Trump's Failed Apology
Why it is so important for Trump (and all of us) to give meaningful apologies.
Posted Oct 14, 2016
True confession consists in telling our deed in such a way that our soul is changed in the telling of it.
For the first time in his campaign (and seemingly the first time in his life) Trump apologized for talking about women in a vulgar, lewd, and disparaging manner. So why are so many people dissatisfied and even insulted with his apology? And why is apology seen as such a necessary action when one person harms, insults, or betrays another?
The ability to apologize is a powerful opportunity to redeem ourselves and even to wipe the slate clean, but it needs to be done properly for it to be effective. There were several problems with Trump’s public apology regarding the Access Hollywood video during the second presidential debate. First of all, in order for an apology to be effective it mus
t be sincere, there must be an admission of guilt, and there must be evidence that the offender understands that what he did was wrong and has empathy toward the person or persons he offended. Trump’s so-called apology failed on all counts.
Had there not been a video of him making his lewd and vulgar remarks about women we would have probably never received any kind of admission of guilt from Trump. But since there was, he was actually forced to acknowledge what he said. But an apology needs to be truthful and respectful. Otherwise you risk insulting the person you offended even more than you already have. Trump didn’t fully acknowledge that he was wrong in saying what he did. Instead he minimized it and tried to excuse it as “locker room talk” (“boys will be boys”). Not only that but he used the childish excuse, “Yes, I did it, but Bill Clinton did worse.” An effective apology is done without minimizing your offense, making excuses for your actions, and without blaming anyone else (including the victim).
An effective apology needs to be genuine and heartfelt, not done is such a way that shows you are just going through the motions. And you need to show genuine remorse for your offensive actions. Trump’s apology was just the opposite. It happened so fast we barely had time to take it in. Before we knew it he had moved on to talking about defeating Isis. Typically, evidence of genuine remorse includes a statement of empathy for the person who was offended: “I understand that my words were very hurtful. I can imagine they made women feel small and unimportant and no one should ever be made to feel like that. I am deeply sorry for saying those hurtful, damaging words and for objectifying women the way I did.”
While we all deserve an apology if we have been hurt or harmed by someone, those who were traumatized and victimized in some way need an apology even more than someone who was offended by a less damaging action. Trump needs to apologize to the two women he spoke of so disparagingly in the video, as well as every woman he has spoken to or about in vulgar, degrading ways. Although Trump denied acting in the ways he described on the video (forcing kisses on them, grabbing their vaginas) he has likely done these types of things with women and they deserve an apology.
While many Christian supporters and colleagues, including his running mate Mike Pence, seemed to be satisfied with Trump’s brief, less than heartfelt apology, it fell short of what is normally required in religious circles. Pence recently explained that “it’s all about forgiveness” when he was asked to explain his abrupt turn around after almost walking away from Trump. And on a recent CNN program Kayleigh McEnany, one of Trump’s surrogates stated, “We should forgive Trump.” But many Christians, even Trump supporters, are saying “We have to admit wrong doing before we can be forgiven. And there must be contrition.” In Christian theology, contrition (from the Latin contritus “ground to pieces” i.e. crushed by guilt) is sincere and complete remorse for sins one has committed with a firm purpose of not sinning in the future. There must be repentance for sins one has committed. The act of contrition in the Catholic religion includes the statement, “…I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.”
There was no contrition from Trump. He denied ever acting on the actions he described and he minimized and deflected when it came to his usage of vulgar and degrading words to describe women. And he didn’t once let us know that he understood why his words (and likely actions) were damaging to women. He told us he was a changed man but he didn’t explain how this change had come about. He didn’t share with us any lessons he had learned or why we should believe he would act differently in the future. That is not a heartfelt apology by anyone’s standards.
For many people, to attempt to forgive without an apology is to take the risk that the other person is not sorry and does not take responsibility for his or her actions and they are simply not willing to do this. How can I forgive, they ask, when the other person isn't even sorry for what he or she did? How can I forgive if the other person doesn't take responsibility (and with it give the implicit promise to do better)?
