How do you rate on a scale of 1 to 10 with saying you’re sorry? I’ve always rated myself fairly high. If I mess up or if I am wrong, I am completely capable of saying, “I am sorry. I was wrong.”
But you know what I’ve recognized as I married and had kids? I’m less magnanimous about apologizing if I think I was right. Anyone? You feel wronged, or your feelings get hurt, or someone does something stupid, and you feel justified or superior or blameless. Even if you react poorly.
I’m not very good at saying I’m sorry about an inappropriate reaction if I believe the underlying trigger action was the other person’s fault. I’m not even going to get into whether or not the actual trigger action was wrong or not, but the reality is that you feel hurt or disappointed or frustrated or angry because of it.
Have any of you moms done this? You tell your darling son or daughter three times not to keep playing in their milk with their dinner fork and then on the fourth time the milk goes flying across the table because they ignored you. You know what my initial reaction is? Well, the polite term is to raise my voice, but the reality is I yell. “I TOLD you not to stir your milk with your fork, your fork is for the table, and now look at the mess you’ve made of the whole dinner table. Go to time out!”
Ugh. In this situation, the behaviour was wrong. The fork IS for the plate not the cup. But the reaction could have been a lot more full of God’s grace. In a normal voice, I could have said, “I asked you three times not to fork your milk. I should have taken your fork away but now you’ve made this mess. Here’s some towels, help clean it up. And you don’t get to watch the Berenstain Bears with the other two before bed tonight.” They get the appropriate response without the reaction!
But what about adults? What if it’s your parents or your spouse or your friend? It’s not like they get the Berenstain Bears taken away. There’s clearly a way to communicate your frustration though in a more productive way. And if you don’t, regardless of what triggered your bad reaction, an apology is required.
I’m working on this. With the milk example above, I am learning to go in and tell my kids, “You know what, I am sorry I yelled. God doesn’t want me to yell at you. You shouldn’t have stirred your milk with your fork, but that didn’t mean that I could be mean. Would you forgive me?” And they actually do. This is so great for them to learn not only how to apologize, but also how to forgive.
With regard to adults, I sometimes think if I don’t react or show my frustration, then the underlying action is just going to keep happening over and over again. But here is the reality that we’ve all heard a zillion times before: you can only control your behaviour. Maybe that thing upsetting you will happen over and over again, but it doesn’t justify the angry reaction. You can only change how you behave.
Oh, and when you apologize, don’t go in expecting something in return. This is a one-sided responsibility you have and you don’t want your apology expectations to just set up more frustrations for you. Don’t expect your teenage son to say, “Oh mom, I’ve been so surly I’m sorry.” Don’t expect your husband to say, “Oh honey, I’ve been so insensitive, I’m sorry.” Don’t expect your friend to say, “Oh I had no idea I was doing that, can you ever forgive me.” Apologize without expectations.
And I love what Lysa TerKeurst says about a lot of these issues, but particularly about assigning blame. Don’t do it. Don’t evaluate the conflict in light of whose “fault” it was. She also reminds us to apologize to reach restoration: For me? I have to apologize. The right way. By admitting I was wrong and asking for forgiveness. Repairing the snags the right way… tying a knot and tucking it back into the weave of our relationship fabric.
Don’t you love that analogy? Don’t let the relationship fabric unravel. Apologize. Stop the unraveling in its tracks. Don’t assign blame – to your kids, to your spouse, to your friends, to your colleagues, to your family – just manage your own behaviour and pray about the rest. It is so hard. This is not an easy soundbite. I struggle with this every day. But you have to start somewhere.