I’m sure you’ve experienced it before. That sudden horrible realization that you’ve forgotten something really important…like, um, your best friend’s birthday. One moment you’re fine, the next it feels like the floor has opened up and swallowed you whole. The flush of shame comes over you and all you want to do is curl up into a ball and disappear…or slink off while no one notices.
It sucks doesn’t it? Being hit in the gut with the realization that you messed up BIG TIME. You can apologize. You can call and text and email. But no matter how hard we try, there is no way to undo what has been done. No way to “fix it” or “make it better.”
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, this happened to me recently. Yup. Me, the queen of it’s-not-possible-to-make-too-big-a-deal-over-birthdays. I forgot my best friend’s birthday. (For the second year in a row, she now tells me – god, can it get any worse?) Sure I could fall back on excuses (aka “reasons”) that may actually be true, but the stark reality is that I Messed Up. Pure and simple. I hurt a woman I love dearly, a woman who has not just walked beside me, but often carried me, literally and metaphorically, for more than 20 years.
What do we do when we screw up so badly with someone we really love?
First and foremost, we have to recognize that the flush of shame will pass and NOT act while we are in it. That flush – you know the heat that starts in your gut, moves often to your heart and then to your face – doesn’t last long . Seriously. Only a minute or two, though they are some of the longest minutes I know.
When that flush is over, we will be left with a truth that is hard to swallow. We can apologize. We can call and write and send a late present, but the reality remains. We have hurt someone we love. So what do we do?
Well, here’s what I did.
First, I owned my mistake. I was mortified, and I knew that nothing I said at that point could erase what I had done. Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t “fix it.” I had hurt her feelings. That sucked. A lot. I knew that while I might be able to mend the tear in our relationship, I could not make her pain go away.
I said this out loud to myself and chose not to let my mistake fester inside me – or her. Waiting for the right time or the right words was not going to make it any easier. So right away, I acknowledged my mistake to my friend.
Second, I said I was sorry. I didn’t try to justify or excuse my mistake. Instead, I called and I texted and simply said “I am so very sorry.” “I love you.” This is not easy for me to do. I want to make it all better. Not just with her, but inside me. I want her to relieve my anxiety about my mistake. In earlier days, I would have tried. Now, I recognize this impulse and breathe through it.
Third, I practiced self-compassion. Once I had done what I could do, (own my mistake and apologize), I did my best not to beat myself up over it. I know that I love her. I know that she knows I love her. And I know that she is hurt and that nothing I say or do will change that.
Here’s the deal, though. Acknowledging that I can’t fix it doesn’t mean that our relationship isn’t still strong and intact. While you may feel like this is an either/or situation – either she’s hurt or our relationship is OK – the truth is that BOTH are true. She’s hurt AND our relationship is OK. It is possible to hold two seemingly incongruous feelings at the same time. It’s like holding love and conflict. We can disagree with someone we love AND still be in relationship with them.
I remember the first time I tried to explain this concept to my then teenage son. He was hurting over a girl. He was angry and went to that place we often go to of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. In a moment of parental grace, I didn’t try to change his feelings. Instead, I picked up a rock and a stick, holding one in each hand. I said “imagine that the rock is your anger and the stick is your love.” Then I opened my left hand and placed BOTH objects in my palm. “Yes, they are different. AND, you can hold them both at the same time.” After letting that sink in for a moment, I ended the conversation with: “It may not be easy, but you can do it.”
It is never easy to admit that we made a really big mistake. That we hurt someone we really love. But silence in the face of mistakes never serves any of us. The sooner we can admit our error, apologize and then just be present with the other person’s pain, the sooner each of us will be reminded of what is true. We are human. We make mistakes.
And love is the best medicine for healing these wounds.