I'm sorry; it's not you

Image 26Sometimes I think the five most important and responsible words we can say to our loved ones are, “I’m sorry; it’s not you.” In that moment, with those five words, we communicate to others that our bad mood, grumpiness, bitchiness, or whatever term we prefer to describe a closed heart is not someone else’s fault. We take full responsibility and, in doing so, open a space inside for something softer to enter. When we defend against what is, whether it’s sadness, irritability, anger, exhaustion, hunger, or disappointment, we erect a steel wall around our hearts. In contrast, when we surrender into what is, which means noticing it, naming it, and taking full responsibility for it, we take the first steps toward softening the heart and letting our loved ones inside.

Knowing how many people take others’ moods personally and believe that they are directly responsible for others’ feelings, I can only assume that as children they witnessed their parents’ bad moods and came to the conclusion that it must be their fault. Why wouldn’t a child come to this conclusion? He sees a tired, stressed-out mother or a disconnected, withdrawn father and, without the parent saying, “I’m sorry; it’s not you,” the child can only assume they did something wrong. Sometimes this message is even communicated directly. A child drops a dish and the mother, running on empty, snaps, “Michael! You’re driving me crazy!” The child deflates with shame and draws the conclusion that he’s the source of his mother’s unhappiness.

I hate to admit this, but I’ve said these kinds of words to my kids. I cringe as I write that, as I know, even as the words are flying out of my mouth, how irresponsible they are. Prior to becoming a mother, I never would have expected myself to say speak like that to my child. But being a mother is the great humbling experience that causes most of us to say, “I’ll never judge another mother again.” In moments of exhaustion or when hormones collide with overwhelm I’ve blamed my kids for my bad mood. My only saving grace is that I always, always apologize afterwards and emphasize to them that they are not responsible for my or my husband’s irritability or anger. I think the responsible communication outweighs the blame. At least I hope it does.

It happened tonight: I was tired and had eaten some sugar (which has an almost immediate, drug-like effect that turns me into medusa) and I found myself snapping at my older son for this and that. He saw me rubbing my temples and said, “Mommy, I love you.” It wasn’t a spontaneous expression of love naturally erupting from a sweet moment of connection between us. No, it was the “I love you” that kids use when they’re trying to figure out if Mommy still loves them. I looked at him and said, “I love you, too, sweetheart.” Then he said, “You seem angry.” I could have defended it or denied it, and, had I done so, I would have created a false belief in his mind that said, “Don’t trust my intuition. I sense Mommy’s angry but she’s saying she’s not so it must be me.” But something healthy in me took over and said, “I’m sorry; it’s not you.” I then explained that I was tired and that I had eaten sugar, and he’s old enough to understand the disastrous effect that sugar has on me. I could see relief wash over him, as if every cell in his being could exhale now that I had just relieved him of responsibility for my bad mood.

We hold an awesome, sometimes overwhelming role as parents with immense capacity to reinforce healthy pathways and belief systems in our kids or create unhealthy and false ones that will have deleterious effects on all of their later relationships. I’d like to think that kids are more resilient than this, but in raising my two highly sensitive sons, I can almost see the neuro-pathways of shame being forged in their brains when I don’t take responsibility for my closed heart. Sometimes this level of responsibility is almost too much to bear. But bear we must. It’s not that we have to be perfect; it’s that we have to own our “stuff” as much as possible. We need to realize that our children look to us to mirror back their own knowing and that we have the power either to create or destroy their sense of self-trust. We need to model that it’s okay to lose it, but we must take responsibility for losing it as soon as we come to our senses. We need to model that it’s okay to argue with a spouse in front of the kids but that we must reconcile in front of them as well. We model being human when we’re tired or snappy; and we model being responsible and loving when we say, “I’m sorry; it’s not you.”

14 comments to I’m Sorry; It’s Not You

  • Niloo

    Wow Sheryl, I love this article. I’m not a mother, but I really relate to this article and definitely saving it for the “files”.

  • This is true and beautifully so. It took me a number of years in recovery in 12-step programs to be able to articulate accurately what I was feeling. I used to look for a reason why I felt edgy or even angry so I could blame my inexplicable ‘mood’ on something or someone. Sometimes there is no obvious reason. Sometimes the only thing I can say is I don’t know why I’m in a bad mood, I just feel on edge, but it’s not you.

    Thank you for this.

  • Sarah

    I love this. I’ve practiced so much with the idea that no one “makes me angry,” but rather I feel threatened/defensive/fearful, and so I react with anger. “You seem angry/upset/sad” is something my husband and I try to say to each other rather than “reacting” to the other’s bad mood, and it’s so relieving to know kids pick up on that too! That wasn’t modeled too well in my house growing up, and I remember well the feeling of walking on eggshells if my mom was in a bad mood, and thinking “maybe if I clean my room it’ll make things better.” Probably one of the bigger things that terrifies me in thinking about having kids. It’s great to see those healthy conversations modeled, and to know if nothing else there’s always an apology!

  • nina

    Sometimes I worry I say this TOO much to my son. I want him to know its NOT him. Tired, hungry, traffic, etc sometimes make me a crabby mommy. I also want him to learn to acknowledge his feelings and to, someday, control them because he has learned he can by acknowledging them. The sweet thing is, usually when I say “I’m not mad at you and I’m sorry I yelled, I’m worried about xyz or frustrated by xyz and am working through that” he says “you’re okay.” It seriously makes me smile everytime. Not its okay but you’re okay. I’ve tried to teach him all feelings are okay its how we react to those feelings that matter and he models that well for ME! Now I wish I didn’t get so frustrated …still working on that!

