To Cope with Holiday Stress

Be sure you know how to apologize

Posted Dec 13, 2013

Holidays are difficult for many people for many reasons. My work centers on chronic resentment, anger, emotional abuse, and other forms of intimate betrayal, but I suspect that the primary reasons for holiday stress I see in my practice are similar in households that are not marked by such destructive behaviors.

Consider just a few of the reasons that holidays are so stressful. Intact families are together more, with more opportunity to irritate each other. In broken homes, children are shipped to the other biological parent, creating a void in one home and additional responsibility in the other. People tend to drink and eat too much over the holidays, producing irritability that is likely to be blamed on each other. Most important, holidays signify a time to be happy. The contrast of this glowing happiness symbol with the dimmer reality of family experience can be overwhelming.

If you're in a family, you'll almost certainly make mistakes during the holidays. You're likely to hurt the feelings of loved ones and they will probably hurt yours, although the hurt may be masked by irritability or resentment. Research shows that it is not the frequency of mistakes that make the difference in close relationships but how well we repair them. Effective apology makes relationships resilient; resiliency is a predictor of long-term relationship satisfaction. How we apologize makes all the difference.

It goes without saying that the most important elements of apology are sincerity and follow-through, i.e., feel what you say and "walk the walk," not just "talk the talk."

Satisfying apologies are different for different people. An acceptable apology for you might not work for your partner and vice versa. Tell your partner what you need to feel reassured that the hurtful behavior is unlikely to recur. Of course, with repeated infractions, the requirements to feel safe will be greater.

Reconciliation, Not Submission

You will find it impossible to apologize sincerely or effectively if you see it as submission. Sincere apology is never submission. In fact, it is one of the more beautiful of human interactions: reconciliation. “Our connection is important to me, and I’m so sorry that my behavior separated us.”

The primary purpose of apology is to restore eventual (not necessarily immediate) connection. It is never to defend your ego.

Apology must not:

* Be contingent on your partner apologizing (you’re apologizing for violating your own values, not trying to manipulate your partner into sharing blame.)

* Be tempered by excuses

* Have any element of blame ("It takes one to know one.")

* Seek immediate forgiveness (Trust must be restored gradually, through behavior that demonstrates trustworthiness over time.)

Why not ask for forgiveness?

Many authors make glib statements about asking for forgiveness in apologies. While it sounds good to ask for forgiveness, doing so is likely to undermine relationship repair in the long run, especially if construed as “Let's pretend it never happened.” Pretending it never happened works for those with a shame vulnerability, but it's the worst case scenario for those with a fear vulnerability. If you want to forget it happened, you probably don't get the effects of the injury, which raises the likelihood that you'll do it again!

Asking for forgiveness before hurt feelings have healed puts an unfair burden on the hurt party to allay natural anxiety about reinvestment in trust, when his/her hurt is still sending out alarms to keep defenses intact.

The motivation to ask for forgiveness is to relieve guilt and is largely self-centered: “I want you to get over this so I can feel less guilty.” It must be replaced with compassion, which is focused on the healing and wellbeing of the hurt person: “I want you to feel better and to forgive me only when you feel comfortable doing so.”

Apology must:

1. Come from your heart and sympathize with the effect of your behavior on your loved one. (Focus on what it meant to your loved one, not on how you would have been affected by it.)

2. State how important your partner's wellbeing is to you.

3. State how sorry you are that you've done something to hurt your loved one and/or break your connection.

4. Offer recompense: “How can I make it up to you?”

5. If the offense is recurring, describe an action-plan to prevent future repetition of the offending behavior (which violated your core value to the extent that it hurt your partner or your relationship).

Action plan to prevent recidivism

- Identify the antecedents of the hurtful behavior – what you were thinking, feeling, and doing, as well as the state of your physical resources (e.g., hungry, tired, thirsty, having consumed more than two drinks or more than two cups of coffee, or eaten too much sugar) immediately before the infraction.

- Give the details of how you will act differently under similar conditions in the future: “This is what I will do to remind myself how much I value you when similar conditions occur in the future.”

- Imagine the impulse to violate your core value (hurtful behavior) and practice thoughts and behaviors that are incompatible with the impulse (improve, appreciate, connect, or protect). Practice the association until it becomes a conditioned response, such that the recurrence of the impulse automatically motivates the corrective behavior.

- Keep a log of your practice sessions (associating the impulse to violate your core value with corrective behavior). Share the log with your partner.

If you’re receiving an apology, don’t see it as an opportunity for retaliation or revenge. (The surest way to discourage apology is to criticize or punish someone for doing it.) If your partner's apology seems insufficient, acknowledge the repair attempt, then state what more you need to feel safe.

Mastering the art and science of apology not only does wonders for your relationship, it puts you solidly in touch with your core value. When solidly in touch with your core value, you feel more authentic, with no need for defenses of resentment or anger or entitlement, which almost inevitably lead to behavior for which you must apologize.