The Power of Apology and Repair
Happy Heart Day, commercially known as Valentine’s Day! We are in the depths of winter as well as continued uncertainty with COVID; anxiety levels may be higher than usual and negatively impacting your closest relationships. In response, I thought it might be helpful to talk about the power of apologizing and repairing relationships when upset and discord happen. Woven into this post, I also get to write about some of my favorite subjects: attunement, body wisdom, nervous system regulation, and relationships as forces for healing and creativity.
I had a recent experience with my daughter that I thought might be helpful in illustrating the healing power of a heart-centered apology and repair. It feels vulnerable to share, yet I trust that folks reading will be able to relate. (Also, I swear lower down in the post, so maybe don’t read this near kids.)
Operating With Less Bandwidth
I’d just gotten the 2nd dose of the COVID vaccine the afternoon on the day before. By noon the next day, I’d started to have mild chills, a slight headache, was tired, and foggy-minded. My capacity for interacting was quickly going downhill.
I asked my daughter to get me some tea. She acknowledged my request and asked me to wait, twice, while she wrapped something up on her computer.
Mere seconds go by after my 2nd request when I stand up with annoyance and marched downstairs to get my own drink (dammit!) My daughter running behind me, now worried and afraid because she could feel my frustration, repeating that she just needed to finish up a project on her computer.
The context running behind the scenes is that with the mild symptoms in play in my body, I had much less bandwidth to be patient or compassionate. A survival Part of me that shows up when I don’t feel well physically, is easily tearful and wants to be coddled. However, that Part is NOT my daughter’s responsibility. And my actions were conveying the story to her, making her wrong for not responding to me quickly enough.
Ten minutes go by and I’m still frustrated. I check in with her two times from that place of impatience, and the interaction ends when I turn my back on her in silence. She walks away quietly and I can feel the shame in her from the way I just handled my upset.
And the shame is in me too, now. The hardness of my frustration starts to crack and I start coming back to my senses, back to my heart. I’m feeling guilt, shame, remorse, and compassion. I messed it up with her and know that I need to repair my mess-up with her.
Apologizing and Repairing
I said, Hi Kid. I’m really sorry for being distant and angry with you when I asked you for tea. I can see now that you were totally engrossed in your own project, such that my request was disruptive to YOU. And then, I made you wrong for not responding quickly enough and that was not fair. I think I made you feel scared, worried, judged, and blamed when I know you were trying to be helpful and that you do want to help me when I feel unwell.
(The dam has broken and her tears have begun to freely flow. I’m feeling guilt and shame. I’m also feeling so contrite and compassionate, for her and myself. In my body it felt like pressure pushing outward in my chest towards my child, in a good way.)
I kept talking, You didn’t deserve to be treated with silence and ignoring you and I’m so sorry.
My kid: (Lower lip trembling, starting to look me in the eye, her shoulders beginning to relax) Thank you, Mama.
Me: You want to huggle (a hug and a snuggle) together?
We reconnected physically with an embrace, I held her and rubbed her back slowly. Her body shook and trembled, she cried in waves, releasing pent up energy of big emotions (fear, sadness, love, relief, gratitude).
Me: I’m right here. I love you so much, Kid. Mmmhmm. I’m so sorry.
I held her and was WITH her in my attention and care, a.k.a. attunement.
Minutes passed quietly. I could feel her body go from bracing to relaxation; her breathing evened out, her temperature cooled. Her body was down-regulating and settling.
A few more minutes pass. Her pre-frontal cortex started coming back on-line as evidenced by a little more eye-contact with me and the easy way she responded to some of my questions about how she was doing.
And then, the ventral part of her vagus nerve turned on and she popped back into social engagement with myself and her Papa through conversation about what takeout to get for dinner (excited). This is when I knew the repair process had completed.
BOOM! The awesome-fucking wisdom of the nervous system!
For my kiddo, the shift her nervous system needed in order to calm down was me being regulated and then showing up for her in a meaningful way. The power of relationships to both heal and generate is REMARKABLE!
I love being a trauma-trained therapist and I love how my training has really helped me in a gazillion ways, especially when it comes to parenting.
Dr. Bruce Perry who writes, Reaching the Learning Brain, researches, writes, and teaches about the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain. He has positively impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world.
Dr. Perry outlines 3 simple ways to help younger children (and adults) set a healthy template of nervous system regulation:
- Regulate: Offer soothing and reassurance to a child to help calm their stress.
- Relate: Empathize and validate the child’s feelings so they feel seen, heard and understood.
- Reason: Help kids to reflect, remember, find words for their experience and feel self-assured.
These behaviors are woven into what constitutes a healthy repair when there is emotional upset. Me helping my daughter to regulate was done in the time spent holding my daughter and giving her system time to come back into balance and calm.
A felt sense of reconnection and belonging is foundational to a meaningful apology and repair process to come.
A Guide: 5 Straightforward Steps to Repairing
The difference between a repair and an apology is pretty simple. An apology is, I’m sorry.
A repair encompasses an apology coupled with an attitude of, “I’m here, I’m willing and available to connect, and your experience is important to me.”
Here’s how to begin repairing a relationship upset when your anxiety has gotten in the way:
- “I’m sorry for__________ (insert the behaviors that you did that probably hurt the person across from you).”
- “I think I made you feel____________________(insert the emotions you think the other person may have felt when you did what you did).”
- “You didn’t deserve how I treated you and I am sorry.”
- “Is there anything you want to share with me?” Listen for hurt feelings and validate those feelings.
- As is appropriate, reconnect with easy touch where you ask if it’s ok for a hug or to rub their back. Touch is a great way to solidify the nervous system in settling for both of you.
Let your repairs be spacious and easy, placing little to no “demands” on the person with whom you are repairing. Repairs have a magical way of opening your heart to a wider field of compassion, both for the other as well as yourself.
On the physical plane, a well-done repair brings you back into co-regulation (regulating with each other), where each of your nervous systems are in sync and in tune with the other’s and in an easy and gentle way. Consistent experiences like this create secure-attachment patterns, a.k.a. healthy relationships. And these kinds of relationships have deeply healing as well as restorative benefits for each person.
Parents reading this, our kids need us to show up with attunement and deep care for their experiences and emotions. Our kids need us to be regulated so that their growing nervous systems can also get regulated. The benefits for them (and us) include:
- Feeling an embodied sense of safety and belonging, vital experiences for growth
- Feeling more confident in oneself
- Greater resilience
- Overall greater health physically, mentally, and emotionally
We’re gonna mess up with the people we love.
Reconnecting through apologizing and repairing goes such a long way to bring our hearts closer to our loved ones more effectively. Thanks for being here for yourself and your close relationships, by reading and acting on this post. May it serve you well and daily.
If you’re looking for support in getter better regulated and reducing your anxiety, please reach out to us.
Happy Hearts Day to you, there is so much love for you here!