening, hour, few minutes, or maybe just say hello with the person who is our parent.

Jane, a woman in her 40s, recently had an experience with a parent that set off a strong and somewhat unexpected reaction in her. She met her father for a meal and he behaved the way he always behaved, asking her no questions, acknowledging nothing about her, completely invisibilizing her, while simultaneously demanding that she act as a mirror to reflect his own grandiosity. It was an experience Jane knew intimately and one she had been living for decades. But on this particular day, sitting across a table from this man she called her father, a man who had never shown Jane the kindness of acknowledgment or curiosity, it all broke—the dam that had protected her from her actual experience was gone. Without warning, Jane discovered that she could not keep pretending this kind of interaction was okay. Even if she had wanted to continue the same relationship with her father, her body had decided otherwise: being unseen and unknown, receiving nothing, inauthentically playing the role of the loving validator, was no longer possible.

Midway through the meeting, Jane took off the hat she had been wearing her whole life; she stopped confirming her father’s importance, and also stopped playing the role of the grateful daughter, who would happily enjoy the glow of his greatness while remaining forever invisible. She even went so far as to suggest that something he had said about himself might not be true, a first. The encounter ended abruptly and with obvious prickliness. While no words were spoken about the tectonic plates that had just shifted between them, it was clear to both father and daughter that their usual way of interacting was suspended, if not finished for good.

Very shortly after the meeting ended, Jane’s body started crying and vomiting and didn’t stop for hours. At the same time, her mind was in an intense swirl, trying to make sense of what had just happened, to create the narrative that would give her some ground in this emotional storm. The casing that had contained decades of grief, rage, and longing was broken open.

Interestingly, within a day or two, Jane had moved on from the experience. She was feeling fine and also empowered by a new-found, never before experienced clarity. She knew at a cellular level, without any doubt, that she was no longer going to continue subjecting herself to her father’s unkindness. A new reality had emerged entirely on its own. While she would have to continue seeing her father in family settings, she would no longer be participating in a “close” relationship with him or playing the role she had formerly played. She wasn’t angry, just clear and decided. She was lovingly and steadfastly on her own side.

And then, shame appeared. While Jane was aware that something profoundly important had taken place within her, and that she had behaved in a radically new way, and that she would not be continuing the relationship with her father in any kind of similar manner, she also felt a sense of shame. She shamed herself for having had such an intense response to her father, for being so impacted by him. So too, she was upset with herself for visibly reacting, which she believed shamefully revealed to her father that she was indeed affected by their relationship.

As someone who had meditated and practiced spirituality for many years, Jane began convincing herself that her reaction to her father meant that she was a spiritual failure. And furthermore, that her pain meant that she was also psychologically weak, someone who couldn’t be flourish unless in ideal, kid-glove circumstances.

And, as it turns out, Jane was not alone in administering shame and blame. Jane’s partner was pouring his disdain into the mix with a common cultural belief, namely, that after years of spiritual practice, she should have found a way to be immune to her father’s behavior, to build appropriately thick walls around herself. If she knew that this was how her father behaved, which she undoubtedly did, she should expect and be prepared for his behavior. She should not, still, be so devastated by her family. He accused Jane of being “fragile” and too sensitive to live in the real world. This was how he chose to support her in her transformation.

After being subjected to her partner’s and her own shaming however, something magnificent happened.

The same grace that had allowed her to know the truth with her father showed up and awakened Jane to yet another truth. Jane realized that she was indeed a spiritual grown up, now. She understood that spiritual and emotional wellbeing has nothing whatsoever to do with being able to deny, not feel, push away, or become immune to our experience. Indeed, quite the opposite. Spiritual maturity means having the courage to welcome whatever emotion is happening, to let reality be what it is. It means being willing to allow the full mystery, majesty and catastrophe that is the human experience, being willing to live with what is, which includes pain.

With spiritual and emotional maturity, we learn to welcome whatever emotion is arising and to do so without creating a narrative or personal identity out of its contents. As in Jane’s case, she could feel and internally validate the sadness of her relationship with her father and yet not cling to it, create a personal narrative or build an identity out of it. She could experience the sadness without being it. She had the wisdom to let the tsunami of emotion move into and through her, but also, by not grasping onto it, to allow it to move through and out of her, just as swiftly and effortlessly. Both processes, the in and out, are part of the same grace, of which we are not in control.

