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Sue is at the stove making dinner. As she turns to tell her children to get ready, she sees six-year-old Adam ripping a Barbie doll’s head off while his four-year-old sister stares at him with fear in her eyes. Adam is watching his sister and seems to take pleasure in her response. Sue is shocked and disgusted. Before she is aware of how she feels and why she was triggered into those feelings, she says to Adam. “You are horrible! That was just mean and malicious! How can you do such an awful thing? Don’t you care about your sister’s feelings at all? You need to apologize to your sister right now!” Adam feels deeply ashamed. He hears that there is something inherently wrong with him.
Twenty years later, Adam and his girlfriend Sarah are having a fight. Her choir had their first performance and he forgot. He stayed late at the office to work overtime and went out for a drink with his colleagues afterwards. His seat in the theatre stayed empty. Sarah is upset. “How could you forget? Don’t you care about my life and my feelings at all? You are horrible!” Adam’s shame is triggered again. He doesn’t say anything. When his girlfriend says, “you should apologize, but clearly you don’t care!” Adam gets defensive. What he doesn’t do is take responsibility for his mistake and apologize.
Apologies are almost impossible when we are stuck in a place of shame. Being able to say, “I am sorry” requires a solid foundation of self-worth. We need to feel that we are fundamentally lovable even if our behaviour in a situation has caused somebody else pain. Adam has learned that he is fundamentally flawed. Criticism and the anger of a loved one trigger self-loathing in him. He feels like he is six years again, being told that he is horrible. Only when we have a solid basis of self-esteem can we take responsibility for a mistake and for the effects our words or actions had on another person.
Sarah is hurt and continues to be upset. Adam feels not good enough and, in an attempt to stop the uncomfortable confrontation, he says, “I am sorry” in an irritated voice. His apology comes with the meta message that Sarah’s feelings are silly and annoying. He adds, “You could have reminded me again yesterday that the performance was tonight” and essentially blames her. A little later in the conversation he says, “I am sorry but you are overreacting. It’s not as if you had a solo performance!” Because of the deep shame he feels, he is unable to validate her feelings and take responsibility for his absence with an authentic and heart-felt apology.
What constitutes an effective and honest apology?
- It is never too late to apologize. If we apologize within the first minutes after an event, the repair is easier. As Stan Tatkin points out, when we can repair very quickly, the experience does not pass from short term memory into long term memory. On the other hand, if the repair does not occur quickly, the behaviour is regarded by the injured party as a “trait” and will be encoded in their memory as such.
However, Adam can still apologize when he has calmed down and has taken a moment to put himself in Sarah’s shoes. Going back to the conversation at a later point means a double apology is required; a heart-felt “I am really sorry, I wasn’t at your choir performance as I had promised” followed by, “I am sorry I felt too ashamed to apologize properly right away.”
- Apologizing requires listening and understanding. The willingness to sit with Sarah’s disappointment and validate her feelings is required from Adam. “You must have been so disappointed”, “I understand why you felt like I didn’t care”, “I am sorry you felt abandoned” and so on.
- Apologizing means taking responsibility for one’s part in a situation. Adam needs to look into Sarah’s eyes and show her through his body language, his tone and his words, that he is sorry for forgetting. An authentic “I know I really screwed up!” or something similar shows that he is not trying to pass the blame.
- The word “but” negates an apology. A true apology only focuses on our behaviour, without making excuses. Harriet Lerner in her book “Why Won’t You Apologize” reminds us to keep “but” and “if” out of our apologies. “I am sorry if I offended you” is for example also a non-apology, as it questions the validity of the other person’s feelings.
Just as there is an art to apologizing, there is also an art to receiving an apology. In accepting the apology, there is also no place for a “but” or a lecture. Sarah needs to receive Adam’s heart-felt apology with grace and openness. She needs to simply thank him for apologizing and save any further discussion, for example about Adam having been forgetful lately, for another time.
As parents, grandparents, and educators, who want to raise children who are ready to say sorry, we have to keep in mind that saying less is more. If a child apologizes, we need to accept the apology with a simple thank you instead of following with a whole lecture. We need to give them credit for being mature and responsible enough to offer a true apology. Making statements about the child’s character instead of their behaviour and lecturing them only causes further shame instead of a positive experience. A true heartfelt apology is not just a gift to the person we are apologizing to but it is also a gift to ourselves as it raises our self-worth when we are able to take responsibility and act in integrity. Let’s remember to make apologizing an experience of personal growth and increased self-esteem for the next generation.
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