At this crucial time in our history, when the brutal death of George Floyd has seemingly created a moment of reckoning in our country, apology has become more important than ever. One by one, people and companies are stepping up to apologize for the way the police have treated Black people, for the inherent racism in this country, and for not recognizing the horrible fear and humiliation this racism has inflicted on the Black people in our country.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently apologized for not listening to players and admitted the league was wrong about protests. Volkswagen apologized for posting a racist video promoting its new Golf 8 on the company’s official Instagram page. And Black people and other people of color are receiving messages from white people they used to be close to, saying they are sorry for their previous racist behaviors.
Why Is Apology So Important?
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. Conversely, by not giving a genuine apology we show disrespect toward the person or the people we have harmed. 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 care about the other person's feelings.
- Apologizing shows that we are capable of taking responsibility for our actions.
- By apologizing to another person he or she 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 as Validation
I have specialized in working with former victims of child abuse for nearly 40 years. Time after time, I hear from clients that the one thing they wish for more than anything else, the one thing they believe 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 an apology for the harm they caused. Once in a while I have even been a 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 of abuse, 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 harmed us.
As we have seen in the past few years, 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. In fact, some believe that invalidation is a major contributor to emotional disorders.
One reason many believe that we owe Black people in this country an apology is that by doing so we acknowledge to them that our behavior toward them has been harmful and absolutely unacceptable. While apologies cannot take away the years and years of pain and humiliation, it is an important first step toward healing.
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 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 can accomplish. (This does not mean that Blacks in America do not deserve financial reparations for slavery.)
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. 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.
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. This philosophy is at the core of movements such as restorative justice.
Even today, for many, having someone accept responsibility for 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.
Apology and Our Interpersonal Relationships
Perhaps 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.
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 the harmful effects of past actions, paradoxically, if done sincerely and effectively, this is precisely what an 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.
- 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.
- Heal shame. 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.
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. 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.
Apologizing can be difficult if not impossible for some people. In a follow-up post, I will discuss why this is so and present the steps to a meaningful apology.
Engel, Beverly. (2002). The Power of Apology: Healing Steps to Transform All Your Relationships. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.