Apology is not just a social nicety, something we do to be polite. It is an important social ritual, a way of showing respect and empathy for the wronged person or persons. Trump’s apology was insufficient primarily because it didn’t convey these two important things. He exhibited little if any empathy for the people he had hurt, offended, or disappointed. If, on the other hand, he had shown that he truly understood how much he had hurt women by talking about them so rudely and had he shown he had empathy for their hurt feelings he could have gone far in terms of redeeming himself. Instead he minimized what he had done and by doing so he showed us all that he really didn’t believe (or understand) that what he had done was wrong. Without this understanding he is not capable of changing his behavior.
In short, Trump squandered the opportunity to not only come clean but to help heal the wounds of the people he had harmed. If Donald Trump had been able to give a sincere, meaningful apology he would have shown the millions of women (and men) that he offended by his hurtful and lewd comments that he had real respect for them. By not giving a genuine apology he showed disrespect toward them.
Many people feel that Trump’s apology was woefully inadequate since he did not humble himself before us—he didn’t actually fully admit what he had done. Instead he minimized it and dismissed it as “locker room talk.” Others feel that what he said was actually a non-apology.
Why is Apology so Important?
In addition to expressing respect and empathy, there are several other reasons why apologizing to those we have hurt or harmed is so important:
* Apologizing shows that we are capable of taking responsibility for our actions.
* Apologizing shows that we care about the other person's feelings.
* By apologizing to another person we disarm him or her. The other person no longer feels that we are a threat to them and often, our apology quiets their anger.
* By apologizing to someone we hurt or harmed we validate their feelings and their perceptions.
Apology is a way of acknowledging an act that can’t go unnoticed without compromising the relationship—in this case Trump’s relationship with the American people and with women in particular. Apology has the ability to prevent further misunderstandings and to bridge the distances between people.
When we apologize to someone we have hurt, disappointed, neglected or betrayed we give them a wonderful gift, a gift far more healing than almost anything else we can give. By apologizing we let the other person know that we regret having hurt them. Amazingly, this has the power to heal even the deepest wounds.
Apology as Validation
I have worked with former victims of child abuse for almost my entire career as a psychotherapist. Time after time I hear from clients that the one thing they wish for more than anything else, the one thing that can help them to heal from the abuse they suffered is an acknowledgment from their parents (or other offenders) about how they mistreated them and apologize for the harm they caused. Once in a while I have been witness to the healing that can come when a survivor receives a meaningful apology. The reason why this kind of apology is so healing: the survivor finally feels validated.
Validation is the recognition and acceptance of another person’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors as understandable. In the case of survivors it is a statement that their reactions and emotions are normal, for example: “Of course you were frightened by my anger. I was out of control.” This not only validates their experience and their perceptions but normalizes their reaction.
Apologies such as this also acknowledge that the person was indeed harmed and has a right to feel hurt or angry. This kind of validation is incredibly healing. We all want our feelings to be acknowledged, especially when our feelings have been hurt or we have been emotionally damaged by an act. We want the other person to show us that they know they have hurt us.
Finally, apologies are important because they can validate our perceptions. If we complain to someone about his or her behavior or attitude and that person denies any wrongdoing, we may have one of two typical reactions. We may become angry at the person's denial and begin to distance ourselves from him or her, feeling that it is hopeless to try to deal with this person, or we may begin to doubt our perceptions. Those who come from families where there was a great deal of denial going on (such as when one or both parents were alcoholics or when one family member was either emotionally, physically or sexually abusive to another) grow up questioning their own perceptions. When such a person encounters another's denial he or she is far more likely to doubt his or her own perceptions than to insist he or she is right.
The women who were subjected to Trump’s lewd comments and the many women who have likely been mistreated by him through the years need him to apologize because by doing so he would be validating to them that his behavior was unacceptable and harmful. All too often women, in particular, doubt their perceptions when it comes to the way men treat and mistreat them. Because the behavior is not acknowledged as inappropriate and harmful, a woman may second guess herself: Did that really happen? Did he mean to do that? Am I making too much of it? Am I overreacting? This type of self-invalidation makes recovery from traumas such as sexual assault particularly difficult. Some believe that invalidation is a major contributor to emotional disorders.
