The Healing Power of Apologies



As a Marriage and Family Therapist I have the honor of sharing in the lives of couples and families as they work to heal from hurts. I see struggles among couples, siblings, parents and children.

Trust-relationships rupture because each one of us is human and flawed. Offending people is effortless and inevitable. Nobody starts off a relationship an expert at relating to the other person. Hopefully we strengthen the relationship by being responsive, apologizing when we cause hurt, and become more synchronized over time.

Offense happens every day. In my house just this morning, a sibling was offended about another borrowing her book without asking, and a parent was offended that a kid didn’t clean up their mess. How, then, do parents, siblings and children treat each other with respect and loving kindness into adulthood, and through a lifetime? How do happy marriages last, making true the vow “till death do us part”?

Repair binds us together. The adhesive that glues together the broken pieces of our important relationships can even strengthen the relationship.

An apology done right can go a long way.

Unfortunately, many of us have never properly learned to apologize. We’ve rarely been apologized to sincerely, with kindness, concern, and remorse restoring a sense of safety in the presence of the other. As children, we may have been coerced to apologize against our will and without depth of instruction. We may have developed ideas about when an apology is and isn’t necessary, and how to deliver an apology that are actually harmful to our relationships. There are several common pitfalls you could be falling prey to, and a few simple important elements to include in your apologies. Read on to learn more.

“Say you’re sorry”

Did your parents force apologies? Many kids will concede to an obligatory apology in order to move on, to get something, or to avoid punishment. Kids are pressured to humble themselves and hate it, sometimes feeling humiliated, or disagreeing that they had done anything wrong.

Some parents may be trying to assuage their own parent-guilt for bringing up a kid who did whatever it was. This can feel like a painful abandonment to a child, like the parent figuratively moving away. This sends a shame message that if you’ve done something that requires an apology, you’re unlovable. Those seeds sink deep and breed perfectionism. Many kids who experience this find it hard to admit wrongdoing, thinking “If people know I’ve done something wrong, I will fall out of favor, be not-good-enough.”

Others may be teaching the child that when you do something that hurts another person, an apology is what you do. It’s the kind thing, and it’s good manners because the feelings of others are important too. To send this message well, parents need to exercise forgiveness for their child, and incredible self-control. We have to center ourselves in unconditional love for our child, soften our voice, draw physically close, and treat the child with the respect that their enduring spirit deserves. As parents, we have a responsibility to teach the future adults we are raising how to live in community while treating our children decent, the way we want them to treat those more vulnerable than them.

“It’s not a big deal”

Sometimes the response to an offense so seemingly small and insignificant leaves us in disbelief and confusion. How can so small a thing have garnered such a reaction? If somebody had done the very same thing to us, we’d have barely noticed.

But they are a different person, with different experiences. We can’t possibly know how badly we’ve hurt them because the injury is invisible. We may have felt that our offense would have just barely bumped them, but they experience it as having been knocked clear off their feet. People who are suspicious of being manipulated will have trouble with this, but in your deep love relationships it requires trust of the injured person. Because of your social location and experiences of past hurts, you too are more vulnerable to some kinds of hurts than others.

To some, when a person is late, it is terribly offensive and a personal slight. Others can easily see in context that there are many things that may have prevented them from being on time. The one who is offended may have had an important figure become absent when they ought to have been there for them. In the culture of their home, it may have been stressed that all must be present and prepared at the table before any can eat, and so one being even a minute late would communicate lower importance of the others. We don’t know completely the internal world of the person sitting across from us, and all their history. A small thing in your book may be incredibly painful in theirs. We do not get to qualify the internal worlds of our loved ones. However big of a deal it is to them, that is its size.

“I didn’t mean to”

Another common scenario is the offending party defending their intent:
“It was an accident. I forgot or made a mistake. Just let it go. Why do you have to rub my nose in it? What do you want from me?”

This is a defensive stance. Defensiveness will suggest the person you’ve hurt is trying to manipulate you to feel guilty or think badly about yourself. Defensiveness is a mask for shame. Shame assumes that to have harmed someone you must have done so maliciously. It also assumes that if you had hurt someone, it would make you a bad person. Shame is condemning, immobilizing. Defensiveness and Shame work together to keep you from moving on to a helpful and active place of guilt and remorse. To get out of it you have to know you are not your offending actions.

