Since it’s Thanksgiving today, it seems like good timing to address a subtle yet surprisingly powerful shift that I’ve learned to make in the realm of gratitude. You’ll hear lots about counting your blessings, being grateful for what you have and so on, and that’s all valid and important. But aside from lost perspective, gratitude can also help transform shame, weakness and remorse.
I am a strong advocate for apologizing when we mess up. That’s pretty straightforward, but what constitutes messing up? I think we can all agree that when we do or say something that we shouldn’t have and it hurts somebody, then an apology is warranted. When we mean well but due to our own ignorance we bring about the same outcome (and can see that impact in hindsight) then an apology is still very appropriate, certainly better than “aw c’mon, I didn’t mean it!”
But what about when we don’t do anything wrong, yet a negative outcome results. If you get the flu or are rear-ended by a car or you are mugged or your secure job is downsized due to a corporate merger, these are all things that, objectively speaking, will introduce burdens to your loved ones. Yet, in most cases (unless you taunted the mugger, French-kissed someone you knew had the flu, etc.) they are beyond your control. What then, should you still apologize?
The impulse to do so isn’t all bad, and part of that impulse should certainly be preserved. I’m talking here about the impulse to acknowledge the impact on others, including whatever efforts (for reasons upon which I’ll elaborate in a moment, I hesitate to call them “burdens”) are added to their plates as a result. Being defensive about that helps nobody, and the world is full of caregivers (either long-term or temporary) who should be celebrated for helping to keep the wheels spinning amidst adversity.
The problem with an apology in that case is it involves making ourselves accountable for things outside our control. Often it’s just a linguistic issue at first (“I’m sorry” rolls off the tongue a lot faster than “I acknowledge that your life has been made more difficult as a result of this circumstance”), but language impacts perception. Shouldering that kind of responsibility invariably leads to the sorts of negative emotions that don’t actually help anyone. As Brene’ Brown discusses in her work (most recently Daring Greatly), guilt is a societally useful deterrent against doing irresponsible and hurtful things, while shame takes some of the same substance and internalizes it in a soul-crushing way.
I suppose it’s harmless enough when we say “sorry, I thought I-95 would be faster than the Hutchinson Parkway this time of day” or “sorry, I guess that movie kind of sucked” or maybe even “sorry, I’m just not feeling up to finishing this volleyball game” – though these are “beyond our control” circumstances, they’re not particularly self-shaming. Really, I’m not advocating any kind of large-scale elimination of the term, but it’s a slippery slope.
Taking extra personal responsibility for illness, injury, proximity to random tragedy and so on is a natural impulse and is generally connected at least somewhat with the desire to have a modicum of control over a helpless situation. But does it actually help anyone to apologize for having the flu? In that case, maybe it’s harmless enough, but I have seen vividly that it becomes much more insidious when the circumstance is unchanging. Objectively speaking, those who’ve lost loved ones and those who have chronic (especially incurable) illnesses face challenges that make things more difficult for them and for the people who love them, and these challenges don’t go away. As a result, any unhealthy responses to this sort of adversity will also linger long-term. And sadly I’ve seen this happen. As someone who’s lived my life (and will live my remaining days) with a physical disability, it breaks my heart to see comrades-in-EDS suffer additional stress, even marriage dissolution, due to problems stemming from this fundamental dynamic of blame-and-shame over something over which the ailing one had no volition.
So what if “I’m sorry” is replaced with “thank you” in these cases? It’s a bit of a paradigm shift, but not so hard if you step back a bit. And remember, I’m still a pragmatist beneath it all, so this is about what works more than anything else. There are two fundamental reasons why I find this works for all parties, both those directly afflicted with something and those taking a beating as caregivers.
1) For someone suffering for reasons beyond his or her control, it’s emotionally dangerous to take on personal responsibility. You run the risk of becoming your adversity, your illness, your bereavement. This leads to shame and shame leads to all kinds of other negative things, including a paralysis that increases the difficulty of making change. Saying “thank you” does all of the positive, healthy things (primarily acknowledging that you are at the moment the epicenter of a challenging circumstance that impacts others and expressing gratitude for not having to go it alone) while shifting from a perspective of damage and burden to one of teamwork. With or without major adversity, thanking one’s teammates is always a great idea, and particularly in tough times, it’s helpful to shift perspective away from one’s own down-in-the-dumps circumstances to the blessing of outside support, however subtle it may be.
2) Gratitude is a much more powerful motivator than pity. This applies particularly to whoever comprises the support team. If you pity someone, will you help? Maybe, depending on your personality, but it’s unlikely to feel great and it’s unlikely to be the sort of support that feels sustainable. Sure we’ll drop a dime in the cup of the scraggly panhandler, but most of us won’t really invest (or feel great about it) unless the dynamic shifts to one of working together to make things better (even if that just means enduring together until things can get better). So if pity is the way you can get the next meal and if that’s all you’ve got, then of course you’ve got to eat. But the wells of pity will eventually run dry, while the river of solidarity just keeps on running (dang, that’s kind of poetic). Really, though, a sense of teamwork and shared responsibility is powerful and sustainable, even if in purely logistical terms one of the team members is limited in what he or she can do. Encouraging that kind of solidarity is a real example of taking control of a seemingly helpless situation.
I have seen this manifest in my own life with surprising power. Kate and I have developed a policy of, whenever possible, demanding that apologies be reframed as gratitude. “I’m sorry I kept you up” or “I’m sorry you have to clean my wounds” or “I’m sorry you couldn’t go to the concert” becomes “thank you for being there for me.” All of the healthy stuff in the apology is still there, yet it feels so much better for both of us and it foments the kind of healthy teamwork that we all need so badly to endure life’s challenges. If it were just a touchy-feely way to feel better, then that alone would be of some value, but more importantly, this is another tool to actually make things better. One more reason for gratitude, eh?