We all know the feeling. You gossiped and the person found out. You helped yourself to something that wasn't yours (such as someone's spouse). You stole. You lied. You read your child's diary. It never sits quite right -- you toss, you turn in bed, you have that sinking feeling in your chest, you eat, you drink too much, you get headaches.
Carol Orsborn, PhD, a research associate at UCLA and author of 15 books including Nothing Left Unsaid: Words to Help You and Your Loved Ones Through the Hardest Times and The Silver Pearl: Our Generation's Journey to Wisdom, tells WebMD about a woman she met while writing the latter book.
Barbara, age 50, was going through a divorce and her brother was her mainstay, talking her through lonely nights on the phone. Then she met the man of her dreams and moved away. She got so swept up in her new life, she put her brother on the backburner. She missed his birthday.
That's when the sleepless nights began. She was embarrassed to even call. She knew he would be hurt -- but would he be angry? Eventually, she picked up the phone. Yes, he was hurt, but he said he understood. She started sleeping again -- and talking to her brother.
Orsborn surveyed 100 women in the baby boomer group for The Silver Pearl. "These were women who were role models with a positive attitude, whether or not they had any money," she says.
A key characteristic was their ability and willingness to clear up unfinished business, she notes.
Stages of Life Keyed to Level of Healing
"Stage one," Orsborn says, "is the good little girl stage. No matter what their age, women in this stage may apologize for everything, even things they don't need to. They need to please people."
Stage two is the rebellion period. Women, Orsborn says, can rebel against the pleasing phase and are not likely to apologize for anything! "They are mad about everything," she says.
The third stage is wisdom, she says. "When women get beyond following the rules and beyond reactivity, they take the best of both. This means they have an urge to reconcile legitimate shortcomings."
In terms of health, Orsborn says, "Women at stages one and two tend to have more stress-related disorders and anxiety."
On the flip side, a study done in 2002 by researchers from Hope College and Virginia Commonwealth University showed that heart rate, blood pressure, sweat levels, and facial tension decreased in victims of wrongs when they imagined receiving an apology.
In both cases, the people were carrying "the pain of the past," as Orsborn puts it, and then could lay it down and walk away from it.
How to Say It Like You Mean It
Neither the apologizer nor the apologizee, however, will benefit if the apology is not sincere.
"Saying you are sorry is so difficult," Alexandra Delis-Abrams, PhD, also known as "The Attitude Doc," tells WebMD. "It's an ego thing. It's humiliating to say you were wrong and are sorry. It means you did something you shouldn't have and you know it. Now you have to take responsibility."
It helps only if you mean it, she adds. "People often just give it lip service. I think there is a song by Garth Brooks that goes, 'I buried the hatchet, but left out the handle.' You can't leave out the handle."
Orsborn recommends invoking a prayer from the Buddhist tradition. "Before you offer an apology or pick up the phone, sit comfortably, breathe slowly, and feel the burden of having not asked for forgiveness bear down on you. After you have felt that as deeply as possible, then say to yourself, "I have hurt someone out of ignorance, anger, or confusion, and I ask for the power to forgive myself."
Before you can ask for someone else's forgiveness, you have to forgive yourself, Orsborn says. "You won't get the benefits it you don't forgive yourself." In other words, more sleepless nights!
What Not to Say
Here are some wrong ways to go about it:
- The DC Special. "If I have offended some people, I apologize." No if's.
- The two-way. "I am sincerely sorry, but you sort of are to blame, too."
- The reset. If the apology is a way to reset the system so you can offend again, this is also insincere. Often abusing spouses use this one.
Changing Your Cells?
Delis-Abrams says changes in thoughts can program cell structure to provide health benefits. "When you tell a lie," she says, "according to Chinese medicine, the lie gets lodged on the body on the cell level. It can feel like a knot. When you say you are sorry, the body knows the truth of whether you mean it. You are the one who can change your body. You are the one in charge of your thoughts."
She tells of a time she told her son something about his sister that was really his sister's prerogative to tell. "I said I was sorry," she recalls. "I freed myself! I felt much better."
Acceptance or Not
Delis-Abrams says the other person does not have to accept your apology for you to get the health benefits. She tells of two business associates who had a falling out. One wrote to the other and said, "I miss you." Her friend said, "Well, I don't miss her." She wrote back and said she didn't miss her former associate but now they were both free to move on.
"Your apology may never be accepted," Orsborn says. "You need to find a way to live with that. When you hold onto problems, it's like dragging an anchor. Your best thinking occurs when you find a sense of peace."
And your best night's sleep, too.
Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.