But if Trump would provide a meaningful apology he would validate their experience by in essence saying to them, “Your feelings of hurt and anger make sense. I crossed the line and violated your space. I had no right to do such a thing ” (as opposed to being invalidating by rejecting, ignoring or judging their feelings).
Most important, all women need to be validated for feeling insulted, degraded, objectified, hurt and angry by Trump’s vulgar language and treatment of women. It simply cannot be written off as “locker room talk.” There is a significant difference between “dirty talk” and breaking the law. Even more explicitly, there is a difference between degrading women and violating them.
Apology as Reparation and Rehabilitation
We commonly say that we “owe” someone an apology or that we need to “give” an apology. We also say we “received” an apology or we “accept” an apology. All these words imply that something almost tangible is being exchanged. Yet contrary to the logic of our economic marketplace or our conceptions of social exchange, the apology itself is the only compensation. In our money-driven, consumer-oriented world, there can be no more testament to the power of apology than this. It boggles the mind to understand how the expression of regret itself serves as reparation without requiring additional actions on the part of the wrongdoer, but this is exactly what apology accomplishes.
The Importance of Apology to Social Order
In the dark days of our history, if someone offended another person there was no such thing as an apology. Instead, the offending person would be challenged to a duel. As we became more civilized we decided that although our honor and our reputations were certainly important they were not so important that we should defend them with our life. (It is interesting to note that in today’s gang culture, there seems to be a return to the old duel mentality—albeit with guns instead of swords).
We came to understand that we needed a way to protect our honor without bloodshed. And we needed a formal way to rehabilitate ourselves when we offended someone. This is how apology was born.
Apology also recognizes the need of the community for individuals to adhere to certain agreed upon rules. When someone breaks a rule of society, even if it is a mere infraction of etiquette, there is an expectation that the person apologize for the offense. This not only shows respect for anyone who may have been offended by the infraction but in essence, also shows respect for the rule that was broken.
Apology also fosters compassion and forgiveness. While society could not run properly without certain agreed upon rules of behavior, we all know that humans are not perfect. Therefore, even though there is an expectation that the majority of people follow the rules most of the time, room has been made for the likelihood that some people will break the rules sometimes. When this occurs we offer the individual a way to reenter society with honor--the apology. By admitting their offense and formally apologizing, an individual essentially promises to once again bid by the rules of society.
The Importance of Apology in Religious and Spiritual Institutions.
Apology has always been intrinsically linked with forgiveness and for this reason it has been a mainstay in most religions. For example, the act of confession within the Catholic church is essentially an apology to God. It has all the important components of apology—a statement of regret, an acceptance of responsibility for one's actions, a promise to not repeat the offense, and the request for forgiveness. While other religions may not have as formal, nor as accessible a way for its congregants to confess, most encourage apology in the form of some kind of confession. In the Jewish tradition it has long been the custom to seek forgiveness from family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues during the time of the High Holy Days. For example, it is not uncommon in the synagogues of Eastern Europe to see people turn to fellow congregants and friends and quietly ask for forgiveness.
In addition to religious institutions, there is another institution—just as powerful and just as spiritual as most formal religions—that has made apology an integral part of its basic tenets. The 12 step programs of AA,(Alcoholics Anonymous) NA, (Narcotics Anonymous) GA, (Gamblers Anonymous), SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous) and OA (Overeaters Anonymous) all advocate apology as a powerful tool to be used in recovery.
Most people who have an addiction to anything, whether it is alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex or food, discover during the recovery process that their way of dealing with other people is defective and that they harbor a great deal of guilt and shame concerning their treatment of others. They discover that if they are to gain and maintain abstinence and find serenity—two of the main goals of recovery from any compulsion or addiction— they have to learn better ways of dealing with other people, ways that bring them joy instead of pain.
Step Eight of the twelve-step program is designed to help those in recovery examine their relationships (both past and present) in order to discover the patterns of behavior which have done harm to others and themselves. This is accomplished by making a list in writing of all persons they have harmed and then by working toward a willingness to make amends to each and every person on their list.