The key here is acknowledging that the things you do, I do, we all do, can hurt others, and often do.

Imagine for a moment that you’re walking down a busy street, in a hurry to get someplace, preoccupied. You dodge the edge of a stoop and promptly bump into somebody. This is a mistake. It does not make you evil. Would you ignore that and walk on without a word? What about if you bumped into that person so hard that you knocked them down? They look up at you, shocked expression, a scrape on their hand from having caught themselves on the concrete. The coffee they were holding has spilt all over their clothes. Do you say “sorry” and walk on? Do you also ask whether they’re ok? Say what you did wrong (wasn’t paying attention, moving too quickly)? Help them up? Offer to buy them a fresh cup of coffee? Most of us couldn’t conceive of shouting “What! I didn’t mean to! Let it go!” at a total stranger we’ve injured in this way. Yet, some of us essentially do this to our loved ones when we unintentionally emotionally injure them.

It’s obvious to recognize the pain of having knocked someone down physically, but emotional pain can be harder to recognize or understand. The brain can’t tell the difference between physical and psychological pain because psychological pain is just as harmful. Pain signals tell us that something needs attention. When a loved one, especially your primary attachment figure (like a spouse or parent) does or says something that sends a message of absence or intentional harm, there are special emotion regions in the brain that react with terror and pain. When our important relationships are threatened it’s terrifying, and it hurts. We need each other. As a species, we would not have been able to survive this long without our important relationships. There is something primal about our reaction to a threat to the relationship with the one on whom we have grown to depend.

What? I said “sorry…”

Our poor examples and lacking experiences can lead to a poorly done, or insufficient, apology. You may have learned to resent the expectation of an apology. Even when one wants very much to mend what was hurt, the right words and a repentant attitude are lacking. I’ve often heard, in sessions with families, one say something like “You never even apologized!” and the response: “I did! I said I was SORRY!” (when, of course this insistence helps nothing, and they could just apologize then and there). The offender may have said “sorry,” and even meant it. The injured one did not even hear it because of the lack of evident sincerity and/or acknowledgement of injury.

Occasionally, somebody will say, “I’ve apologized over and over. Why isn’t that enough for you?” This implies that there is something wrong with the injured party that they aren’t healed yet, and can be a very hurtful thing to say. It implies that they are defective or manipulative, and shifts the blame to the injured. It’s unfair to hurt someone and then blame them for the wound not healing fast enough. Probably 2 things are happening here. 1: You don’t have a clear understanding of how badly you hurt the other person (you thought it was just a scrape, but it’s really a broken bone), and 2: Your apology was insufficient (read on to learn the nuts and bolts of a properly done apology).

Sometimes one apology doesn’t cut it. It’s the injured party that gets to determine when the apology is accepted. Why? Because you can’t fully know the impact! Only they can!

Waiting until you feel it

Maybe you don’t want to say you’re sorry because you don’t feel sorry. You’ve said or done something that hurt a loved one because you were angry, and you’re still angry. You feel justified. Perhaps you remember the feeling of being forced to apologize by a parent, embarrassed by having to apologize, or apologizing when you feel you did nothing at all wrong. You may think to yourself “to say sorry and mean it, I have to feel sorry, or it’s a lie, not true remorse, hypocritical.” I’ve got to admit I used to think this myself.

The truth is, feelings are not fact. I’ve learned I don’t have to feel badly about something I’ve done in order to recognize it hurt somebody I care for, or that it goes against my values. I don’t have to wait to feel it before I say it, and waiting may even cause further injury. The injured party experiences being both hurt and abandoned. Now it’s as if you’ve knocked someone down and let them lay there while their things get blown away or rained on. They’ve had to pick themselves up and move on with their day independently, and deal with everything that came with it. If you believe/recognize you did something wrong or harmful, the mature apologize immediately and let their feelings follow after. Sure, it helps if you feel it. Don’t make stuff up about feeling sorry if you don’t. Just say what you did wrong, the harm you see it caused, and that you oughtn’t to have done it. Amazingly, the apology itself can be transformative and bring the feelings.

