One Sentence That Will Change Your Life

Lasting Impression

Photo Credit: darkmatter (Creative Commons)

I want you to memorize a single sentence. Because learning to live it well will change your life. I’m going to tell you what it is, why it is the key to living fully and freely, and how your life will explode with beauty when your heart begins to beat to the rhythm of it…

The people who sit on a therapist’s couch are abnormal, right? They’ve made bad choices and lived incorrectly and are broken in some strange way, right?

Wrong.

In my clinical practice, I have discovered two things. First, my therapy clients are ordinary people who have the extraordinary courage to admit life is messy and the determination to redeem it. And second, the majority were not the “bad kids” on the playground. They were honor roll students, and the quiet kids who got things done, and the glue in their splintered families, and the caretakers, and the sacrificers, and the forgivers, and the obedient ones.

And they are simply confused about how doing all the right things can land them in the middle of so much suffering and confusion. They need one sentence that will change their lives. And this is it:

“I’m not going to worry very much about offending people anymore, which means I need you to tell me when I do, so I can think about it and decide if I need to apologize.”

It’s the key to living freely and loving well. We need to soak it in and learn to live it fully. But we can only do so if we understand the radical, transformational love at its core:

I’m not going to worry very much about offending people anymore …

I’m sick of living in fear of what others will think of me—if I make a mistake, or say a wrong word, or accidentally make them feel uncomfortable, or don’t respond to them in the way they wish. It has drained me, and I can’t recall who I truly am. So, I’m done with feeling responsible for everyone else’s feelings.

Except I’m not. Not completely.

Because I’m human and all healing takes time and there will be moments when I’m ambushed by my old shameful worry and I’ll wonder if what I did and said is good enough for anyone. And I do love people and care about them—there will be many moments when it’s perfectly appropriate for me to be concerned about their feelings—and I don’t want to lose that part of me. So, I probably will continue to worry. A little.

…which means I need you to tell me when I do…

Because my terror of error is diminished, I will, ironically, make even more mistakes than before. I’m not perfect and I will mess up. I don’t want to hurt you, but realistically, it is probably going to happen. So, when I have hurt you, I will need your authentic, vulnerable, and kind feedback.

And because I’m not confusing my mistakes and indiscretions for who I am, my identity will not be at stake and I will be able to receive that feedback without defensiveness. And because I know my value and worth even in my fallibility, I will not do violence to myself with your feedback, either.

…so I can think about it…

I will no longer respond compulsively. I will no longer feel responsible for taking away all of your hurt and discomfort. So, I may take my time to respond to you. I promise you I’m not brushing it under the rug. I simply want my response to be guided by wisdom, rather than fear of rejection or abandonment or condemnation. And I know wisdom takes time and discernment—maybe even space for mindfulness and prayer and meditation and consultation with a trusted confidante.

…and decide if I need to apologize.

I know I’m broken and make mistakes. But I also know now we’re all broken, which means your hurt may not be my fault. And you may need to face it, rather than be rescued from it by my apology. And I am beginning to believe that I get to decide when I need to apologize. My fears and your demands will no longer dictate apologies and compensation.

But know that I value you—whether you are a friend or family member or a pedestrian on the street or a customer service representative—you matter to me, and I will take you and your hurt seriously. Even when I don’t bear the burden of responsibility, I will feel the weight of compassion.

And because all of this is true, when I do apologize, you will be able to trust the depth and sincerity of my remorse.

That’s it.

One sentence to freedom.

One sentence to radical self-acceptance.

Once sentence to authentic vulnerability and connection and community.

Once sentence to messy, beautiful living.

For those of us accustomed to getting it all right—those of us who mistake our indiscretions for who we are—we must make this sentence the meditation of our days. A sentence to hold gently at the front of our minds until it sinks into the depths of our hearts, shining light into the darkness and dispelling the ghosts of unworthiness that lurk in the cellars of our souls.

A sentence that will redefine how we experience life, what we choose to do with our time, and who we choose to spend that time with. Because we will want to surround ourselves with people whose hearts are also beating to the rhythm of that sentence. People who can give us grace in our errors and compassion in our brokenness. And people who are vulnerable enough to sincerely confess their own mistakes and receive the grace we offer.

