The Upright Apology: A Tool for Transformation

June 24, 2022
Apologies are commonly associated with shame, power games, or beliefs about who’s right and who’s wrong. In this episode, we talk about the freedom to be had in making apologies without shame and in full ownership of our experience. “When you make an apology that's upright, that's empowered, it feels fantastic. You feel strength in it. You feel responsible. You feel empowered."

Episode intro:

When you make an apology that’s upright, that’s empowered, it feels freaking fantastic. It is an awesome feeling. It is like oh. You feel strength in it. You feel responsible. You feel empowered.

Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I am Brett Kistler, here today with my co-host Joe Hudson.

Brett: Good morning, Joe. How are you doing?

Joe: Man, it has been a heck of a day. It has actually been more like a heck of a week for me, frankly. We just finished last week one of the Groundbreakers, and it is super intense. You go from 7:30 in the morning until 10 o’clock at night if you are helping facilitate that. You are doing it seven days in a row. I get pretty tired, and then coming back into work, it has been full on. There is no shortage of things to do, and so I have just noticed I won’t say overwhelmed, but I feel a pressure that is definitely not my standard feeling of pressure in life. I can’t say that I am great at enjoying it. I am getting better, but I am not great at enjoying it.

Brett: I can resonate this week. There is a sense of a lot of things occurring, and then I just find myself having to curate it a little bit. Sorry, I don't have time for this. I am not prioritizing that. I know you really want my attention over here, and I would love to give it to you. I have this other priority. I can find myself going into this sort of apologetic, not enough kind of energy, which brings us to what we wanted to talk about today, which is apologies. Tell me a little bit about what brought this topic up for you today.

Joe: It came up a couple ways. First, in Groundbreakers, we have an exercise that’s based in apologies. I know you have done some of them as well that are based in apologies. That brought it up in my mind, and then I had somebody in the business make a mistake. They were apologizing to me, and we had this long conversation about apologies. I was like let’s talk about this. It was really interesting. It was interesting to hear how she thought about it, and how I thought about it. I thought this would be a great conversation.

Brett: Let’s get started with a definition. What is an apology? Is it always in the form of I’m sorry or I apologize? Can you be subtle or overt?

Joe: I think the form is there probably all the time, some version of I am sorry, or I apologize. It can mean such radically different things. There are the people who you have met who say I’m sorry ten times, twenty times a day. That seems to be a strategy of making sure people don’t get upset at them. Of course, I would argue it increases the number of times people get upset with them because I notice that when people are scared of somebody else’s anger, the person who is likely to get angry is more likely to get angry when somebody is scared of them because they feel alone in it. I think that’s one reason people apologize. I am so sorry, that habitual thing.

Then there is another form of apology, which is a way to shame someone or shame yourself. I think kids get that a lot, unfortunately, and that one is more of feeling bad. It is a way to make somebody feel bad for something they have done, extracting an apology out of them, or a way for you to get to feel bad. A lot of people are addicted to shame whether they know it or not. That’s something they get to do to themselves.

Another way I think people use apologies is it is a way to ease their own guilt. They feel bad. They feel that shame, and it is their way to relieve their guilt and to take away a bad feeling.

Brett: That could be in the example of people who are apologizing for something and then not actually shifting their behavior in any way.

Joe: Exactly. Then, the way we use and the way it can be used and the way I would advocate considering is that is an incredibly powerful tool for transformation, meaning that if you can apologize to somebody and be in your power, to be empowered in it, to take responsibility in it, to own that this the way that I was and it’s not the way that I want to be, I know very few tools that are as good at creating transformation inside me as to apologize in that way. If I apologize with shame, then the thing I am doing is going to reoccur, but if I apologize with empowerment in my own responsibility.

