Communication — 14 March 2010
Why saying “I’m sorry” is not enough

Everyone makes mistakes in life and in interpersonal relationships, many of which require apologies and redress. Yet, it is very hard for many people to say “I’m sorry” and even when they do it may be insufficient in healing the injured party.

You may remember in childhood being told to say “I am sorry” to someone who you have wronged while you felt no remorse, shame or even understood the nature of your misconduct. You may have further been coerced to promise that you will not repeat this behavior. You complied to terminate the scene.

Perhaps it may have pleased your parents to believe that they taught you a lesson in proper conduct, compassion and social responsibility. Actually, it accomplished none of the above. What you learned is to quickly utter these words to please your parents and avoid worse consequences.

The English poet, Alexander Pope, said, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Making mistakes is expected and feeling regret about hurting others demonstrates our self- awareness and decency. Accepting apologies from others recognizes their imperfections and unites us all as flawed but lovable humans.

Beverly Engel in “The Power of Apology: Healing Steps to Transform All Your Relationships” states, “Apology has the power to heal individuals, couples and families. Almost like magic, apology can mend our relationships, soothe our wounds and hurt pride, and heal our broken heart.”

Regrettably, most of us have not been properly instructed about how to apologize earnestly. Many still believe that saying “I am sorry” is sufficient to mend all fences. Many erring individuals, who committed small or grave transgressions, utter these words to restore their own status, reduce punishment and/or keep the loyalty of others.

Current public examples of empty apology givers include; politicians who abused the system, athletes who used performance enhancing drugs, unfaithful prominent leaders who betrayed their families, their voters or fans, embezzlers and con artists, as well as criminals who committed unspeakable crimes.

We have heard their messages of “I am sorry for my acts that caused you to be disappointed, hurt or betrayed by me. I apologize to the families whose loved ones I hurt.” Too often these pronouncements are unconvincing and do not solicit true forgiveness.

Beverly Angel differentiates between insincere and true regret. “A meaningful apology communicates the three R’s: regret, responsibility, and remedy.” Apology without remorse is similar to the apology given to avoid punishment or disfavor.” Regret, should include the expression of empathy toward the wronged person. Responsibility is taking full ownership of the immoral or hurtful acts without excuses. A remedy calls for promises not to repeat action, for seeking personal help and making restitutions for damages caused to the victims.

What is missing in these proclamations of regret is true compassion for the wronged party. I have never heard a guilty person actually detail the imagined suffering of the victims. An unfaithful politician has not publicly stated, “I can imagine how rejected, betrayed, violated, abandoned and humiliated my wife felt when I was out with other women.” Or, “It must be thoroughly appalling and repulsive to you to have rooted for me as your athletic hero as I was cheating, lying, using illegal substances and lavishing in the glory of deluding you that I was a super athlete.” Or, “ I can appreciate the disgust, contempt and rage you felt to find out that I, the person you trusted with your life savings knowingly and callously embezzled you of everything you owned.”

Americans are very forgiving people. We seek the sincerity in the “I’m sorry” and often have to guess whether the apology is heartfelt.

When you express regret for your wrong doings include true empathy for the victim’s emotional state regarding your behavior. Only then, can the wronged person feel understood and tap into his/her divine power and forgive you fully.

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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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