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The Art of the Genuine Apology

A key theme in the aftermath of the “Heaven and Hell” documentary has been the importance of acknowledgement; particularly from people who have harmed us. There are so many stories from child survivors of abuse at Centrepoint, about adults, often parents, not being able to acknowledge the impact that their actions and decision making has had on the following generation. So many stories of children feeling they have had to carry the shame, of adults being angry and defensive when an acknowledgment and apology has been sought. And it is all understandable, however painful, right? For starters, defensiveness in the face of accusation (or feeling accused) is the natural first response of all humans. And then there is the guilt, and the equally natural response to avoid discomfort. If anything, acknowledgement of a harm that we have either advertently, or inadvertently had a part in, goes against everything that feels ‘natural’ to us. Yet, showing up and counteracting these intrinsic tendencies is exactly what is needed for genuine healing of relationships to take place.

Acknowledgment is closely linked, possibly inextricably, to apology. Tricky things, apologies.

Made genuinely, they can be hugely healing, both for the offender and the offended. But they are often done badly, and can have significantly negative impacts on relationships. I don’t think I’m a very good apologiser. I either apologise too much, for things I don’t need to, or I do the classic “I’m sorry you’re feeling…” which isn’t an apology at all, apparently. I’m still stuck on that one, as I am usually genuinely sorry that the person feels that way, but I don’t always feel responsible for those feelings occurring. So I’m still a bit confused about it all.

Rather than blather on about my own confusion, I thought I’d share the views of people who are a lot more sorted out than I am in this field; and the material for this blog comes from Brenē Brown’s interview with Harriet Lerner

While I’m at it, I’ll mention Harriet's book “Why won’t you apologize? Healing big betrayals and everyday hurts” - perhaps a must read for all people connected, however tenuously, to the harm caused by the Centrepoint experience.

While this material focuses on the apology itself, inherent within the material is the power and importance of acknowledgment. I’ve found this material useful both for my own personal interactions and relationships, but also to help me understand and process the instances of lack of acknowledgement of the past within my own family.

The first thing that is discussed is the idea that the words “I’m sorry” are the most important words in the English language, according to Lerner. The second thing is that apologising is very difficult. Makes me feel slightly better about not being that good at it!

Lerner’s justification for the importance of the apology is that the need to give and receive apologies will always be with us. We are imperfect beings, causing (mostly) inadvertent pain to others fairly regularly. Done right, an apology is very healing, but done wrong, very destructive. Lerner asserts that being able to say sorry is central to family, marriage, leadership, and parenting.

She suggests that there are three gifts of a heartfelt apology:

Firstly, it is a gift to the person that we hurt (the offended). The offended person feels soothed, anger/bitterness can be released - they can let it go, the obsessive thinking, "How can they not see what they did?" The offended person feels safe and comfortable in the relationship again. Emotional safety is provided, and they feel validated; their feelings have affected the offender, who cares about them and wants things to be right. A really important aspect of this is that it validates the offended person’s sense of reality; it gives them the message that their feelings make sense, that it is understandable that they feel injured, and it acknowledges that the offender screwed up.

But, if the apology is not heartfelt, then none of those things happen.

Second, it is a gift to the offender. This isn’t initially apparent as the act of apologising puts the offender into a very vulnerable position. They don't know, and have no control over how the apology will be received. It might unleash more anger and criticism. It might be used against them; bringing up self-esteem issues. They will have to admit that they are not perfect.

Lerner argues that an apology is a huge gift to the self as the offender, because in the long term that person grows in maturity and self worth; the basis of self-esteem. Although the offender may feel vulnerable and small, or worried about losing respect, in fact the opposite happens. The relationship grows and the self grows, and the offender is more respected. Even if this doesn’t happen, by making a heartfelt apology, the offender can stand on firmer ground, with their own self-respect intact.

Third, it is a gift to the relationship. All relationships, particularly long term / enduring ones, can’t function if we don’t feel we can repair hurt when we inevitably mess up.

The impact of the bad apology (i.e. one that is not heartfelt, genuine, and comes from a self- defensive place) is huge, according to Lerner. At best, the relationship will suffer. At worst, it may cease, with the offender being cut off. A bad apology that deepens the rift is worse than no apology at all.

I’ve listed Lerner’s 9 Essential Ingredients to a heartfelt apology below. It is an extensive list, somewhat overwhelming in its breadth. But I figure that if I take on even a few of these ingredients, or work on them one by one, I’ll be improving my relationships, and feel like less of a wuss at the same time.

  1. A true apology does not include the word ‘but’. Whatever follows the ‘but’ will be a criticism, excuse, justification, and nothing after it matters.

  2. A true apology focuses on our actions, NOT the other person's response. Instead of saying “I'm sorry if you felt hurt by me saying... “, we need to say, “I’m sorry for saying…” The first apology has no accountability.

  3. A good apology includes an offer of restoration or restitution that fits the situation. This ensures that the offender’s actions reflect a deep understanding of the person’s hurt.

  4. Over apologising is not necessary. Keep it connected to the offence. It seems self-effacing, but it is actually attention seeking and can be irritating.

  5. A true apology doesn't get caught up in who was more to blame for the problem / who started it. The offender apologises for their part (regardless of the size of that part, even if smaller) even if the other person can't see their own part. This is all about learning to be our best self, and is good for the old ego!

  6. A true apology means that the offender does their best to avoid a repeat performance. A change in behaviour is needed. This is particularly challenging if the problem is part of the offender’s behaviour / personality. It is hard to modify behaviour, but an apology has no meaning if you're repeating what you're apologising for.

  7. A true apology should not serve to silence another person, or be used to get out of, or shut a conversation down. If it’s not possible for the offender to hear and/or discuss the issue in that moment, they could say, “I really want to hear your issue, but I'm feeling overwhelmed by what you're saying. Can we talk about it again later? Making sure, of course to actually do so (otherwise it may damage the relationship).

  8. A true apology should not have the focus of making the offender feel better, if it risks making the hurt party feel worse. All apologies are not welcome. For example, pursuing the offended party to apologise to them when they don’t want to hear it probably won’t improve the relationship.

  9. A true apology does not ask the hurt party to do anything, not even to forgive. It is unconditional. It is not set up as wanting an apology back. It is natural to want forgiveness, but the apology is not a bargaining tool. Resolving a conflict is a process. The offended party may need to sit with it to see if there is any leftover anger/pain. An apology is also not an end to a conversation. It de-intensifies the situation to allow room for further conversations.

So! There is a bit in all that, isn’t there? Even if we get some of that down, there’s more! Harriet Lerner talks about the great apology challenge - defensiveness. She states that we are all neurologically wired for the "mischief of defensiveness"- it is normal. We want to protect the most favourable image of ourselves. We don't want to see ourselves outside of what we like about ourselves. The old “Johari Window”