Rules for a happy life
Rule #1: Say I’m Sorry, even when the other person was wrong too.
7 Years ago I quit my day-job. After checking all the tick-boxes in the promised “this will make you happy” list called the American Dream, or at least the South African version of it, I still wasn’t happy.
House, check. Car, check. Job, check. Partner, check. Lifestyle, check. Bigger house, check. More international holidays, check. Newer, fancier car, check.
Are we there yet?
I decided to stop checking boxes and spend more time to find Happy. Or, at least, try. The elusive pot of gold no-one seems to be able to grasp hold of for longer than a few minutes or even hours.
One of my ingredients for Happy is reading and writing. Spending time in a bookshop makes me happy. Coffee and books, now you’re talking! Today the book that spoke to me is a book by Jordan B. Peterson called “12 Rules for Life”.
The book contains 12 rules to live by as an antidote to chaos, including practical advice such as “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” and more playful advice such as “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.”
It inspired me to write my own set of rules, which I’ll be sharing in separate posts. The first rule to (my) happiness, being “Say I’m Sorry, even when the other person was wrong too.”
Rule #1: Say I’m Sorry, even when the other person was wrong too.
One of Peterson’s rules is “Be precise in your speech.” and something I truly aspire too, yet often fail at. I do, however, ponder specific words and “I am sorry” I have been pondering for a very long time. I went from not using it because I never saw the need, then overusing it realizing my mistake, to refusing to use it because I’m the only one using it and want to be on the receiving end too, to allowing myself to use it, even when people don’t reciprocate, accept or even acknowledge it.
I found that being willing to vocally express your regret lightens a load of worry, guilt and shame. Saying I’m sorry makes me feel light, right. Happy.
Most people, however, don’t share my sentiments I have found.
Abusing the words
We’re taught that saying “I am sorry” is a sign of weakness. The one who is first to apologize is the weaker one. It’s a competition between ego’s with the ‘winner’ the last to give in and admit error.
Or, it’s used as a way to manipulate. When you say I’m sorry, the other person can’t refuse you because they will look like the bad one, and no-one wants to be the baddie. They can also not reprimand or punish you for ‘bad’ behavior because you acknowledged your mistake and said you are sorry, whether you meant it or not. It leaves your superior powerless to do anything and an extremely popular (and toxic) passive aggressive strategy at work.
Some people use it as a way to be demeaning, to show superiority. As if to say they pity you for being lower in status that them. Most often though, it’s simply over-used without putting any thought into the authenticity behind the words. It’s just what you say, like “Hi”, or “goodbye”. It’s polite. It means nothing.
And in some cultures, like the African and Asian cultures, it seems to be part of their daily vocabulary. Not meaningless as in overusing it, but more polite than meaningful. Whether they know you or not they will say “I’m sorry” when they see you are in distress. I didn’t look where I was walking and nearly fell over a rock in the path, yet you will say “I am sorry” witnessing my near-fall.
In other cultures, like the one I grew up in, saying “I’m sorry” is a sign of weakness, to be avoided at all cost, in contrast to the overusing as in Africa or Asia.
My father couldn’t say these words.
He did many things wrong. I would even go as far as saying he did many more things wrong than the average father. On an average day his rights would be outnumbered by at least 8 to 1 from the wrongs. But I only had one father and didn’t know any better so accepted and loved him anyway.
He refused to say the words. Even when he was truly sorry for his behavior (which happened on the odd occasion) and the impact it had on the family, he refrained from acknowledging his fault. Saying “I am sorry” to him meant admitting failure as a man, as a father. It meant that he is not the authority figure or the man he ought to be in his mind.
To me, however, his failure to say “I am sorry” is what made him less of a man to me. It was his hardness, his refusal to be soft and vulnerable, that made him less manly, less fatherly. Masculine to me means strong, not hard. Not admitting failure is arrogant and hard and makes you unapproachable.
The mistakes he made were all forgiven, yet, each time those words weren’t said, it destroyed our relationship just a little bit more. Or rather, it kept the cracks that were there to be mended to prevent the whole bowl from crumbling into pieces.
Guilty as charges
Then one day, with a shock, I realized I too don’t say I’m sorry. I never needed to. It wasn’t that I refused to, but people always came to me first with an apology. And, I usually didn’t think I had reason to say I’m sorry either.
Not wanting to turn into my father, I actively spent a few years learning to say I’m sorry. The first time I admitted my fault vocally was by far the hardest, but I was received with so much love and acceptance and even gratitude, that I started using it more and more.
I apologized for everything and to everyone. Most days I said I’m sorry at least a few times. I apologized to the people in the street, to the person behind the till, to my friends, to my family, to everyone I met. It felt like relief. Like a weight lifted off my shoulders each time I said those magical words.
Until it became so over-used that I started to feel weakened by it. Where initially it was empowering, suddenly it started feeling dis-empowering. So I started taking more care in when and how I use it. I started putting more thought into who I apologized for and what. It became something preserved only for the most valuable relationships I want to repair as well as a tool to remain in harmony with my environment.
Saying I am sorry authentically
Words mean nothing. Yet, it means the world. It’s the difference between connection and separation. It’s the difference between peace and war. So, what does “I am sorry” really mean?
