Some of the greatest gifts that come from a sincere apology are the release of pain, the freeing of false or limiting beliefs, and true clarity about the events and behaviors that were often made very murky by big emotions. An apology offers these healing gifts to both the Giver and the Receiver.
A recent conversation with my book club about an emotional episode of This is Us revealed just how many of us have been impacted by apologies that were never offered.
I’m talking about the kinds of apologies that could shift an entire family dynamic in a dramatic and positive way.
The recent This is Us episode entitled “Don’t Let Me Keep You“, is a case study for dysfunctional family dynamics — and how it sets into motion adaptive behavioral patterns to navigate volatile home environments. As I watched Jack’s dad causing so much pain for his wife and his two sons his children due to alcohol addiction and unchecked anger, I could literally feel my own emotions rising up to match those of his wife and children. The empathy and sadness I felt for them came from my own lived experiences — for I have been both the child and later a spouse in emotionally volatile family dynamics. Many of my friends had similar lived experiences. This episode of This is Us brought many memories to the surface where we shared our emotional stories with each other. We also explored how the trajectory of our lives might have changed had we received a transformational apology.
There was a poignant moment in that TV show when Jack is giving his eulogy at his mother’s funeral and he stated the raw truth that resonated so deeply with me and my friends — “no matter how far away you move, no matter how old you get and how much you rebuild a new life for yourself, a piece of that childhood story stays with you forever.”
I thought about the power that Jack’s dad had to release that whole family from so much fear, pain and trauma. If he’d owned his bad behavior and addressed his demons, he would have helped himself, his wife and children — and freed them from dragging around so much baggage that hung like a dark cloud over their lives for decades. He could have saved his marriage. He could never have lost the lifetime of chances to be a loving, supportive father to his sons. He could have known his three grandchildren.
“Apologize to your children. Children have a strong sense of justice and suffer when a parent’s defensiveness invalidates what the child knows to be true.” — Harriett Lerner
Jack’s dad stayed mired in his addiction and old story for his entire life — estranged for all those decades from his family.
Jack’s mom spent most of her life living in fear, always looking over her shoulder wary that she was not safe. She sacrificed being the kind of mom she really wanted to be for her young children, trying her best to protect them from harm while she herself was constantly in harms way, both emotionally and physically. Later in life, when Jack was a young adult, he rescued his mom. He moved her out of the house and her abusive marriage. I imagine she felt ashamed for needing her son in this way. She probably did not want to be a burden and we see their mother-son relationship devolve to once a week, brief and awkward phone calls. (Hence the title of this episode — “Don’t Let Me Keep You“) Even when she visits Jack and Rebecca and their three babies years later, she is uneasy. She fears that Jack’s dad will know she is there and show up and she is scared. The chasm in her relationship with her son, Jack, creates so much unspoken tension. All the things that they have swept under the carpet for decades makes for a very lumpy, bumpy mother-son dynamic. Both of them needing each other and neither knowing how to express it. They never really find their way back to each other.
Another poignant moment in Jack’s eulogy was when he shared in a very vulnerable way the hard life they had with his dad — and that “they were just doing the best they could.” This was the moment that broke me, warm tears streaming down my face. One man’s hurtful actions put into motion a chain reaction of heartaches and emotional roadblocks for his family. They were “doing the best they could” in an unhealthy environment. How would their lives have been different had Jack’s dad held himself accountable for his toxic behaviors?
Imagine the unhealthy behavioral patterns and protective armor that Jack and his mom adopted out of necessity. As Jack so openly acknowledged, even when they changed their environments, the scars from their lived experiences stayed with them always.
If you are a fan of This is Us, then you know that Jack later struggled with alcohol. He was in constant conflict of trying to numb his pain (both past and present) and not wanting to become his dad. Jack’s younger brother, Nicky, also struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, with big insecurities and low self-esteem. He led a very troubled life for years. Addictions are often passed from one generation to another. So are the unhealthy behavioral patterns we develop to keep us safe. Children are like sponges, soaking up what they watch their parents do. How parents “show up” for each other and their children forges their own patterns.
What causes people to hurt others in such obvious ways and never offer an apology?
Surely they must know in their hearts that their actions caused a lot of suffering (including their own, no doubt). Jack’s dad had to know this. He had to have some awareness of all the collateral damage to his family.
Apologies matter. Accountability matters. Both can change the course of our lives.
I have lived and witnessed this same unfortunate scenario in my own family — and I see the lingering emotional baggage as well as limiting, false beliefs instilled in innocent people. Another’s hurtful behaviors deeply impacted lives, disrupted parental and sibling relationships, and strained family dynamics.
It made my parenting job harder. I was left to mend a heart I didn’t break, rebuild self-esteem I didn’t shatter, and the most challenging of all — instill and maintain TRUST. Trust is the strongest glue of relationships and when it has been broken repeatedly, it takes a Herculean effort to re-establish and repair the damage. In my child’s case, the lingering lifetime impact will always be repeatedly testing relationships for trust.
