Wednesday 23 January 2019

Mary Kenny: Why is sorry the hardest word?

An apology can be healing for both parties involved

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

The smart advice used to be: "Never apologise, never explain". Apologies and explanations may only remind the offended party of the offence taken, thus re-inflaming the wound, and so make things worse.

Now it's changed to "always apologise" - but be careful that any explanations might sound like self-justifications.

The American psychologist Harriet Lerner, who advocates apologising as a "healing" therapy, says that the one word that should never be added to an apology is "but". "I'm sorry for what I said, but I didn't mean any harm." "I'm sorry for what I did, but I thought it was the right thing at the time." The word "but" must be deleted from an apology, because "but" always dilutes the apology itself and is inserted like a lawyer's defence of the accused.

Dr Lerner has underlined, too, just the type of apology I hate to the point of rage. This is the one that says "I'm sorry you feel that way" because that throws the onus of the offence onto the victim. I've had that faux-apology. "It's not how I FEEL," I yell back, usually to some corporate spokesperson. "It's the stupid, damn mistake your company has made!"

Companies of any kind are wary of direct apologies because their lawyers have warned them that an apology might imply liability. And that means compo.

Harriet Lerner, whose book is called Why Won't You Apologize? is more focused on the personal than on the corporate. Apologies, she says, are not about asking for forgiveness. "It's not our place to tell anyone to forgive, or not to forgive," she has said, quoted in the New York Times. The apology is more about straightening our own conscience when we recognise that we have wronged someone.

The injured party may or may not forgive. The injured party may not even accept the apology, and if that's the way they feel, so be it. The apologiser - so long as she does it without adding that defensive "but" - has done what she needed to do. Not that it's always easy - it's often difficult and humiliating, and it puts you into the vulnerable position of having your apology rejected. Which can make you so angry and hurt that you feel like committing the offence all over again. The person receiving the apology really has all the power.

I've consulted a life coach myself on this issue, and he says that you should indeed apologise when you recognise that you have wronged someone, but once should usually be enough. Twice is the limit. If the offended party does not respond after the second apology, then leave it.

A third apology just becomes fawning and craven, and the offended party may come to despise someone who apologises over and over again. I've seen that happen in a relationship in which the man was always the first to apologise after a blazing row: it's the "please-treat-me-like-a-doormat" complex.

Drunks often have plenty to apologise for - indeed, the sign of having problems with alcohol is the routine morning-after phone calls you have to make apologising for your appalling behaviour the night before - and Alcoholics Anonymous dispenses sensible and practical advice about dealing with such regrets. You should apologise - and make amends, too - to anyone you have wronged: except, it is added wisely, where an apology would make the situation worse. It hardly serves any purpose to contact some woman and say: "Look, I'm sorry I had an affair with your husband 10 years ago." This is where God can come in handy, and many a sinner has found solace in spiritual repentence.

The collective political apology has been all the fashion in recent years, ever since Tony Blair apologised for the Irish Famine, and subsequently, David Cameron apologised for Bloody Sunday of 1972. Cameron's apology soothed feelings about a community wound of living memory; while some regarded Blair's Famine apology as "virtue signalling" - a gesture intended to be interpreted as "see what a compassionate and decent human being I am".

I think it was probably part of his policy of reconciliation, and in that sense, sincerely meant: all the same, he was hardly responsible for the policies of Lord John Russell and Sir Charles Trevelyan in the 1840s. There should, surely, be some link of responsibility between the apologiser and the deed. It's right the Catholic church should apologise for past wrongs and abuses, but collective apologies can impute the just and the unjust indiscriminately. It's hardly fair if apologies are sought from clergy or nuns who were blameless.

The psychologist Harriet Lerner claims that apology is "central to health, both physical and emotional. 'I'm sorry,' are the two most healing words in the English language." It takes courage to apologise and it can release the apologiser from recriminations and bitterness. Other therapists have claimed that apologising improves blood pressure, and relieves heart and pulmonary stress.

I made a mean-spirited remark to a Facebook friend recently - about the awfulness of the pink knitted hat she was wearing for the anti-Trump march. "Ah Mary, a grá, tis yourself would know about the hats!" she responded kindly. A soft answer turneth away wrath. I owe a but-less and heartfelt apology.


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