When our hearts are populated by this sentence—and when our lives become populated by people who are also living it—we will, finally, be living fully and freely.

QUESTION: This is one sentence, but I suspect there are many like it. What sentences have become the meditation of your life, releasing you from fear and shame? Share your experiences in the comments section.

DEAR READER, This sentence is the reason I hope you feel free to give your feedback in the comments. You have valuable things to say, and the world needs you to say them. As long as you are striving to share them authentically and kindly, this space will welcome anything you have to say. As always, thanks for reading (and commenting!). It’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Risé Brette

    I loved this post! Brilliant! I have to say that what you wrote was very validating for me, having seen a therapist a few years ago for about a year because I had a hard time processing things like my mother’s abuse and her ‘right and wrong’ (which in many ways was warped), and how/why my family of origin sided with her. My sentence of truth is this: “You cannot make someone love you, nor can you make someone believe you. They either choose to love you or not and its not up to me to convince them that I am loveable or believable.”

    This post provided a way of increased emancipation for me. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Rise, that is a GREAT sentence. Full of truth and freedom.

      • Risé Brette

        It really was and is truth and freedom for me. Thank you. 🙂

  • Ann Marie

    Kelly, you are right. Often the “good” kids live with this fear and it can be paralyzing to our future relationships. Very thought provoking post. One sentence that I have learned to live by is “What if I’m wrong?” When dealing with conflict at work, in my personal life, etc. I try to ask myself this question. It allows me the opportunity to consider the argument from the other person’s point of view (Why do they think they are right and I’m wrong?). Lots of times I still conclude that I’m comfortable with my position, but almost always I come away with a better appreciation of the other person’s opinion, feelings and concerns. Knowing that I have done this keeps me from being fearful of being wrong or disagreeing others without justification.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, Ann Marie. That question is an indispensable part of the process of discernment. It takes courage to ask it! And even more courage to ask it knowing the answer doesn’t define who you are.

  • Courtney

    I very much appreciate this post, Kelly. It strikes to the core of who I was and who I am now. The process of freeing myself from the expectations from others took me a long while. Like you mentioned, because I am human the insecurity of those worries still make an appearance from time to time. There is one question that I would like to ask you concerning apology.

    Question 1: I cannot “make” people feel a certain way. Is this correct? For example, I may have a friend/loved one say, “You made me feel insecure.” In my opinion, I cannot make anyone feel a certain way. Can my actions affect them in a certain way? Absolutely. But it’s they who have the feelings. When people say, “you made me feel . . .” It used to take everything in me not to feel like a prisoner to their words. It would be so much more powerful for them to face their own hurt. Does this make sense?

    Question 2: When people do say this to me, should I not say that I’m sorry that they feel that way? Is there a way to apologize for their yucky feelings without taking responsibility? I’m sure there’s a fine line but I definitely want people to know that I value their heart regardless if it’s my fault or not. For example, “I’m sorry you felt insecure when I did _______.” Thoughts?

    Greatly appreciated!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Courtney, I’m going to hold off on replying directly to your questions. We have a ton of very wise readers and commenters who I would love to hear chime in on this. If you end up left hanging, I’ll think about it more and give you my thoughts…

    • Jennifer Newell

      While I can understand and agree with the fact that we as people own our response to how some one treats us, I am not sure if I agree that it gets us off the hook for our behavior. I would ask you to consider if the view you have of yourself is true. If I am outspoken not intending to hurt anyone yet my words do hurt others I do own my behavior. If I dont perceive that as a problem then when I am told by a friend I hurt their feelings, I think it causes you to stop and try to see the situation from their eyes. If you take the time and decided you dont agree with their view then yes i guess I would be more likely to let it go. But if this is a trusted friend and they are trying to help you to see the person they see, which might not be the same as yours then you need to evaluate that. In any case it think it is not to own it but to as Kelly said above consider it and determine for your self what you think.

      • Courtney

        Thanks for your feedback, Jennifer. I completely agree with everything you mentioned above.