Are you sorry because of the effect on you (consequences) or the effect on the injured party and your relationship with that person? Either way, if you can recognize where you’re wrong, an apology is in order.

“But they were MORE wrong”

Arguments can get stuck in a gridlock of “but you’s.” Each party thinks the other did the worse wrong and therefore should be the one to apologize, or at least apologize first.

This draws up in my mind an old Dr. Seuss story about the Zax. There’s a North-Going Zax who only goes north and a South-Going Zax who only goes south. They come face-to-face, and being stuck in their ways and culture (not taking into account the needs or wants of the person in front of them) neither will step aside. So, as they stand there obstinately, while a whole city and highways are built up around them. The world moves on and they waste their lives in stubborn refusal to secede from the stare-down.

Each feels justified in their stance. Each feels that the other is wrong, or at least more-wrong, for not stepping aside and making way.

Maybe you are behaving like a Zax in one of your relationships right now.

When you find yourself offended and offending, ask yourself what you want your life to look like? Do you want gridlock? How important is this relationship to you and is this where you want to be stuck? It’s likely that you have done something imperfect in this disagreement, too. You can apologize for your part.

Usually, it’s the more mature who will step aside. The more mature will apologize, even if they believe their part is smaller or came later.


The Nuts and Bolts (the formula of the apology)

You’ve decided a chance at repairing the connection in your relationship is worth taking a humble stance and saying a few words. There are a few steps you want to be sure to incorporate for an effective apology.
How to:

  1. Acknowledgement
  2. Say what you did wrong in detail. It’s important that they know that you know what you’re apologizing for.

  3. Recognition of harm
  4. (Tap into your empathy – putting yourself in their shoes) – Recognize the impact it had on them.

    Examples:

    • I can see that hurt you.
    • That must’ve been really confusing/frustrating, etc.
    • If it had been me, I’d have been scared/sad/fed-up.
    • That caused problems for you/was inconvenient for you/left you in a tight spot.

  5. Remorse
  6. Say you’re sorry. If you didn’t mean to do it, share your intentions without making excuses. Explain your mistake in few words (don’t make it the focus, their injury should be the focus).

    If you did mean to (lost your temper and said something cruel, chose something for yourself rather than something you promised your spouse etc.) and you realize that does not reflect the character you are growing into, admit it.

    Examples:

    • I lost my temper and that’s not ok.
    • I made a selfish decision.

  7. Fair Restitution
  8. (Generous restitution) – When you break your friend’s phone, the least you can do is buy him a new one, and replacing it with a newer generation of phone to help make up for the inconvenience doesn’t hurt. It’s the age-old “I-screwed-up” bouquet. Maybe saying it with flowers or a dramatic gesture helps in your relationship when you’ve done something that hurt feelings. Maybe there’s something that fits more with the mess-up, and would be more meaningful to your loved one. Ate your roommate’s cake slice? Bake or buy them their most favorite specialty treat. Overspent and now your partner has to work a long day on their feet to make up for it? Maybe a foot-rub is in order, and giving up an indulgent habit to cut down on expenses. When sorry isn’t quite enough, actions talk. If you’ve apologized and still feel guilty, this may be your heart’s indication to do something more.

  9. Change, so you don’t injure again
  10. This is easy to say, and hard to do. It can be so difficult that sometimes people are afraid to apologize for fear that they won’t be able to keep from making the same mistake again. Old habits die hard. Sometimes the same mistakes are made many times before they can be overcome. Do whatever you need to do to stop hurting your loved one. Get help if you need it. Repeated breaks along the same line can damage a relationship beyond repair, even for things that seem insignificant at first glance. Trust becomes weakened. Withholding an apology does nothing to help this situation. There is transformational power in admitting you got something wrong – for you and the relationship. Apologizing helps the change process, yet it is not always enough to bring about change. So, prioritize your important relationships and make use of your resources.

We require emotional maturity to make our relationships last and thrive. Apologizing is one key part of that.

It’s my hope that reading these things will help you on your journey, choosing to embody just ways of relating.

– Holly J. Harden BASW, MA, LMFTA


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University Place, WA 98466