Then there is a very unknown way to apologize. I don’t know if it is unknown. It is very strange. I do this a lot. Someone is having a hard day. I say I am sorry that you are having a hard day. They say you are not responsible. I say I know I am not responsible for your happiness. I just want you to know that I am seeing you, that you are seen and that I don’t want this for you. I am here for you. I love using apologies that way. It feels great. For me, it is a great way to let somebody know that I see that this is not easy for you. I am not trying to fix it. I am just here with you. For me, I think that’s used very rarely.

Brett: I think there are ways it is used really often in some forms. That kind of points to how there can even be a different way of delivery of this particular apology. For example, at a funeral, people will say I am so sorry. If you are one of the bereaved, it can be really difficult to have everybody be sorry for you. Then it becomes a platitude, and it doesn’t feel like connection. It doesn’t feel like being seen.

I think that’s true for any of these apologies. They can be platitudes. They can be oriented towards an outcome of making people feel better rather than for, as you said, a tool for self-transformation through responsibility or as a mode of genuine connection.

Joe: That’s right. They can be automatic, or they can be just the thing that you say or a way to make somebody feel bad. Passive aggressive apologies are pretty amazing, too. That’s the amazing thing. The power has been taken out of them. You get this American story of he can’t say he’s sorry. That’s not something that he would ever do. That would be admitting weakness or something to that effect. Whenever I see somebody who has a hard time saying I am sorry, it is always because somebody extracted an apology from them when they were younger and it was a way to make the person small, a way to make the person feel bad, to exact control over them. Say you are sorry. That kind of a thing. You are supposed to admit you are wrong.

When you are using the apology as a tool of self-transformation as responsibility, it is not about wrong. It is just about that’s not the way I want to behave. I am acknowledging that, and I am taking responsibility for that.

Brett: Say a little more on that. It is not about anything being wrong. You have also spoken to a shameless apology, as well.

Joe: Literally, the way you would do this in your body is you would feel your back is upright. You are not tucked in shame. Oftentimes when people feel shame, their eyes are down or their back is hunched or their tail is tucked in, so to speak. It is literally having your body upright as a good cue about what it feels like to come from this place. There is no shame in making mistakes. There is no shame in acting in a way that you don't want to act. There is no need for shame in any of that stuff. We all make mistakes, multiple times a day. That makes us human. It doesn’t make us something to be ashamed of.

How do you acknowledge that in your own power? How do you stay empowered? This happened and I am responsible for this part of it. That's not how I want to be, and I apologize to you. Instead of I am so sorry that I hurt you, like you can feel the difference in the tone.

Brett: When a lot of us learned apologies as kids, as you said, they were often extracted or often taught to us in such a way as to model some form of shame or guilt that we are supposed to feel in certain situations to that we don’t do it. There is this belief shame is a tool for justice and transformation, which is quite prevalent.

Joe: Let’s just speak to that for a second. Here’s the thing. There is something that anybody who is listening to this podcast has been doing for a decade, maybe less because they are younger that they haven’t wanted to do. There is some bad habit. There is some behavior. There is some way of being that they haven’t wanted to do but they have been doing it for 10 years. The thing I can tell you about any one of those is that the person who is doing that behavior has shame around it. What would make us think that shame stops us from doing something?

Shame is absolutely an emotion that comes up that we don’t want to feel, and so we try to avoid it, but at the same time shame is the thing that locks bad habits in place. We teach shame. We shame our kids. You see it happen all the time, but usually the thing you shame your kid about is something you are going to shame your kid about for five or 10 years because they are going to keep on repeating that pattern. It just doesn’t work. If you take a real look at it, if you say here are all the things I’ve kept on doing, I do feel shame around those things. I tell myself I shouldn’t do them. I tell myself I have to change it. I beat myself up for doing it. That’s all shame.

If you have a child that keeps on doing something, you are shaming them for the thing they keep on doing. You can guarantee it, or they just wouldn’t keep on reiterating it. Shame just doesn’t work.

Brett: As you extend that to apologies, it is the apologies that are delivered with shame that tend to be the kind of apologies that get repeated because the actions get repeated.

