I’m sorry are the two most healing words in the English language. When spoken as part of a wholehearted apology, these words are the greatest gift we can give to the person we’ve offended. Our apology can help free the hurt person from life-draining anger, bitterness, and pain. It validates their reality by affirming that, yes, their feelings make sense, we get it, and we take full responsibility for our words and actions—or our failure to speak or act. A heartfelt apology allows the hurt party the space to explore the possibilities of healing instead of just struggling to make sense of it all.
The apology is also a gift to our self. Our self-respect and level of maturity rest squarely on our ability to see ourselves objectively, to take a clear-eyed look at the ways that our behavior affects others, and to acknowledge when we’ve acted at another person’s expense. The good apology earns us respect in the eyes of others, even though we may fear the opposite.
Finally, the good apology is a gift to the relationship. Two people can feel secure in the knowledge that if they behave badly, even fight terribly, they can repair the disconnection. We strengthen our relationships when others know that we’re capable of reflecting on our behavior, that we’ll listen to their feelings, and that we’ll do our best to set things right.
In contrast to the profoundly healing power of the good apology, there’s the terrific cost of a failed apology. One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons shows a father talking to his grown son. “I wanted to be there for you growing up, I really did,” the dad says. “But I got a foot cramp. And then a thing came up at the store—anyway, you understand.” While the humor of the cartoon rests on its absurdity, real-life apologies are good contenders, and have been flooding the news as women come forth in record numbers to speak about the sexual misconduct of powerful men. The empty, obfuscating, and self-serving public apologies of the transgressors provide us with excellent examples of how to muck up a sorry.
THE PUBLIC APOLOGY AS PERFORMANCE
From the long and ever-expanding list of recent faux apologies, I recall the early ones from the entertainment industry best. Kevin Spacey, accused by actor Anthony Rapp of making a sexual advance when Rapp was 14, said he had no memory of the incident, then continued, “But if I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.” Dustin Hoffman, accused of sexual harassment from a former intern, said, “I have the utmost respect for women and I feel terrible for anything I might have done that could have put her in an uncomfortable situation. I am sorry. It is not reflective of who I am.” Harvey Weinstein, insisting that even the most brutal of his violations were, in his mind, consensual, stated, “I so respect all women and regret what happened.”
One doesn’t need to be an apology expert to recognize when “I’m sorry” means not sorry at all. These slippery, sleazy, dishonest, gaslighting apologies are devoid of accountability. But even if the men making apology headlines had said the right words, it would hardly suffice. Public apologies that follow the harmed parties coming forth with the terrible facts are, well, performances. At the time of the public apology, the wrongdoer wants to save his own skin—a perfectly normal human impulse. But the person the wrongdoer feels genuinely sorry for is himself.
The public apologies making headlines differ from private ones in another respect. They’re not intended to heal a relationship, mend fences, or rebuild trust. There’s no relationship to repair. The foundation on which a mutually respectful connection might have been built was irreparably shattered long ago. Rather than offering mea culpas with endless qualifications and undoings, a truly meaningful reparation from these powerful men might include contributing a hefty proportion of their net worth to organizations and programs that will protect women from future sexual harassment and ensure safe work environments.
“Was his apology sincere?” is the question I’ve been frequently asked by the media, as one public apology for sexual misconduct follows another. As someone who has researched the subject of apologies over many years, my short answer is no. It’s unrealistic to expect authentic expressions of empathy and remorse at the moment when the offending persons are at risk of having their life accomplishments, reputations, as well as their identities reduced to the worst things they’ve ever done. We can apologize for what we do, but not for who we are. Perhaps in the future, some of the wrongdoers will be able to comprehend the harm they’ve done, carry some of the pain, and take the opportunity to redeem themselves. At this cultural moment, however, I’m surprised by only one thing. Why, I ask myself, didn’t these men get coached by someone who would at least have put the right words in their mouth?
While the offenders making headlines must be held accountable, sexual misconduct is not an individual problem to be solved by individual solutions. What we glibly call “sexual harassment” (a very large umbrella, under which all offenses should not be leveled as one) is a systemic problem from the Oval Office down to the deepest interior of family life. Despite the gains of feminism, all major institutions that generate power, meaning, policy, and wealth are run almost exclusively by men. Until women are fully represented and valued in every aspect of language, politics, and culture, men will always have too much to be sorry for.
We’re All Apology Challenged
Decoding the faux apologies of public figures is easier than getting our own apologies right. We’re wired for defensiveness and to protect our favored image of ourselves. Every one of us has certain relationships and particular circumstances in which we’re apology challenged. None of us is immune from slipping into vague, obfuscating language that obscures what we’re sorry for.
