The Power of Apology
How to give and receive an apology. And it's worth it, on both ends.
By Beverly Engel published July 1, 2002 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
When I was 35 years old, I divorced my mother. I felt that under the circumstances, it was the only thing I could do. I had long felt that she had damaged me with emotional abuse while I was growing up, and during my adulthood she continued to treat me in ways I didn't like. I became so emotionally and physically stressed when I was with her that it affected my health. So I made the difficult yet necessary decision to stop seeing her. The estrangement lasted three years. During that time, I wrote a book titled Divorcing a Parent, in which I told about the experience of divorcing my mother and encouraged others in similar situations to consider doing the same. Then one day the phone rang. When I picked it up the person on the other end of the line said, "I'm sorry." It was my mother. Waves of relief washed over me. Resentment, fear and anger drained out. Much to my surprise, those two simple words seemed to wipe away years of pain and bitterness. They were the words I had been waiting to hear most of my life.
I knew that it had taken all the courage my extremely proud mother could muster to say them, so I didn't have to belabor the point. The important thing was that she was saying she was sorry—something she'd never done before. I could tell by the tone of her voice that she truly regretted the way she had treated me.
Of course, this was only the beginning of the story. Although I believed her apology, I didn't yet know if her behavior toward me would be different. This I tested over time. But by apologizing she had acknowledged that I had a reason to be hurt and angry, and that was extremely empowering for me.
Apology changed my life. I believe it can change yours, as well. Almost like magic, apology has the power to repair harm, mend relationships, soothe wounds and heal broken hearts.
Apology is not just a social nicety. It is an important ritual, a way of showing respect and empathy for the wronged person. It is also a way of acknowledging an act that, if otherwise left unnoticed, might compromise the relationship. Apology has the ability to disarm others of their anger and to prevent further misunderstandings. While an apology cannot undo harmful past actions, if done sincerely and effectively, it can undo the negative effects of those actions.
Apology is crucial to our mental and even physical health. Research shows that receiving an apology has a noticeable, positive physical effect on the body. An apology actually affects the bodily functions of the person receiving it—blood pressure decreases, heart rate slows and breathing becomes steadier.
Emotional Benefits of Apology
- A person who has been harmed feels emotional healing when he is acknowledged by the wrongdoer.
- When we receive an apology, we no longer perceive the wrongdoer as a personal threat.
- Apology helps us to move past our anger and prevents us from being stuck in the past.
- Apology opens the door to forgiveness by allowing us to have empathy for the wrongdoer.
Apology Benefits the Receiver and the Giver
- The debilitating effects of the remorse and shame we may 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 self-reproach and guilt.
- Apology has the power to humble even the most arrogant. When we develop the courage to admit we are wrong and work past our resistance to apologizing, we develop a deep sense of self-respect.
- Apologizing helps us remain emotionally connected to our friends and loved ones. Knowing we have wronged someone may cause us to distance ourselves from the person, but once we have apologized we feel freer to be vulnerable and intimate.
- And there is another little-talked-about benefit: Since apologizing usually causes us to feel humiliated, it can also act as a deterrent, reminding us to not repeat the act.
The Connection Between Apology and Empathy
To forgive, most people need to gain some empathy and compassion for the wrongdoer. This is where apology comes in. When someone apologizes, it is a lot easier to view him or her in a compassionate way. When wrongdoers apologize, we find it easier to forgive them.
This is likely because when someone confesses to and apologizes for hurting us, we are then able to develop a new image of that person. Instead of seeing him through anger and bitterness, the person's humility and apology cause us to see him as a fallible, vulnerable human being. We see the wrongdoer as more human, more like ourselves and this moves us.
Michael E. McCullough, Ph.D., Steven J. Sandage, M.S., and Everett L. Worthington Jr., Ph.D., examined whether the effect of apology on our capacity to forgive is due to our increased empathy toward an apologetic offender. They discovered that much of why people find it easy to forgive an apologetic wrongdoer is that apology and confession increase empathy, which heightens the ability to forgive.
McCullough, who is the director of research at the privately funded National Institute for Healthcare Research in Rockville, Maryland, believes that apology encourages forgiveness by eliciting sympathy. He and his colleagues published research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that supports this hypothesis.
The first study, of 131 female and 108 male college students, looked at whether people who forgave are more conciliatory toward, and less avoidant of, their offender. Participants filled out questionnaires describing an event in which someone had hurt them, how they were hurt, how wrong they felt the offender was and the extent to which the offender apologized.
McCullough and his colleagues then measured the degree of empathy participants felt toward the offending person, the degree to which they'd forgiven the offender, the degree to which participants had tried to reconcile with the offender and the degree to which participants avoided the offender.
The data supported the hypothesis that an apology leads to empathy and empathy mediates forgiveness.
Intention and Attitude
There are also two important underlying aspects of an apology—intention and attitude. These are communicated nonverbally to the person to whom you are apologizing. If your apology does not come sincerely, it will not feel meaningful to the other person.
For the person you have wronged to feel this sincerity, the desire to apologize must come from within. You should never attempt an apology because someone else tells you it is the right thing to do, because the other person is expecting it or because it will get you what you want. Apologies that are used as manipulations or mere social gestures will come across as empty and meaningless.
Apology, when sincere and intentional, is a powerful, perhaps even life-altering, tool for both the giver and the receiver.
Apology has indeed changed my life. My mother lived only three more years. But because she was able to offer an apology, and because I was able to accept her apology, we were closer in those three years than we had ever been. Our time together was extremely healing for both of us.
How to Give a Meaningful Apology
If you have difficulties apologizing, the following will teach you the most effective way to go about it. A meaningful apology communicates the three R's: regret, responsibility and remedy.
Regret: statement of regret for having caused the hurt or damage
While your intention may not have been to cause harm, you recognize that your action or inaction nevertheless did hurt this person. This regret needs to be communicated. This includes an expression of empathy with an acknowledgement of the injustice you caused.
Responsibility: an acceptance of responsibility for your actions
This means not blaming anyone else and not making excuses for what you did. For an apology to be effective it must be clear that you are accepting total responsibility for your action or inaction. Therefore, your apology needs to include a statement of responsibility.
Remedy: a statement of willingness to remedy the situation
While you can't undo the past, you can repair the harm you caused. Therefore, a meaningful apology needs to include a statement in which you offer restitution, or a promise to take action so that you will not repeat the behavior.
Unless all three of these elements are present, the other person will sense that something is missing in your apology and he or she may feel shortchanged.
With permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, from The Power of Apology, by Beverly Engel.