MIchael Bader: The power of an apology
August 9, 2016
I once asked an audience of 100 adults how many of them could remember a time when one of their parents gave them a sincere apology for something specific and important — for example, for having hurt their feelings, misunderstood, or neglected them.
About five people raised their hands, and each of these five could count the number of apologies on one hand.
Genuine apologies are rare — but they clearly have a great emotional effect.
In the childhoods of baby boomers, the practice of a parent apologizing to a child was not common.
Today, that has changed and parents seem more willing to apologize to their children.
This is a good thing, because a well-timed and earnest apology can almost immediately assuage an emotional wound and heal a painful relationship. In adult life, this is also true and my observation is that there are far too few apologies being given and received overall.
What happens exactly when someone apologizes to you? If you have been hurt, an apology makes it clear that it was not something you deserved. The fault lies with the person apologizing and this frees you of painful self-blaming. It also validates the fact that something real happened, that you didn't just imagine a slight, rejection, or disappointment. So you feel less crazy.
An apology also carries with it the implication that you are worth the amends that are being offered, that you matter enough for the other person to want to make things right. This recognition lifts your self-esteem.
If apologies are so powerful and beneficial, why don't more people offer them? The unfortunate reason is that most of us already wrestle with private beliefs that we're undeserving and, as a result, we feel as if apologizing is an admission that our self-condemnation is deserved. In other words, if we apologize for one thing, we tend to generalize and feel that we're deserving of blame for everything. We don't discriminate between doing a bad thing and being a bad person. This type of guilt makes apologizing difficult for many people.
One of my patients recalled a period of his childhood during which his father was having difficulty holding on to a job, resulting in periodic outbursts of temper which my patient found frightening.
However, he also remembered that on several occasions, his father sat down with him and apologized for frightening his son, explaining that the source of his irritability had nothing to do with the boy. The son — my patient — recalled feeling safe and understood during these conversations, relieved that he didn't have to feel blamed, that his feelings were on his father's "radar," and that he was not left alone to deal with the pain and fear that these outbursts created. This was in stark contrast to many other patients who described enduring the traumas of a parent's temper outbursts which were never acknowledged but were, instead, treated as normal or, worse, as the child's fault.
Apologizing is often healing for the "apologizer" as well as for the one harmed. Twelve-step groups practice a form of this that they call the eighth and ninth steps. The eighth step tells addicts to "Make a list of all persons [they] had harmed, and [become] willing to make amends to them all."
And then the ninth step suggests that addicts put their willingness into action, that they "[make] amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."
The psychological wisdom of these steps involves a recognition that the process of becoming aware of the ways we've injured others and reaching out with contrition to those people helps the addict face reality and take responsibility for his or her actions. Apologies can help the person doing the apologizing feel better about him or herself as much as they help the one to whom an apology is offered.
Some of the most powerful moments in my treatment of couples have come when one partner apologizes to the other without any expectations of reciprocity.
It is almost always unexpected and healing. Such apologies should be practiced much more frequently.
Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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