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The power of apology: Learning how to say sorry

To say sorry in a genuine and meaningful way can be the most self-affirming thing you can do. It can boost your moral bank account and research shows that when you give a wholehearted, unqualified apology to someone you’ve offended, your own self-respect and your sense of wellbeing skyrockets.

In a society that is increasingly apology-averse, the idea of the unreserved apology is now a thing of the past. To say sorry after causing hurt or offence to another used to be a given, something we were taught as children to do as a rule. Now, it is has become the exception. That most simple of phrases — I’m sorry — has become all too complicated.

The semantics of sorry

Nowadays, saying sorry is seen as a sign of weakness or an admission of shame. Deflecting blame or obfuscating responsibility has become an art form. The humble apology has given way to the qualified apology where the offender is absolved from feeling a sense of guilt while maintaining their sense of power or self-righteousness. While that may seem like a win for the transgressor, they are actually deprived of feeling true remorse.

For instance, if you’ve hurt another’s feelings, the accepted response used to be, “I’m sorry for upsetting you.” Not necessarily any more. What you might say now is, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The difference appears negligible, but the change in meaning is hugely significant. People now worry what the impact might be on them if they say sorry. This semantic sleight of hand takes the onus off the perpetrator and flips it back on the person who has been hurt or harmed. The implication is that it’s the victim’s fault if they choose to be offended.

Public relations spin has entered the mix when it comes to apologising. We see this subversion of moral culpability in political speech and in corporate speak, and now it’s filtered down into how we as individuals interact with each other. The lack of accountability is a form of mean-spiritedness.

Hard for me to say I’m sorry

No one wants to say sorry for fear of feeling diminished. To apologise is to declare that you’re wrong, and who likes being wrong? Many of us have been conditioned to shun saying sorry as it doesn’t make you feel good, but rather the opposite. Saying sorry hasn’t been framed as an act of courage so it feels like defeat. And, at any age, no one should be shamed into saying sorry.

Getting older doesn’t necessarily mean we become wiser when dealing with admission of guilt or fault. We are seeing the rise of the “non-apologiser”. Apologising is perceived as a threat to the transgressor’s self-image, so they will avoid saying sorry in order to save face and consequently preserve their fragile self-image. Research actually shows there is a benefit for the apology-dodger as they maintain a strong sense of control, power and even their authority. They worry that the apology will lessen their stature in the eyes of others, including the person they offended as they are conferring power to that person. However, people who do have a healthy self-concept find that apologising can be self-affirming.

Despite the perceived benefits of withholding or providing faux apologies, people still need to own up to their transgressions. So why don’t they? Some apology-challenged individuals tend to be stubborn and fixed in their views. These individuals at times lack empathy and, in some instances, don’t care enough about offending others. Moreover, they are effectively rewarded for this behaviour as they don’t suffer recriminations. The question they ask themselves essentially is, “What’s in it for me if I apologise?” Interestingly, when they feel offended, their outrage can be felt on the Richter scale. Non-apologisers squirm out of apologising by vehemently justifying their position, blaming the victim or by saying they didn’t mean to cause harm. Tactically, they may minimise the severity of the offence or simply state that the victim is overreacting. Doubling down or justification means they don’t lose their sense of status. There was a time when status meant you showed you were morally centred and decent, but that has been supplanted by always seeming to be right and special.

Saying sorry is not an admission of shame but an act of love.

In couples therapy, it is almost inevitable that one partner will complain that the other never apologises. And there are many complex reasons for this, but for many it is because that person doesn’t want to lose ground or to appear weak. They will rationalise not saying sorry by accusing the other of causing the problem in the first place. It may be that they are sorry for a particular behaviour, attitude or outcome, but they don’t want to take the fall for everything that is wrong in the relationship, so they will skip the apology altogether.

Conversely and ironically, a barrier to saying sorry is if a person is in fact someone who would rate themselves as considerate and self-aware. But the notion of letting someone down or not meeting their expectations is so abhorrent to them they become apology-averse. It has nothing to do with pride or vanity, but rather avoiding the pain of eliciting disappointment from someone they may love or revere.

In this instance, the resulting effect is that it completely distorts their positive self-concept. We think of ego as a bad thing, but in psychological terms the ego is the relationship with self, and if this is tenuous or fragile, even well-meaning people are apt to justify their position by scrambling to find excuses for errant actions or words. They cannot separate their actions from their innate character: “This is who I am” rather than “This is what I did.” They may even become defiant and dogged in defence of their position: “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings” is very different from the self-justification of “I’m sorry I didn’t realise you’re so sensitive.” This pivots the blame to the offended person and the offender can still feel good about themselves and that they are not a bad person.

Sadly, people with a fragile self-worth are less likely to say sorry. Sure, saying sorry does make you vulnerable, and some people fear that if they do say sorry those strong defences they’ve worked so hard to hold up will crumble. At a deeper level it may actually release deeper emotions of self-recrimination and self-loathing. It can trigger an avalanche of unresolved feelings. Apologising reinforces that they’re not good enough.

It all comes back to values and core beliefs. If these principles are deeply embedded, and you have a healthy ego, it is more than likely that, when you let someone down, you will feel compelled to rectify the situation without fear of diminishing yourself.

