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Why Apologies Matter

PJM's advice columnist on the surprising power of "I'm sorry."

by
Belladonna Rogers

Bio

January 31, 2012 - 12:07 am
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Dear Belladonna Rogers,

Recently, someone who didn’t realize we’d once been close, introduced me to a former friend. Years ago, my former friend did something no friend should ever do, which is why we became ex-friends. When we were introduced, my ex-friend extended her hand but I withheld mine, which I’ve never done in my life.

To my surprise, a few days later I received a heartfelt letter of apology from my ex-friend expressing remorse for her dreadful behavior, which she outlined in the same detail that I too remembered, from many years ago. I responded immediately, forgiving her, and saying how rare it is to receive such an apology.

Why are apologies so rare? Do people believe that by not owning up to their errors and the harm they’ve caused that no one will be the wiser?

Puzzled in Peoria

Dear Puzzled,

Many see an apology as a sign of weakness, believing that only the weak apologize. Since ancient times, the vulnerable have depended on the strong. Slaves bowed and apologized to owners; serfs apologized to feudal lords; courtiers apologized to royalty; employees apologized to employers. The reverse was considered unthinkable.

This tradition is unfortunately still with us: for the powerless, apologies are mandatory; for the powerful, they’re unnecessary.

This shouldn’t exist in modern life but it does, partly because many behave as if they’re “Masters of the Universe,” in Tom Wolfe’s apt phrase from his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities

When one friend hurts another, a caring friend apologizes at once. The Master or Mistress of the Universe doesn’t: it’s the difference between being empathic and being arrogant.

Some people have more trouble apologizing than others.  As the gifted psychoanalyst Dr. Nancy McWilliams has written, narcissists have particular difficulty expressing remorse because to them it implies fallibility and personal error, admissions that are psychologically intolerable to such people.

Apologies can be difficult for everyone. An apology includes a clear statement of one’s error or offense, such as being disrespectful, underhanded, mean-spirited, deceitful, disloyal, unfair, hurtful, condescending, inconsiderate, insulting, heartless, cruel, abusive, as well as negligent, careless, feckless, and reckless.

Is it pleasant to acknowledge that you’ve been any of these?  No. It takes self-awareness, backbone, and a strong desire to do right by another human being.

Apologies matter if you value a relationship.

If you imagine that by procrastinating or refusing to apologize you’ll evade responsibility forever and make the damage you produced vanish into thin air, you’re fooling only yourself. Your friends or family members may no longer mention the injury you caused, but that doesn’t mean a painful, unhealed wound doesn’t remain. It’s never too late to apologize, even decades after you inflicted harm. But, as Benjamin Franklin said, ”Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”

If you don’t know what you’ve done to hurt or alienate someone: ask. Don’t offer a vague, blanket apology “for anything I may have done” or peremptorily insist that the injured person “forget about this; it isn’t important.”  These tactics show greater concern for yourself — and your need to “get past this unpleasantness” with transparently empty, unfeeling words — than for the person you’ve hurt.

A real, rather than a pro forma, apology also expresses genuine remorse.

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