In moving from public apologies to private ones, I’d like to share two stories. The first describes my own failure to apologize to a dear friend whom I’d offended at her book-launch party. Although it was only a simple heartfelt apology that was due afterward, I found it wasn’t quite so simple for me to offer one. But sometimes the failure to apologize for even a small thing can put a crack in the very foundation of a relationship when the other person doesn’t get the validation she needs and deserves.
The second story is from my clinical work with a mother whose adult daughter had been sexually abused by her father many years earlier. It will illustrate an apology process that was a long-distance run, and that required an effort so heroic that the very word apology seems far too glib.
THE PARTY: GETTING PAST MY NEED TO BE RIGHT
Sheila, a close friend of many decades, had invited me to her book-launch party in New York. It was scheduled at a difficult time for me to leave Kansas and the plane tickets were expensive. Still, I wanted to be there for her. I’ve learned how important it is to show up for rituals, and the launching of Sheila’s first book was a huge event for her.
I arrived at the party to find I knew only one other person besides Sheila, a woman named Blanche, who was the senior editor of a magazine where I’d been a columnist for many years. I’m not comfortable talking to people I don’t know, and to avoid that experience I ended up sitting in a corner with Blanche for almost two hours, lost in a conversation, and oblivious to the passage of time. Neither of us noticed when the guests began to gather in a different room to offer toasts, so we joined the group midway through the ritual.
When Sheila called me the evening after I returned home, I assumed she was going to thank me for making the trip, but instead she told me I’d behaved incomprehensibly (or was the word reprehensibly?) at her party. She went on to share how hurt (and furious) she was. How could I have sat with one person for almost the entire party, making no effort to circulate and meet her friends? And how could I have been so self-absorbed that I missed half of the ritual taking place in the other room? I had disappointed her friends and embarrassed her.
I felt blindsided. I had no idea there had been a problem at all. I’d made an expensive trip at an inconvenient time to be at the party, and now I was being told that I’d ruined it. Her criticisms seemed exaggerated and unfair, so I responded in defensive mode, with an I’m sorry, but.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but why in the world didn’t you pull me away from Blanche early on and let me know what you wanted?”
“That’s not my responsibility,” Sheila fired back at me.
“I’m not saying it’s your responsibility,” I answered. “I’m just saying that, of course, I would have circulated if you’d asked me to. A tap on the shoulder would have done it.”
“It’s not my job to supervise you or tell you how to behave.” Sheila was even angrier than before. I’d obviously thrown fuel on the fire.
I was really upset. Why couldn’t Sheila see that we’d both participated in the problem? It would’ve been the easiest thing in the world for her to tell me she’d like to introduce me to some of her friends. And, of course, I would’ve wanted to be present at the beginning of the toasts if I’d known they were starting. Instead of doing the mature thing, Sheila had stayed silently seething for much of the party, as if she were the helpless victim of my gross insensitivity, for which she then blamed me. The fact that I’d come to New York at considerable trouble and expense grated—but the fact that she couldn’t see her part grated more. I ended the conversation with another classic faux apology: “I’m really sorry you were so upset by my talking so long to Blanche.” Apologizing for the other person’s feelings rather than apologizing for our own behavior is often worse than no apology at all. It only deepens the original injury, but I did it anyway.
Dialing Down My Defensiveness
Over the next couple of days, away from the heat of anger, I took stock of my defensiveness. Sheila had gathered the courage to confront me about my behavior. She wanted me to hear her criticisms, which was not the time for me to criticize her back. She’d made herself vulnerable by sharing her anger and deep hurt. Whether I saw these feelings as completely valid was irrelevant. They were her feelings.
I often feel a great need to get my close friends to see how they should have handled a situation differently, whether with me or someone else. I recognize this as a problem of mine—the downside of my clarity about relationship patterns. Sheila has many wonderful qualities, but one she doesn’t have is the ability to see her part in the interactions that bring her pain. My response on the phone could only have felt to her like I was trying to reverse the blame, which I was. At the very least, I wanted her to share it.
I called Sheila a few days later and offered a genuine apology. I told her I was sorry for my insensitive behavior, and especially at such an important occasion. I said I’d given her words much thought and that there was no excuse for sitting in the corner with one person for so long—a decidedly thoughtless act. I meant it all. It was her book party, her very big night. I had screwed up.