1. It’s about empathy
Saying “I am sorry” is about empathy. It’s a vocal expression of connection and seeing someone else’s distress, whether you had a part in it or not.
When you have a child (or adult) that cries because he is feeling bad, often parents (or friends) try to distract the child or invalidate them. “You’re silly! Of course we love you! Don’t feel that way!” or “You can’t be angry because you didn’t get any gifts. It’s not your birthday party, you’ll get gifts when it’s your birthday.”
The fastest way to make someone feel better is by acknowledging how they feel, whether it is angry, sad, frustrated or any other feeling. It doesn’t make you responsible for how they feel and it doesn’t take the pain away, but it does mean you’re not alone in how you’re feeling and that someone sees your pain.
And, in my experience, that’s usually enough to move past the pain. Simply witnessing another’s discomfort or pain is validation enough for them to feel loved and cared for.
“I am sorry” is saying “I see your pain and I regret that you are hurt”. It is expressing empathy. That’s all. It’s validating the other person’s reality. It’s offering a helping hand to someone in distress saying “You’re not alone.”
2. It’s about being vulnerable
Saying “I am sorry” is bout being vulnerable. It is a desire to connect, to repair a crack in a relationship that is meaningful to you. It is about admitting you were wrong and asking for acceptance, even with this imperfection.
It’s like a cat allowing you to scratch its belly. It shows they trust you. Most cats run away from strangers, few allow you to cuddle them for longer than a few minutes, most make sure you don’t get close to their most vulnerable part — their tummy. When a cat willingly rolls onto their back and exposes their tummy, they are saying “I trust that you have my best intention at heart”. The same is true for humans.
Let’s face it. There is no perfect person out there. We all have mistakes. We hurt each other, we judge each other, we think badly of other people. Most of us just try to hide it from the world, yet, usually miserably fail at it. We will smile and say “Thank you, it was nice seeing you”, while thinking “Thank goodness that’s over! What a jerk!”.
When we do express what’s really going on inside, we’re met with resistance. The only acceptable behavior is good behavior. But that’s impossible, and not very advisable either if you want a relationship that goes deeper than talking about the weather.
Being willing to show your flaws take great courage. Hiding it is easy. When you say “I am sorry” you expose what’s inside. You let down the walls that protects you from being hurt, even though in reality all you’re doing is keeping the hurt inside.
The truth (that you probably don’t want to hear) is that no-one can hurt you. They can only show you what is already hurt inside.
Saying “I am sorry” when someone hurt you means you’re receiving them fully. It means you’re a friend or partner through good times and bad.
It doesn’t mean you give a person permission to hurt you again in the future. It means you accept them with their pain. As they are. It means you’re willing to expose your vulnerable side.
3. It’s about taking responsibility
It takes two to tango. Whether you like it or not. There’s always two parts to a story. There’s no right or wrong version of a story, or a side to take. There’s only two forces that collided. And it takes two for a collision to occur.
No-one is responsible for you being hurt. Blame means you’re not willing to look at yourself. In the same breath, when you think you did nothing wrong and it was the other person at fault, you have a blind spot you’re not willing to look at.
Apologizing is about owning your part in a disagreement or “error”. It’s about taking responsibility. It’s saying I can see what I did wrong and I’m sorry for that, without expecting anything in return.
Yes, it’s nice to hear “I’m sorry too”, and usually this naturally happens when you really want to repair or build a strong relationship, but, in reality, you can’t take responsibility for anyone else other than you.
If the other person doesn’t reciprocate or accept your apology, it might well mean that it’s not possible to reconcile the relationship (of any kind), but it does mean you have done your part to attempt a reconciliation and in doing that, you free yourself from the burden of guilt or shame you carried before saying I’m sorry.
Not all relationships (whether it is friends, co-workers, neighbours or anyone for that matter) are meant to last forever. In fact, it is far more common for relationships not to last than for them to last. Strange, but true…
That doesn’t mean you don’t have to say I’m sorry. Saying I’m sorry doesn’t mean you have to rekindle an old friendship. It means you take responsibility and wish to be forgiven.
4. It’s about restoring harmony
More generally, saying “I’m sorry” is about restoring harmony. It’s about acknowledging your mistake and giving the other person an opportunity to correct theirs.
When you are honest about how you feel the other person knows where they stand with you and that makes it possible for them to correct your misconceptions or misunderstandings. When you keep the stories in your head there’s not an opportunity to correct as the other person is oblivious about what’s going on.
Harmony is never as a result of a winner and a loser. It’s finding an equilibrium. It’s about establishing peace. It gives closure so that either you can continue with the relationship or you let go without regrets.
Because the one thing that is most important is not having any regrets. Rather say I’m sorry more than what you need that regret you didn’t say I’m sorry.
Rules for a happy life
Saying I’m sorry is a token of appreciation. It is something you give to someone when you value them and wish to connect on some level. Whether they accept it or not is up to them.
But if you want to live a happy life, be willing to repair mistakes and be willing to be vulnerable. Say “I’m sorry”. And then walk away.
You’re the only one responsible for your happiness. Don’t expect anything in return. But don’t refrain from being vulnerable in an attempt to protect yourself from being hurt. Say I’m sorry, even when the other person was wrong too.