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How to Say Sorry – Experience Life

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“I’m sorry” are the two most healing words one person can say to another, says psychologist and relationship expert Harriet Lerner, PhD.

“When they are spoken as part of a wholehearted apology, these words are the greatest gift we can give to the person we have offended,” she writes in Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.

An apology is also a gift to ourselves and our relationships, offering repair and reconnection.

Why, then, is apologizing so dang hard? Why do we put it off or react defensively at the thought — or feel freaked out about starting the conversation?

In contemplating whether to apologize, it’s natural to feel concerned about how the other person will respond. But here’s the really hard part: Considering an apology, which by definition is an acknowledgment of harm and an admission of responsibility, also requires us to look critically at our own errors and misjudgments.

“It’s challenging to see ourselves as capable of hurting other people’s feelings,” says psychologist Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Yourself From Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want. “And yet we all make mistakes.”

It’s those missteps that cause some of us to focus more on our nagging shame and plummeting self-esteem than on the wrongful act itself. “Many people feel that with an apology they are walking the plank to their doom.”

It’s not surprising, then, that we shy away from apologizing.

There’s also this complicating factor: We experience psychological relief when we refuse to apologize. Even if we’ve wronged the other person, our stubborn refusal rewards us by boosting our sense of control and self-worth. Because of those feel-good benefits, our reflexive response — no matter how guilty we feel — often prevents us from making a gesture of remorse.

But while we might feel better for a time when we refuse to say we’re sorry, our untended relationship suffers. So, deciding whether to apologize is often as simple as deciding how much you value the relationship — and whether the benefits of an apology will outweigh the sense of humility required.

If you truly believe you’ve done nothing wrong, it can take courage to resist apologizing. And it can be tempting to offer an insincere apology to relieve your discomfort and appease others, especially if they’re putting pressure on you.

“Making an apology is an opportunity to repair what’s broken,” says Chansky. “It’s an honor. It’s heroic. Relationships will be healed, and people will be able to move forward. It’s the opposite of what we think when we’re dreading the apology.”

If the idea of admitting your wrongs and apologizing for them still makes you feel a little squeamish, it may help to know that it has the potential to change not only your life but the lives of others, too.

“We all want to be understood, and that’s really at the core of making apologies,” says Chansky. “If everyone gets better at it, we’ll all feel less anxious. We’ll straighten things out a lot faster.”

For those times when you have hurt someone, this advice can help you say, “I’m sorry” — sincerely.

Take time to listen.

We often apologize immediately after doing something wrong in order to defuse the tension as quickly as possible. But speed doesn’t allow for true understanding.

“Words of apology, no matter how sincere, will not heal a broken connection if we haven’t listened carefully to the hurt party’s anger and pain,” writes Lerner.

Listening to someone describe the damage we’ve caused can be painful. “It’s hard to step back, shut up, and ask someone to teach you what their experience is,” says psychologist Molly Howes, PhD, author of the forthcoming A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right.

But that momentary discomfort is worth it in the long run. “The power of someone being able to tell you how they were harmed is enormous.”

It’s OK to take time to listen to yourself, too. After you’ve reflected on your feelings, you can choose to delay an apology if you’re still hurt, upset, or confused. “If you find yourself not wanting to acknowledge you’ve done anything wrong,” suggests Howes, “ask a friend to help you sort through your part in the situation.”

Once you can identify your role, you’ll be in a better position to offer a sincere apology.

Acknowledge your responsibility.

When you say you’re sorry, it’s important to apologize for the harm your action caused. “Apologizing takes courage, but it also takes humbleness. You have to be strong to say, ‘I hurt you. I see that I hurt you. And I’m so sorry,’” says Howes.

“Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake,” advises Roy Lewicki, PhD, lead author of a recent Ohio State University study that identified “acknowledgment of responsibility” as the most important component of an effective apology.

Don’t let the apology shift toward your needs. “A true apology focuses exclusively on the hurt feelings of the other person and not on what we would like to get for ourselves,” writes Lerner. That means jettisoning the goal of resolving the situation quickly or being forgiven. Those things may or may not happen.

Just because the apology is focused on the other person doesn’t mean you won’t benefit. “When you admit to yourself or to someone else that you’ve done something wrong, you feel better,” says Howes.

“Taking responsibility for harm, or mistakes you’ve made, is good for the spirit. It’s a sound human practice.”

Avoid blaming the other person for their hurt feelings.

Too many so-called apologies subtly shift blame to the other person involved or include veiled criticisms of their actions or feelings.

“I know you’re really sensitive, so I’m sorry I said that and it hurt you.”

“I’m sorry if you feel hurt by what I did.”

“I’m sorry that you feel hurt.”