Yes, I secretly wished she could’ve said, “Well, Harriet, it’s also true that I should’ve said something, so I share at least a teensy bit of the responsibility.” But I let this hope go. A true apology focuses exclusively on the hurt feelings of the other person, and not on what we’d like to get for ourselves, like forgiveness, or in my case, Sheila’s recognition of her part in the bigger picture.
A wholehearted apology means valuing the relationship, and accepting responsibility for our part without a hint of evasion, excuse-making, or blaming. Sometimes the process is less about insisting on justice and more about investing in the relationship and the other person’s happiness. It’s about accepting the people you love as they are, as I eventually did with Sheila, and having the maturity to apologize for our part, even when the other person’s feelings seem exaggerated, or they can’t see their own contribution to the problem.
MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS: A HEROIC APOLOGY
In our clinical work and personal lives, we’re faced with the challenge of apologies that begin with “I’m sorry” but don’t end there. An apology that opens the door to forgiveness and healing for serious harm like neglect or a sexual violation is a long-distance run that requires courage, clarity, and integrity. The story of Letty’s apology to her 24-year-old daughter, Kim, illustrates the most stunning apology process I’ve ever witnessed in my clinical practice.
The First Step
I’d been Letty’s therapist for some time when I suggested that she invite Kim to join us for a session. Kim had been avoiding her, and something was obviously wrong. But when Letty inquired, Kim snapped, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
The backdrop is this: when Kim was 12, her father had entered her bedroom one night when he thought she was sleeping and molested her. Letty was out of town moving her own mother into an assisted living place, and didn’t know for several months that this had happened. When the facts came out in the open, Letty responded appropriately by getting the whole family into treatment. They were fortunate to see an excellent therapist who was helpful to them.
Letty considered the issue resolved, but trauma is never fully resolved, certainly not as if it had never occurred in the first place. Kim’s father, whom Letty had eventually divorced, had recently died of a heart attack, and I suspected his death had stirred everything up for Kim again, including her enormous rage.
Kim first refused Letty’s invitation to join us, but a few months later, she agreed to come just once. When I asked Kim how she’d been doing since her father’s death, she launched into a terrible attack on Letty. Although I’m trained to be a calm presence in an intense emotional field, my own anxiety rose in response to the raw rage that Kim directed not at her deceased father, but instead toward her mother. It felt as if Kim blamed Letty for her father’s behavior, and was locating the betrayal in the family between mother and daughter.
I was about to intervene when Letty rose from her chair and pulled it closer to Kim’s. I thought she was going to yell back at her daughter something like “How dare you say this to me! How can you blame me for what your father did? How could I have known?”
Instead, Letty turned to her daughter in the most fully present way and said, “I’m so sorry, Kim. I’m so sorry I didn’t know. I’m so sorry I didn’t protect you. I’m so sorry that this terrible thing happened in our family. I’m so sorry that you didn’t feel safe enough to tell me the truth.” Then Letty started to cry. Kim put her arms around her mother, and they cried together.
I don’t know how Letty was able to be there for her daughter in such a remarkably open and nondefensive way. Letty didn’t say she was sorry because she believed the abuse had been her fault or because she thought that she’d been a bad mother. But now, in the face of being totally blasted, she moved into a place of pure listening and offered her love.
Letty’s tears didn’t silence her daughter’s anger or make her own pain the focus of the conversation. Nor was Letty inviting Kim to comfort or protect her. Her apology for being part of this wrenching history was heartfelt and deeply healing for her and her daughter.
Letty’s apology was especially healing because it didn’t include any add-ons. She didn’t say, “I’m sorry, but you need to keep in mind I didn’t know it was happening.” Or “I’m sorry, but your dad was a weak man, and I don’t think he could help himself.” Or “I’m sorry, but this happened a long time ago, and I wish we could put this behind us and move on.” She didn’t even say, “I’m sorry and I hope you’ll forgive me.” Of course, Letty hoped Kim would forgive her. But a true apology doesn’t ask the other person to do anything—not even to forgive.
Continuing the Conversation
Letty deserved a badge of honor for the pure apology that she offered Kim, and when I saw her the following week, she understandably wished that it would’ve put closure on the pain of the past. We all might wish that even the most emotionally painful issues could be resolved in one conversation, but it doesn’t work that way.
I learned in a subsequent therapy session that there had been no conversation about the sexual abuse after the family therapy had terminated, when Kim was 13. Letty’s silence over all those years reflected her loving intention to protect her daughter from revisiting painful emotions. But in her desire to avoid being intrusive, or making things worse, she unwittingly left her daughter feeling unutterably alone with the worst thing that had ever happened to her. When people suffer, as Kim did, they often do so twice: first because they’ve lived through something painful, and second because a key person in their lives doesn’t want to hear about it, or doesn’t want to hear all of it.
