A sorry state of affairs
Apologising is agonising, but it's worth it. Jane Feinmann learns how to say the hardest word
28 December 2004
Timothy McVeigh didn't do it. Nor did Monica Lewinsky. Tony Blair said he'd done it even though he hadn't - and eventually got someone else (Patricia Hewitt) to do it for him. For different reasons, none of these three offered an adequate apology for doing wrong - and the world, it seems, is a poorer place because of it.
Apology has never been the buzz word of the therapeutic community. Psychologists have preferred to focus on the healing benefits of forgiving and letting go. That could all change in 2005, however, with the publication in March of an authoritative new book claiming that the apology is "one of the most profound interactions that can occur between people".
Arguing that forgiveness inevitably follows an effective apology and is impossible without it, Professor Aaron Lazare, Dean of the University of Massachusetts medical school and the author of On Apology, says saying sorry has the power "to heal humiliations, free the mind from deep-seated guilt, remove the desire for vengeance, and restore broken relationships".
The change will be welcomed by Peter Saunders, 48, who discovered eight years ago, when he first started to talk about the sexual and emotional abuse that he experienced as a child, that he was expected to forgive the perpetrator. "The first person I told was a nun, and her response was to say that she would pray that I could forgive and move on - as if I could forgive someone who won't even acknowledge what happened. I felt like punching her; I was so angry. And I got the same message from a police officer to whom I reported the abuse, as well as three very badly informed therapists that I consulted."
On Apology provides a guide to the problems of forgiving those who trespass against us. "A wronged person is in a state of humiliated rage, interpreting the external world through the lens of fear and rage," explains Lazare. Anyone who has experienced humiliation knows the feeling: of being "stunned" for several minutes after the offence, with "thoughts about the event seeming to multiply, intensify and persist for hours or even days". Then comes the anger, intense and distressing, motivating often irrational behaviour and gradually resolving into a grudge, "a form of residual or dormant anger".
Lazare says that his years as a practising psychiatrist and psychotherapist have involved "heart-wrenching observation of grudges in families, lasting from weeks to a lifetime, resulting from the unwillingness of individuals to apologise and to forgive".
Ending this suffering, however, needs more than a mumbled "sorry". "Two parties must participate in an interaction at high risk of producing discomfort: the offender, in the position of a supplicant who exposes weaknesses and risks rejection or retaliation; and the offended party, who may be may be reluctant to relinquish a treasured grudge or even admit being hurt."
A good apology, says Lazare, works by satisfying distinct psychological needs: it restores self-respect to people who were "initially humiliated and rendered powerless" by the offence, and "[it transfers] the humiliation from the victim to the offender, who then becomes the stupid, insensitive or immoral one". Such a message can be far more satisfying to the victim than any amount of compensation.
Bill Clinton's passionate apology to the African-Americans who were the subjects of the infamous syphilis experiments at Tuskegee was successful because it acknowledged that people with rights like any others had been treated as "non-human experimental subjects" by an immoral state. Less successful was Arnold Schwarzenegger's mea culpa when he was accused of groping women's breasts during an election campaign. He said only that he "had done things which were not right, which I thought was playful", provoking the sour response from the American National Organisation for Women: "Your behaviour was not playful; it was illegal."
The greatest apology ever, says Lazare, was delivered by Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address. He offered an apology full of humility and remorse for the "national offence" of slavery, describing how "one-eighth of the whole population" had been forced into "250 years of unrequited toil" by "blood drawn with the lash".
Compare Lincoln's humility to a more recent errant soul, Lewinsky, who, says Lazare, "lives in a world in which there are no rights and wrongs, and for whom the language of shame and regret does not exist. She was quite literally shameless. What was missing in all her interviews was remorse, the recognition that she hurt others."
More common than the non-apology is the pseudo-apology "that does not acknowledge the offence adequately, or fails to express genuine remorse," continues Lazare. Politicians, for example, sometimes use "sorry" in terms of sympathy rather than remorse - as in the US ambassador Walter Mondale's apology to the Japanese people on the 50th anniversary of the American bombing of Tokyo.
Another common pseudo-apology uses the conditional to avoid taking full responsibility for what has happened. Cardinal Edward Egan, of New York, qualified the apology he delivered at the height of the Catholic Church's paedophile crisis, three times in a sentence: "If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry." Few were reassured.
Typically, Tony Blair's apology for entering the Iraq war based on inaccurate information, delivered by Hewitt in October, offered an excuse - "it was an incredibly difficult decision" - alongside a conditional claim that despite the errors, "I don't think we were wrong to go in".
Probably the most dangerous pseudo-apology is one that does not involve a subsequent change of behaviour. Instead of "love means never having to say you're sorry", it should be, "love is being able to say 'I'm sorry and I mean it'," says Ken Blanchard, in his book The One Minute Apology (HarperCollins). "An apology needs to be substantiated by a change in behaviour that recognises the hurt caused to others and demonstrates a commitment not to repeat the act."
"Without a change in behaviour, saying sorry can be despicable," says Jim Waters, the NSPCC's development manager. "An apology can bring closure and even the rebuilding of a relationship between abuser and abused. But the words 'I'm sorry' can also be part of a process by which an abuser will return to repeat the abuse. And without a wholehearted commitment to change, this will inevitably happen in any situation where there is an element of addiction or repetitive behaviour."
But even without receiving a sincere apology, the victims of an offence can recover. Saunders, who founded and is now director of the National Association of People Abused in Childhood (Napac), believes that effective therapy can help profoundly injured people to come to terms with their experience - even if they are not able to forgive. "There are Napac members who have been reconciled with abusers who have shown remorse and such forgiveness is very powerful. But it can't be imposed."
MEA CULPA: HOW TO DO IT RIGHT
Four reasons why people won't apologise
* Fear that the recipient will lose respect, become smug, make a scene or withhold forgiveness.
* The belief that, if you don't apologise, the offended party will remain unaware that any offence has been committed against them.
* A strong desire not to feel weak, defeated, guilty or in any way a loser.
* Ignorance about how to apologise properly.
Four factors that make a good apology
* A fully expressed sense of remorse, shame and humility on the part of the offender.
* Specificity about the grievance: it can be helpful to list all the causes of offence.
* A willingness to take responsibility for the offence - thereby assuring the victim that it was not their fault.
* A willingness to make reparation where necessary, and - vitally - to go on to change harmful behaviour.