Joe: That’s exactly right. That’s why I say it needs to be empowered for it to be a real tool of transformation.

Brett: Going back to how a lot of us were taught apologies, there must be some value in modeling apologies for children to learn. What’s the distinction you would make between modeling an apology and guiding a child through the process of apologizing and having that be done without shame? I guess that also points to how we can apologize in shameless and empowered ways.

Joe: With our kids, we have never asked them to say I am sorry. It has just never happened, and yet, oddly, our children say they are sorry all the time. They say it in a very empowered way. I think what happens for adults or for kids, when they get to see it, which is pretty rare, or more importantly, when they get to feel it. When you make an apology that’s upright, that’s upright, that’s empowered, it feels freaking fantastic. It is an awesome feeling. It is like oh. You feel strength in it. You feel responsible. You feel empowered. It is the way we like feeling.

When you do that and you do that a couple of times, you are like this is great. Why would I not do this? But when you have been told you have to do apologies in a way that makes you feel small, that makes you feel like you are bad, that makes you feel like there is something wrong with you, why the heck would you ever want to apologize except to get out of trouble? Then you are teaching your children or yourself that the way I can navigate danger in the world is by making myself small and by kowtowing to authority instead of being in myself and in my truth.

Brett: Which is a form of self-attack as manipulation.

Joe: In some people, it turns into a form of self-attack to prevent other people from attacking them. A lot of people will attack themselves as a way to make it hurt less or to have less attack on them. It doesn’t work, but that’s the thought process or the emotional explanation.

Brett: Something interesting about this idea of stopping the hurt is that one way we have described shame is it seems to be something that prevents emotions from being felt. When we have certain feelings we don’t allow, shame is the thing that holds them in place. By not letting those emotions move, we don’t update our body. Our emotional system doesn’t update to the actual reality of the situation, or in this case of what we have done and how we really feel about it deeply. Then that makes the thing persist.

There is something here. There is almost a chicken and egg kind of thing where it is like if you are feeling ashamed, it might feel really difficult to make an empowered apology because you are feeling shame, but then there is also if you make an empowered apology, the shame in you, this fear of being seen, the moment you apologize without shame or apologize owning yourself, owning your part, you release a lot of that shame because you are seen. Then that shame moves. Sometimes making that kind of apology can suddenly just crack open the lid, and a bunch of emotion moves. It is no longer the emotion of shame, guilt, stuckness and anguish. It becomes the emotion of grief, of whatever is underneath it that you need to feel to process what actually occurred and move forward from there.

Joe: That’s what happens. When the apologies are empowered, there might be grief or fear that moves. It feels like a cleansing. It feels like it is an emptying out of the holding. You can close your eyes and you can think about a time when you felt shame. It was this really powerful moment of shame. For a lot of people, it is a punch in the gut kind of feeling. You will notice what it does is it is like uh, and then it stops you. It is like a punch in the gut. You just stop. It actually prevents the emotional fluidity that allows you to change the habits.

Apologizing without shame brings that emotional fluidity back, and lets you feel empowered in it. It is not I am grieving. It is I am empowered, and I am grieving.

Brett: There is something else here. One of the things I think makes it difficult or creates resistance to apologizing is sometimes we, especially those of us who have this self-attack pattern, might believe that if we apologize, we are then more likely to buy the other person’s story wholesale and abandon ourselves.

Joe: That’s right. That again is making yourself small, and that’s making yourself ashamed. It does do that. Think about it this way. A lot of people use apologies as part of a power struggle, and the person who apologizes is the loser. The person who is apologized to is the winner. It is a really weak surrogate for being seen. It is a really weak surrogate for being acknowledged and being respected and being respected by somebody who respects themselves.

If you think about this in terms of a relationship, so you have husbands and wives. They get into fights. Those fights are all about power struggles. If both people felt like they were being seen, respected and acknowledged, there is no fight. The fight is when somebody doesn’t feel seen, doesn’t feel acknowledged, and doesn’t feel respected. The apology is the surrogate for what is really wanted. It is not a bad surrogate, meaning it makes you feel good for a little while. It is like a sugar high. I feel like I won that, or I am in control for a moment.