Furthermore, spiritual wellbeing is not about building thicker walls around our heart or finding freedom from difficult emotions. It’s about the willingness and bravery to deconstruct the walls around our heart, to let them dissolve so that we can live the full human experience: joy, sadness, and all the rest. We cannot reside behind walls and imagine that the emotions we want will get through while the ones we don’t will be kept out. A closed heart is a dead heart. When we live behind walls, we lose out on the whole enchilada that is life.

Growing up spiritually means living with a warrior’s heart, which is not a more armored heart but rather a less armored and more vulnerable heart. It means being willing to offer a seat at our inner table to whatever emotion is arising, and at the same time, to know ourselves as the compassion that holds the experience in company. It means trusting that the continually changing internal weather can move through us with great ferocity and yet, simultaneously, something can remain steady and well, holding the space in which life happens. A warrior’s heart contains the strength to open the doors and windows, to let life come in and also to let it leave.

There is a strong cultural belief that when you’re spiritually and emotionally well, you should stop feeling pain and stop being affected by life’s difficulties. This is a false belief. When we grow up spiritually, we don’t stop feeling difficult emotions or being fully and fallibly human. Rather, we stop fearing and judging our emotions; we embrace our imperfect humanness. With spiritual maturity, who we are evolves, from the one to whom our feelings are happening to the loving presence within which they happen. We feel our emotions and witness their comings and goings, both, simultaneously. Ultimately, we come to know that our heart can get bounced around and broken into pieces, that we can feel everything, and still know a wellbeing that perfectly holds the whole dance.

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Digital Detox Workshop Teaches The Power of Off

Digital Detox Workshop Teaches The Power of Off

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How to Quiet the Little Voice in Your Head: Reclaiming Your Life From Your Inner Narrator

Did you ever notice the little voice inside your head that’s constantly running the play by play of your life—to you, the one who’s living it.  Did you ever listen in to your inner narrator, the one who’s unceasingly packaging your life, verbally preparing your experience for transmission to another unidentified listener?  I just went on an eight-day silent retreat and apparently my inner narrator didn’t get the memo that it was to be silent.  For the first five days, the little voice in my head didn’t stop talking, not even to catch its imaginary breath. With obsessive precision, it explained to me what I was doing, how I had transformed, and what spiritual lessons I had learned. Over and over my inner narrator repeated my experience to me, prepared it for sharing, and made sure I had everything wrapped up as clearly and understandably as possible.

It’s an odd thing really: as we’re having an experience, the little voice in our head is simultaneously describing, explaining, and commentating on the experience, providing a summary of it before, during and after its unfolding.

Often, the narration of our experience is so integral to the experience itself, so uninterrupted and merged with it as to make us wonder if there could even be an experience without the accompanying report. If an experience happens without simultaneous inner acknowledgment, thinking about, and commentary, does it actually happen?

It’s also interesting to notice that the little voice in our head is not without its own characteristics.  It has a certain language, style, and tone; it does its storytelling and commentary with a certain thematic and textural consistency. Like a Hollywood screenwriter, our inner voice tends to write in a particular genre, for example, tragedy, comedy, drama, film noir etc. Our commentator is a character with an identity of its own.

Did you ever wonder why our mind is telling us what we’re doing while we’re doing it, as if we didn’t already know? And, why our mind is so adamant about getting the story of our life figured out, written and packaged?  And finally, why we need to rehearse the tale of our life before we actually need or want to convey it to another person?

The mind believes that we are made of mind and mind alone, and that without its felt presence, we and all else would cease to be. If the narration were to stop and the mind was not experiencing itself through the act of thinking, then there would be nothing—oblivion.  A mind off duty, experience without the thinking about it, is tantamount to non-existence. The mind creates the story of an I; it creates an I as an object in our consciousness.  In so doing, it maintains both the experience of a self and the experiencer of a self, which it believes are needed to ensure survival.

