Apologizing: Harriet Lerner Takes On Sorry, Not Sorry

The best apologies are short, and don’t go on to include explanations that run the risk of undoing them. An apology isn’t the only chance you ever get to address the underlying issue. The apology is the chance you get to establish the ground for future communication. This is an important and often overlooked distinction. Harriet Lerner, Why Won’t You Apologize?

Early this year relationship expert Dr. Harriet Lerner came out with Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, now out in paperback. Her previous TED talk had just a slightly different angle, “Why Won’t He Apologize?” It opened with an amusing anecdote about expecting her husband to offer up his deepest regrets after she unfairly reacted to a perceived, but perhaps petty, slight.

You can see it below:

We and all our relationships will surely be affected by hurts—and thus, with choices regarding apologizing. Lerner: “The only way to avoid being mistreated in this world is to fold up in a dark corner and stay mute. If you go outside, or let others in, you’ll get hurt many times. Ditto if you’ve grown up in a family rather than raised by wolves. Some people will behave badly and will not apologize, repair the harm, or care about your feelings.”

Why Won’t You Apologize? is for both the injured party and the injurer, covers non-apologizers (who usually suffer from low self-esteem) as well as over-apologizers, and so much more—including an essential topic she also wrote about in her Psychology Today blog, that “People won’t apologize if they’re feeling overly-accused or pushed to assume more than their fair share of the blame.”

Of course, as Neda Ulaby‘s recent NPR piece on Lerner’s book points out, info about apologizing is quite timely in this new era of individuals coming boldly forth with allegations of sexual harassment and assault by well-known figures.

From Ulaby’s article: “…Lerner says, ‘It’s not the words ‘I’m sorry’ that heal or soothe the harmed party. What the harmed party wants and needs to hear is an emotionally packed corroboration of the reality that occurred: ‘Yes, I get it. It was terrible. It was unconscionable. Your feelings make sense.’ ”

Furthermore, “Apologies do not excuse perpetrators from the consequences of their actions. And they do not compensate for a culture where women have less power and less privilege — and too many men have things to be sorry for.”

Other Pertinent Quotes from Lerner (Interview with Kathy Caprino, Forbes)

Little add-ons like “but” (I’m sorry I forget your birthday, but I was stressed out with work”) or “if” (“I’m sorry if that joke I made at the meeting offended you”) will turn your sorry into a not-sorry-at-all.

Bringing up the other person’s crime sheet  (“I apologize for yelling and now you apologize for provoking me”) is another common apology error.

A heartfelt apology means accepting responsibility for our mistakes without a hint of excuse making or evasion, even if the other person can’t do the same. Sure we may be convinced that we’re only 37% to blame, but we can save our different perspective for a future conversation where it can be a subject of conversation and not a defense strategy.

More than anything, the hurt party wants us to listen carefully to their feelings, to validate their reality, to feel genuine regret and remorse, to carry some of the pain we’ve caused, and to make reparations as needed. They want us to really “get it” and to make sure there will be no repeat performance.

You do not need to forgive in order to let go of the corrosive effects of negative emotions. And it’s not our job to encourage others to forgive. Pushing forgiveness can traumatize the hurt party all over again…It’s the last thing the injured party needs to hear.

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