If you grew up with abuse and neglect in your childhood, chances are good that you’ve suffered more than your share of broken relationships.
Sometimes the break is caused by the other person, but today I want to talk about broken relationships where we played a role in hurting our connection with someone we care about — someone with whom we do want a relationship.
This is one of hardest side effects of trauma in childhood — being close to people, and working through conflicts, can be really fraught with us. A lot of us didn’t have good role models, and because our perception may have been damaged — maybe because there was a lot of denial or neglect by our parents — we sometimes have a hard time discerning when people are hurt, whose fault it is, and how to work it out.
When that level of discernment is difficult, the default is to run away, or blow up at the person, and then we find ourselves avoiding conflict as long as we can, until things are so far gone that our only option feels like losing the relationship. Does that ever happen to you?
When I was a little kid, any kind of disagreement between my parents was pretty much going to escalate into screaming and yelling and sometimes even violence. So angry people used to terrify me. And when I felt angry, I couldn’t help filling up with adrenaline too, like my body was preparing for a major battle. Maybe you relate to this.
Maybe when you’re angry or threatened — even when it’s a relatively small thing — you panic a little and raise your voice, or you go into preemptive attack mode and start yelling at the other person before you’ve even said what’s bothering you. Or maybe you feel bad because you know that somewhere in there, you did do something wrong, but you feel like any effort to apologize would somehow invite an attack by the other person. And so instead of communicating, you avoid the person, or end the relationship altogether. So that’s how it happens. Even with people we like and want in our lives.
The good news is, we don’t have to do that anymore. Instead we can learn a little self regulation and some practical skills to mend relationships that are broken.
I’m not just talking about forcing an apology or stuffing your feelings. And I’m also not talking about confronting people about things they’ve done. There may be a time and place for that, but right now I’m going to focus on the “inside” job — on our own personal role in conflict we’ve had. And I’m going to show you how to really get to the bottom of the hurt and respond to it in a way that lets your relationship heal and even grow stronger.
Now obviously, not every broken relationship is ready for repair. If someone has abused you and there’s still a threat of abuse, especially physical violence — don’t be a martyr and walk into it. There is a point at which our heroic efforts to “work things out” with people who are raging and attacking us is really just an attempt to control the situation. And it won’t work — it’s just going to get you more confused and more hurt. In this case, the “fix” is to stay away, as you would have done in the past if you hadn’t been at the effect of your early trauma.
We’re talking here about relationships that are worth repairing — or where, at the very least, you want to get rid of the bad feeling that you hurt someone and never dealt with it.
So let’s just take a hypothetical situation where you would’ve hurt somebody’s feelings. Let’s say you trashed your friend behind her back, i.e., said something negative and it got back to her. And you heard it got back to her, and you know she knows, but you haven’t talked to her about it. You did something hurtful, but you want to keep the relationship.
Here’s what you do.
First, you take some time if you can. If you there is no time you can make your apology in the moment. But if you have time, get clear first about what you did, what you want to apologize for. You might be thinking about all this additional information, like how you felt that day and why you weren’t your best. But the goal here is to focus on the thing you did, or didn’t do, that harmed the other person.
Now this can get confusing for those of us with Childhood PTSD. Sometimes we take too much responsibility for things that we couldn’t have controlled. Sometimes we don’t take enough responsibility for things, we did do. This is something you might want to run by a friend you trust — someone who has good relationships with other people, to make sure you’ve got it right. In this case, the mistake was saying negative things about a friend behind her back. You may have had your reasons for feeling annoyed with them, but saying it to others was the part that hurt your friend.
The second thing I recommend is to write your fears and resentments about the situation. This is the specific technique I teach for calming your mind and clearing out the extraneous emotions and hamster wheel thoughts, and getting more in touch with what’s important and real. If you haven’t learned how to do this yet, you can link to instructions down in the description section below.
When you’re not in that reactive mode, you have more capacity to see what’s going on and what needs to be done about it (if anything), and you’ll probably find you have more empathy for the other person and for yourself. That’s a good thing. That’s going to narrow your communication with them to something very specific and hopefully constructive, and not just a big angry outburst.
