The mother takes 7-year-old David to another part of the playground. By the sound of the “saaaaawry,” I’m guessing that David was being obedient, but he didn’t really know what he did, didn’t feel like it was his fault, and wasn’t sorry at all.
As adults, we hear (or even give) apologies such as, “I’m sorry you felt hurt.” “If I did something that hurt you, I’m sorry.” “I apologize, but I was really distracted by something else.” “I’m sorry, but you should know that I really love you and you shouldn’t take it so personally. It’s just the way I am.” “I’m sorry, but you are really making too big a deal of this. It is just a little thing.” “I apologize, but give me a break.” “I’m sorry for the problem you had. My assistant is normally on top of things.” When we give such apologies, we can say, as 7-year-old David did, “But I apologized!” However, when the apology (as in the examples above) is an inauthentic or inadequate apology, it doesn’t heal, doesn’t resolve, doesn’t soothe, and the hurt remains unmoved.
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Authentic and effective apology is the very core of healing, clarifying, and restoring relationships, from interpersonal to organizational to cross-cultural ones. A real and well-thought-out apology can, likeforgiveness, cut the cycle of anger, revenge, and hatred. However, making a genuine apology causes the giver to be extremely vulnerable. You are admitting directly to another that you did something that caused harm. This is very humbling! Doing so is also challenging because it’s like leaping off a cliff into the unknown. You are not in charge of how your apology will be received. Your efforts could be harshly rejected, your hopes for healing thrown back in your face.
A client spent some months working with his shame about having abused his younger sister. From a most humble place, he wrote her an apology in the hope that this could be a first step in restoring their relationship. Several weeks later, the letter was returned to him, with “Rejected. You will not be forgiven.” written across his words. He was devastated. Over time he began to look at what he coulddo rather than grieving for the loss of his relationship with his sister.
His sister couldn’t accept his apology, but he could demonstrate that he had learned and changed by volunteering at a women’s crisis center. He also could be proud that he had broken many generations of family history by not abusing his own daughters. These actions, which he was proud of, had shifted his inner wound from the shame of feeling unforgivable to the fact of being unforgiven. He could now move on.
I asked a few of my friends to remember a time when they needed to and did offer someone an apology. Usually, we rightly focus on the feelings and needs of the hurt person, but I wondered what the apologizer got from the process. This is what I heard: “I got to let go of at least some of my guilt.” “The apology was accepted. It repaired the relationship, and the friendship actually got better.” “In the process of getting to being able to apologize, I went through all my defenses and finally got to see something about myself that I didn’t like and face the truth about a familiar and hurtful pattern I had been denying or at least had been unaware of. This was hard work. Once I got it, the apology was easy.” “Honestly, I don’t know if I got anything at all. It was really like just getting it out of the way.” “It was unbelievably relieving for me.” “It took such courage. I try so hard to be ‘good,’ and it was painful but freeing to be able not only to see but to take responsibility for doing a bad thing.” “I learned that it’s really OK to make mistakes. What isn’t OK is not to apologize for them and learn from them.”
Apologies open big doors. As John Kador puts it, “Apology is the bravest gesture we can make to the unknown. … Apologies unmask all the hopes, desires, and uncertainties that make us human because, at the moment of genuine apology, we confront our humanity most fully. At the point of apology we strip off a mask and face our limitations. No wonder we hesitate” (Kador, pp. 43-44).
What is the value of apology to the one who has been wounded? Opportunity for restoring relationship, deescalating conflict, rebalancing power, recovering dignity, letting go and moving on, stopping a cycle of resentment and revenge, and increasing trust in the human capacity for goodness and truth. This is a strong litany. From the biggest perspective, “quarrels often escalate into serious conflicts on the fulcrum of apology. … Throughout human history, endless cycles of revenge and untold suffering have resulted from the denial of effective apology. It’s a tragedy because apology has the power to defuse almost all human conflicts” (Kador, p. 45).
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