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4 Parts of a Real Apology

Apology is a relational process that leads to change.

You can hardly look at a news page anymore without seeing that someone has apologized for something. A celebrity apologizes for a tweet or an elected official is sorry for something the country did over a century ago. Obviously, people have always apologized to each other, but I seem to recall that the current spate of apologies dates to observations a decade or two ago when Japanese companies often avoided lawsuits that American companies couldn’t, by apologizing to people they injured. Since then, everyone’s sorry.

Any injury is usually an injury to pride—losing face—in addition to the body, the heart, or the wallet. An apology, like saying please and thank you, acknowledges that the other person has been injured. The more minor the injury (showing up late for coffee) and the more robustly affectionate the relationship (best friends), the more effective a simple “sorry” will be. The statement of being sorry restores the other person’s face to some extent—you wouldn’t apologize to your computer for leaving it waiting, so saying you’re sorry at least elevates the other person to human status. Importantly, an apology, at least one that sounds sincere, also lowers the apologizer’s status, since it puts the apologizer in the role of having done something wrong and in the role of needing something from the recipient (some sort of forgiveness).

“I’m sorry” is typically negatively reinforced by parents who stop threatening punishment when the child emits the behavior. Parents eventually discriminate between sincere apologies and insincere ones, and parents find it difficult to make this discrimination once the child learns the importance of tone and timing (heartfelt and after due reflection). It’s hard to tell when a child feels bad for injuring someone versus appearing to feel bad for injuring someone. The difficulties have to do with the fact that the other person’s injury operates as a reinforcer when the child is angry, whereas parents are trying to condition other people’s injuries as aversive. Effective parents tie injuries to negative consequences for the child (Timmy won’t want to play with you; how would you like it if it happened to you?), but who has time for that? We usually let things slide with an apology whether the child feels bad or not. The result is a situation in which an apology really means, “Shut up already [or, “Don’t start with me”], I said I’m sorry.”

When the injury is substantial or the relationship is not robust with affection, a real apology can still fix things, but it takes a lot more than saying you’re sorry. This is also true when a fiduciary relationship exacerbates any wrongdoing (because any injury damages the relationship when you have been entrusted with the other person’s wellbeing). A real apology has four features missing from a simple “sorry.” It’s important to note that this is a relational process between the apologizer and the injured party: you can’t just rush through the steps without bringing the other person along with you.

1. Damage assessment. A real apology inventories the damage done. It’s not just, “I was late,” it’s also, “I led you to believe you wouldn’t need to have something to read.” It’s not just, “You were sexually abused on my watch,” it’s also, “I’ve made it hard for you to trust my judgment; sex has been changed from something pleasurable to something scary; you feel out of synch with your friends when they wonder about sex; your sense of ownership of your body has been disrupted.” These all need to be adapted to the specifics of the injuries (and the age of the child).

2. What you did wrong. A real apology identifies what you actually did wrong. “I should have called.” “I should have left earlier.” Only when you genuinely did nothing wrong is it okay to say, “I’m so sorry you had to wait” or “I’m so sorry I disrupted the meeting.” The mothers I’ve met of sexually abused children often seem more inclined to apologize for the weather on the child’s birthday than for inadequate screening of other adults. But even rain during a birthday party can lead to, “I should’ve had a backup plan.” And instead of saying, “I’m sorry if I offended anyone,” either identify what you did wrong (if you did) or don’t apologize at all: “It’s not a goal of mine to avoid offending you.” This can lead to an agreement to disagree, or it can lead to understanding how you could have expressed yourself fully but differently, and then to a real apology.

3. Why you did wrong. A real apology identifies the actual reasons for your bad behavior. This is true for the same reasons that a good treatment plan in therapy needs a unique case formulation that explains the patient’s problem and links to ways that therapy can help. The next step, what will be different, will be convincing only to the extent that it is tied to the reasons you misbehaved. The more superficial or generic the explanation, the less effective the apology will be. “Sometimes I resent how important you’ve become to be, which I know isn’t fair to you, but I think I might have ended up wanting to prove that I’m important to you, as well, and I unconsciously arranged a situation that proved you would wait for me.” “I get so lonely, and I don’t like my job, so I jumped at the chance to get a boyfriend. He started demanding that I let him watch you while I was at work. I was so afraid of losing him that I let him have his way before I was fully confident that he would be good for you to know.”

4. What’s different now. The relationship is not ready to move on until you’ve made some necessary changes, which address the reasons for your misconduct. “I’m going to remind myself of all the ways you already show me how important I am to you.” “I’m making new friends so I’ll feel less lonely, and I changed the way I’m looking at my job so I’m enjoying it more. Also, I realize now that there are some people who actually want to hurt children in the world and I am going to be on the lookout for them.”

When you are a therapist who has injured your patient—say, by starting late—certain features need to be adapted. It is especially unproductive for a therapist to say “sorry,” because the culture of the relationship is supposed to be one of exploring, not forestalling, emotional reactions. The damage assessment is done by listening to the patient’s associations to the event. The therapist’s reasons, like a parent’s, have to be adapted to a relationship in which a lot of the therapist’s psychology is too much information for the patient. In therapy and parenting, what’s different now is often implied, for minor injuries, by the willingness to discuss what went wrong. Therapeutic apology—what’s often called rupture and repair—is an important aspect of therapy. People often come for therapy because of some way in which those with power over them misused their power, and a real apology (including changing what went wrong) is one of the main ways people with power can remediate their inevitable exercises of privilege.