In Step Nine those in twelve-step programs are encouraged to make direct amends to the people they have harmed, except when to do so would injure them or others. This involves acknowledging their faults and then taking direct action to remedy the damage they did or to repay the losses they caused. Most who complete Step Nine feel freed up from their past mistakes in a miraculous way. Their lives are immeasurably changed, their broken relationships are mended and the ill will that for years poisoned their hearts is washed away. Although making amends is more than just saying, "I'm sorry," apologizing for past actions is a major part of Step Nine.
Apology and the Law
In the distant past, particularly in ancient tribal societies, if a person took responsibility and apologized for his actions, his victims and the community were often far less inclined to punish him. This is still the case with tribal nations such as that of the Maori in New Zealand who focus far more on apology and on the creation of a plan of restitution that satisfies all those concerned than on punishing wrongdoers.
Although our civil and criminal justice systems are quite different today, focusing far more on punishment than on righting the wrong, many people have been willing to drop lawsuits or criminal charges if the person who harmed them apologizes. And receiving an apology is so important to some people that they are willing to forget and/or forgive the most heinous of crimes if the offender shows remorse and apologizes. This is because for many, having someone accept responsibility for a wrongdoing and express remorse for the harm he or she caused is far more healing than any punishment the wrongdoer would ever be forced to experience.
Unfortunately, in these litigious times, when people are being sued right and left, there isn't much encouragement for apologizing and taking responsibility for our actions. If you are in a car accident and you know you caused it your natural inclination is to say "I'm sorry," but you probably won't. You've learned from lawyers and insurance companies who admonish "Never admit fault" to hold your tongue.
But the need for victims to receive an apology is so strong that it has even begun to change our laws. The law has recognized the importance of apology to such an extent that several years ago in Massachusetts a bill was passed to make it safe to say "I'm sorry." The bill stipulates that saying "I'm sorry" does not make a person legally liable. (The bill specifically stipulates that protection is afforded only to those who say "I'm sorry," not to the words "It was my fault").
Apology and our Interpersonal Relationships
The most important application of apology is on the personal level. Many people have become estranged from family members and close friends because the wrongdoer refused to apologize. Long term friendships have been broken, families have been split apart and marriages have been seriously tested or even ended over the issue of apology. On the other hand, long estranged friends and family members have been brought back together by a simple apology and marriages have been saved when one partner apologizes to another. One simple apology can melt even the hardest of hearts, and tear down the strongest of walls.
Apology recognizes and honors an individual's need to protect themselves when they have been hurt. In essence, by recognizing the need to apologize we are stating to the individual we have harmed--"I recognize I have hurt you and that you must shut me out and put up walls to protect yourself from me. Therefore, I will humble myself before you by apologizing to you, temporarily giving you my power in order to show I am no longer a threat. I also understand that you are leery of me, that you no longer trust me and that I must now win back your trust. By admitting my offense I begin to earn that trust back."
And so we see that apology has more than the power to soothe wounds or mend relationships. It also has the power to:
Rehabilitate an individual, resolve conflicts and restore social harmony. While an apology cannot undo harmful effects of past actions, paradoxically, if done sincerely and effectively, this is precisely what apology manages to do. When an apology is sincere and meaningful and received as the gift that it is and reciprocated by the gift of forgiveness, it is nothing short of a miracle. If Donald Trump had been able to own up to what he did and not just pass it off as “locker room” talk, he had an opportunity to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the millions women (and men) he offended.
Rebuild trust. When our own behavior is offensive, inconsiderate or hurtful the recipient of our behavior grows wary of us. Whether they realize it consciously or not, they feel they must be on-guard. They no longer feel as relaxed around us and may even feel that they can no longer trust us. If an apology is not forthcoming, this feeling of wariness and distrust will grow. It's one thing to hurt another person, but it's another thing entirely to either not be aware that we have hurt them or to not care. If this occurs at the beginning of a relationship it may influence whether the relationship continues or not. If the relationship is already an established one, it may add to a growing sense of alienation and resentment.
Both Hillary Clinton and Trump have a problem when it comes to people trusting them. Part of the reason for this is that neither one of them are good at apologizing. Case in point—Hillary’s unwillingness to apologize for calling at least half of Trump’s supporters “a basket full of deplorables.” What she needs to say is something like, “I was wrong to call them that,” or “That was insensitive of me, I shouldn’t have called them that.” Instead, the first time she was called on it she said she didn’t mean “half of them” and at the latest debate she said that she was referring to Trump, not his supporters. We all know who she was referring to so a statement like that did nothing to help people trust her.
