The Perfect Apology

A lot of people find it hard to apologize. Perfectionists can find it especially tortuous. Admitting you are slightly less than perfect is a gut punch, a hit at a fundamental (and false) belief that you have to be perfect in order to be accepted, loved, successful. Owning up to a mistake can make you feel inadequate and fear rejection from others.

The thought of hurting someone else’s feelings—even accidentally—can make you want to hide under the covers and never speak to that person again. Of course, none of us want to hurt people we care about, and it’s wonderful to strive for kindness toward everyone. But it’s basically impossible to have a close relationship with others and never cause them pain, even accidentally. Any two people who care about each other will hurt each other’s feelings at some point in their relationship. The important question is: what do you do after?

Psychology researchers have found that relationships that have solid repairs—sincere apologies and meaningful changes to address problems—are healthier and stronger than relationships where it seems like nothing goes wrong in the first place. Making mistakes and then repairing them actually strengthens relationships and builds trust.

So how do you make a repair that strengthens your relationship? You start with a healthy apology, which means three things: regret, responsibility, and remedy.

  • Regret means a sincere “Sorry” or “I apologize.”
  • Responsibility means naming what you did wrong, and how it impacted the other person—“I forgot your birthday, and I let you down.”
  • Remedy means offering a way to right the wrong—fixing what you broke, promising to do better in the future, or asking how you can make it up to your friend.

Not all apologies are healthy, however, and if you’re missing the elements above, you may end up saying “I’m sorry” in a way that keeps the wound open instead of healing it. These are some common aspects of unhealthy apologies:

  • “But”s and “if”s: Apologies lose their power when you follow them with “but” and an angry defense of your actions. Similarly, saying “I’m sorry if you were hurt” or “I’m sorry, but I was really tired that night” also weakens your message.
  • Taking too much responsibility: Overapologizing (“OMG, I’m the worst friend ever, I’m so sorry! I suck.”) can sound insincere or can make the other person feel like now she has to make you feel better.
  • Avoiding: It’s natural to feel upset, embarrassed, guilty, or any number of emotions after you hurt someone or make a mistake. It’s tempting to avoid the subject or dodge the person so you don’t have to deal with it. This can keep the wound open and painful, instead of resolving and healing the hurt.

Of course, all this said, resist the temptation to be perfect at apologizing.
Adapted from The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens by Ann Marie Dobosz, MFT

“Good” Vs “Bad” Anger

Anger has a bad reputation in our culture. It’s considered toxic by some, for others it brings up bad memories of family shit, for others it is entangled with violence. But anger has a purpose, and — when expressed appropriately — has an important place in relationships.

First, let’s differentiate between anger that is a core emotion and anger that is a defensive feeling. A defensive emotion is one that is used to keep other people away, and to cover up a different core emotion that feels too vulnerable to show. For example, you feel hurt by something your partner said, but rather than feeling that emotion, you feel angry and find yourself wanting to lash out with an angry comment of your own. That’s defensive anger — it’s covering up the true feeling (hurt) and serves the purpose of pushing your partner away so you can have some space in an attempt to feel safe again.

When anger is a core emotion, it looks and feels different. Core emotions (anger is one, the others are joy, sadness, fear, surprise, and disgust) are crucial to our survival as human beings, that’s why evolution has kept them around. Core emotions give us important authentic information and deliver that info fast, much faster than our rational brains take to come to logical conclusions. All core emotions have an “adaptive action tendency” — which means they inspire some action that is beneficial to you. For example, fear tells you to fight or flee. Sadness causes you to seek out others for comfort. And anger fuels you to assert your boundaries. If your boss orders you to stay late despite your previous agreement about ending your work day in time to pick up your kid, you might feel anger rise up to let you know that something is not right and you want to stand up for yourself.

This brings me to the second important point about anger: feeling is different than expressing. The anger you feel towards your boss contains wisdom about what is good for you, and can fuel adaptive, productive action to help you get your needs met — provided you express that anger appropriately. There is nothing wise nor productive about punching your boss in the face in this example. Nor hurling insults or making passive aggressive comments. An example of an adaptive action would be breathing through the first intense wave of anger, composing yourself, and then using all the energy and fire of that anger to give you the courage to calmly and assertively remind your boss of your agreement about your hours. In this case, anger is not covering up another emotion, and it is not trying to push someone away. The anger is expressing a survival need — to take care of yourself — and is trying to keep you in relationship with your boss by asserting or negotiating your needs.