A few sessions later, Letty told me about a Saturday night movie-and-dinner date that she’d initiated with Kim a week following the funeral service for her father. Letty chose the film they saw together, not knowing that it contained a scene in which a teenage girl was raped by a hired hand. When the two women grabbed a bite to eat afterward and did their usual post mortem of the movie, neither mentioned the sexual violence.
“Did the rape scene in the movie remind you of what had happened to Kim in your family?” I inquired.
“Of course it went through my mind,” Letty replied. “And I’m sure Kim thought of it, too. How could she not? She was in a foul mood when we left the theater, and my choice of the movie probably contributed to it.”
“Did you consider saying something about it?” I asked. It was, after all, on both of their minds.
“No,” said Letty. “My plan was to have a fun evening, and it was my mistake to pick this movie. I wasn’t going to make things worse by bringing up the sexual abuse. It’s Kim’s place to mention it, if she wants to talk about it.”
The rape scene in the movie was an obvious trigger for both of them, and given the prominence of sexual abuse in media, it was undoubtedly one of countless reminders of what happened to Kim. What made it stand out more intensely was that it was the first trigger that followed the death of Kim’s dad, and that preceded Kim’s distancing from Letty.
What if Letty had done something different after leaving the movie? Imagine that Letty had turned to Kim and, with the same open-heartedness that she showed in her apology, said something like this:
Kim, I’m so sorry that I chose this movie for us, because I wanted this to be a fun time for us. I don’t want to make the evening heavy, so I’m hesitant to say anything at all. I just want you to know that as I watched that rape scene, I could only think of what your dad did to you, and it was painful to watch. I want you to know that I love you, and you’re not alone with the pain of what happened.
How might Kim have responded? Surely anxiety would have risen like steam. Kim would likely have said something curt like “I don’t want to talk about it.” Or “Forget it. Don’t worry about it.” Nor is late Saturday night the best time to discuss a heavy issue that hasn’t been mentioned since she was 12 years old. It wouldn’t be easy to continue this conversation in even the most optimal of circumstances.
But what about Kim’s long-term response? I imagine as her mother’s words settled in over time, Kim might have felt something akin to a sense of gratitude that her mother had reached out to her in this way.
Where from Here?
When I asked Letty to consider where the conversation might go following her powerful apology to Kim in the earlier therapy session, she gave the predictable response. “I’ll wait to see if Kim brings anything up,” she said. “I want to follow her lead on this.” With the best of intentions, we almost always leave it to the hurt party to reopen the conversation about a painful or traumatic past event. But it shouldn’t just be the hurt party’s job. It becomes their job because they’re so often left with it.
As we talked more, Letty began to recognize that it was important to say something to Kim that acknowledged the importance of what had happened in the therapy session she’d joined us for. Total silence was a form of distancing, and at the very least, it amounted to a lost opportunity.
So after Letty left my office she steeled herself, took some deep breaths, and made herself call Kim. She thanked Kim for coming to the therapy session, and added, “I’ve been thinking about how I never asked you any questions over all those years about how you were doing with the sexual abuse, how it was affecting you growing up, and what kind of leftover anxiety or anger you still feel. It really hit me during the movie we saw after Dad died, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything at dinner.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Kim said flatly. “I didn’t want to talk about it.”
“It matters to me. I want to have a relationship with you where we can talk about what’s important.”
“I don’t see the point.” Kim said.
“I hope we can talk later,” Letty said.
No one wants to be intrusive or dredge up the past when the other person wants to put it to rest. The past, however, was already dredged up. I encouraged Letty to take the initiative to keep the conversation going, using her own good sense of timing and intuition. The challenge was to keep the lines of communication open to allow for conversation as it might arise over time, without getting overfocused on the sexual abuse, or trying to do too much too fast.
One Thing Leads to Another
It was a bit of a tightrope walk, but Letty did her best to maintain her balance. She didn’t pressure Kim to talk, but neither did she return to her previous silence. Letty found ways to test the waters. She began by asking Kim a few factual (rather than emotionally loaded) questions when the opportunity arose, like “Does your best friend Linda know about the sexual abuse? How did Linda respond? Is there anyone else that you trusted enough to tell?”
