I didn’t earn the nickname “Tourette’s” for my great small talk skills. If there is a way to accidentally offend someone, I will find it. Here are some of my favorites:
My daughter Katherine is named after my grandmother and my great-grandmother, two very strong women in our family tree whom I wanted to celebrate in my girl’s name.
When I took Katherine to meet her third-grade teacher, the teacher asked her, “What would you like to be called?”
She responded, “Katie.”
Taken aback, I immediately retorted, “No! No, no, no! … You don’t want to be called Katie! … Katherine is so much more sophisticated.” I went on and on about why she should not be called Katie. (I do like the name Katie for every Katie who is reading this, but I was attached to Katherine for heritage reasons.)
What I didn’t realize is that the teacher’s name was Katie.
A few summers ago, I was feeling depressed and lethargic, so I had all kinds of blood work done. My doctor told me my vitamin D levels were really low, so it would be helpful to get some sun, and not wear sunscreen. A few weeks later, I was at the pool looking at a poster for Banana Boat Sunscreen 1075 or something like that. There was this guy under an umbrella and the poster read, “Be safe this summer and protect yourself.”
I turned to the woman in back of me and said, “You know, I don’t buy into that because when you’re vitamin D deficient you feel like crap, so I say fry yourself and take your chances!”
She looks at me in the eye for a moment and then says, “I am a melanoma survivor.”
“OF COURSE you are!” I think to myself, because I would only open my mouth and say something so stupid to someone who has survived a deadly skin cancer.
Last summer I was reading the awesome book, Unworthy by Anneli Rufus. Since Rufus is one of us, she understands the self-flagellation we participate in when we use the English language in ways that don’t benefit us or the other person.
I had just offended another person. You see, when I’m nervous, the rate of insulting someone triples because whatever I am thinking at the moment flows naturally out of my mouth. The TINY (seen only with a microscope) filter that I DO have is removed.
I was getting ready to swim 4.4 miles across the Chesapeake Bay with 600 other crazy people, and I saw a guy I used to sail with more than 15 years ago. At that time, he had a full head of hair. Surprised to see he was completely bald, I blurted out, “Good thing you shaved down for the swim.” It was out of my mouth before I could take it back.
I wrote to Rufus and told her how much the world needed her book. (You must also check out this poignant cartoon essay she wrote on empaths and surviving someone who has died by suicide.) And then I told her how it was hard to stop hating myself when I keep saying such stupid things.
She laughed at my bald story and said she has also been known to put her foot in her mouth … even in a foreign language. She wrote:
In a cheap hotel in Spain, I discovered that the bath towel we had been given was just a half-towel — torn in half for some reason. Wanting a full-size towel, I brought this halved one down to the lobby, where a clerk was sitting on a chair behind the desk. Mustering my fantastic high-school Spanish, I held up the halved towel and said to this man:
“Lo siento, pero es pequeño.” (As you probably know: “I’m sorry, but it is small.”)
Guy gets out of chair, revealing (as I had not seen before) THAT HE HAS DWARFISM and is about three feet tall.
I said “es pequeño” to a tiny man. This still gores me 20 years hence.
So, a year later, still plagued by this foot-in-mouth disease, I asked Rufus for some pointers on how to move forward when you want to place a permanent brown bag over your head that says, “You are safer if the bag stays on.” Here’s her sage advice:
“Realize that every person who ever lived has been in this exact same boat,” says Rufus. “At some point, Queen Elizabeth and George Clooney and all the presidents felt exactly as you feel, writhing on the couch with their heads buried in pillows, wailing: Whyyyyyyyyy?”
Rufus explains, “Realize that the regret and pain you feel as a result of this small mistake reveals what a good-hearted person you are. Remember that you said this now-regretted thing with NO BAD INTENTIONS. You didn’t mean it the way it came out, and you meant absolutely no harm. In fact, maybe you even meant it as praise. Sure, it came out wrong, but at heart you are a good person who generally intends to say good things to others. Then realize that certain people out there are bad people who take joy in saying bad, horrible, hurtful things to others. Such bad people say bad things on purpose with no regrets! You are not one of these. You are a good person, a well-meaning kind person who made one small mistake.”
This point reminded me of something my mentor Mike Leach just told me the other day: “Even when the right man does the wrong thing, everything will turn out okay.” By being “the right man,” he means having the right intention, or having a pure heart. “You always say the wrong thing — no offense,” he told me. “But you are the right man, so everything will be okay.”
“Is there any way to make amends?” asks Rufus. “Is it possible to make amends without putting your foot in it even more deeply? Might a small personal note — an email, a text, or the old-school handwritten kind — show the offended person how sorry you are? My mother was a big one for giving little gifts in such situations, with ‘sorry’ notes.”
For me, email or written notes are better than doing this in person because, as I said, if I am nervous, whatever I am thinking will be said, which usually does not help matters.
“Do what the Buddhists suggest and ‘drop the rock,’” says Rufus. “Yes, you said something regrettable and feel terrible, but the past is the past and regret is toxic, so bid your error farewell and let it go.”
In my video “Unloading Guilt,” I filled a backpack with rocks from the Naval Academy to make the visual analogy of the burden of guilt to heavy rocks. What I didn’t take into consideration was how to get the rocks back to the Academy because now their security makes that impossible.
Per Rufus: “Consider ritualizing this: Literally dropping a rock into a body of water or just onto the ground, maybe kicking it … while saying or thinking: ‘I will try to be mindful about whatever I say, but I’m not perfect because no one is. So goodbye to a regrettable statement. Goodbye.’”
A UCLA study lead by Matthew Lieberman, PhD, found that by labeling our feelings — attaching certain words to them — we can better manage anxiety and depression. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that when we verbalize our feelings, the activity in the amygdala part of the brain, our fear center, is reduced, and there is more activity in the right prefrontal cortex, which is capable of processing emotions on a more sophisticated level (i.e., get rid of the brown bag).
This one I already do. I almost always pray for the person I offended. I might even go to church and light a votive candle for them (all 4,576).
“If you believe in any type of psychic or paranormal communication, try sending good thoughts, corrective thoughts, apologetic thoughts and/or healing thoughts to the person you think you have hurt,” explains Rufus. “Imagine these in whatever shape or color feels most meaningful to you. Imagine that other person absorbing and being soothed by these thoughts, whether or not he or she actually knows they came from you.”
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Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.