  • katrina

    I have so many emails from different websites that i have subscribed to or that my details have been passed along to, yours i have to admit is the only one I look forward to.

    I always thoroughly enjoy reading your posts and they often bring a tear to my eye.
    I found your book comforting during my engagement too!

    I wonder if you have ever written about the female menstrual transition and how our relationships can change and can be effected by pms.

    I would enjoy reading your stance on this,

    Kindest regards,

  • vanessa

    Nina, my two year old does something similar. I have had to ice my jaw (a holistic dental treatment) while nursing her and she looks at me concerned. I said “mama has to do this to make her mouth feel better but I’m still your mama and I can take care of you.” She gets down and says “ir’s ok, mama.” As she is almost three i can see things are going to get a bit more challenging than this sweet moment.

  • Lisa

    Yes! This reminds me of one of the most profound “lines” I took from a therapist and that I employ almost daily: 50% of relationship is repair. Wow! That freed me up so much not to feel that my moods and actions with my loved ones always had to be spot on. This means, as you said, we mess up because we are human, but then our job as a loving responsible person is to fix that which we spoiled. To me this is where the real intimacy and bedrock of a relationship is formed. We have to be able to lose it, to be horrid sometimes, to act from places of lack (exhaustion, stress, fear etc.). When it comes to the people closest to us, we want to be authentic (which means expressing both the dark and the light). We are not perfect and our partners and children seeing us only as perfect would have a far more deleterious effect I think (planet of the robots kind of feeling). It’s when we return to fix and repair, apologize and take responsibility that real trust and intimacy begin. We echo your sentiment that “I’m sorry, it was me” and we begin to strengthen the relationship both by confirming our role in the disturbance and that we want to take responsibility by repairing. The more often we role model this, then our children and partners too have permission to be human (reflect less than pefection toward us) and then rise to the occasion to mend any hurt they may have caused us.

    • This is so beautiful, Lisa. It brought tears to my eyes.

    • Clara

      I agree! Thank you Lisa. Thank you Sheryl. What a wonderful comment to a wonderful post… such gentle, intelligent wisdom. I can feel my spirit rise to meet the truth of what you say, and the rigid inner judge slip away.

  • Kirsty

    I LOVE your blogs Sheryl. You have helped me through a very hard time through both your blogs and one simple, but brilliantly worded and empathetic email. Now this blog, which particularly resonates with me as a parent. I am a mother who suffers anxiety due perfectionism and the inability to live up to the standards of my parents ‘perfect parenting’. Obviously this is simply my child’s perception, and as such one that I could never live up to as it is not seated in reality, but renders me useless nonetheless.

    I have read this blog and will keep it with me, as a reminder to give myself permission to be human, but also use those ‘human’ moments as learning opportunities for my children, and personal growth moments for myself.

    I would love a blog about how you help your children to learn to be responsible for their feelings, particularly the more explosive ones of anger/frustration etc.

    Thanks again Sheryl!

  • marce

    Sheryl –
    Another wonderful post. I too would love to hear more on your wisdom about menstrual cycles. I am 28 and just starting to get the hang of it in terms of my moods/feelings at different points in the cycle! How can a girl harness that fluctuation? What are your thoughts on birth control pills and how they relate to emotions? I would love to read a post about this, if possible!

    I always save your emails in my inbox until a quiet point in my day when I can really savor them.

    THANK YOU!!!

  • Megyn

    Hi Sheryl,

    That is a wonderful post that gave me some ease. I’m getting married this year and recently hit my strongest patch of anxiety that has had me in a 6 week depression. I had some engagement anxiety in the beginning of our engagement, but I was able to work through it after a few months. Right before this depression, I began questioning whether my fiance loves me more then I love him and it eventually manifested to “Do I even love him?”. I read your 96 words of love article and it brought me reassurance, but my anxiety soon took hold strongly and forced me into this depression.

    I’ve been seeing a psychologist and have been put on medication (I have been on medication in the past). I have been journaling a lot, as it is a great way to get all my thoughts out of my head and out in the open. I woke up this morning and had a calming thought, “These feelings are more then likely not real, but I know that the fears are very real”. I was fearing he loved me more then I loved him…but I came up with the thought, that maybe we all love one another differently and in our own ways? We’ve been together for nearly a decade and I know the way I loved in the beginning is not how I’ve been loving him now, it grew to a different place. A more mature love, a trusting love, an honest love. His way of showing love is by being affectionate, doing nice things for me, and saying sweet things before going to sleep. For me, I think its more about the little kisses, the hugs, the trust I have in our relationship, the talking and cuddling before going to bed, doing nice things for him, and oddly enough cooking him meals (I know..odd, but I loveeee to cook for him).

    Do you think we all love in different ways? Sorry this is long, but it is something I didn’t really think about until today. Thank you for all that you do for myself and everyone who comes to your site.

    • Yes, I do believe that we all love in different ways, and even love differently at different stages of our lives. Have you read The Five Love Languages? Very interesting book for understanding the different ways that we give and receive love.