Sorry vs. Thank You
There are two ways we can express our feelings after having hurt someone else, and yet they react generously. We can choose to apologize for our misdeed, or we can thank them for their kindness. Here’s why both are important.
When somebody posts something insightful, and in doing so, helps me see old habits in a new light, I think it’s worth sharing with others. As with everything else, I believe it’s important not just to repost it, but rather, to share why it is that I think it’s worth pondering.
On the topic of a post I read yesterday, there are at least two different ways we can express our feelings in the context of having done something that negatively affected someone else, for which they reacted not by scolding, shaming or abandoning us, but rather, by accommodating us, or repairing things on their own, or reacting toward us in a supporting or loving manner.
We can choose to apologize for our misdeeds, or we can thank them for their reaction. I’ll get to the post’s author shortly.
Generally speaking, not enough of us take responsibility for our own actions when they go awry, or backfire. Most of us — if we’re honest — look for excuses, or something/someone to blame for our problems or explain what went wrong. The well-worn aphorism “Victory has a thousand fathers, while failure is an orphan” speaks to this human tendency.
Or, at least, this male tendency. More on that, below.
But some of us do own our behavior, and operate with significant integrity. In these instances, instead of looking to justify our behaviors, we take stock in the feelings of those we may have offended or hurt in the process, and apologize to them. At minimum, an acceptable apology acknowledges the wrongdoing. Better still, it should address the feelings of the person wronged. The more detail, the better. The best of them express a path toward reconciliation and prevention — as in, how to repair what we damaged, and what we plan to do to avoid a repeat performance. Said another way, we can articulate what we’ve learned from the experience.
Apologizing is an art; but all it takes to start one is the desire to fix things, and a modicum of self-reflection, and ownership. In enough time, with effort, we will learn to listen, and to reflect, better; then, to find the words to express our regrets authentically, and with enough clarity that the other person knows that we understand what we did wrong, from their perspective.
With that said, when the need to apologize becomes chronic — that is, when making mistakes or hurting others becomes habitual, especially if the same things keep tripping us up — it’s time to look beyond the instance, to the underlying cause. Maybe, even, to get help. Probably, to get help. Excuses have expiry dates, and a ‘limit per customer’. Once either is exceeded, an apology is no longer adequate; it ‘doesn’t cut it’. That’s because, understandably, we all have tolerance limits.
But even when it comes to simple apologies, because too few of us own our actions, it’s a heavy enough lift just to get to where we act from a place of sincere remorse, spoken with honesty, integrity, compassion and accountability.
Still, “sorry” is only half of the story.
While I’ll never advocate not apologizing, there are two ways of looking at every disconnect. The post that got me thinking this morning was a graphic created by a woman named Matilda Heindow — a Swedish 21-year old artist and the creator of crazyheadcomics, whose subject matter revolves primarily around issues of mental health — a reflection of her own experiences. At fifteen, she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, followed quickly by diagnoses of ADHD, Anxiety Disorder, and PTSD. This insightful woman uses art not only to work through her feelings graphically, but to also issue direct commentary with it — using language — to describe issues she has faced and the insights that emerged from her trials. They are all, to one degree of another, familiar to us. The online publication theadelaidelife published a piece about her, here, if you’re interested.
So on LinkedIn the other day, I came across one of her “cartoons”, published by The Female Lead — an educational charity dedicated to celebrating women’s successes. In it, Matilda urges us to stop apologizing, and start thanking, contrasting things we could potentially say, after we’ve screwed up. “I’m sorry I’m always late” becomes “Thank you for waiting for me.” There are five such pairs of ‘apology vs. gratitude’.
I thought this was incredibly insightful. We can focus on what we did wrong, which is right in any circumstance. But in addition to atoning for our sins, there is another dimension to human interaction: the other person’s reaction.
Here, as well, too few of us focus enough of our energies on thanking the other person for their actions. Yes, for waiting, even when we were late — again. For accepting us when we keep screwing up. For being patient when we do. For being there for us when we can’t be there for ourselves — and when we hurt others while failing. And for listening to us when we are self-absorbed, and forget to share the stage, to act with interest and care.
All of these things were covered in one simple graphic that Matilda created to express her feelings.
Technically, she asked us to stop apologizing. I don’t agree with that. But I choose to interpret her impetus differently. At the very least, she is telling us that there is more than just an apology to make, when we err. There is gratitude to express to the people affected, for their reactions — their kindnesses.
It’s a beautiful thought.
“Thank yous” are powerful. They acknowledge the other person’s strength, generosity, patience, acceptance, respect, kindness, empathy and altruism. Gratitude is a powerful force that should, in my view, live alongside atoning for wrongdoing. An apology is necessary. It gets us back to the baseline where we can clear the air, learn from our mistakes, act to repair what we damaged, and hopefully move on, together. But nowhere in an apology is gratitude expressed. This, too, is an important act in relationships of all kinds.
I believe deeply that all humans share the same basic needs, and desires. The desire to feel loved. The desire to be accepted, fully, without asterisks — to belong. And the desire to feel valued — useful — in this life; to have purpose.
‘Thank you’ helps us to meet our common need to feel valued.
Piling on the Insights
Of course, it’s 2020, and the age of social media. As of its posting, 33,138 people have positively reacted to Matilda’s cartoon, (with upturned thumbs, hearts and claps), while 740 people have added commentary. Several of these reactions have layered insights onto Matilda’s. Not all of them are laudatory. One twenty-something from Omsk, Russia, named Yulia denounced the post’s words as encouraging “power plays” for the purpose of manipulation, encouraging favors with “thank yous” without recognizing the need to change one’s actions. Presumably, she has experienced this in her own life. And she’s not wrong. An American woman ten years Yulia’s senior, named Hanna, commended the insight, reminding us that “women tend to apologize much more often than men”, and that “thank yous” were more empowering than apologies, all around — adding her perspective to common male-female dynamics, and celebrating a way of making peace without debasing oneself. Eleven other women piled on, thanking Hanna for helping them to see that they, too, apologized constantly — frankly too much — often without cause, because the male counterparts in their personal dramas were incapable or unwilling to doing so. It was fascinating to read. And yet another Russian named Alexandra — this one a good deal older than both other women — offered her own wisdom: a suggestion to remove the reference to oneself — the perpetrator — in the “thank you”, because it shifts the focus from the person being thanked to the one doing the thanking! She called this an act of “self-pity”. So a statement like “Thank you for always listening to me,” should become, in Alexandra’s mind, “Thank you for being a great listener.”
Pure genius. Fifty other women applauded this additional insight.
This is the Internet and social media at their level best: as tools to engender open dialogue, and share insights that help lift, inspire and empower one another. In this instance, a small and very personal piece of art sparked a discussion about what it is to apologize, or to express gratitude. In that sense, it is a resounding success which at least 33,000 people have found helpful, or insightful — one to which others have added wisdom, and perspicacity. It was also powerful enough to inspire me to spend an hour writing about it, in order to pay the favor forward.
Apologies are necessary, too rare, and lead to personal growth. Appreciation helps others feel valued while acknowledging their kindnesses, and encouraging more of the same.
Both of these acts help each respective party, and also build closeness between them. We should do more of both.
Long before learning was institutionalized, teachers were simply the people to whom enough people wanted to listen, and so did exactly that. Audiences grew, over time, with continuing insights shared, and valued. True teachers are those who have something relevant, beneficial and penetrating to say, whether or not they are supported by institutional qualifications.
Teachers come in all forms.
Thank you, Matilda, for being my teacher.