Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

Those of you who were alive in the 70s or who are fans of old school pop/rock music will be familiar with the source of those words. If you’re not, it’s a title from an Elton John song from around 1976. If you like a well written and well performed pop ballad, check it out! But I’m not here as your music critic today but to discuss the important and often misunderstood subject of apology giving. There are lots of sources of information out there on this subject, but my primary one is Dr. Harriet Lerner. Dr. Lerner is a renowned clinical psychologist and author of some excellent books including Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts written in 2017.

I’ll venture a safe guess that you will be able to recall a time when someone tried to apologize for something they did to you but the words did not ring true or fell short of a satisfying and healing response. Here are just a few examples of what Dr. Lerner would qualify as not so good apologies. I’ll bet the unsatisfactory ones you remember sounded like some of these.

“I’m sorry but….”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“I’m sorry for anyone I may have hurt.”

“I shouldn’t have done that but when you….”

 When asked in a recent interview to give a brief description of what a good apology is, Dr. Lerner said, “A good apology is when we take clear and direct responsibility without a hint of evasion, blaming, obfuscation, excuse-making and without bringing up the other person’s crime sheet.” I think you’ll agree at least on principle that what she is saying makes sense but when it comes time to actually say the words of an apology, it is hard to be vulnerable enough to take “full and direct responsibility” for our choices without softening or justifying them. It’s hard to just hang ourselves out there without some defensiveness or trying to evoke a particular response from the offended person.

On the other hand, think of it this way. Whereas a poor apology takes the focus away from where it belongs and makes for dissatisfaction or even further hurt, a good apology strengthens relationships. It helps build trust and promote healing. A good apology is not the ending point but rather the starting point for ongoing healthy conversations about the situation and other topics. Finally, and perhaps the most compelling reason for the person apologizing, a good apology is not a show of weakness but in fact is a show of tremendous strength. You are living in your power when you show this level of vulnerability to someone you care for.

Let me refer you to do some on-line searches for Dr. Lerner and her book. There are some good synopses to fuel your thinking out there, or you might buy the book itself if you want a deeper understanding. Mostly though, take this as encouragement to not only think it through but to begin to apply this level of connection and vulnerability to your relationships. I believe you will find that good apologies will be rewarded with powerful and positive outcomes.