Getting to know yourself and your experience of anger takes some time and practice. It helps to build a regular habit of having one “foot” in observing your emotions while your other “foot” is experiencing the feelings. Using your observing self, notice everything you can about what is happening right now. What body sensations come with this anger? What thoughts? And — very important — what other feelings are there? If you stay with your anger for a moment, just feeling without acting on it, are there other feelings just under the surface of the anger? Do you feel sadness, or grief? Hurt? Something else?

With a regular practice of observing yourself, you can get to know yourself and your anger. You can start to detect very quickly when you are feeling a wave of core anger that you should listen to, and when you are feeling a wall of defensive anger that you need to look beyond.

Do you want to be right or do you want to be loved?

Couples often come to counseling in hopes that the therapist will be a referee, declaring a winner and a loser in each argument. For a lot of people, being “right” is really important. They lay out evidence, argue about who said what when, focus on facts and ignore feelings.

Being right feels good for a minute. It’s a little high, you feel in control of the world for a minute, superior to others. But those feelings are not lasting, or satisfying, because the truth is, you are not really in control of the world or better than others. Being “right” also means the other person is “wrong,” and if being right makes you feel good for a minute, being wrong makes the other person feel defensive, sad, angry, and lonely. And those emotions tend to last a whole lot longer than your good feelings last.

Many times, being attached to being “right” is rooted in a feeling of insecurity and fear. Arguing and arrogance get put on like a mask to hide those awful feelings. Insecurity is so understandable in relationships. Connecting to a partner makes you incredibly vulnerable. It’s scary and can bring up your worst fears about being “not good enough,” and your fears of being rejected. So you turn that fear on its head, put on a show of feeling “better than” to mask the underlying feeling of “less than.” And then you have to defend that position at all costs, you  have to be right about everything. Because being “wrong” will bring back those feelings of vulnerability, insecurity, and fear.

So trying to be right all the time is a strategy to protect against vulnerability and fear of rejection. The irony is, being right all the time leads to some major relationship problems, and actually increases the likelihood of rejection. You create the situation you feared.

In couples therapy, it’s important to let go of the question of who is right and who is wrong. If you are insistent about being “right” (and trying to make yourself feel good), then you are also insistent about your partner being “wrong” (and feeling bad). Being determined to make your partner feel bad is not a recipe for relationship success.

Focusing on feeling loved instead of being right doesn’t mean you have to let go of your brain completely or never have an intellectual debate again. It doesn’t mean collapsing into a defeated “fine, you win” stance, or an insincere “whatever, I guess you are right” response, either. It means choosing to focus on the love and care you feel for your partner, and responding authentically from that place.

Next time you find yourself locked in an endless fight or holding a grudge, try pausing and taking a breath. Check in with yourself: is it more important to be right about this detail, or is it more important to be loving and feel loved? What is more valuable to me: being right about this, or having a happy and caring relationship? See if once in awhile you want to try dropping the fight and trying for connection instead. After connecting with your partner, check back in with yourself. Does it still feel so important to be right?


Fear of Feeling

“So much of [what] leads individuals to seek therapy can be traced to the terror of affect. People disconnect from their emotional experience, afraid of being overwhelmed, humiliated, or revealed as inadequate by the force of feelings, only to pay the price later in depression, isolation, and anxiety.” –Diana Fosha, founder of AEDP

Fear of feelings is huge. I hear it all the time. Clients say: If I let myself feel this sadness, it’ll take over. I’ll become depressed. I’ll stop being able to function.

This fear is often rooted in real experience. Maybe you have this fear because you’ve felt sadness nibbling away at your edges for a long time… weeks, months, years. You find it very distracting and painful, and it feels like it never totally goes away. It makes sense that you assume letting yourself feel more of it will be like opening the floodgates, and you’ll be drowning in sadness.

