Saturday, June 1, 2013

'Here, Eat This, But Sorry It's Not Good': Why We Apologize in Advance

We've all experienced it. A friend or family member seats you at the kitchen table, serves you some magnificent homemade soup or slice of cake, and before you even take the first bite, apologizes for it.

"I messed up the icing. It wasn't supposed to be so drippy."

"There's way too much salt in that, just so you know."

"I meant for the carrots to be crunchy, but I cooked them too long. Sorry."

Why do we call attention to our mistakes? Most of the time, the people eating wouldn't have noticed, or maybe they notice momentarily but immediately forget because the whole experience of being served food and spending time with the cook takes up more attention.

I think we call attention to our mistakes as if to acknowledge this one hard-to-swallow fact: I know I could have done better.

Of course, it doesn't just happen in the kitchen.

For two or three days, I've been feeling horrible about all the writing I've done this week. The ideas are mediocre. The writing isn't engaging. None of it's funny. It's dull, and any time a writer worries that maybe her writing is dull, it means she's really thinking, "maybe I'm dull."

I know I can do better. Two days ago, I waltzed into my boss' office because he wanted to talk about a piece I'd written, and I tried to beat him to the punch:

"Listen, I wrote this because you said you wanted something on Google Maps, so I got something on the page, but it's definitely not my best writing, and if we can hold off running it for a day or two, I feel like maybe tomorrow I'll have more ideas for making it better. I'm bushed right now. The article kind of sucks."

He's very mild mannered and calm, so he said, "Yeah. We'll hold it until Monday. Revise it tomorrow if you want."

I think we apologize because we're worried others will criticize us, silently or openly, for things we already know are wrong.

If I judge myself harshly first, I am protecting myself against your judgement. 

Sometimes, though, the acknowledgement of not doing as well as one could have is almost like an invitation for others to judge you, and I think that's really a subversive act of self-hate. "I'm acknowledging that the muffins didn't rise enough to give you permission to also acknowledge that it went wrong. It won't hurt me. I already know." And yet, it usually still stings.

Kathryn Schultz, speaking about regret says people have a tendency to see things they regret as being much uglier than they really are. Guests at my table might not even notice my gluey mashed potatoes, but to me, they are a painful example of something I did wrong and know I could have done better. I regret not doing better.

What's needed to alleviate situations of painful regret and acknowledgments of not fulfilling one's true potential is kindness from both sides, kindness from the person who is self-judging and kindness from everyone who witnesses the regret.

Be kind and forgiving of yourself first, and other will be kind (or not even notice your mistakes), too.

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