Wednesday 9 September 2020

No Sorries

Fran and I have a “no sorries” rule, which means that we don’t apologise to each other for things we do or say. There are times when we need to talk about things we know will be difficult for the other to hear, and we trust each other to handle what comes up.

This might seem strange. We are brought up believing we should apologise when we’ve done something which – deliberately or not – has upset or harmed another person. An apology, “Sorry I hurt you”, is how people generally acknowledge the damage they’ve caused and seek to set things straight. Refusing to do so might appear counterintuitive and disrespectful, as though we are refusing to take responsibility. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s far too easy to say “sorry” and expect the other person to move on, or demand an apology as though that will wipe the slate clean.

Don’t get me wrong, “sorry” has been known to escape our lips, although the other person tends to respond with a “no sorries” reminder and a smile, recognising that something important is happening. Because, of course, I do feel bad if something I say or do results in Fran feeling hurt or distressed, and she feels the same way.

Many years ago I reacted without thinking to Fran telling me she’d been drinking more heavily than usual. I leapt on her with the dangers of relying on alcohol to get her through difficult times, when what she needed was for me to listen. She wasn’t hiding her drinking from me, in fact she brought it to me precisely because she needed me to help her remain aware of what was happening. My instinctive response, however, was unhelpful and I realised so immediately.

Frannie, I know we don’t do “sorries”, but I am sorry for leaping at you like that!

It’s okay, Marty. No worries. No sorries.

I’m listening now. What were you trying to say?

The point isn’t whether or not we feel bad, it is how we deal with those feelings and what we take responsibility for. Fran and I take our personal responsibilities very seriously. If Fran says something which I find hard to accept or deal with, she will take responsibility for saying it, but I take ownership of my response.

Our triggered reactions are often only superficially related to what the other person said or did. It is my experience that there can be huge therapeutic value in triggered responses. More often than not I end up grateful to the other person for playing their part in the process.

“No sorries” does not mean that Fran and I get to blunder about with no awareness or regard for the other’s feelings or well-being. We do not deliberately trigger hurtful responses in each other for the fun of it or on the off chance that we benefit in some way as a result. But neither do we wrap each other in cotton wool, protecting them from experiencing things because we might judge it painful to them. That would be to rob both of us of the opportunity to learn something new about ourselves and each other.

In the first year of our friendship I wanted to buy Fran a gift for her birthday. She seemed to like the idea but as we discussed it one night she became increasingly distressed and anxious. I kept pressing her to talk about it. In the end Fran broke down in tears and ended the call. I felt awful and, as I recall, flooded her with apologetic messages and texts. I wanted to take it all back, to make everything right again, to erase whatever it was that had just happened. Later, Fran shared with me something of her life-long issues with gift giving and receiving. This helped me understand what had happened between us and offered me an insight into Fran’s past, her life and issues. I realised that hers were almost the inverse of my tendency to over-gift. If I’d been more cautious, if I’d spotted the early signs of her distress and backed down straight away we might never have reached that level of understanding.

More generally, “no sorries” gives us freedom to feel and express the little grievances, irritabilities and frustrations without feeling guilty for them, blaming the other person, or having to apologise afterwards. It doesn’t always work, of course, but it works more often than you might imagine.

So, the next time you find yourself about to apologise for something you’ve done or said, take a moment to consider what the “sorry” actually means to you. Find different words to express that meaning to the other person, and see what happens.


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash


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