But the truth is, sadness is not endless. No emotion is. When you let yourself really feel an emotion, the wave washes over you… and it comes to an end. It doesn’t continue forever. The duration of core emotions is measured in seconds or minutes, not years. If you really let yourself feel the full experience of your sadness, it flows, it ebbs, it comes to an end, you feel a sense of relief.

The experience of endless sadness (or other feeling) actually comes with the holding back of emotions. The more you push down, numb out, cut yourself off, the more pressure builds up. The emotion never gets to resolve and complete, and you get stuck with constant low-grade emotion or anxiety. In addition, you often lose ability to feel the emotions you want to feel, like joy and pleasure, or you feel disconnected from others.

Letting yourself experience a difficult emotion like sadness (or anger, or even joy) can feel like a scary risk, but the rewards are big. You can get relief from that emotion that’s been lurking in the shadows for so long. Imagine what it would be like to let that sadness go.

When Other People Irritate the Crap Out Of You

“Do you think, in general, that people are doing the best they can?”

Brené Brown asks this question in “Rising Strong,” and wonders about what your answer reveals about you. Do you think that other people are usually trying hard to be kind, fair, generous? Or do you believe that on the whole, people are out to take advantage, make a buck, get ahead at any cost?

In her research, Brown found that 80 percent of people who answered “no” to this question did so because of their own self-judgment and perfectionist patterns. When you believe that you yourself are never working hard enough, you are also more likely to believe that others aren’t working hard enough or “doing their best.” If you hold yourself to impossible perfectionist standards and never feel good enough, it is easy to see the whole world through that lens.

When we talk about perfectionism, we often talk about how it impacts your relationship with yourself — how you beat yourself up, feel anxious or avoidant, demand the impossible. We sometimes forget the impact that perfectionism has on your relationship with others. When you feel cruel and stingy with yourself, only directing negative energy inward, that can leave you with only negative energy to direct towards others.

If you notice yourself feeling angry or impatient towards others, assuming they are not “doing their best,” take a moment and check in with yourself. Is the voice inside your head speaking those words the same voice that hammers you all the time for any small mistake or failure? Is your anger towards others connected to your anger towards yourself? Consider addressing your perfectionism — with compassion and kindness — as a way to shift your frustrated feelings towards other people.

An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving Holiday Party Season

December is a month of endless holiday party invitations, which for some people means endless social anxiety. It’s exhausting and uncomfortable to try to appear witty and graceful around acquaintances you want to impress. It’s draining to be “on” every night of the week. You want to have a few drinks to loosen up, but the next day you worry you embarrassed yourself. Sometimes you just need a break, but you feel guilty when you no-show or leave early to take care of yourself. The season of holiday cheer can start to feel like a season of torture.

What can you do to manage your anxiety and make it through the social pressures of the holiday season?

  1. Be realistic about how much socializing you can manage. Where do you fall on the introvert/extrovert spectrum? Some people can go to a party every night and feel great, others find their emotional battery drains after one event and they need a few days to fully recharge. Check in with yourself — how much socializing is comfortable for you? 
  2. Push yourself to a productive edge. Your presence at a holiday party may be  important to friends, bosses, clients, or other people in your life. Try stretching yourself a little past what’s comfortable — if two events a week is usually your max, try scheduling in three per week during this season.
  3. When you do choose to say no, do it with grace and acceptance. When you need to take an evening off and spend time alone, let yourself feel good about your decision. You need to take care of yourself! Too often we spend alone time beating ourselves up for not going out, or wavering back and forth about whether it’s not too late to get dressed and go out after all. When you do that, you don’t actually get the full benefit of recharging, because your anxiety is draining your battery. Let yourself really luxuriate in the solitude and quiet so you get the benefit from it, and are ready to go out to the next event.
  4. Be kind and honest when you decline: “My calendar is full that week! I’ll be there in spirit!” You don’t have to say outright that you need to stay home and take a bath, but resist the urge to invent some other event you’re not actually attending or some crisis that isn’t happening. Keeping up white lies creates a whole other layer of anxiety. Make a mental note to prioritize your next invite from that person.
  5. Give yourself time (or other treats) to help yourself recover. If you are stretching yourself to be more social than usual, make sure you are taking care of yourself in other ways. Buy yourself a little treat as a reward. Sneak out of work for a long, solo lunch to give yourself some quality alone time. Take an extra yoga class so you have a good excuse to turn your phone off for a couple hours.
  6. Breathe! When you are at a party and feeling overwhelmed, try focusing on your breath for a few cycles. Silently count your inhale and exhale, trying to make your out-breath twice as long as your in-breath. This can help turn off the fight-or-flight anxiety response and calm you down. Or, take a break. Go outside, in a separate room, or even to the bathroom, and enjoy the hell out of those few minutes of alone time.
  7. When in doubt, be honest. Despite what you may think and how other may appear, almost everyone feels some amount of anxiety at parties. If you’re strapped for a small talk subject, try just naming how you are feeling in that moment. You might be surprised how many other people are also feeling a bit anxious or exhausted from talking to so many people. It’s often a relief to be real about how you are feeling, and you can make a really genuine connection with someone feeling the same. So much better than another conversation about the weather or how busy you both are.