A sorry situation

Researchers now are seriously looking at the benefits of both apologising as well as not apologising. We now live in a time where the shame/blame culture is rampant. The former social rules of conduct don’t have the same currency any more. There is now a link between accepting blame and an admission of shame. It is harder to say sorry now more than ever.

In a highly litigious society saying sorry could be potentially libellous, with dire implications. At a broader level, the public apology could actually elicit a backlash. Loss of status, power or even losing your job can be on the line if you admit to wrongdoing. In the court of digital public opinion, the surge of recrimination can douse the voice of forgiveness. Lawyers advise corporate clients to deny culpability as it may invite further recriminations and fault-finding. Apologising is fraught with issues.

However, when this happens, the opportunity to resolve conflicts or to seek understanding is lost. A moral bankruptcy occurs when we stop being accountable to ourselves and to others. And this occurrence is becoming more prevalent, because there is a perceived downside to admitting liability, not only at an individual level but at a much wider level. Imagine if countries also took this conciliatory approach.

The power of the apology

We know and feel the positive effects of an apology. Post-World War II, Germany made significant and sustained efforts to make restitution for the genocide of Jewish people under the Nazis. They have not merely said sorry, but they continue to teach the lessons from this horrific blot on their long history by not forgetting. Almost a century on, students are taught about the Holocaust, and there is still a sense of collective responsibility to ensure such genocide can never happen again. Chancellor Merkel went a step further in showing her compassion to over two million refugees during the recent Syrian war. Her actions and that of her political predecessors display the power of a sincere apology.

Closer to home, former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, leaves a legacy which will be marked or marred (depending on how you view it) for famously not saying sorry to the Indigenous peoples of this country for past injustices, notwithstanding the horrendous episode known as the Stolen Generation. He was indignant that one generation should have to say sorry for what another generation did. He showed a lack of empathy and an inability to comprehend that a sincere apology would provide to a people, where inter-generational trauma still has catastrophic consequences, some emotional healing. He argued that an apology does nothing to create change in real terms, but he missed the point of the power of an apology.

His successor, Kevin Rudd, didn’t miss the point. In the 2007 election, Rudd campaigned on this point, and on February 13, 2008 delivered an apology of only 400 words, but the impact it had on the Aboriginal people was indelible. Tears flowed and all who witnessed it could not help but be moved, as it was sincere and clearly heartfelt. What made it powerful was the recognition of hurt and harm, and that at last these disenfranchised people were finally heard by the highest power in the land.

The upside of sorry

Even with the potential fallout, to say sorry in a genuine and meaningful way can be the most self-affirming thing we can do. It is the sign you can be trusted because you have the ability to admit that you can be wrong.

Research shows that when we give a wholehearted, unqualified apology to someone we’ve offended, our own self-respect and our sense of wellbeing, even happiness skyrocket. When we say sorry, we also forgive ourselves for the harm we have caused. Saying sorry can be a liberating experience and can bring so much solace to another human being.

The benefit of saying sorry is that you validate the feelings of the person you’ve offended by acknowledging the harm you have caused. It can also reduce stress, create enhanced understanding and communication and lessen the need to always be right. It provides the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and provides a pathway forward for growth in any type of relationship, creating a dynamic that is mutually supportive.

Saying sorry is effectively an act of contrition. For Catholics, one of the seven sacraments a devotee must perform along with First Holy Communion or Confirmation is Confession. The act of confession is a formal way for the penitent to ask forgiveness from God for sins. At a secular level, the act of contrition reminds us of the importance of the ritual of apologising for causing hurt because it is the right and moral thing to do. With that said, it is important to never say sorry when you genuinely feel you haven’t done anything wrong, nor to appease or placate someone. An apology is a powerful tool, so it should not be abused or used to accommodate your own need or someone’s need to be pleased. A meaningful apology only works when it is real.

The art of apology

In this hashtag, emoji-driven digital world we communicate in an abbreviated and highly reductive way. We send a sad face emoji to convey contrition, but it is cheap and requires very little emotional investment.

For most of us the religious notion of atoning for our sins isn’t palatable at all. Reciting 27 Hail Marys on bended knees feels archaic and prescriptive, but the idea has some validity. The mere act of saying sorry is not enough sometimes. Giving a partner flowers or going out of your way has a cost to self, but it is an act of atonement or sacrifice that shows you really care by acknowledging you have wronged them.

The golden rules of a good apology

  • Be sincere
  • Name the transgression, act or words of harm to the offended person
  • Accept responsibility
  • Acknowledge harm or hurt caused
  • Perform an act of restitution
  • Promise a change in your behaviour or attitude and follow through
  • Thank them for their forgiveness
  • Never include the word “but”, for example “I’m sorry but…”

“I am sorry.” These three simple words, when spoken from the heart, can change the course of lives. They contain great power. Saying sorry is not an admission of shame but an act of love.

Let’s face it, apologising isn’t easy, nor is it fun. It’s not meant to be. In our emotional life, it is one of the hardest things that we do. But it can also be the greatest gift we can give and still be a beneficiary. The upside of sorry is that we are forgiven. And we forgive ourselves.

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland is a therapist in private practice on Sydney’s northern beaches helping people resolve the underlying issues that perpetuate conflict or disconnectedness so they can create meaningful and happy lives. Marie speaks at conferences, forums and community events on a variety of topics from wellbeing and positive psychology to practical philosophy.

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