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Blog // Creativity
May 8, 2019

Why Apologies Can Help Your Creative Process

Apologies can and should play a role in our creative process. Some say you should never apologise. But good apologies can make us healthier and more creative.

Why do apologies matter? Because in your creative journey there will be times when you’ll have to apologise. Guaranteed.

You’ll need to apologise because you’ll be pushing yourself. Trying things that are new, challenging, different, and unexpected. And you’ll push people around you, even if you’re not normally the “pushy” type. Sometimes you’ll push because you’re worried, or scared, or simply overwhelmed.

Pushing creates pressure, tension, and stress. We’re not always at our best under pressure. We crack, we break, we make painful noises. And we hurt people.

You’ll also need to apologise because you’ll be reaching. And in doing so you might say or do things you shouldn’t. You overextend an idea until it offends. Sometimes this will be your intention. Sometimes it won’t. Either way, it will happen.

You’ll also need to apologise well if you are seeking authenticity and sincerity as an artist. Because you’ll realise you’ve violated your own standards. Then the only way to be true to yourself will be to be honest about the consequences of your actions.

Apologies Unlock Your Super Powers

But something stops us from making real apologies, or tempts us into making fake ones. We don’t want to dig into our own souls, and get our hands dirty with the mess and muck of the pain we’ve caused. Or what it says about us; our carelessness or selfishness.

It feels like too much.

We might dream of never apologising. After all, there’s research to suggest that people who don’t apologise are happier. But this isn’t about what makes you happy in the short term. It’s about what makes you healthier and more creative in the long run.

Because here’s the secret. Learning to apologise well, with sincerity and full recognition of your mistakes, is a super power. Not because it fixes things right away. Even after an apology, some wrongs take a long time to right, and forgiveness doesn’t (and shouldn’t) come easy.

It’s a super power because it fixes you. Slowly. But surely. It lights the path back towards your humanity. Towards the things that matter.

Good apologies can unlock your creativity.

Apologies Involve Words And Actions

Earlier this week I wrote an essay: Apologies Are Something We Do With Our Bodies.

It took a while to write. It took much longer to find the conviction to post it. Over a year. Not because I was unsure about the piece itself. But because I was unsure about how it would be received in our current climate.

We’re all aware that plenty of fake apologies are made. Insincere lines like, “I’m sorry but,” or “I’m sorry if I caused offence.” Those word games are bad. We see them every day. They allow people to avoid responsibility for their actions. They let bad actors off the hook. And they mean we keep facing the same injustices again and again.

But maybe we’re too obsessed with the form of words; as if a well-worded apology is enough. Which of course it isn’t. Unless you believe in a magical worldview where words alone can change reality. I don’t, which is why I wrote that “apologies are things we do with our bodies.” We apologise through action, though the things we do, we way we change, not just the words we speak.

Which is better: the poorly-worded apology from someone who sincerely realises their mistake and goes on to change their behaviour, or the apology that says all the right things but doesn’t change anything? The irony of our times is we so often shame the first and applaud the second.

This can lead to people being lauded for using the right words without changing their behaviour. This shallowness is dangerous.

When I think about the worst social situations I’ve ever been in – workplaces, clubs, and churches – this veneer of speaking correctly was always present. Everyone said the right things at the right times and yet they were horribly cruel and manipulative at the same time.

These places were polite but unkind.

This Doesn’t Mean You Should Constantly Apologise

Before we go on we need to clarify something because not all apologies are the same. We should take stock of how often “I’m sorry” emerges from our lips. If it never does, that could mean we don’t notice when we hurt people. If it we say it all the time, then maybe there’s some habit we need to change. Or it could be something else.

Many of us experience the feeling of apologising all the time. This is particularly true for women, but also for people who grow up as part of a minority. And also folks suffering with anxiety.

We do it unconsciously. “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.” “I’m sorry but I don’t want to.” “I’m sorry, I’m busy.”

It feels polite. We think it makes us seem nice. We hope it will defuse potential conflict. But it can make us look insincere, especially when it’s not called for. Being excessively apologetic undermines our self-image and can make people trust us less.

Some people want to make us apologise over and over. It’s a form of manipulation. Gaslighting, if you will. A culture of control that never lets us forget we did something wrong, once, and asks us to atone over and over again.

Or we feel like we should apologise for our work. Or our success. Or who we are. Or our choice to do what we do, such as make art. Anything that isn’t what the dominant culture tells us we should be doing.

Sometimes we feel like we need to apologise in advance, because the things we make are different, strange, or challenging. We become defensive. We present our work timidly. Or we water it down, hoping it will be more easily accepted.

This is a whole realm of apologies we should question. You’ll have to come up with your own list of things you will apologise for and things you won’t. It will reflect your life story, the culture in which you live, and the way you’ve chosen to challenge and improve that culture.

I still believe it is good to apologise to people we’ve hurt and apologise for hurtful things we’ve done.

Apologies And Creativity

We encourage children to learn to apologise (especially here in Japan). It’s more than just a nicety. The ritual of apologising teaches kids to notice the consequences of their actions, to be empathetic, and to deepen and improve their relationships.

There are parallels here with creativity. Creative work is always attentive to the cause and effect of our activity. We enhance our creative focus by chasing authenticity, which we deepen by being honest, sincere, vulnerable. And creative work always requires us to build strong relationships.

For other articles in the series I’ve relied heavily on academic research to back up some of the ideas. But this time I struggled to find anything either backing up or rejecting this connection. And Google, in its algorithmic naïveté, responded to my various attempts to search for “apologies and creativity,” either with articles where scholars apologise for some omission in their research, or “how to” articles about being able to apologise creatively!

Still, we’re left with two important things to consider.

  • 1. Apologies are inevitable.
  • 2. The emotional work involved in making good apologies has a lot in common with emotional work we need to do to unlock our creativity.
  • Apologise once, sincerely, showing how you understand the hurt you caused and indicating the way your behaviour will change. That’s how I’ve tried to explain apologies as a parent and the way I’ve tried to make them as an adult.

    What I’ve felt time and again when I needlessly apologise is that it traps me a spiral of guilt and shame, but when I don’t apologise when it’s called for it seems to dry me up, as if my creative energy gets channeled into denying there’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

    Riding this wave, when it’s right to apologise and when it’s better not to, is the work of a lifetime. It teaches you so much about what you believe and which of those beliefs you want to keep or reject. This process carves out a space for your creative intuition to thrive and grow.

    I wish I could present rigorous academic support for this idea that apologising well can make us more creative, but I can’t. Maybe it’s not clear cut. After all, there are so many examples of creative geniuses who were also unapologetic monsters.

    You’ll have to choose how you want to chase the ideal of becoming a creative, insightful, and unique person.

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