In all of these exam­ples, the speaker is blaming the other person for feeling bad after the speaker did something that caused harm. “I think we’ve all been on the receiving end of a very unsatisfying apology,” notes Chansky. “If this is what you have in mind, don’t bother. Come back when you’re ready to say, ‘I’m so sorry that I hurt you.’”

If you’re struggling because you feel that you were in the right and you want that to be acknowledged, Howes recommends asking yourself this question: “Do you want to be right or do you want to be known, loved, and connected?” Things generally work out better for everyone, she says, if you can try to seek connection instead of vindication.

And it’s OK if you offer an apology and someone isn’t ready to receive it. Try again when the other person is more open to hearing it.

Make a plan to avoid repeating the offense.

You know how some people say they’re sorry for hurting you but then do it again? That lack of sincerity breaks trust. And that’s why Howes believes an apology isn’t complete until a plan is in place to help prevent a recurrence.

“In personal relation­ships, repetition of hurtful actions makes it hard to know if a repair will ‘stick’ or just be followed by the same disappointment,” she writes in A Good Apology, which contains useful apology scripts.

To help reestablish trust as you finish an apology, Howes recommends trying one of these scripts, including some along these lines: “Here’s how I will make sure this never happens again.” Or “Can we figure out a way together to change how we communicate?” The goal is to create a plan to support new habits.

It turns out the added bonus of making sin­cere apologies is that we become better friends and partners, in part because we’ll become more adept at owning up to our (inevitable) mistakes. As counterintuitive as it may seem, we can actually build stronger, more resilient relationships.

This originally appeared as “Sincerely Sorry” in the July-August 2020 print issue of Experience Life.


Karen Olson
is a Minneapolis-based writer and leadership coach.

Illustrations by: Gracia Lam

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Understanding the COVID Vaccines – Experience Life

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For many, the fact that scientists were able to produce vaccines for COVID-19 in record time is cause for celebration, bringing the end of the pandemic into view at last. For others, there’s some hesitation about taking a vaccine that was produced so quickly.

We asked three functional-medicine physicians who take an integrative, food-first approach to health to share their thoughts on the new Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for COVID:

  • Susan Blum, MD, founder of the Blum Center for Health
  • Frank Lipman, MD, founder of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center
  • Gregory Plotnikoff, MD, founder of Minnesota Personalized Medicine

Here’s what they had to say. 

How do the new vaccines work?

The primary goal of any vaccine is to teach your immune system how to recognize an unfamiliar bug. This primes your immune system to defend you against it should you ever be exposed.

Up until now, there have been two main types of vaccines. The first is an active, or attenuated, vaccine, with a live dose of the pathogen that has been weakened so it won’t cause the disease in humans but tricks your immune system into action. Examples of live vaccines include those for mumps, measles, and tuberculosis.

The second is an inactivated vaccine made from dead versions of the virus or bacteria. Inactive viruses are not as powerful at stimulating your immune system, so multiple boosters are required over time. Examples include the rabies, polio, and hepatitis A vaccines.

The first two COVID vaccines, produced by Pfizer and Moderna, train the immune system using a revolutionary new mRNA platform, which spurs the immune system to create its own (tolerable) version of the COVID viral protein and mount a defense against it.

“I’m excited about the new type of vaccines that use messenger RNA (mRNA) and no adjuvants like aluminum or preservatives with mercury,” says Blum. “It promises to be a cleaner vaccine and easier to adjust quickly if the virus mutates.”

The vaccines were produced in such a short time — are they safe?

Blum notes that the mRNA vaccines are new but the platform “has been in the research pipeline for a while.” She’s referring to the fact that scientists have been working on the mRNA platform for 30 years, many with a focus on coronaviruses since the SARS and MERS epidemics; both of these are also coronaviruses.

The salient thing about the mRNA platform is that it can be readily adapted to a variety of infectious agents because scientists only need a virus’s genetic sequence to create a new vaccine. (Typically a culture of deactivated viral particles is the base for a vaccine, and those can take years to develop.) The preexistence of the mRNA platform allowed scientists to start designing a vaccine the moment they had the COVID-19 genetic information.

Asked if he thinks the current vaccination protocol for COVID is safe and if he is recommending it to patients, Lipman says, “I am recommending it to my patients, and I am planning to get vaccinated.”

Lipman is considered a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, and he uses lifestyle medicine before drugs whenever possible, for himself and in his practice. “To be clear, I don’t ever get the flu vaccine, and have never been a major proponent of it,” he says. “Not because I think it is that harmful but because it is not that efficacious.”

What are the short- and long-term risks to taking the COVID vaccines?

“From what I have read so far, I don’t have short-term concerns,” says Blum. “Also, many millions of people have received their first doses and all appears to be going well. This month [February 2021] we should start seeing data for people getting their second doses.”