Addicted to Guilt and Shame?

If you struggle with perfectionism, you might find yourself regularly getting trapped in guilt and shame holes. The perfectionist part of your brain thinks you are responsible for doing everything perfectly, and so when things go wrong, you can quickly jump to blaming and beating yourself up. You feel terrible about yourself, you want to hide and not talk to anyone. This feels awful. So why do we do it so much?

Turns out, guilt and shame are actually a little addictive, according to a new book published by New Harbinger. When you encounter a situation that seems stressful or dangerous, your brain wants you to “do something” to take care of the problem. When you take action to get rid of the stress or danger, the reward center of your brain kicks in and gives you a little hit of short-term relief. The problem is, your brain can perceive guilt or shame as “doing something.” So when you worry, ruminate, or blame yourself for something you think you did wrong, your brain perceives that as taking action, and you get a hit of short-term relief.

But guilt and shame aren’t the same as doing something. Most of the time, feeling guilty or worried isn’t actually productive. Shame is pretty much never productive. Even though your brain thinks these activities are helping, they really aren’t. Guilt and shame don’t actually do anything to solve problems or reduce stress long-term. They rarely inspire wise, effective action that solves whatever problem has arisen. They usually just keep you trapped in a hole. Despite the initial hit of short-term relief, they often lead to long-term problems like anxiety and depression.

What’s a better way? It starts with noticing what’s happening, awareness of the the hole you’re about to step into. When you feel the flush of shame rising up or the pressure of guilt and self-criticism bearing down on you, start by just naming what’s happening (like Sia sings, “here comes the shame”). Take a breath, feel your feet on the floor. Scan your experience. Is there another emotion underneath all that unproductive guilty-shamey noise? Do you feel sad, angry, scared? See if you can allow yourself to feel that core emotion that’s at the root of the shame.

Letting yourself feel an emotion from start to finish (and they all finish at some point, I promise no emotion lasts forever) can be extremely productive. When you let a feeling move through you, you are no longer using all your energy to try to suppress it or argue with it or change it. And you might find that the emotion brings with it some real wisdom about what action to take next — then you can actually do something, instead of just tricking your brain into addictive guilt and shame.

Happiness vs Perfectionism

Perhaps you read that article about how having a first child brings about as much unhappiness as getting fired or divorced. It’s not that surprising when you think of it — for all the joys of having a baby, there is also sleep deprivation, stress, and the feeling that you don’t know what the hell you are doing as a parent.

But even less exhausting and stressful happy events can make you feel bad. Going on vacation, starting a new job, getting married, falling in love — all these things are pleasant, and they all cause upset to your equilibrium, triggering a stress response in your body.

For perfectionists, there’s another layer to this phenomena. Feeling happy, achieving a goal, winning a prize… these can cause upset to a whole part of your identity: your inner perfectionist. That inner perfectionist part lives to worry, to plan, to be busy. When you accomplish something, there’s a break in all the planning and doing, and that perfectionist part faces a moment without anything to do.

Having nothing to do terrifies your inner perfectionist, because that part believes that its worrying and working is the only thing that is saving you from becoming a complete and total failure. So those moments when you achieve something and think you should be happy? Those are the moments when your perfectionist part is in a total panic about your impending doom. Happiness is a threat to your inner perfectionist. All that worrying energy has to go somewhere. So you may find yourself searching for something to be anxious about. Or you may fall into a depression, a period of grief or emptiness.

It’s easy to get sucked into this anxiety and depression, to believe whatever the perfectionist says you’re supposed to be worried about next. But you can try something different. When you notice the wave of sadness, or the searching for a new thing to worry about, try pausing and just breathing. Welcome in the sadness or anxiety, don’t try to figure it out, don’t try to fix it, don’t try to push it away. Just let it be, let yourself feel it. Often when we bring acceptance to these emotions, they come and go, and there’s spaciousness on the other side… you might find that there is actually room for you to feel some of that happiness your inner perfectionist has been trying so hard to avoid.

Who are you without your anxiety?

On face value, it seems like a simple equation: depression and anxiety are making my life painful, so I want to reduce or get rid of those feelings. But change is rarely simple.

When you are working to change entrenched patterns, you almost inevitably come up against a particular roadblock: fear of who you will be if you change. Who are you without your anxiety, your depression? Maybe there feelings and patterns have been around for a while, and the thought of letting go of your sadness or worry means letting go of a part of your identity, a core part of self. Or perhaps that sadness or worry feels intertwined with some other, more desirable part of your personality, something you don’t want to go away. Sadness feels like a crucial ingredient in connection with others or in creativity, anxiety feels tied to ambition or achievement.

You don’t have to become a completely different person when you heal your anxiety or depression. Feeling happier doesn’t mean you have to turn into a relentlessly cheerful and optimistic person. Feeling more peaceful and calm doesn’t mean you turn into a completely carefree person who arrives late to everything and never makes plans.

You don’t have to throw your sadness and worry out the car door, leave them abandoned on the side of the road. Those things are a part of you, and you can and should make a space for them, without letting them run your life. You don’t want to shove them out the door, but you don’t want to let them drive anymore either.

If you engage in therapy or some other change process, you will still be you, all the parts of you will still be there. The change comes in the way those parts relate to each other. Rather than driving the car of your life, your sadness will be be sitting in the back. It can still have its feelings and voice its opinion, but a different, wiser part of you is listening and making the decisions, deciding when to turn, when to speed up and slow down. But your sadness can still play a Smiths song on the stereo, make sarcastic jokes, and feel melancholy.

Fears of losing yourself, losing your identity, are real. Change is scary. When those fears arise, reassure yourself that you aren’t going to leave any part of you behind.


Perfect Face

Ever feel like everyone else at the party is at ease, and you are the only anxious one? Or do you ever scroll through social media and think that you are the only one having a shitty day or year? Does it seem like everyone in class or at work “gets it” without the struggle you go through?

It’s really not true — as a therapist I can tell you that loads of competent, high-achieving, and seemingly “together” people are twisted up inside with anxiety, worry, and perfectionist despair. Even when you know that intellectually, you can still get swept away in the feeling that everyone else is floating through life with ease, while you are frantically paddling to stay afloat. So you put on your game face too, pretend that you are fine when you are not.

There are a million perfectionist worries that cause us to mask our pain and put on a perfect face to the world. Maybe your reason is fear of looking weak, losing opportunities, being a burden on others, or something else. The root of all these concerns is the same, though: fear of rejection. We so desperately want to be liked, accepted, hired, promoted, admired, loved, that we do anything to appear perfect (and therefore lovable). So you post only positive stuff on social media, and you only ever answer “great!” when someone asks “how are you?”.

What we forget is that stress, struggle, sadness, worry — these are all universal experiences that connect us to each other as much as (or sometimes more than!) happiness. It’s scary to share this stuff with someone else, but that vulnerability you feel, that’s the gas that fuels connection.

So here’s an experiment: next time you are with someone who feels trustworthy, try answering the “how are you” question honestly. Look your friend in the eye and share the bad stuff along with the good. It feels scary at first, but there’s a great exhale at the other end, a feeling of relief at dropping the act and being real. And the feeling of connection between you two will be far more memorable and meaningful than the surface contact you would feel with yet another “I’m great, how are you?!” conversation.