But it feels a shit ton better to be with somebody who respects themselves and you and sees themselves and you. It just feels great, whereas if somebody is respecting you but they are cowering, it doesn’t feel great. It is not as good of a feeling, but it is better than feeling like a loser. People go for it.

Brett: It is interesting to bring this notion of power struggles into apologies. It almost seems like if you bring that into awareness, you can apologize for the power struggle itself, which is something we have used when we have talked about fear triangle stuff. I am sorry for playing the victim with you. I am sorry for playing the role of savior. I am sorry for projecting onto you that you are this way when in reality I am actually this way. I have been exhibiting this behavior. There is this way that apologizing can be something that just drops you out of your own role, whatever it is that you are stuck in.

Joe: If I am in a fight with somebody, I will stop and look for any way that I can apologize that’s in integrity, that’s empowered. I will think I am in the fight. It means I am responsible somehow. What is it that I can apologize for that feels empowered? I will apologize for it. If I have that thought, immediately I will do it. It feels great. It often just changes the entire conversation. I am sorry. I don’t want to be talking to you in this way. I am sorry for being in a power struggle with you. That’s now how I want to be with you. I am sorry for raising my voice. That’s now how I want to be with you. I know you deserve better than that.

Brett: That can be one where there are various levels of self-recognition and shamelessness that you can discover because you could also say what Joe said was when I am in a fight with someone, I am going to look for an apology. What’s an apology I can make? I am really sorry for putting up with all of your victim crap for all these years.

Joe: Or the opposite. I am really sorry for being such a bad boyfriend. I am going to try harder, that whole thing. Both of them don’t work.

Brett: There is a buying of a story that can happen. If your apology is buying some story, then you can go back to our episode on beliefs, when the story falls apart, and see what emotion there might be underneath that. If the apology brings that emotion, you might actually be on to something.

Joe: There is a quick hack, which is when you apologize, never use the word ‘you’. Never make it about them. It is always about you. When we do our exercises, we are always very clear. If you are using ‘you’, it is not a real apology.

Brett: That points to something else where if it is for you, and if it is about you, this reminds me of one way to see forgiveness where people talk about forgiveness not being for them. You don’t forgive them. It is because you are letting them live rent free in your head or whatever it is. The forgiveness is for you. It is for your own freedom, for your own purification. I see that also just having a nice mirror here on the apology side. What is it to just be apologizing for yourself and not to be trying to make anything happen in the other person?

Joe: I would say there is a way of apologizing that you are not trying to make yourself or anybody else feel differently, which is one way. Then there is a way of apologizing, which is doing for yourself but not for them, not to make them feel differently. Then there is the apology of trying to make them feel differently. If the apology is just in the ownership of I want to acknowledge the truth of this situation, it can be really powerful. It can be really powerful to do it for you.

What I’ve noticed is the more and more the apology happens, it is not about me or them. The apology is about freedom for both of us. It just creates freedom if you can do it empowered. It just creates far more freedom for everybody. It is about freedom. It is not personal anymore, which seems weird. It is an apology. It feels like one of the most personal things.

Brett: Right, it is a very intimate thing and then there is this way of doing it where it is not. It is actually just recognition, which comes back to another thing we have talked about a lot. There is this belief a lot of us have that if you see something that needs to change, there’s something you have to do about by tweaking your own consciousness, by shifting the weights on which emotions are repressed or invited. There is something to do about it.

The kind of apology we are talking about here is just something that is shedding light on something, which reminds me of this Hawaiian phrase. I am going to get it totally wrong. I am getting that entirely wrong.

Joe: I think it is like: I love you. Thank you.

