Sorry is the hardest word to … hear?

By | 2014/02/14

earI’ve always been somewhat introspective on that front, and years of study, particularly in philosophy, geared me to always think about thinking. While at times a little surreal, the interesting thing about seeing a psychologist is that your self-analysis capability can kick into over-drive.

So I found myself in the middle of an argument on Sunday night half drawing back, almost throwing the argument into peripheral mode watching and analysing what I was doing.

The result wasn’t pretty.

I spent the next two days in a funk, a little to do with the argument but mostly facing up to a simple realisation – not just from that argument, but from other arguments in the past – I don’t respond well to sorry.

Oh, if a total stranger says sorry over something, that’s fine. Same with a customer, or a colleague, or even a general acquaintance.

But someone close to me? Really close to me? Apology rejected. Or accepted at some level but not an emotional level – instead of resulting in a pull back it results in an escalation.

Apologies – if I love someone, I’m a jerk at accepting them, it turns out.

But even as I was thinking that, the cause equally occurred to me. And a lot of other things clicked into place as well. The refusal to hear sorry from people I care about. The ability to be staggeringly self critical, and the tendency to apologise for anything to anyone can be attributed to traits developed when I was younger.

Much younger. When it was nothing for me to be tormented for hours and then get into trouble if I got angry or upset.

That history of regular torment as a kid easily explained my anger over-management problem. It easily explains my tendency to be emotionally suppressed in other areas.

But it also emotionally clicked on the other factors, too, when I started thinking about them. So that was the topic of conversation with my psychologist this week.

It turns out it’s not actually all that uncommon a situation – when someone is abused or gets misleading signals back from a care giver when they’re growing up, it creates that cycle. First there’s the base process of being upset about it. But then there’s a deliberate emotional withdrawal. A denial of hurt by denying the emotions involved. And that carries through to adulthood – which ironically means the people you love the most tend to be the ones that get treated to the worst facets of your baggage from your childhood.

So that explains not hearing or processing sorry. Not because I want to escalate an argument, but because I trained myself throughout childhood to deny recognition of many emotional states triggered by those closest to me. Defence mechanisms – good when you’re a kid, but somewhat sucky when they carry on to adulthood.

What about the other bits though – the (at times) insanely intense self critic, and the tendency to apologise for anything to anyone? All rooted in the same issue: for all the times I was tormented it was rare, if ever that I got an apology for it. In fact, rare enough that I can’t think of a single apology I got for it. Maybe I did – but if so I shunted it aside because it didn’t mean anything to me at that time.

So when you’re in a situation as a kid where you’re being routinely picked on severely with no recourse, and then getting in trouble if you get angry or upset about it, of course that means that at some level, based on your cognitive abilities at the time, you’re going to end up thinking it must be your fault. And so starts the tendency to be ultra critical of what you do – what if that’s what causes the issue? What if this is the thing that starts it? What if I shouldn’t have done that? Day in, day out, you start to hyperactualise your self criticisms. Equally, you end up saying sorry all the time first out of fear, then out of habit, in the hopes that it might prevent the next tormenting session.

Christ, it’s a wonder I got here.

But I did. So through it all I equally picked up a stubborn streak that makes the Uluru look like a small pebble in the shoe. And combined with that other cursed blessing, not being able to speak properly as a kid, having to learn to read in order to learn how to speak, came the ability to think that drove everything else.

It’s time to ditch a little more of this childhood baggage and move on. It’s time I start thinking more clearly when I hear sorry – and accepting it.