I sometimes imagine what a genuine apology would have meant to members of my family decades ago. I imagine the healing that could have come from such a gift. What memories we would have made together without so much baggage and conflict. How we could have supported each other through adversities in meaningful ways.
It is human nature to feel very vulnerable when we know we’ve hurt someone. We want to avoid those feelings of remorse, guilt, shame. But hiding from them, or sweeping them under the carpet, will not make them fade away, or even loosen their grip.
This may be hard to believe, but it is true: The fastest route to releasing those painful emotions deep within us is a heartfelt, meaningful apology. And a timely apology will also save a lot of heartache and pain.
When we have been hurt, we usually create a false narrative to help us make sense of what happened to us. Those false narratives have deep roots in our personal history. We may inadvertently double down on our feelings of unworthiness, or of being unloved or not valued. We may become unnecessarily freaked out or distrusting. Someone else’s hurtful actions can trigger our insecurities and old stories. It’s so hard not to get entangled in all of that emotional baggage. This is one of the most prevalent reasons it is invaluable for apologies to be timely. A swift, meaningful apology can stop that emotional snowball from rolling down a very slippery slope.
Apologies that are never forthcoming can deepen the scars of our lived experiences.
It’s no wonder that we can get snagged on the broken parts of our life stories. Many times what we believe to be true gets reinforced through similar situations that often play out the same. Many unhealthy behavioral patterns we developed in childhood could have been avoided with a meaningful apology and honest accountability by the adults in our lives.
The lessons we can learn from this insightful episode of This is Us — and from our own lived experiences — is that awareness, accountability and apologies can make an empowering transformational difference in family dynamics.
Cultivating self-awareness helps us recognize when we are defaulting to old behavioral patterns that no longer serve us well and are not needed for the life we are now living. We can free ourselves from being entangled in our old stories and have agency over how we respond to others and to circumstances. We can step out of old patterns and into alignment with our own core values.
As we become more self-aware, we more naturally cultivate more empathy and “other” awareness too. This helps us show up for others in more mature, calm and relatable ways. It becomes easier to “treat others as you would like to be treated.” There will always be conflicts and disagreements, and they can be discussed and resolved with dignity and respect.
Accountability is such a huge part of healthy relationships. Brené Brown has brought to our attention that we often don’t hold others accountable because of our own discomfort. To get over that hurdle, begin implementing boundaries as a powerful tool for making clear what matters most to you — and what you need in order for a relationship to work.
Too often, we fear speaking up and asking for our needs to be met, so we just accept other’s behavior — until we reach the breaking point. By that time, the relationship can rarely be salvaged. Nedra Tawwab teaches us if someone expresses a boundary to us, it is a clear sign that the relationship matters to them and they have a strong desire to repair it. Think about that the next time someone expresses their boundary to you. It’s a great gauge of how committed you are to someone.
We can’t let our fear or discomfort keep us from holding others accountable for how they are impacting our quality of life. There are consequences for bad behavior and hurtful actions. Who is paying the price of those consequences?
A sincere apology has the power to heal and strengthen a relationship. Dr. Dan Siegel calls this “rupture and repair”. We are bound to make mistakes, for we are human. When we know we messed up, hurt someone or could have handled a situation better, it is time to apologize. An earnest apology shows that you care about the other person and about the relationship. An apology that is backed up with changed behavior becomes solid foundational webbing that builds trust.
Rupture without repair leads to a deepening sense of disconnection. As Dr. Seigel explains, if ruptures continue and they are not dealt with, it will affect a person’s sense of self. This is precisely why those apologies that are never offered create so much collateral damage. That lingering collateral damage can follow us far into adulthood.
Even if two people agree that they are no longer compatible and that their friendship, marriage, parental or sibling relationship should end — apologies are in order and can go a long way for both parties to heal.
Personal accountability for actions and behaviors reveals our character and core values. When we own our mistakes, it’s a sign of maturity and awareness. If we choose to work on change, it is a sign of a commitment to learning from our experiences.
There is incredible transformational power in a genuine, heartfelt apology. Imagine a brighter future for our young children if we can launch them into adulthood without unnecessary, undeserved emotional baggage.
“The best apologies are short and don’t go on to include explanations that run the risk of undoing them. An apology isn’t the only chance you ever get to address the underlying issue. The apology is the chance. you get to establish the ground for future communication. This is an important, and often overlooked, distinction.” — Harriett Lerner
Check out this episode of The Happiness Lab to learn about “guilt” and how it can very insightful in understanding how our actions and even emotions — can impact others:
Greater Good Science Center, Berkley, CA:
Article and Video on Making An Effective Apology https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/making_an_effective_apology