Apologies Reflect Reality
Honest, well timed apologies are a vital part of emotional health – both when we give and when we receive them. That’s because apologies reflect the shared reality of the person inconvenienced or harmed and the person who has `hurt’ them. The honest, well-timed apology allows for two people (or an entire family, community, or nation) to face reality with dignity. That shared acknowledgement of reality is a vital part of feeling mentally and emotionally well.
We often hear people say things like, “Don’t bother apologizing.” Or “apologies don’t mean anything – it’s actions that matter.” And while actions do matter, they matter a great deal, they don’t matter very much without responsibility taking, now do they?
If you punch me in the face (please don’t) and I say, “That hurt!” simply choosing to not punch me in the face again would be way less meaningful than saying, “Man, sorry about that. I’ll never punch you in the face again. Let me buy you a milkshake” – and then not punching ever punching me again. Though it is unlikely that I would want to go for milkshakes with someone who has just punched me in the face, it would be gesture that signifies that I am a person, like you, who deserves kindness.
It’s a sort of one-two combination: first you apologize (for punching), then you change your behaviour (you cease punching). If you want to not be a jerk, you really, really do need the apology and let the people you inconvenience or harm know that they matter as people.
Frankly, it takes a lot of courage to apologize for doing harmful things. It takes guts to make amends. Though sometimes it isn’t safe to fess up because the person you would be apologizing to will be overly punitive in response to your responsibility taking. But that’s generally not the case. More often than not, the bravery we show in taking responsibility and apologizing for harmful things reduces the anger or retribution of the person responding.
Sometimes Apologies Mean so Much
Though, ultimately, not hurting people matters more than apologizing for hurting people, sometimes the apology is actually the most healing part. The reason for this is quite simple: it is very hard to live in a world with people who hurt you and don’t take responsibility for what they have done. Or people who hurt you and blame you for the pain you feel. When another person acknowledges how we feel and takes responsibility for their actions, they instantly make the world safer for us, don’t they? In fact, no healthy relationships or communities could possibly exist if we didn’t ultimately share some sense of right and wrong.
Sincere Apologies are the Opposite of Gaslighting
An extreme form of not denying another person’s lived experience is gaslighting. When someone gaslights, they deny the reality of actual events and undermine a person (or community’s, or nation’s) sense of lived experience. The phrase “Gaslighting” comes from the movie “Gaslight” in which:
A husband attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their environment and insisting that she is mistaken […] or delusional when she points out these changes. (Source: Wikipedia)
We see that among bullies, including school yard thugs, parents, “the media”, CEOs, churches, and world leaders, all the time don’t we? They do something awful and then turn around and say they didn’t do it.
That’s an underrated aspect of apologies, isn’t it? The idea that when we whole-heartedly apologize, we are acknowledging that another person’s (or community’s) viewpoint has value. It’s not just about taking responsibility and being honourable, it’s about acknowledgment that another persons feelings and viewpoint have value to you. That shared value, though it might come at the cost of some comforting delusions, increases the wellness and stability of all people involved.
Of course, saying “I’m sorry” isn’t always good enough. Reflecting someone’s reality only goes so far. Sometimes the apology is insignificant in comparison to the change in behaviour. Sometimes the apology actually allows people to continue to do their bad behaviour: If someone acknowledges fault and continue to do the same hurtful things over and over again, they come across as careless or even cruel. In those cases, they are simply using apologies to manipulate the person you have harmed and to keep yourself out of trouble.
In other instances, the apology has more value than the changed behaviour.
Ultimately, we do need to walk the walk, and do the things we are responsible for. We are responsible for behaving according to our own codes of values in ways that don’t mess with other people.
But it all begins with a hearty “I’m sorry”.