Admit the Exact Nature of the Wrong

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Now I’m going to talk about an essential part of the process of going from wrong to reconciliation, a part that many people, incredibly, try to pass over. What is this indispensable but neglected component?

Identifying what you did wrong.

People often want to pass right over this part to get to forgiveness, to argue their case, or to go right back to doing it again. Others disregard identifying what they did wrong and, instead, heap punishment on themselves for how they are wrong, without any recognition of what they did. This trick of shame keeps them stuck and miserable while insuring that they’ll learn nothing from the mistake and go right back to doing it again, remaining under the thumb of shame. Guilt, on the other hand, demands that you identify the exact nature of the wrong.

So, let’s get started.

Before you go to anyone to make an apology, you should first take a few minutes, or a few days, to sit down and write a statement of responsibility. This doesn’t need to be long, but it does need to be thorough and accurate. It also needs to be written, not because you’re necessarily going to have anyone read it, but because you’ll take more time and more care for something you write than something you just say or ponder. You’ll also have fewer distractions, so you don’t get caught up in defending yourself, responding to someone’s reaction, or otherwise losing track of what you set out to do. You’ll also come away with a written record of your accomplishment, indisputable documentation that you got real and honest, if only with yourself. Don’t let a tendency to make spelling or grammar errors stop you. It doesn’t matter if your handwriting is bad; no one else in the world needs to read it. You’re doing this for you.

Let me give you an example, first, of how NOT to write a statement of responsibility, then how to do it correctly. What follows is something someone might write on their first attempt. This is from a man who beat his child and, years later, wrote a letter to her, in an attempt to reconcile. Please note, it’s not necessary to address your letter of responsibility to the person you hurt, as he does, nor is it necessary to give it to them. We’ll talk more about that later.

He wrote:

“I’m sorry I hit you, but you were a bad kid, you never listened and I was afraid that you’d grow up not having any respect for authority. My father used to hit us worse than that and it installed discipline in me so that I was able to be successful in everything I did. I wanted that for you. I love you.”

There’s so much wrong with this statement, it’s hard to know where to start. If you were ever on the receiving end of an apology like that, the only reason you would ever grant forgiveness is because you found it too frustrating or embarrassing to continue, so you just wanted the process to stop. I suppose if the writer had never acknowledged that he hit his child, it would be progress; but I think he can do a lot better than that before moving on.

Let’s start at the beginning.

“I’m sorry.”
It’s not necessary in a statement of responsibility to apologize. Your focus at this point should be to identify your behavior, not state your feelings. You can certainly say you’re sorry later on, if you really feel that way, after you have stated what you need to be sorry for. Incidentally, I don’t think this guy really is sorry for hitting his child; I think he’s sorry he has to write a statement of responsibility.

“I hit you.”
This is the best part of this man’s statement. He’s describing the offending behavior. It might be better if he gave more detail; if he said, for instance, whether he punched her in the face or spanked her on her bottom. If he gave that kind of detail, there certainly would be a clearer picture of the offense. He would not be hiding behind vagueness and obfuscation.

“But.”
This word should not appear anywhere in a statement of responsibility. Avoids buts. Buts produce bullshit. Anything that comes after a but in a statement of responsibility should be flushed out of sight.

There may well be mitigating factors: you may well have had good intentions; you definitely had your reasons for doing what you did. However, a statement of responsibility is not the place for excuses. It’s the place for a clear-eyed acknowledgement of the offense.

“You were a bad kid, you never listened.”
Here the man totally abandoned the project of making a statement of responsibility in favor of making an accusation. He turned the victim into the offender and himself into the victim. He’s playing the victim in a bald-faced attempt to garner sympathy or to weasel out of the wrongdoing.

Of course, there is a context surrounding every misdeed. You may be right to want to address the crimes committed against you, too; but this is not the place for that. The statement of responsibility is the place to focus on your actions. You can hope that, in doing so, you’d be modeling the type of forthrightness that you would hope from anyone admitting offenses against you.

Besides, just as your crime was a response to their crime, their crime may have been a response to another one of yours. The victim in this example may have been a “bad kid” who “never listened”; but, how did she get that way? I think it’s reasonable to believe that, before this guy ever hit his child, he was given to yelling. What happens when a father yells at his daughter? She doesn’t have to work too hard to listen.

