December 15, 2012

All the Ways We Apologize.

Photo: micagoto

There’s Nothing Wrong with You.

“I’m sorry.”

My mother warned me when I was little to never say this more than necessary. “If you say it when you don’t really mean it, it won’t mean anything when you really want it to.” In particular, she was vigilant about warding off apologies for non-apology situations. Saying “I’m sorry” when you bump into someone in the store (“Say, excuse me,” she corrected.); saying “I’m sorry” when you are actually being sarcastic (Put a perimenopausal mother and a lone teen daughter together in a house and you get that one a lot.); and saying “I’m sorry” when you are trying to be sympathetic (“I’m sorry is for when you are taking responsibility,” she would intone, “not empathizing.”) were right out.

My mom could be a pain about a lot of things, but the older I get, and the further I get from her death when I was 19, the more I think this was the clearest she ever was. Now, as an adult, I teach writing as contemplative practice in small classes with other adults. Here, I am given many chances to observe just those apologies my mother warned me about. In particular, I watch closely in my classes as students use anything but the words “I’m sorry” to apologize.

In my essay “Listening In,” I covered apologizing for how we hear someone else’s words (apologizing for our own perceptions). In “Speaking Up,” I covered apologizing for our opinions (apologizing for our own experiences). In this essay, I want to delve deeper into all the ways we apologize without ever saying those words, “I’m sorry.” In particular, I am very curious about the ways we hedge, judge and prepare others for what we are going to say, deride our own words as they are exiting our mouths, especially when we share our writings.

Before We Even Begin.

“I just want to say before I share,” is a bad sign. A red flag at the on ramp of listening to someone’s writing. For the first couple of years I taught, I followed Natalie Goldberg’s rule of sharing nothing before you read your own work—even if it is a beneficial detail. But conversations about process are some of the most interesting things shared in my classes, and I got looser about those boundaries over time.

However, I was never able to clarify what I meant by “processing versus apologizing” and slowly but surely, the heavily socialized language of my students crept in. Apologies masquerading as process. For instance:

“I just hated this piece the whole time I wrote it.”

“My process is that I really don’t want to share it because it sucks.”

“This isn’t apologizing; I know that there’s really nothing in this piece.”

Judgments are subtly, and not so subtly, snuck into all of those “process,” or experience, statements. Now I am getting strict again, and allowing no comments before sharing (save the bare minimum explanation—“Suzanne is my sister,” for example), and making sure that any comments the writer gives after sharing are connected to process and non-apologetic.

I can see the cringing, see the students who gesture an old-fashioned key in front of their lips, pretending to hum back their own self-hatred. Some have asked, “If I am thinking it anyway, why can’t I say it out loud?” The answers are this:

  • Don’t believe everything you think.
  • Just because you think it doesn’t mean you should say it.
  • If you say it, you begin in the negative before listeners have our own experiences.

In “Speaking Up,” I talk about the power of saying things, and point out that by vocalizing our pain, we can often move through it. However, by vocalizing our judgment, we are not vocalizing our pain. We are vocalizing our barriers and forcing distance between ourselves and others. It is important to recognize our resistance to sharing, to being vulnerable. It is equally important not to empower our resistance by believing it.

For example, a woman snuck in before reading that she found her writing to be “not very detailed, so (she was) not so sure about sharing it.” I warned her that that was a judgment, and she fought back gently, saying it was just an observation. I clucked my tongue and told her to read.

Photo: K. Graham

After she was done, she took feedback, and many folks noted how mentally intimate the piece was—so close to her thoughts—her opinions and reflections right at the surface. Someone went even so far as to note that, in the past, she has felt distance in this reader’s writing, as if the details—which she usually uses a lot of—themselves were engaging perceptually, but held everyone at bay.

I asked the reader if that helped her to understand that “details” are not always the color of the cat’s fur or the sound of the rain. She nodded. I asked her if she understood that her comment before reading was a judgment and not an observation. She nodded. Then, and this is a particularly good class with a lot of honesty and trust, another student said: “When you said that about your own writing, I thought ‘I wonder if she thinks that about my writing, that it isn’t as good when it isn’t as detailed.’”

The reader teared up. She didn’t think that, of course, but her judgment spread around the room once she released it. The listeners felt the pain of her rejection of her own piece; that alone is enough, a warning that we have let self-hatred and apologies take over.