The act of apology is not only beneficial to the person receiving it, but to the one giving it as well. The debilitating effects of the remorse and shame we can feel when we've hurt another person can eat away at us until we become emotionally and physically ill. By apologizing and taking responsibility for our actions we help rid ourselves of esteem-robbing shame and guilt. Of course, some would say that Trump, and even Clinton are beyond rehabilitation because they don’t feel shame for their shameful actions or words.
Apologizing to another person is one of the healthiest, most positive actions we can ever take—for ourselves, the other person and the relationship. Apology is crucial to our mental and even physical health and well-being. Research shows that receiving an apology has an obvious and positive effect on the body.
Conversely, when someone does something that harms us or hurts our feelings but does not apologize for it, we become resentful of that person. This resentment can take the form of our distancing ourselves from them, expressing our anger in numerous direct or indirect ways, or it can take the form of our feeling less motivated to be considerate or caring toward them.
Having those who have wronged us apologize for their actions is one of our deepest, most abiding desires. When an apology is not forthcoming we feel cheated and unable to let go of our anger and resentment. Think of the number of times you've heard someone say, "All I wanted was an apology," or "Until I receive an apology I can't forgive."
We want an apology when someone hurts us because we want to know the other person feels bad for what he or she did. While the wrongdoer can't take back what has already been done, knowing he or she feels sorry about it makes us feel better.
The Exchange of Shame and Power
Perhaps the most significant benefit of apology when it comes to Trump concerns the issue of shame, which I discussed in detail in my last Psychology Today blog, The Role of Shame in the 2016 Election. According to psychiatrist Aaron Lazare, in an article in "Psychology Today," what makes an apology work is the exchange of shame and power between the wrongdoer and the person who has been wronged. By apologizing, you take the shame of your offense and redirect it to yourself. You admit to hurting or diminishing someone and, in effect, say that you are really the one who is diminished—I'm the one who was wrong, mistaken, insensitive, or stupid. In acknowledging your shame you give the person who has been wronged the power to forgive. The exchange is at the heart of the healing process.
Apology has the power to humble the most arrogant of people. When we are able to develop the courage to admit when we are wrong and to work past our fears and resistance to apologizing we develop a deep sense of respect in ourselves. This self-respect can, in turn affect our self-esteem, our self-confidence and our overall outlook on life. When I apologize to you I show you that I respect you and care about your feelings. I let you know that I did not intend to hurt you and that it is my intention to treat you fairly in the future. By accepting my apology you not only show me (and yourself) that you have a generous spirit but that you are giving me and our relationship another chance. In addition, you are reminded of your own mistakes and this in turn can encourage you to treat me and others with more respect and consideration.
When you apologize for actions that are hurtful or harmful to someone else you give him or her the gifts of validation, respect and empathy. Apology has the power to make all our relationships, whether personal or business, far more respectful, caring and compassionate. If done correctly, an apology can heal humiliation and foster reconciliation and forgiveness. A genuine apology given and then accepted is one of the most profound interactions between civilized people.
Why Apology is so Difficult for Some
Apologizing to those we have hurt or harmed isn’t always an easy task. There can be various obstacles in our way of doing what is right.
A matter of pride. To apologize is to set aside our pride long enough to admit our imperfections and for some, this feels far too vulnerable, too dangerous. And apologizing also overrides our tendency to make excuses or blame others. This acceptance of responsibility for our own actions is so out of character for some that it is nearly impossible and this seems to be the case with Trump.