In relentlessly narrating the story of ourselves (to ourselves), the mind is also attempting to make life, and us, into something solid, knowable, and constant.  By creating a main character called me (played by mind) who’s living something called my life, the mind attempts to transform the ephemeral, groundless, ever-changing nature of being into something that can be understood, managed, and in theory, controlled.  It takes what is really one unified process, life, from which we are inseparable, and splits it into two different things, a me and a life.  We then become the liver of this thing called life, and in the process, seemingly distinct and real.  We literally think our self into existence.

And so, the questions beg: first, is there a downside to living with this inner narrator, and second, do we have to live this way, is it part and parcel of the human condition? Is there no alternative to a second-hand version of life, knowing experience only through the mind’s description and commentary? The answer is a resounding yes, and no.

Yes, there is a downside and no, we are not condemned to live this way forever.

The small downside to living with the play by play of your life ceaselessly running in your ear is that it can be intensely agitating and distracting. There exists constant noise in the background and foreground of your life, no silence to be heard, like having a mosquito (or buzz saw) resounding in your ear, one that you can’t silence and can’t ignore.

But on a more profound level, the downside to the inner narrator is that it stands in the way of your actually getting to experience life first hand, in all its richness. You’re relegated to living through your narrator’s description, which is really just a mental representation of the real thing, like getting a postcard of the Grand Canyon in place of being there, or a description of chocolate instead of a taste. The little voice goes on then to offer commentary on the narration, which is a representation of a representation, and you are now two layers away from the direct experience of living.

You might also notice that the voice in your head presents its version of your life as a truth. It reports your life story as if it were the actual reality existing in the objective world. It’s liberating, however, to realize that the narrator’s account of what’s happening is all going on inside your own mind and only in your mind. It’s not real in some objective sense, but rather another story about a story which begins and ends inside your own consciousness.

The good news is that you don’t have to live this way, with your inner narrator acting as a middle manager between you and life. If you’ve ever been deeply involved in an activity, you might have experienced what’s referred to as flow state.  In flow, we’re so engaged in what we’re doing that we cease to be aware of our self. We’re no longer the one doing the activity, but literally absorbed into the experience itself. We become the experience; we become life rather than the one who’s living it, and all notion of time and a separate Idisappears. And, while the mind has convinced us otherwise, what we discover is that when the mind is not there self-referencing, reminding us of our self, we still exist. We do not in fact disappear; the mind might temporarily, but we do not, which suggests that we are indeed more than mind. Awareness remains even when we lose the felt sense of our self as the one doing our life. And, interestingly, such experiences, the ones in which awareness of our self disappears, when there is only experience but no I doing it, are the ones that we later describe as wholly satisfying, blissful, and even divine.  The experiences in which we are gone are the ones that we most crave.

The remedy for the little voice in our head is three-fold. First, we have to exhaust of it and become so fed up with the play by play as to decide that we’re not willing to listen or live by it anymore. Once that’s happened, we must start noticing our narrator and become aware of its voice as an object appearing in our awareness. And finally, we set a clear and fierce intention and desire to experience life directly, through our senses, now, and not just receive a report on it. We commit to diving deeply and directly into the ocean of life.

Listening to the little voice in your head is a habit, granted a habit with deep roots, survival instincts, and lots of practice time, but nonetheless, a habit. With desire, willingness and intention, a habit, any habit, can be changed. Each time you catch the voice in your head describing or commentating on your life, practice a new habit, the habit of directly experiencing your actual experience. Each time you hear your little voice, first pause and celebrate a moment of awareness; the fact that you’re hearing it means that there’s another part of you, which is not merged with the narrator, who’s awakening—the you whom the narrator is narrating to. Next, intentionally shift your attention from your head (which is where our energy is usually focused) down into your body.  Invite your body to consciously relax. Take and feel a deep breath. From there, run a sense loop: see what you’re seeing, hear what you’re hearing, feel what you’re feeling, smell what you’re smelling, and taste what you’re tasting. Experience each, one at a time. And finally, sense your own physical presence, the feeling of aliveness in your body (not your mind). With this practice, the little voice in your head will grow quieter and less relentless, and the living will become more vivid, satisfying, immediate, and ultimately, real.

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