Conflicts — 29 October 2003
The healing power of apology

Apologies are an important part of human communication. Yet many people
have great difficulties with expressing their regret for their conduct.
Why is “I am sorry” such a difficult sentence?

Since most people prefer to have harmonious relationships, why would
they be so reluctant to use a short phrase that could enhance their
connection with their loved ones?

The answer lies, in part, with a common erroneous belief that we must be

flawless to be loved. If we are not perfect, if we err, or act
inappropriately, we may be shamed, lose the respect and love of others,
and ultimately be rejected. The loss of other people’s esteem is a
frightening concept.

So, if we fear loss of validation and affection by others, shouldn’t we
be quick to apologize to regain their love? Unfortunately, an apology is
feared to be an admission of our imperfection. Eluding responsibility
for errors is a way to hide our failings, with the hope of preserving
our image.

There may be grave consequences for not taking responsibility for our
mistakes. Efforts to avoid accountability for our errors often create
worse outcomes.

President Nixon could have probably avoided having to resign, if he
admitted his wrong doings and asked the American public for forgiveness.
President Clinton may have spared himself and the nation great
embarrassment if he had not pointed his finger while stating that he
“didn’t have sex with that woman”.

While the fear of incrimination for unacceptable or erroneous behavior
is strong, the reality is that apologies are often met with
understanding and forgiveness rather than punishment.

We urge our children to admit to wrongdoings and apologize. We may even
promise them that they will escape punishment if they told the truth and
sincerely apologized for their acts. “Just tell your brother you are
sorry for what you did to him, promise not to do it again and he’ll
forgive you”.
Children learn the process and follow it as instructed. It is only when
they become adults that the healing nature of apology and forgiveness
become clear to them.

When couples deal with a conflict in which one partner was hurt by the
other’s behavior, they usually follow the same process. The injured
partner wants to HEAR an apology, in order to feel better, forgive, and
resume a comfortable relationship with the repenting partner. The person
apologizing needs to hear himself speak of his regrets to truly repent
and affirm his own decency.

Hearing the mate say “I am sorry” is very healing. It validates the
listener’s position and being. It assumes that the regretful party sees
the error of his ways and the validity of the offended person’s reality.
These three simple words can restore the balance to the relationship.
Both partners_ views are acknowledged and mutual respect _regained.

Apologies must not only be stated, but they must be heartfelt. Unless
the regret sounds sincere, forgiveness is unlikely to be given.
Authentic apology frequently creates tenderness between partners. It
levels the power imbalance between a perceived “offender” and a
“victimized” offended mate. The value and respect of both partners is
restored. It is often a moment of compassion and intimacy for both partners.

The more secure an individual is about himself, the easier it is for him
to apologize. When our self-esteem is strong, we feel competent enough
to admit our mistakes. We know that all people err, and that we do
enough things correctly that our value is not likely to be tarnished by
occasional misdeeds.
The more loving our relationship is, the safer it may be to admit our
imperfections. It is expected that our errors will be handled with
understanding and our feelings will be considered. People in satisfying
unions are less likely to feel worried about their partners expressing
disapproval or rejection.
The more open we are about identifying our own inappropriate ways and
initiating a dialogue with our mates, the less likely we are to have
partners who feel emotionally wounded by us.

Apologies need to be seen as a healthy, psychologically cleansing
process, which if done sincerely, leads not to shame, but to intimacy.
If we associate sincere regret, not with a belittling experience, but
with a compassionate sharing process, we may feel safer to be vulnerable . Forgiveness, is the complimentary response to an apology. It, too,
enriches the forgiver and creates shared tenderness between partners.

  • Apologizing for misconduct is honorable and healthy.
  • Apologizing is not a sign of weakness and is not likely to end up in
    rejection.
  • Saying “I am sorry”, unburdens the speaker and the listener at once. ® Balance your errors against your usual competency. You are likely to feel more at ease admitting mistakes.
  • Apologize sincerely, when needed.
  • Forgive your partner with grace.
  • Exchanging sincere apology and forgiveness brings partners closer to
    acceptance, compassion and loving tenderness for each other.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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