When it comes to family, “I’m sorry” might be more powerful than “I love you”

I’ve noticed that many of my clients have similar family backgrounds & dynamics as I do, which probably shouldn’t surprise me. We’re attracted to what we know. It’s making me wonder though – if anyone’s family is healthy. Not normal, but healthy. Because unhealthy can feel plenty normal.

And it’s all on display during the holiday season! Merry Christmas, right? 🙂

I recently coached one of my clients who was in a disagreement with her sibling. Neither would extend an olive branch. My client (let’s call her Sarah) had said something that her brother (let’s call him Joel) reacted vehemently against. Sarah maintained what she’d said was not offensive, and, ultimately fairly neutral. Upon hearing the story, I agreed. But, for whatever reason, Joel was clearly hurt about it. My client felt she shouldn’t need to apologize, as she’d said nothing wrong.

I asked Sarah about the dynamics in her family growing up. I asked if it was expected that family members own up and apologize after a conflict. She laughed and said, “Not at all. We just swept it under the rug, and at some point, mostly because we had to – we lived together – we’d come back to being connected. Without acknowledging what transpired. Like zero apologies. Ever.“

THAT is where the health of a relationship is broken down, and walls become stronger. Separation and protection become necessary.

I’m sure my parents made us say sorry to each other, but I don’t really remember those moments. Instead, I remember a lot of yelling (especially between the adults) and not a lot of apologies after the fact. To quote my client, “Like zero apologies. Ever.”

I also remember feeling like I better not make ANY mistakes, and definitely to not be vulnerable. And conversely, I should know all the answers, be the quick wit, be right, pull myself up by my bootstraps, and ridicule before I was ridiculed. Saying sorry, or owning up to a mistake was simply another opening to be painfully eviscerated (judged, ridiculed, shamed). As a child, I interpreted and decoded faults and inadequacies as shameful.  I was protecting myself. I was surviving the best way I knew how. That imprint exists today.

Go figure then, I knew exactly where my client was coming from. It didn’t surprise me when she had some resentment & defensiveness in her voice. And I could relate when she said, “Joel is overreacting. And, also… I’m not sorry for what I said, so why should I apologize? He needs to get over it.”

I, then, cautiously and kindly, asked her, “What are you sorry about?” (not even, “what are you sorry for”, b/c I wasn’t sure she was ready to extend any responsibility, and could understand that feeling too!). Sarah went on to say that she knew Joel was under enormous pressure and she was sorry if she added to that pressure.”

We talked further about how their current disconnection felt for Sarah (terrible) and that while she and Joel were “talking”, it was superficial and the ‘elephant in the room’ was making Sarah uncomfortable in her own skin. There comes a time where the discomfort of growing feels better than the discomfort of staying in our old ways. And I could see Sarah was arriving at this place. It takes courage to be vulnerable, to not know the outcome, to feel unsafe & uncertain in this way. Her sibling might get angrier, or become sullen. Or possibly he would give a big hug and apologize for his own behavior. But there it is, all the same. The reconnection opportunity. If we can find empathy for the pain someone is experiencing, without losing our own boundaries and truth, the reconnection is deeper and as a result, the relationship is stronger. She didn’t need to be sorry for what she said, but she could be sorry for how what she said made another person feel. And while we cannot necessarily control the desired outcome; we can stay rooted in our own integrity.

There have been lots of articles on how women say sorry TOO MUCH. Those aren’t the kinds of sorry’s I’m talking about here. I’m talking about empathy and deeper connection with people you love. You have nothing to lose if you apologize (and really mean it). In fact, you free yourself of a heavy, inauthentic armor.  I know I got tired of carrying it around. Maybe you are getting tired, as well?

I could write a hundred blogs on creating more harmony within family, and I’d probably forget every tip and tool come Christmas dinner. But we’re all a work in progress.

Mostly, in the moment, I silently repeat the following Rumi quote – like a mantra:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.”

Or more simply:

“It’s more important to be connected than to be right.”

I invite you to see how you can bring yourself (and another) some relief by empathizing and maybe even, apologizing. Possibly this Christmas really can be merry.

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