‘An apology is a good way to have the last word.’ If this old saying is true, then why is it difficult for many people to apologize—even when they know they’re wrong?
I believe a lot of the problem starts in childhood. I talk to a lot of well-meaning parents who try to teach their children right from wrong by insisting that they ‘Be nice. Say you’re sorry’ in pretty much any situation. But this isn’t the best way to foster a good habit. Why? Because there’s no reasoning behind it. The child is being taught to apologize for no other reason than’just because.
This approach can create two types of people: The meek and the arrogant. The meek apologize no matter what, while the arrogant feel like they never have to apologize. Neither one is a sign of good mental health.
Children, like adults, need to operate on a sense of justice. ‘Justice’ means sticking to, and honoring, the facts. ‘Was I wrong in what I said or did? Do the facts prove I’m wrong? If so, I should acknowledge it.’ An apology is a form of acknowledgement. In essence, when you apologize, you’re saying: ‘I know what I did was wrong, and I regret it.’
Encouraging others—or ourselves—to be meek and humble is no way to achieve justice. What matters is whether you’re right or wrong, according to your best understanding of the facts. Why should you apologize if you know you’re right? The goal isn’t to be—or not be—sorry. The goal is to acknowledge the truth and apologize only for what you see as your error.
An appropriate apology has the greatest effect on the person apologizing. It really is an act of rational self-interest. Psychotherapist and author Beverly Engel, writing in Psychology Today, says, ‘Apology is not just a social nicety. It is an important ritual, a way of showing respect and empathy for the wronged person. It is also a way of acknowledging an act that, if otherwise left unnoticed, might compromise the relationship. Apology has the ability to disarm others of their anger and to prevent further misunderstandings. While an apology cannot undo harmful past actions, if done sincerely and effectively, it can undo the negative effects of those actions.’
The key word here is ‘acknowledging.’ We all need to feel visible to others. When someone does something wrong to you, or when you do something wrong to someone else, the damage is done. But there is at least an opportunity to acknowledge the importance of the person you wronged by conveying your awareness of your mistake.
An apology is more than just words. It must be sincere. Sincerity comes with time and through action. If you did something wrong to me, but you apologize and I accept your apology—that’s only the beginning. The next phase is for you to prove your sincerity by not doing the same thing again. The same applies if I do something wrong to you. Making a mockery of apology by not being sincere is worse than not apologizing at all. If you say it, you should mean it and be prepared to prove it.
A person who cannot or will not admit wrongdoing is emotionally blocked. Usually, he or she has an unrealistic need to be perfect, and feels that admitting to an error is a sign of weakness. As a result, it becomes impossible to say something like, ‘I said that? I did that? I was wrong. I’m sorry.’ In personal relationships (especially marriage), this attitude can do a lot of damage.
People who won’t ever apologize cheat themselves most of all. They trample their own sense of justice, while creating barriers to intimacy that need not exist. As Engel writes in her article, ‘The debilitating effects of the remorse and shame we may 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 self-reproach and guilt.’
Apology doesn’t necessarily have to aim for (or result in) forgiveness. Consider a husband or wife who cheats. The apology might sound something like this: ‘I know I ruined our relationship and there are no excuses. I know I have lost you for good. But I want you to know that I regret what I did and that I know I was in the wrong.’ There are things in life that are unforgivable, but even in these extreme cases an apology can still count for something.
I like the notion of an apology being ‘the last word.’ Far from a cynical ploy, it serves to remind us that acknowledging the facts—including those that make us look bad—is really the healthiest way to go. Consider apology as a way of honoring what you know to be true, while at the same time honoring yourself and those you care about.