Brett: I am sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. Then there is another deeper version of that, which I don’t know. I wish I could bring it up in the moment right now, but the translation of it is: The light is brought to it. Something like that, where it is not that there is a right or wrong. Light is brought to it. I now see clearly what I did. I see more clearly what the dynamic was here and my part in it. There is no shame or wrong. Everything was just unfolding as it was going to because of the way that we are conditioned and the way the situation played out with all of our history. Now I see more clearly. That’s it, just seeing more clearly. Just the awareness.

Joe: It is amazing that question in self transformation. What do I do next? It is amazing how counterproductive it can be compared to just awareness and realization and just exploring and understanding. You hear people oftentimes with that say I am stuck in my head. I get it but I don’t grok it. My head gets it, but my body doesn’t. I know I shouldn’t smoke, but yet I still do. There is some version of that, so what should I do about it? I am always saying back that you don’t fully understand it. If you fully understood it, you wouldn’t do it. There is just no way to if you fully understand it, so let’s just work on the understanding of it instead of the doing because you have been trying to do it for a decade and it hasn’t worked. Let’s just understand it more fully.

Brett: In that smoking example, I’ve heard a really good way to approach dropping the habit is just mindfulness, just pay really close attention to what it feels like to smoke a cigarette and pay really close attention to what the sensations actually are, and the taste and the flavor. You just might find you had actually been dissociating or suppressing some of the actual sensation to get something else, and then shame locked that into place. I think that could be true for any pattern we tend to apologize for. What happens if you actually let yourself fully feel what it is like to be doing that thing? What does it really feel like to be arguing with your partner? What does it really like to be in trigger and abusing a coworker or an employee?

Joe: A couple things you just brought up there, this goes way beyond apologies as well. I will give you an example in a second. Just on the smoking front or whatever bad habit, see what it is like. If you are out there and you have a bad habit, see what it is like to give yourself an upright apology for that thing on a daily basis. I am sorry for hurting myself. I am sorry for hurting by smoking. This isn’t how I want to be with you, or this isn’t how I want to be with myself, whatever feels good. What is that like to really be in that empowered apology? You can see what it does to the habit.

The other story I had recently was with a young woman. She was asking me about this feeling she had. She’s relatively young, so there wasn’t a whole bunch of pattern in place. She had noticed she was power tripping by wrapping boys around her finger. She was very beautiful, and she could do that. This isn’t how I want to be, she said. What’s the solution? I was like just feel like it. The next time you are doing it, just feel it. Feel it all the way through. Don’t stop feeling any part of it. Have the full and total experience of it.

Two days later, I was talking to her again, and I asked how it had gone. She said I saw myself doing it and I felt it all the way through. I asked what happened. She said I didn’t figure anything out, but I stopped doing it. It didn’t feel good. That was it. We think we have to figure it out. Then we have to figure out an action plan and a strategy. No, it is just about allowing yourself to feel it all the way through. I think that really applies to apologies. If you are apologizing from an upright place, from an empowered position, it does require you to feel it.

Brett: I can imagine somebody listening to this episode or a lot of our episodes where there is this theme of there is nothing to do. Just feel it and experience it. The part that wants to do something and take action is frustrated. I am just supposed to notice things. It makes me think of something. I’ve been recently doing some morning pages where I just write for a couple of pages every morning, whatever comes up. I have been finding it to be really helpful for getting into what is underneath something.

Today before we did this episode on apologies, I started writing down various apologies, apologies to myself or to anything in my life, anybody in my life. It sounds like if you are so inclined to do something about this, you could do the introspection and write an apology or say an apology, say it into a mirror if you want to. Then, you can feel what comes up. Do you feel shame? What is that shame? What’s underneath that shame? Maybe write about that a little bit.

Joe: It is a weird thing. We are saying don’t do stuff, but at the same time we have said here’s an apology practice. Page writing is something that we do during master class every day. Master class is full of action, and just to stop and feel is an action in some way. The pointer of don’t do anything, it is not that we are saying actually don’t do anything. What we are saying is that trying to figure it out and getting an action plan and strategy doesn’t work as well as understanding and feeling. I think that’s more accurate. It doesn’t work as well, but also it can be useful. I wouldn’t say don’t do anything at all.