The fear of consequences. In addition to our pride being in the way, the fear of consequences can prevent us from taking responsibility for our actions and apologizing. Many people fear that if they take the risk of apologizing they may be rejected. "What if he never speaks to me again," and "What if she leaves me?" are two of our most common fears. Others fear that by apologizing they risk being exposed to others or of having their reputations ruined. "What if he tells everyone what I did?" is the common fear of those who fear this consequence. Some people fear that by admitting fault they will lose the respect of others. "What if she thinks I'm incompetent?" Still others fear retaliation, "What if he yells at me?" "What if she tries to get revenge?" Finally, the fear of retaliation, exposure, or even arrest may prevent us from doing what we know we need to do. Even those who would like to apologize for wrongdoing hold back out of fear of being sued or arrested, or due to the advice of legal counsel. While it is understandable that Trump (and Clinton) would fear the loss of support and damage to their reputation if they were to honestly admit their mistakes and apologize sincerely for them, the sad truth is that they have harmed their reputations more by not apologizing properly.
The lack of awareness. Many people don't apologize because they are oblivious to the effect their actions have on others. They don't apologize because they are simply unaware that they have anything to apologize for. They may be so focused on what others have done to harm them that they can't see how they have harmed others, or they just may be so self-focused that they are unable to see the effect their behavior has on others. These two reasons certainly may be true in Trump’s case. It seems that no matter what anyone says, no matter how many people tell him he is wrong, he just doesn't see it.
Each person suffers in one way or another. And each of us is trying to end that suffering in any way we can. Sometimes, in a last ditch effort to end our suffering we choose to close off our minds or harden our hearts. When we do this, we accomplish our goal of not being able to feel our pain but we also stop being able to feel the pain of others. When this happens we act in callous, selfish, even cruel ways without even knowing it. This may give the impression that we don't care when, in fact, we are just blind to the effects of our actions.
The inability to empathize. By far, the most significant reason why so many of us have difficulty apologizing it that we lack empathy for the others, that quality that enables us to put ourselves in the place of the other person. In order to truly apologize we need to be able to imagine how our behavior or attitude have affected the other person. Unfortunately, many people are unable to do this. Some have to be reminded how to have empathy, others have to be taught.
If you, like Trump, tend to blame others when something goes wrong and to believe that your perceptions are always the right ones, if you have difficulty admitting when you have made a mistake, and difficulty apologizing for a mistake or wrongdoing, you probably need to work on having more empathy for others, to stop judging others, to start valuing the perceptions of others more and to apologize when you have harmed someone.
What is a Meaningful Apology?
So what exactly is an effective, meaningful apology? In my book, The Power of Apology, I explain that an effective, meaningful apology is one that communicates what I call the three R's—regret, responsibility, and remedy.
1. A statement of regret for having caused the inconvenience, hurt or damage.
This includes an expression of empathy toward the other person, including an acknowledgement of the inconvenience, hurt, or damage that you caused the other person.
Having empathy for the person you hurt or angered is actually the most important part of your apology. When you truly have empathy the other person will feel it. Your apology will wash over him or her like a healing balm. On the other hand, if you don't have empathy your apology will sound and feel empty.
Although Trump said he was wrong to have said the things he did and he said he felt embarrassed by it, he did not express any empathy for the people he had harmed. He needed to say something like, “I understand that hearing those words from me was hurtful to many women. I’m sorry I said them and I’m sorry women and girls had to hear them. I also understand that objectifying women the way I did is not acceptable. It is hurtful and disrespectful. I would not want anyone to talk about my wife or my daughter that way and I should never talk about women that way. Finally, I understand that acting in any of the ways I talked about is equivalent to sexual assault and therefore is not only disrespectful but a threat to the safety of women.”
2. An acceptance of responsibility for your actions.
This means not blaming anyone else for what you did and not making excuses for your actions but instead accepting full responsibility for what you did and for the consequences of your actions.
Instead of making the excuse that what he was saying was just “locker room talk,” Trump should have taken complete responsibility for what he said and recognized the negative consequences they had. Taking complete responsibility also entails not deflecting by talking about what Bill Clinton did, which has absolutely nothing to do with what he did.
3. A statement of your willingness to take some action to remedy the situation—either by promising to not repeat your action, a promise to work toward not making the same mistake again, a statement as to how you are going to remedy the situation (go to therapy) or by making restitution for the damages you caused.