“I was afraid that you’d grow up not having any respect for authority.”
Here this man is stating the intention he had for doing what he did. You could look at this two ways. On one hand, there’s a place for confessing his fears and talking about his aspirations for his daughter. On the other hand, when people explain their intentions, they seldom fail to put some spin on it. It’s always good intentions they disclose. We might believe the road to hell is paved with good intentions because no one ever mentions the bad ones. I think that if this man dug deep, he might come up with other intentions. He might say, for instance, “I was afraid I was losing my authority and you had no respect for me. I decided that if you weren’t going to respect me, I could at least make you fear me.”

When you complete the first draft of your statement of responsibility, you should be suspect of anything that puts you in a positive light. Look closer at your motives. I’m not saying this because I believe you’re a total dirt bag, incapable of doing anything good, or even, anything bad for a good reason. I’m saying it because I know that good intentions are what comes to the surface; selfishness hides within. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find that a lot of things motivate you, and not all of them are pretty.

If you ever deliver your statement of responsibility, if you ever stand up and say it to the person you hurt, anything positive is going to sound like an excuse. They’re not going to believe you’re serious about your remorse and may conclude that you’re doing it for show or other venal reasons.

“My father used to hit us worse than that and it installed discipline in me so that I was able to be successful in everything I did. I want that for you.”
I’d advise that this man imagine that he’s a little boy again, his daughter’s age. Visualize what it was like to be beaten when he was small, powerless, and utterly at the mercy of his attacker. I suspect he doesn’t allow himself to go there. Instead, he’s constructed a belief that it wasn’t so bad and it was for his own good. This is what victims do to cope. It’s a form of denial. While it’s definitely possible for trauma to be used for growth, this is how people who’ve been abused grow up to be abusers. This first step is to forget the horror of it. The second step is to make yourself believe it was good. From there, it’s easy to start abusing your own child. Traumatic growth does not happen when we forget; it happens when we remember.

If this man believes discipline has been so successfully install in himself; he should ask himself whether he was really disciplined when he beat his daughter. I suspect not. I suspect he had lost control of himself and was utterly undisciplined. If this man believes he’s successful in everything he has done, why does he need to reconcile with his daughter?

“I love you.”
Here the man is making an incongruous claim, totally at odds with the rest of his statement. He beats his child, calls her a bad kid, expects that she was going to grow up to be a monster, criticizes her for not doing as well as he, and then wants her to believe that he loves her. Is this what love means to him?

Something’s missing
Wait, there are more problems with this statement of responsibility. It’s missing an account of the aftermath. After this man beat his child, what did he do then? Did he recognize he did something wrong and try to repair the damage to their relationship? Did he nurse her wounds, tenderly dry her tears, hug her, tell her he was wrong, and immediately apologize? Or did he leave her by herself, pretend it didn’t happen, deny it happened, lie, or force her to lie? Did he keep her home from school the next day out of fear the teacher would see the bruises on her face and start asking questions? What did he tell her mother? Did he say he would beat her more if she ever told anyone? Did he even need to?

After working with hundreds, if not thousands, of trauma survivors, I’ve learned that it’s what happens in the aftermath of an offense that does as much damage, if not more, than the wrong itself. It’s not the crime; it’s the coverup. The crimes of the coverup get charged to the initial offense because, if not for the crime, the coverup would never have existed; but there is a huge difference between a misdeed committed within the context of a loving, supportive, affirming environment and one which blames the victim and casts her out on her own.

Neglect, abandonment, and betrayal are more to be feared than actual abuse. Think about it. What would you rather get: a single slap in the face, or a lie? A single beating, followed by remorse; or an ongoing terror threat? A wife who slipped and slept with someone, confessing immediately thereafter; or a wife with a double life? Even in the cases of the single slap, single beating, or single slip, a lot of the damage comes from the prospect of more, the possibility of a total dissolution of the relationship, the fear of being alone.

An improved statement of responsibility
So, what would a better statement look like? A statement of responsibility this man might write after a course of therapy and an honest look inside might look something like this.

“When you were ten years old and I was a full grown man, I lost my temper and made a fist and hit you three times in the face with all the force I could. I then sent you to your room. Later, I told your mother you fell and hit the coffee table. I went on for years and pretended it didn’t happen until you brought it up. You didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. I was afraid I was losing my authority and you had no respect for me. I decided that, if you weren’t going to respect me, I could, at least make you fear me. I should have known better. I was beaten as a child, too. I should’ve remembered what that was like and not bought into the lies that it was a good thing. I failed to love you like I should and want to learn to love you better.”

Oh, another thing
What we have have now is an improved statement of responsibility. But it could be better if the man looked at the incident from the eyes of his child and acknowledged a wrong he might not have thought of himself. A broken promise.