Letty also returned to her own contribution to the painful history, the part she now looked back on with sincere regret. She said, “Kim, since your Dad died, I’ve been thinking about the fact that I never asked you one question about the sexual abuse after we stopped the family therapy. Even when it was on my mind, I didn’t talk to you about it. I didn’t bring it up because I thought if you weren’t bringing it up, I shouldn’t bring it up. That was a mistake. I left you alone with it. I’m so sorry.”
“You don’t need to apologize again,” said Kim. “Enough already.”
“Okay, I won’t apologize again. I just want you to know that when and if you feel ready to talk, I’m here to listen.”
Because one thing leads to another, a couple of painful conversations took place several months later that left Letty feeling temporarily flattened and misunderstood. Most excruciating for Letty was when Kim confronted her about her marriage.
“So you stayed with Dad after knowing what he did to me,” Kim said angrily one afternoon at lunch. “And you divorced him when I was 17 because he had an affair. So his affair was a bigger deal to you than his molesting your daughter? Is that fucked up or what?”
Letty felt unable to speak, like the words were knocked out of her mouth. “It was like you never gave the abuse a second thought,” Kim rushed on. “It’s like you and Dad just put it behind you. I couldn’t put it behind me. It happened to me.”
This conversation would never have occurred if Letty hadn’t opened the lines of communication. And who among us wouldn’t prefer to avoid further accusations—which is why we so often don’t take the conversation far enough to evoke the possibility of being slammed. Without the confidence to know that we can handle whatever comes next, and enough self-esteem to avoid collapsing into shame, it’s unlikely that we’ll deepen the conversation.
But Letty hung in even when she was suffering. She talked honestly with her daughter, explaining that her outrage about the affair, and her refusal to go to couples therapy before filing for divorce, was related to the sexual abuse. The affair precipitated the divorce, Letty said, because it reactivated her rage about the harm he did to Kim. She told Kim that she never put the abuse behind her, not for a day. She revealed that she and Kim’s father had never resumed sexual relations after she discovered the abuse, and that thoughts of leaving the marriage were always with her.
Letty told Kim that she didn’t want to make excuses for her choices, and that she couldn’t fully explain or justify her decisions, not even to herself. She could only tell Kim with 100 percent conviction that she would never, not for one second, compare a marital infidelity to the sexual violation that Kim experienced as a child.
“There are no words to tell you how sorry I am that I left you alone with what happened,” Letty said. “I wish I could go back in time and do it differently. Is there any way that I can make it up to you?”
“You can’t make it up to me,” Kim said. Then she softened and added, “But at least I have my mother back.”
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No list of dos and don’ts can capture the quality of a good apology, but it helps to keep the basic ingredients in mind. The good apology requires that we take clear and direct responsibility for what we’ve said or done (or failed to say or do) without any ifs, ands, or buts, and without bringing up the other person’s crime sheet. It includes a sincere expression of empathy and remorse, a commitment to ensuring that there’s no repeat performance, and (when necessary) a reparation or corrective action that fits the harm done.
Of course, it matters what you’re apologizing for. It’s one thing to forget to return your friend’s Tupperware and another to betray a deep confidence, in which case the good apology may also require us to sit on the hot seat and listen with an open heart to the anger of the wounded party on more than one occasion. There’s no greater gift, or one more difficult to offer, than putting aside our defensiveness in order to listen to that sort of pain.
The need for apologies and repair is a singularly human one—both on the giving and receiving end. We’re hard-wired to seek justice and fairness (however we see it), so the need to receive a sincere apology that’s due is deeply felt. We’re also imperfect human beings, prone to error and defensiveness, so the challenge of offering a heartfelt apology permeates almost every relationship. Tendering an apology, beyond the social gesture, can restore our sense of well-being and integrity when we sincerely feel we’ve done something wrong.
Unlike the faux public apologizes that 2017 will likely be remembered for, our private apologies have the potential to heal broken connections and restore trust. Without the ability to apologize and repair the hurts we’ve caused, relationships would be impossibly tragic. We have no control over how a particular apology will be received, and some broken connections can’t be fixed. Still, it’s empowering to know that we have the possibility to set things right, or at least to know that we’ve brought our best selves to one of life’s most essential challenges.
Parts of this article first appeared in Why Won’t You Apologize: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. Copyright © 2017 by Harriet Lerner. Published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster.
Harriet Lerner, PhD, is one of our nation’s most respected voices on the psychology of women and family relationships. She’s the author of numerous scholarly articles and 12 books including The New York Times bestseller, The Dance of Anger, and most recently, Why Won’t You Apologize? Contact: harrietlerner.com.
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