Just saying you are sorry is insulting unless you offer reassurances that you will not do it again. What we needed to hear from Trump was something like, “I now understand that talking about women like that is degrading and harmful. I sat down with some women in my life and they explained to me about how they feel when they hear men talking like that. They also explained that this is a way of objectifying women, which is also very hurtful and disrespectful. Most important, I listened openly to the women I care about as they told me about the pain and anger and shame and disappointment they felt when they watched the tape and heard my words.”
Regret, Responsibility and Remedy
Unless all three of these elements are present, the other person will sense that something is missing in your apology and he or she will feel shortchanged somehow. Let's take a look at each element separately.
The desire to apologize needs to come from the realization that you have hurt someone or caused them some difficulty in their life. While your intention may not have been to hurt this person, you recognize that your action or inaction nevertheless did hurt or inconvenience them and for this, you feel bad. This regret or remorse needs to be communicated to the other person.
* "I am so sorry. I know I hurt your feelings and I feel terrible about it."
* "I deeply regret having hurt you."
* "I am truly sorry for the pain I caused you."
For an apology to be effective it must be clear that you are accepting total responsibility for your actions or inaction. Therefore, your apology needs to include a statement of responsibility.
Not only does Trump owe the American people an apology, he owes a public apology to the two women he was talking about in such a vulgar way. If he were to apologize to these women he would need to say something like:
* "I'm sorry, I realize that I should have never talked about you in that way. It was disrespectful and degrading.”
* "I'm so sorry. There's no excuse for my behavior and I know I hurt you deeply.”
While you can't go back and undo or redo the past, you can do everything within your power to repair the harm you caused. Therefore, a meaningful apology needs to include a statement in which you offer restitution in some way, an offer to help the other person, or a promise to take action so that you will not repeat the behavior.
* "I'm sorry for talking about you like that. It is clear that I need some education on how to respect women better. I’ve gotten away with this kind of talk and behavior because of my wealth and celebrity and it needs to stop. I need to more fully understand that just because I have gotten away with it doesn’t mean I should continue doing it.”
* "I'm sorry. I'm going to go into therapy so I can understand why I act the way I do."
* “I’m also going to take this opportunity to be a better role model for how men should view, treat and speak to and about women.”
Intention and Attitude
The two most important underlying aspects of an apology are your intention and your attitude. These will be communicated nonverbally to the person to whom you are apologizing. If your apology does not come from a sincere attempt on your part to express your heartfelt feelings of regret, to take responsibility for your actions and to right the wrong you've caused, your apology will not feel meaningful or believable to the other person.
In order for the person you have wronged to feel this sincerity, your desire to apology must come from inside you. You should never attempt an apology just because someone else tells you it is the right thing to do, because you know the other person is expecting it, or because you know it will get you what you want from the other person. Apologies that are given as mere social gestures will likely come across as empty and meaningless. Apologies that are mere manipulations to get what you want will likely be spotted for what they are.
Make No Excuses
Once you begin to reconstruct what led up to the wrong you did, it is natural to begin making excuses for your actions. While there may be valid reasons for your behavior, there is no excuse. It is important that you realize the difference.
Owning up to the wrong you've done isn't easy—especially when the person you've harmed has also wronged you. But no matter what you've done, most people respond positively to honesty. Admit your mistake, acknowledge that you messed up. By owning up to the fact that you harmed someone, by refusing to make excuses for your actions, you will likely engender respect from the person you've harmed. By apologizing for your actions you will likely engender forgiveness.
Apology is a powerful interaction that has an almost magical ability to provide healing for both the offended and the offender. Let’s not squander our opportunities to heal, grow and change our lives and the lives of others for the better by giving half-hearted apologies, bumbled apologies or insulting apologies.
Imagine what might have happened if Trump had actually admitted to acting in the ways he bragged about with Billy Bush. The women who have come forward in the past few days explained that they did so because they were so insulted, angered and hurt by his flat out denial when Anderson Cooper asked Trump if he had ever acted on his words. What if he had given a sincere, meaningful apology, including admitting he had sexually assaulted women? Instead of being insulted, these women would have received the apology they so desperately wanted and needed. They would have received the validation that would have helped them to begin the healing process.
Beverly Engel, LMFT, is the author of The Power of Apology and 21 other books, including her latest book: It Wasn’t Your Fault: Freeing Yourself from the Shame of Childhood Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion.