Sorry Is the Hardest Word to Say (March 2005)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:20

Saga Magazine
March 2005

Sorry Is the Hardest Word to Say

Dorothy Rowe

Apologies are frequently in the news with politicians showing a remarkable ability to apologise for events about which they had no direct responsibility while at the same time steadfastly refusing to apologise for something for which they were directly responsible. Of course with the first kind of apology come no painful feelings, no guilt and none of the ache of being unable to put right what you have caused to go wrong, that is, the feelings which come with the second kind of apology. No wonder we all try to avoid this kind of apology.

However, if you’re a therapist or if you seek therapy you cannot avoid having to confront in one way or other the second kind of apology.

People come into therapy when they’re profoundly dissatisfied with themselves. They enter therapy asking, ‘Why am I such a bad person?’ but, as the conversation with the therapist proceeds over weeks and months, they gradually discover that they were not born intrinsically bad but rather this was the conclusion that they as children had drawn from their experiences. They then start to feel angry about what had been done to them by the adults who should have been looking after them.

By the time people reach this stage in therapy they’ve begun to see the therapist as someone very important to them. This gives the therapist real power. Some unscrupulous therapists use their power to bind their client to them. They keep their clients at the stage where the client, angry with his parents, keeps producing memories of when he was badly treated. If the deep well of such memories threatens to run dry old memories can be reworked to produce new anger and resentment. In this way a client can remain in therapy for years, providing the therapist with a regular income and never moving on to a greater understanding of himself.

Of course many of the people who go into therapy have suffered much more than most children do. Remembering acts of physical, emotional and sexual abuse can be extremely painful, and it can be very hard for the therapist and the client to work out what is best to do with all that pain and anger. When we’re full of the pain and anger that follows an injury inflicted on us we can feel that an act of revenge will restore us to ourselves. Ten or so years ago a number of therapists whose clients had been sexually abused by their parents began advising their clients to confront their parents with their crime. It seemed to me that the therapists were so much on the side of their clients that they couldn’t envisage what would happen when an avenging child, now adult, descended on an elderly couple and confronted them with what they may or may not have done many years before. Forgiveness and reconciliation may have followed in some families but not without a great deal of pain, remorse and regret. I saw this happen in one family I knew well, and, with their permission, I wrote about it in my book Beyond Fear. Forgiveness and reconciliation should play a part in all families, especially when the children are adults and the parents and children need to find a way to move from the parent-child relationship to that of a friendship between equals, but accusation and confrontation isn’t the way to achieve this.

We all need to come to see the connections between our childhood experiences and ourselves as adults so that we can understand ourselves, but we need to do more than just uncover the hurts and injustices in our childhood and feel anger and resentment towards our parents. We can rail against our fate and cry, ‘Why me?’ but then we need to discover that the answer to that question is, ‘Why not?’ Life is painful as well as joyous. No one escapes the pain. As long as we demand that we should be spared any suffering, we suffer. It isn’t necessary to forgive those who have harmed us, but, if we want to ease our own suffering, we should try to discover why they did what they did.

Many of my clients who’d reached the stage of understanding why they had learned to hate themselves and who were now learning to love themselves told me that they would like to talk to their parents just to confirm that the terrible memories they had were memories of real events and not nightmares spawned by even worse events. It is better to know that your mother hit you because that was how she dealt with her anger with your father than to know that she hit you because she hated you. One man said to me, ‘All I want my mother to do is to say, “Yes, that happened. I’m sorry.”’

Some parents were quite unable to accept such inquiries. One client told me that when he ventured to ask a question about whether he was breast-fed his mother, arms akimbo, warned him off with a glare. Another man, reminding his mother of how his father used to thrash him at her behest, was told, ‘You were a bad child and you deserved it.’ Other clients found that their mother welcomed such an approach and out of their discussions a different and better bond between them was forged.

No parent parents perfectly. If parents were perfect, anticipating and meeting their child’s every need, children would have no incentive to cease to be babies and grow up. For many parents the child-rearing years are, for reasons other than their children, the most traumatic years of the parent’s life. Yet, by the time we’ve learned to be wise in the ways of the world and of children we’ve lost much of the physical energy that being the parent of young children needs. But at least as we get older we can learn how to bear and value the pain of saying sorry.