If you’re worried you can’t apologize because you’re still too angry – or if you tend to go into a fit of self-attack when you think about mistakes, your next step is to do more writing until you genuinely have more calm and clarity inside. This is going to help you when you’re trying to communicate with the person you hurt; there’s now the possibility that you can bring them a little more calm and healing too, and that you’ll be able to talk to them and really hear them.
This is the sweet spot for healing a broken relationship.
So you’ve identified the harm you did, you’ve gotten rid of a lot of free-floating fear and resentment. The next thing is to write down what you did, and kind of detail it. And I’ll give you an example in a minute. Next, you write down how you would feel if it were done to you, if a friend spilled your secret. Then, write down, how you intend to do things differently from now on. You want to be honest with yourself about this: Don’t be unrealistic or just say what you think you should say. If we use this situation as an example, do you think that you control the urge to talk about people behind their backs? Are you willing to make your best effort? Can you see how being trustworthy might, over time, improve your relationships? I think we all want to be that person. It’s easier said than done sometimes, but if you’re willing to raise the bar on your behavior in that way, then great — write that down.
Now you’re ready to make your apology: Contact that person and and let them know you’d like to talk to them about something that you did and that you feel bad about it. You can say, “I’d like to apologize to you about something.” And depending on how broken the relationship is, they may or may not agree to see you about this. You don’t want to push them, but try to do this as personally as possible. Don’t send a text when you could do it on the phone. Don’t do it on the phone when you could do it in person. As direct as possible will give you the best chances of a good, clean, thorough apology that mends hearts.
Now you might be asking right now “But what if they ALSO did something to ME? Shouldn’t they acknowledge that too? Can’t I ask them to do that?”
And it’s true that in almost every conflict both parties play a role. But this is a special situation where, for right now, you are going to focus only on your own role. This is what I call a clean apology. You only deal with your side and leave their role in the problem to them. You don’t say anything about it.
In my experience most people seldom apologize for major hurts. If they want to do that, that’s up to them.
And anyway, an apology you force someone to give you never really feels good — like “OK fine! Sorry!”
Maybe you’re not ready to be close to the person if they are not willing to apologize, and that’s up to you. But you can at least clear up your role in the problem and stop feeling guilty.
So here’s what you say: First tell them what you did. You just say, “I heard that you know, that I told other people the secret you shared with me, that you used to shoplift,” (I’m just making this up), “And I broke my promise to you.”
You tell it to them totally clean, without any excuses like, “I was under a lot of stress. I was tired.” No excuses. No bringing in their part in it. “You know, YOU were saying all this stuff about ME” You don’t bring that in.
Then you go ahead and tell them — because you’ve done your homework — how you would feel if that were done to you. You might say, “I know I would feel angry and betrayed if that happened to me. I’d feel worried what everybody thinks.”
In this part, it’s important to demonstrate that you get it – that you understand how it feels to have that done, so don’t try to minimize it. Your empathy here is the one thing that can really help the other person relax that hardened heart and listen to you and open up to the possibility of healing. They know you get it.
Then, you tell them, “I am sorry.” You let them know how you intend to change your behavior in the future. You can say “I’m working hard to change this habit of mine, and never talk negatively about friends behind their back. I want to be trustworthy for you and for myself.” And then say, “I hope you can forgive me.”
Now, here’s the hardest part sometimes. You totally let go of what happens then. You just honestly give your apology. Sometimes people will hug you and say, “It’s okay,” or sometimes they’ll say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I didn’t even know.” You might fear they’ll get angry, but if you make a good apology where you don’t make excuses and you demonstrate that you understand what hurt them… then the worst that’s going to happen is likely — nothing! Nothing will happen. But you’ll feel better.
Now it goes without saying, if the person doesn’t know you hurt them — like if you gossiped and they don’t know you did that — it could actually hurt them to try to apologize. You can clean up your behavior, but don’t hurt people just so you can feel better. The purpose of apologies is to heal relationships if we can, and help people feel better about themselves.
So even when you do a great job apologizing, sometimes it doesn’t go as planned, and you can let go of that. You’re making the apology for yourself, for your own peace of mind, and to be able to hold your head up and know that, yeah, you made a mistake but you cleaned up your mess afterward.
So go set yourself free! Go run out there today, and If there’s somebody for whom you’ve been putting off your apology, now you know how to do it. Keep practicing and soon you’ll have healed relationships all around you. It can’t help but get better. And if you don’t believe me? Just try it!
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