Why Apologies Are So Hard, and So Necessary

A new book explains the risks and rewards of making amends.

Posted Jul 28, 2020

Odua Images/Shutterstock
Source: Odua Images/Shutterstock

For years, psychologist Molly Howes has had an unusual obsession: apologies. 

As a therapist who works with individuals and couples, she’s seen over and over again how a sincere apology can right wrongs, heal past hurts, and save relationships on the brink of collapse. On a larger scale, she’s meticulously tracked how apologies within communities and even between nations have helped resolve disputes and ultimately build a more just and compassionate world. 

But she’s also come to understand that despite the transformative power apologies hold, many of us shy away from saying “sorry”—out of fear, stubbornness, or simply because we don’t know how to repair the harm we’ve caused. In her new book, A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right, Howes outlines the cognitive and social barriers that make apologies difficult and offers strategies for overcoming them. She spoke with PT about the benefits—and challenges—of making amends. The following are edited excerpts of the interview.

You describe yourself as being “obsessed with apologies,” both public and private. Why do you consider apologies to be such a key component of our relationships?

When we don’t apologize, it creates so much waste: wasted connections, wasted opportunities to be close to people, and wasted energy in resentment, counterattack, and continuously justifying our own behavior. That’s tragic to me. But there is an alternative.

Which is...?

The alternative is to be clear-eyed and realistic about flaws and mistakes. It calls for both parties to offer acceptance to each other—including acceptance of yourself, if you’re the apologizer, as opposed to shame and defensiveness. An apology allows for a courageous and humble solution.

Public apologies often draw a large amount of media attention, along with praise or scorn. Why are we so fascinated with them?

It’s a basic human instinct to want to repair harm. We like the story arc of people making things right, resolving problems, and asking for forgiveness. On the other hand, we want to see people who screwed up get punished—so we watch with both kinds of energy.

I also think it’s because none of us really knows how to apologize. We want to know how; that’s part of why we watch, too. 

We often think of apologies as only involving work for the person saying sorry. But you argue that true apologies require effort from both sides. Why is that?

Apologies call for a continued balance between accountability and acceptance. They call for compassion for the apologizer toward their self, as well as compassion for the apologizer from the other person. It’s a dual process; it’s also a continual one. 

If someone botches an apology the first time, is it worth trying again?

A totally botched apology can be an additional harm. But in any committed relationship, it’s almost always necessary [to try again]. People don’t know how to apologize well, and often mess up. 

If you, as the harmed person, want a connection—and are willing to hold the other person accountable for their mistake—it’s possible that they can find a better way to apologize. You may have to guide them, and it might take time. But if you want to heal the relationship, then it’s on you to see the effort that’s involved [in the apology] and to help the person be a better partner.

Grand Central Publishing, used with permission
Source: Grand Central Publishing, used with permission

Sometimes, neither party thinks they’ve done anything wrong. Should someone apologize anyway?

Everyone makes mistakes. We all know that—but we don’t think it applies to us. We resist thinking about our own errors. But in an ongoing relationship, it’s often impossible to say who “started it.” It may be true that the other person did something wrong. But it’s more often both, rather than either/or

Either/or thinking is so faulty in relationships. Thinking, “Somebody’s at fault here, and we have to identify who it is and never let them off the hook”—in a relationship, that just won’t do. It won’t work toward the end goal of greater connection.

To start the next chapter, you have to be curious about harm you may have caused and hold yourself accountable. It requires a mindset change, and shifting your perspective to be less about you. That’s hard to do. But it can help to be explicit: saying, “I want to tell you something about my experience, but first, I want to know about yours.” 

It’s really hard to make that shift. But once you make it, all kinds of things become possible.