At the moment, the main short-term risk appears to be allergic reactions, including the risk of anaphylactic shock — which, in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, has so far occurred about 11 times per million doses. Such reactions tend to occur within 30 minutes after the shot and can usually be quickly resolved with a shot of epinephrine. The vast majority of these reactions (81 percent) have occurred in people with a propensity for allergies.

There’s also the reactogenic effect, in which some people will experience symptoms such as soreness at the site of injection, as well as fever, headache, and chills — especially after the second (booster) injection. While these are positive signs that the immune system is activated, and they normally abate within a day or two, Plotnikoff is watching this data carefully to see if it shows any trends.

“I’m concerned about less severe reactions such as symptoms that require missing work or precipitate visits to emergency rooms,” he says. Plotnikoff works primarily with patients who have stubborn chronic conditions and allergies; he is planning to get a COVID vaccine himself.

He does caution against making safety judgments based on the early recipients in the elderly population, who tend to have a range of existing health challenges, because they “are at much greater statistical risk for adverse events that could be completely unrelated to the vaccine.”

As for long-term risks, we simply have to wait to find out if there are any. “We don’t know what we don’t know about long-term because the messenger RNA vaccine is totally new as a type of vaccine. We call this ‘unknown unknowns,’” Blum says.

Yet she feels confident that our bodies can process the vaccine. “Based on the science of how the vaccines work, I believe it has the potential to be very safe long term, because the mRNA gets destroyed by the cell pretty quickly and doesn’t linger around.”

What about additives like PEG?

It’s unclear which aspect of the current vaccines is provoking allergic responses, but some experts, including Plotnikoff, have concerns about the presence of polyethylene glycol, or PEG, in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. “The leading culprit at this time is PEG,” he says.

PEG is a lipid-stabilizer that’s commonly used in injectable medicines; in the vaccines it suspends and protects the mRNA molecules. Plotnikoff notes that it’s found in many drugs that have occasionally triggered anaphylaxis, and that some immunologists and allergists believe it might cause problems for people who have high levels of PEG antibodies in their blood.

Blum doesn’t like PEG either, and is also concerned that it can trigger allergic or inflammatory reactions in some people who are sensitive. However, she says, “Most people have been exposed to PEG already through everyday life from common products like Miralax and a host of other products, including toothpaste and shampoo, where it acts as a thickener. What’s different here is that the PEG goes directly into the bloodstream from the vaccine and might trigger a stronger reaction.”

Again, she trusts that most of our bodies can eventually process it. “I am not thrilled with the PEG in the vaccine, because I think of it like a possible toxin, but I trust that my body will detox it and get rid of it after the vaccine clears through my body in a few days.”

(For those people who have genetic issues that make detoxification more difficult, it may be worthwhile to take extra steps to support the body’s natural detox process following the shots. Find suggestions here.)

Should people with autoimmune conditions take special caution?

In her clinic, Blum works with many patients who have chronic autoimmune issues, and her book Healing Arthritis takes a food-first approach to treating autoimmune arthritis and related conditions. She readily acknowledges that for people whose immune systems have a tendency to go rogue, a vaccine can be a daunting prospect. But given the overall risks of a COVID environment, she still recommends getting vaccinated when you’re not in an active flare-state.

“For people with autoimmunity, it’s a tough choice,” she says. “Those with autoimmunity are naturally worried that the vaccine might trigger symptoms for them. This hasn’t been shown to be an issue so far, but it’s only been a few months. A more cautious stance would be to wait a little longer for more data. But even in a few months we don’t have long-term data; that will take years.”

“I’m very concerned about people with autoimmunity getting COVID,” Blum adds. “We know that viruses can linger in the body and cause autoimmunity, and it’s possible that people with autoimmunity already have a defect in their ability to fight viruses. “But eventually, I think vaccination will be the right decision versus trying to avoid getting COVID by staying home indefinitely. There will come a time when each person will have seen enough information on the vaccine to feel they are ready.”

What can I do to prepare for getting vaccinated?

Experts recommend you get yourself in the best possible shape to receive the vaccine. As a reminder, if you have autoimmune issues, ensure that you’re not in an active flare-state. Beyond that, keep your focus on building a healthy baseline.

“Before you get vaccinated, please do focus on all resilience factors in your power,” says Plotnikoff. “These include good sleep, good nutrition, and good exercise. Ensure excellent levels of vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin C, zinc, and selenium.”

You may also want to set aside some time to rest after your appointments in case your immune response makes you feel crummy. Note that this response is more common after the second shot.

If you’re still feeling hesitant, putting the risks in a larger context might also help.

“I understand hesitancy and mistrust of the medical establishment and Big Pharma,” says Lipman. “I too in many ways feel the same, but this goes way beyond personal health. The efficacy is pretty high, and we have a major pandemic and public health crisis that needs to be addressed. So, in my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the possible adverse effects.”

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