Brett: You can say that the action plan and strategy will be effective to the extent that it is structured to bring you into yourself, into your feeling, into awareness, whereas a lot of our action plans are just ways to get out of the feeling.

Joe: Exactly.

Brett: Or to organize our life so we don’t have to hit that feeling again.

Joe: Instead of learning to be free inside of the feeling.

Brett: We have talked a lot about giving apologies and delivering them and practicing and introspecting around them. We haven’t talked that much about receiving apologies or what it is like to receive the various kinds of apologies that we have talked about.

Joe: It is an interesting thing. Some people are really good at receiving apologies. It is like receiving compliments. A lot of people want apologies, so then they don’t receive them. They are constantly a hungry ghost. What I notice is people who can receive them, which means you are letting yourself feel it all the way through and bring up any emotion that might come up. When I say all the way through, it literally feels like I have armor up and I am protecting myself or I am more permeable, and the thing can move right through me. That’s the experience I have. When I make that point to people, they can usually get it. If you can fully feel that apology all the way through instead of saying don’t feel bad or he doesn’t mean it or all of the thousands of ways that people hold the apology back, then you can actually feel the relief and often some other emotions that come with it.

Brett: It sounds like there is a distinction here as well between permeable and letting the apology move through you and being somehow overtaken or bowled over by the apology or the energy of the apology. For example, if somebody gives you an apology with shame and you take on that shame and feel it, then that makes you feel like you have actually done something wrong. You find yourself in the no, I am sorry; no, I am sorry kind of situation.

Joe: I would describe it slightly differently. I would describe if you feel the apology all the way through and let it permeate you, but don’t buy the story. The only story you have to buy into is here is this person acknowledging and trying to create connection, and you just feel that they are trying to take responsibility, or they are not. It is okay. They are trying to get you not to hit them or hurt them. Whatever that is, allow that full feeling to move through. It is a remarkable thing. It is a great call out.

Brett: I feel like sometimes it is a story that we might identify as a story, and sometimes there is just some emotional response. If somebody apologizes to us in a passive aggressive way and say I am sorry I let you do it; it was my fault that I let this happen, with a subtle implication that you are wrong and you are bad, then there can be just energetically this feeling in you that feel the feeling of the apology. You don’t actually identify what it is in the words because you are in the story. You are not even seeing the story, but you can detect that somewhere in your body you are closing down and constricting. What is that constriction? What do I feel like I am defending right now?

Joe: I think if you are constricting and defending, then that’s when you know something is not, meaning if somebody does a passive aggressive apology to me and they say I am really sorry that I couldn’t read your mind, as an example, then if I feel that all the way through and I allow that feeling all the way in my system and don’t take it personally or buy the story, then I can easily say something like it feels like you still want me to be upset at something I’ve done. What are you feeling that I need to take responsibility for that I am not taking responsibility for? It is when my constriction comes that I say okay, yeah, sure, thanks for that apology or whatever reason that I would have.

Brett: I could even see the exact words of the response you had if there is constriction, it can still sound defensive. Okay, tell me what I am doing wrong then.

Joe: Yeah, okay, I see I am doing something wrong. What did I do? It is the tone. It is the shame you are saying it with or the uprightness that you are saying it with that matters, or the defensiveness. Just to sum it up, to receive an apology, the way to do it is the same way that you give an apology, in your empowered state allowing it to be felt all the way through.

Brett: Beautiful. That sounds like an episode.

Joe: A pleasure to be with you as always. We get to talk next week, too. I am really excited as well. Have we done one on shame?

Brett: There has been a coaching session on shame. Yeah, it has been on our list to do one on shame for the emotion series.

Joe: Let’s do that so we can leave it as a teaser for people who want to learn more about shame.

Brett: Wonderful.

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