These are some of the common ways that people apologize—pre-judge, take down or minimize their writing before they read it aloud. Writing is hard, in case you didn’t know it already. These aren’t really apologies about how hard writing is, though:

“It’s short, don’t worry.”

“I’ll just read half of it.”

“It’s different than the other pieces, but whatever.”

“I think it’s pretty weird, but here goes!”

“I’m not sure I did the assignment, but I’ll read anyway.”

“The piece is really non-coherent.”

There are, of course, some common characteristics:

  • Passive voice (“It is…”), rather than I statements
  • Assuming others are judging ahead of time, instead of owning the judgment
  • The word “just” (90% of the time this word is a toxic hedger)
  • Dismissing the unfamiliar and unknown as “bad”
  • I statements disguising judgment
  • A sense that there are rules, or shoulds

These are apologies. These are judgments, classifications, conclusions.

When I studied improvisational theater back in the day, the sole most important instruction was never to offer the person who followed you a block.

“If the next person is supposed to come up with something to say, don’t say ‘So that’ll take care of it. The end,’ before they speak. Give them an opening.”

Giving a closing shows we aren’t ready to let others in, under the misdirection that we aren’t worthy of receiving others. Inadvertently, we can accidentally send the message that others aren’t worthy, instead of, or in addition to, ourselves.

The following statements are process statements, which are open, vulnerable and most importantly, not apologies. These aren’t hard-and-fast rule statements. Read them to yourself, after reading some of the other examples, and hear the difference in tone and intention:

“I feel really vulnerable right now.”

“I am really uncertain about how I feel.”

“I struggled the whole time while writing this.”

“I can hear my own self-hatred in the piece.”

“I had a hard time following my own thoughts.”

What are some of the characteristics here?

  • I statements (I think, I feel—owning our experiences)
  • Looking at our actual experience instead of the result
  • Listening to our own selves and being able to parse experience from judgment
  • Being curious about our own mind and how it works

Being More Aware.

Photo: tubb

You practice listening to and giving apologies all the time in your regular conversations. With lots of opening and space, and as little irritation as we can bear, notice how often, how many times a day and in how many ways you apologize for yourself, for what you have done, even for how you think or feel. Notice in particular how often others do this.

Notice that, not because they struggle more but because they are socialized to do so, women apologize or resist or demote their experience in favor of someone else frequently. Notice how men are not socialized to do this but do it in different ways—putting forth opinions instead of feelings, making decisions for others, holding silence but giving off judgmental or defensive energy.

Deep down, we apologize so much because we think there is, we are, something to apologize for. I’ll give you a hint: It’s not your writing you are apologizing for.
It’s you you are apologizing for.
Guess what? You don’t have to apologize for yourself. Ever.

Of course, this is both about my classes and “writing practice” as well as so much more. As a student famously said to me years ago, “I came to your classes to be a better writer, and I now realize I need to be a better human being.” Both are all about communication.

This is, overall, why we need such attention, such a practice of noticing and retraining ourselves not to apologize. We notice when we stand by our experiences and opinions and perceptions that we feel vulnerable and raw, open and sometimes scared. However, that kind of state is the only state that inspires trust. If we apologize for ourselves (close ourselves down) and then provide a space so that others can be honest and open, the double standard will get in the way.

I will close by saying that apologies certainly have their place. When we have misspoken, when we have opened our mouths without a sense of mindful speech, when we have offered an opinion where silence or perception would have better suited the situation, that’s when we can apologize. Even then, my mother’s voice in my head reminds me, do it once and really mean it. Each time we say it to the same person for the same situation, it loses strength and meaning.

Perhaps, like women’s eggs, we have a limited number of sincere apologies to use in a lifetime. So use them when they are necessary and appropriate and don’t waste them on your self-hatred. Save them for when someone needs you to stand up for them, or for when you need to be responsible for yourself. Those kinds of apologies will actually help your self-esteem. And the practice of not apologizing for yourself all the time will save precious time and voice for more powerful listening and being listened to.


Photo: Lia Vellardita

Miriam Hall teaches Nalanda Miksang Contemplative Photography (miksang.org), Contemplative Writing and other fun practices that combine perception and creative process as a part of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage (herspiral.com).

Natalie Goldberg (of Writing Down the Bones, nataliegoldberg.com) says: “Miriam Hall has the heart, hands and head of writing practice. Study with her.” She can be found on Flickr (flickr.com/photos/herspiral), Twitter (@herspiral), Facebook (Miriam Hall) and all over the world teaching and playing.



Editor: Thandiwe Ogbonna

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