I’m an empathic apologizer. OK, maybe that’s not the correct expression; I’m a neurotic apologizer. I hate to cause offense in my personal relationships, so when anyone expresses any kind of discomfort or the slightest sign of an irritation, and I will apologize for it. Some people don’t mind it; or perhaps they just ignore it as a personal quirk. But in a few situations, I have been confronted about it, and I wanted to write about them here.
I served as a missionary in Germany six years ago. In fact, I came home six years ago right before Christmas. Near the end of my mission, I served in Dortmund, Germany with a wonderful companion, Elder Devonas. Elder Devonas was a spiritual giant to me. In him morning study in the scriptures, he had every intention of what he referred to as bringing all things into one; he wanted to tie in every aspect of the gospel into one great whole. While out contacting on the streets, he spoke with such confidence. And his prayers were very heartfelt. One evening, I forget exactly what I had said, but I had apologized one too many times that day. He called me out on it, saying something along the lines,
“Elder Curtis, you have to stop saying ‘I’m sorry’ for every little thing. It is not only not needed, it is rude and inappropriate. You are taking on yourself responsibility for something you have absolutely no control over, and therefore should not be apologizing. You are infringing on my agency. You cannot take blame for something for which you are not at fault.”
I was struck. And you can imagine the little “I’m sorry” that came out afterwards that I tried to silence before finishing it. I struggled to restrain my I’m sorry’s the rest of the transfer, but I have yet to completely rid myself of the habit to this day. The lesson I learned in this moment was to look at my apology from the perspective of the other person. How did they view such an apology? Perhaps just empty words at the very least, and at the worst, an taking on blame. I don’t plan on psychoanalyzing myself and finding out what aspects of my upbringing or childhood experiences could have led to such a case, but nonetheless. It is there. And it is something I need to change.
It came up again just today. My wife and I were having a candid conversation, one of those clear moments that come when you can escape the hassles of daily life and talk freely to one another about deeper things, about your relationship and values and the like. One thing that came up was this very thing: my incessant need to apologize. For my wife, apologizing has a different effect than just taking on blame that isn’t mine; she explained that by assuming that an offense has been given, I am also implying that she is a critical and insensitive person who is willing to hold things over my head instead of talking about whatever we are discussing. Whenever my wife wants to discuss something, I immediately apologize, or say something like, “I am such a horrible person for doing such and such a thing.” So rather than putting herself through this, she also stops bringing up these issues. And in the end, we stop discussing them.
In a book I was reading, it mentioned this very thing. It’s actually what sparked our conversation. The passage read:
In many homes it is actually, by a strange paradox, concern for marital harmony and the desire to safeguard love, which gradually turns the partners away from transparency: ‘I don’t talk about that subject with my husband; it irritates him. He gets annoyed at once, and we quarrel, and both let ourselves be carried away into saying things we regret. What’s the good? All it does is to put us a little further apart.’
I felt so bad that my inherent apologizing and assigning motives that aren’t there could contribute to a stifling of our relationship. It is more than word choice that I need to change. I need to learn to see that others aren’t taking offense at small things that I say, at small slip-ups, or awkward pauses, or forgetting some small thing, or not anticipating what someone else was going to ask. Others aren’t offended. They’re just talking and interacting, the same as me. I need to learn to assume the best in people, that they aren’t looking for things that are wrong with me, and that I can be confident in my interactions with them instead of fearful.
My wife and I just finished the second season of The Crown. My wife commented in our discussion that in one of the last scenes of the season, I seemed very much like Queen Elizabeth. In a confrontation between Prince Phillip and Queen Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth is confronting him with suspicions of infidelity. She has held them for a while, but instead of openly discussing it, she bottles it in. And it flares up here. In one final open accusation, Queen Elizabeth open the desk drawer to reveal a photo of that she found in Phillip’s suitcase in an earlier episode, what she considers absolute evidence of his infidelity. After a quiet pause, Phillip explains:
There are two types of people in life. Those one assumes to be trustworthy and reliable who turn out to be treacherous and weak, and those who appear to be complex and difficult who turn out to be more dependable than anyone thought, like me. I know exactly what my job is, your father made it perfectly clear. You are my job. You are the essence of my duty. So here I am. In, not out.
Elizabeth responds: Phillip. We’re both adults. And I think we’re both realists. We both know that marriage is a challenge under any circumstances. So I can understand if sometimes in order to let off steam, in order to stay in, you need to do what you need to do. I can look the other way.
Phillip responds: Yes, I know you can look the other way. You’ve made looking the other way into an art form. I don’t want you to look the other way. You can look this way. I’m yours. In. And not because you’ve given me a title or because we’ve come to an agreement. But because I want to be. Because I love you.
Elizabeth does the same thing as I do. In what she calls ‘realism’, she ends up assigning the worst of motives to her husband. Marriage is hard, so I understand if you have a mistress. Please just tell me about it. Assigning motives, creating an image of her husband that doesn’t exist, can be so damaging. We can’t form our spouse in our own image, or in the image we create for them. We need to talk to them as a person, as someone we can trust and share, without assuming anything about them. It is so difficult to strip ourselves of assumptions. Perhaps we fear being hurt. But we can’t let that get in the way.
So here’s my New Year’s resolution. To trust that others are good, and to stop apologizing!