Two of the most powerful words every uttered: “I’m sorry.” Sincerely meant, genuinely felt these words have the capacity to reconnect, repair and strengthen any bond. Whether between two individuals or on a national or global scale these words can heal like no others. As I watch, again, the powerful example provided by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (see video above) I am reminded of the healing impact of an apology: visually I observe the responses of his fellow Australians to his words of apology given without condition or expectation; viscerally I gauge my own response to the impact of these words on fellow human beings so wrongly targeted and effected by racism, colonization and domination. I am moved to tears every time I watch him deliver this apology. Knowing how to apologize is a core cross cultural competency. It’s essential to repair the effects of hurts caused by structural inequities, enacted policies of domination and violence, as well as subtle, unaware acts of cluelessness. We have the capacity to move through experiences of injustice and oppression–even ones as profound as those perpetrated on the Aboriginal peoples of Australia–by beginning with the words: “I’m sorry.”
Learning to give a clean apology is not easy to do. It requires no attachment to the outcome. In other words, the person to whom you are apologizing may not be in a place to forgive you–and that needs to be OK. A clean apology doesn’t require the person “get over it” just because you are apologizing. Remember: you are apologizing because of some wrong-doing or mistake on your part. You don’t determine the timeline for someone else’s process. The power of an apology is coming into integrity with yourself. ”I’m sorry” recognizes out loud and with accountability the impact of your actions–intended or not–on another human being (or group). The apology is not for them but for you. Giving a clean apology means to do so without excuse, without justification and without any defensiveness. In my own experience I have noticed I am able to give a more heartfelt apology the less bad I feel about myself. This may seem ironic because when someone has offended me I want them to know how badly I’ve been hurt by them. I can even tell at times I want them to feel bad–so they can know how it feels to hurt and feel bad. (And sometimes I will continue in my upset until I think they do!) Talk about a counterproductive cycle! But in the end, the longer they stay feeling bad about what they’ve done, the less likely I will hear those powerful words which, when sincerely given, signal a phase of healing and repair can begin.
Depending on our experience with apologies, how badly we feel about ourselves, how numb or in denial we are to the impact of our actions on others or how we were trained as members of certain groups: apologies can also be patterned. A patterned apology lacks true sincerity–although the person saying “I’m sorry” may be completely unaware of this. It isn’t necessarily a conscious decision to be insincere. More often it is an unaware, deeply ingrained set of attitudes or behaviors that have attached to the words “I’m sorry”–thus rendering the words almost meaningless and ultimately interfering with the possibility of repair. So what is a “patterned apology?” Here are a few examples:
The “Shut Down” Apology Pattern Have you ever used the words “I’m sorry” as a pre-emptive “block” intended to shut the conversation (really the feelings of upset and hurt from the other person) down? I have used “I’m sorry” to placate the person, giving them what I think they want–but really I want to stop the interaction from going any further. This apology pattern is immediately experienced as insincere and often escalates the anger or upset–having the direct opposite of what I had hoped my patterned apology would render. I want it to be over. Done. Finished. I want to be off the hook and I have a very definite outcome in mind–forgiveness. I don’t want to hear any more about how I messed up or the impact my actions or words had on another person. When I use an apology in this way I’m really not allowing for the repair to happen. When we feel that bad about ourselves, our (sometimes not so) hidden hope is that we can stop noticing our mistake by essentially shutting the affected party up. It sounds harsher than I imagine it is intended and yet to the offended party, it can feel that harsh. Instead of opening a door for reconnection, the “shut down” apology prematurely interrupts an opportunity for deeper learning and shared understanding.
The “I’m Not Worthy” Apology Pattern Another way that I’ve seen “I’m sorry” used (and myself participated in!) is one that comes from a place so deep inside, so entrenched in a bedrock of guilt and worthlessness, that somehow without uttering those words one no longer thinks they have the right to continue to exist. The “I’m sorry” offered as part of the “I’m Not Worthy” apology pattern is like a rent payment–a regular, predictable toll paid for taking up space. Primarily based in deeply-rooted shame, “I’m sorry”–repeated frequently and often inappropriately (i.e. for nothing the person could actual be accountable for, like bad weather or a plane delay)–is an attempt at redemption. The person to whom the words are uttered is expected to act as redeemer–a job they did not ask for and an unfair expectation when, on the rare occasion a real offense has occurred, they are now expected to help assuage the guilt of the person who has just aggrieved them. Challenging at best, a further offense at worst: this pattern can be a tough one to interrupt because the words sound right, and the tone is even contrite but it’s completely self-effacing and self-erasing and ultimately without self has no accountability in it.
The “Non-Repair” Apology Pattern Finally, another common apology pattern is one that uses an apology to substitute for real repair. An apology is not repair. Repair is actual work, effort, behavior or policy changes that are enacted to rebuild trust. (Repair will be discussed more fully in a future blog.) This apology pattern is neither capable of nor wants to do repair. It simply wants to move on. It’s different from the “shut down” apology pattern in that it isn’t attempting to stop further upset and require forgiveness. This patterned “I’m sorry” essentially denies anything even happened. For example, I have to say “I’m sorry” because it’s expected but I really don’t understand what this all about any way. It reminds me a bit of a parent who requires a child to apologize to another child for some trespass but the apologizing child really doesn’t understand why or think that the apology is warranted; she or he is simply saying the words to be in compliance. And so the “I’m sorry” is perfunctory, flat and transactional. It isn’t a means to an end. It’s the end. There is little or no compassion or attempt to understand what repair would be necessary to rebuild severed or weakened trust.
While apologies can be the gateway to profound and transformational healing, if done from a patterned place they can not only prevent repair from happening but, worse, can cause further affront to the offended party. It’s crucial that we understand from where our apologies come…and what, if anything, we expect by saying those most powerful words: “I’m sorry.”