“But, I said I was sorry.” complained Janine, regarding her daughter’s rejection of her apology. Janine (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) recently got sober following 4 years of fairly heavy drinking. Her daughter, now 18, spent those years caregiving for her mother, when it should have been the other way around. Her daughter is still very angry and their relationship remains strained. Janine fought hard for her sobriety and really wants a fresh start or at least a second chance.
Janine isn’t alone. Since we all make mistakes, apologies are a daily part of life for many of us. Yet not all apologies are created equally. Sometimes, the apology roadblock exists in the receiver of the apology. Perhaps, he/she/they are not ready to forgive (for now or ever), not able to forgive completely, or perhaps he/she/they needs something more from the apology. Other times, the apology itself is the obstacle to forgiveness.
Many well-meaning people will encourage and even insist that forgiveness is the way to free oneself of anger, resentment and/or the ties that bind one to the wrongdoer. While this might be true in certain circumstances, in others it may not be appropriate. This guidance may suggest that it is not ok to be angry/hurt/sad/resentful. This message might rush someone along rather than allow them to take their time processing their feelings and coming to peace (or not) with the wrongdoer. Also, forgiveness is not necessarily an “all-or-nothing” concept. Perhaps someone is ready to forgive the person but not their behaviour or choices. Alternatively, someone else may be prepared to offer about 80% forgiveness but they feel they need to hold onto some reminders in order to protect themselves in the future.
Forgiveness is often stilted by the apology itself. Sadly, few people know how to offer a healing and sincere apology. Author and psychotherapist Hariett Lerner writes about the five ways to ruin an apology in her 2017 book Why Won’t You Apologize: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. I have summarized these 5 apology attempts below and created examples based on the story of Janine and her daughter:
- “I am sorry, but…” Most often when a “but” follows an apology, you are justifying your behaviour. “I am sorry, but I was so depressed and parenting you on my own.”
- “I am sorry that (or “if”) you feel that way”. This apology implies that the problem is the injured party’s “feelings” and does not take responsibility for the behaviour. Janine might have said to her daughter, “I am sorry that you feel so hurt and cannot find it in you to forgive me.”
- “The mystifying apology”. These apologies are deflections and suggest responsibility for something other than the actual behaviour in question. “I’m sorry that I ruined your ability to trust others.”
- “Forgive me already- And do it now!”. In these circumstances, someone may offer an apology and then immediately expect that forgiveness and redemption should be granted. Any residual or lingering feelings are deemed irrelevant or unnecessary. “I said I was sorry already, what more do you want?”
- The intrusive apology. This apology sounds as though it is more for the benefit of absolving the guilt of the wrongdoer than it is to try to help the injured party heal. This apology surreptitiously shifts the focus toward the needs of the wrongdoer. In Janine’s case this might sound something like, “I am so sorry. I need you to forgive me. I can’t live with myself unless I know we are ok!!”
Often, a well-formulated and sincere apology can be healing and cathartic for both parties. If you or someone you know needs some support in communicating their apologies, Synergy Counselling is here to help.