        • drkellyflanagan

          Courtney, One of the things we often talk about with couples is taking responsibility for your own emotions. If we believe others can make us feeling something, we have become passive recipients of our own experience. However, things we do can trigger feelings for people, and the question is, how do we respond? Sometimes, it is appropriate to apologize for triggering the feeling. At other times, perhaps the appropriate response is empathy and compassion. And I think you’re wondering how to express that. I think we do need to find a way to express it without confusing it with the word sorry, which is usually associated with apology. For instance, “Oh, boy, I’ve felt that, too. It stinks. It certainly don’t want you to feel that way.” That’s a start to thinking about it, not the solution, though!

  • Jessica

    I have been learning this lately and I am so glad you put it all into words! It has become more confirmed in my mind now. There is one thing you talked about though that has been different for me in learning this lesson. You said: “Because my terror of error is diminished, I will, ironically, make even more mistakes than before.” I feel like I have made LESS mistakes than before the error of terror was diminished, because #1. I am not afraid to shine for others, which helps them more than me being agreeable. #2. I have noticed that this improves all my relationships. #3. I am no longer making the mistake of holding back the part of me that I know God wants me to be.
    I feel like the only thing that could be seen as me making “more mistakes” in this would be: I now reach LESS people because I am giving up standing in the Middle Ground to be more agreeable with everyone.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jessica, You have redefined “mistake,” and that is the best change of all! 🙂

    • Arka

      If it helps… ‘I do not regret of the mistakes I make, as they are part of the learning process…’

  • Arka

    This is a great topic… I just arrived home from having two beers and a
    four hour talk with a friend of mine, and in the middle of the
    conversation I made reference to the ‘Feng Shui Guy’ that once posted a
    phrase in facebook which I enjoyed so much… It said something like
    this: ‘Do not judge me for not sin the way you sin’. I love this topic
    you post. In other words: Why should I be afraid about being the way I
    am? Let´s kill the phantoms of our unconscious mind, now that we are in
    Halloween! In fact, I agree: I like establishing relationships in my
    life, with people, that take 2 minutes of their life to suggest or
    explicitly tell me that, something that I said or did, caused harm, at
    one level or another. I am not perfect and I rely on communication. If I
    make mistakes, I prefer to meet people that tell me what I did wrong,
    otherwise, I experience my company the way I am. Do you agree? (I just
    wanted to share). Great topic! I loved it! and thanks. Kind regards.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Good point, Arka. If we don’t spend time with those who disagree with us, we assume everyone is like us!

  • Kim

    “I know I’m broken and make mistakes. But I also know now we’re all broken, which means your hurt may not be my fault. And you may need to face it, rather than be rescued from it by my apology. And I am beginning to believe that I get to decide when I need to apologize. My fears and your demands will no longer dictate apologies and compensation.”… I need to read this again and again. I am so willing to give away my power and, really, my Self, in order for others to not feel hurt…not matter how much hurt it causes me in the process. I learned it as a child, and sometimes it feels so impossible to unlearn. “your hurt may not be my fault” is something I need to grab and hold on to. Thank you for that gift!

  • Lynda Laird

    This is a great article – we all need to be reminded to worry less about the perceptions of others (as what we imagine is usually not what’s actually happening). My meditation lately has been “I am breathing in comfort, I am breathing out release.”

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Lynda, a good breath meditation.

  • Jennifer Newell

    Well first off my take on counseling is really different than most. I dont think there is anything wrong at all with you if you go to counseling to talk to someone. I think sometimes the way we talk to ourselves internally is pretty harsh and therefore, you need an outside party to listen to what you are saying to yourself and call you out on it. You need someone to ask you, Do your really believe that and if so why? It causes you to slow down and think through your issues and you get another person to help you to see things mostly in a bigger perspective. More times than not you just need someone to listen because when you start to say the things you think inside your head out loud, you just start to think about them differently.

    There is also something I say to my kids alot. I tell them that there will always be someone smarter than you, and there will also always be someone not as smart as you. So therefore you should judge yourself based on yourself not base on others. It is about being your best self. I feel this way because I believe we all have special gifts from God and therefore we have to use those gifts to the best our ability. If we spend all our time trying to be better than someone else, or trying to measure up, we will not be able to be your best self.

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