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The Power of a Heartfelt Apology

Updated on February 6, 2020

If I can share just one bit of relationship advice to our sons before I no longer have much influence on their development, it is this:

A genuine apology from the heart can heal, nourish, and inspire in ways that no amount of money or counselling can.

I feel this holds true in every type of relationship, including between life partners, parents and their children, friends, work colleagues, teachers and students, and businesses and their clients. Based on my life experiences thus far, I've come to believe that many humans don't appreciate the value of delivering a heartfelt sorry.

In the moment that we realize that we have made a mistake or we are told by someone that we have hurt their feelings, whether our mistake was purposeful or inadvertent, do we have the emotional intelligence to process our mistake, take full responsibility for it, and deliver a genuine apology?

Doing so requires that we potentially expose ourselves to unsavoury treatment by those who don't have the maturity to appreciate the courage it takes to be vulnerable. The way I see it, if a person is not gracious in responding to a genuine apology, we can learn to not give that person our life energy going forward. So ultimately, we don't need to fear being chastised for owning up to a mistake. Put another way, the two possible outcomes of offering a genuine apology are to gain trust and forgiveness or to gain clarity on who we wish to spend our life energy on.

I think that for most of us, when we feel that another person is truly sorry and expresses remorse without qualifying their apology, it's natural to feel compassion and respect and a desire to forgive.

When people won't take full responsibility for a mistake, when they pretend that nothing happened or present excuses or even try to shift the focus by criticizing others, forgiveness is harder to generate, isn't it? Without a genuine apology, resentment sets in and relationships enter a death spiral. Some spirals last decades, others last a few seconds. Entrance into a relationship death spiral of any length often begins with a lack of understanding of the value of being and saying sorry. Yes, for a sorry to have impact, we actually have to be sorry from the heart.

My first opportunity to learn this priceless life lesson occured in my late 20s. I was fresh out of school and had just completed two years of running a successful clinic in Alaska and a residential internship in fasting supervision in California. When a patient asked for my thoughts on a lump that had formed along the side of her trunk a few days into her fast, without measuring my thoughts, I told her that it was likely a natural consequence of detoxification that occurs with fasting, and would disappear on its own. Later, it became clear that the lump was an infected sebaceous cyst that required drainage and proper dressing. When I saw this patient a day after she was treated, I felt an uncomfortable coldness. It took me a bit of time to process her energy, but once I realized that she was rightfully upset at me for initially misdiagnosing her lump, I told her how sorry I was for my mistake, and that I would be more measured and careful in all I did and said going forward. In expressing my remorse, I felt an enormous shift of energy as she was able to forgive me and both of us were able to feel the relief that was generated by her forgiveness.

My time running a residential fasting clinic involved countless bedside chats where family members looked to me to act as a mediator as they tried to overcome the wounds of chronic disagreements and painful fights. Even with guidelines in place to use "I feel" statements and to give each other the opportunity to voice lingering resentment, I consistently found that the biggest killer of progress was inability to put one's own resentment aside for a moment to fully feel the other's sadness.

A typical exchange from those chats:

Jordan: I feel hurt when you undermine me in front of the kids, like last week when you excused Mark from the consequence that I gave him for speaking to me disrespectfully - sometimes, you act like you are the boss of this family and that what I say doesn't really matter.

Terry: But that's what you do to me all the time!

Terry clearly has her own point to make, but in order to foster healing and give their relationship a chance of being healthy, in the moment Jordan shares something he is genuinely resentful about, Terry might strive to validate the specific instance that Jordan is speaking about.

For example, Terry could say:

I'm sorry that I made you feel that way. I recognize that we are parenting our children together, and I don't think it's fair for either of us to feel like one is dominating the other, that one of us has the final say in anything that happens with our family. Next time, I will talk with you first and we can decide together if we can modify any consequences that we have set for the children.

Please note that this alternative script has Terry taking ownership of Jordan's pain - I'm sorry that I made you feel that way. Many prefer to say "I'm sorry that you feel this way," which can be taken as "I'm sorry your unreasonable mind took it that way" - not ideal when looking to heal a fractured relationship.

A memorable exchange between an adult daughter in her late 30s and her mother in her late 60s:

Daughter: Mom, you expect so much of me, to be married by now. Why can't you just want me to be happy and healthy? You didn't even save any money to help me with my education. All of my friends' parents helped them with tuition.

Mom: When you become a mother, you will understand my heart. How can you be happy without having your own children? Who is going to help you when you are old and sick? About your tuition, your dad and I expected you to get a full scholarship, that's why we didn't save anything for your education.

How else might mom process what her daughter shared, and how might she respond to encourage healing and forgiveness?

I didn't realize how much stress I give you - I don't want to stress you out so I will be more careful about not giving you unnecessary pressure. I regret that your dad and I didn't have the foresight and discipline to save some money for your education - looking back, I wish we had. I am really sorry.

This isn't to say that we need to permanently swallow our own thoughts and feelings on contentious matters, and that we should always bow low and take one for the team. Maybe mom did save and help to the best of her ability but she didn't have much support from her husband, which made it impossible to build an education fund for the children. And in the first example above, maybe Jordan undermines Terry just as often. The point is that when someone in our circle of life expresses resentment over something, even if we have a different point of view, to best support the relationship, it's vital that we do our best to understand and acknowledge the other person's feelings.

Maybe Terry feels that Jordan is being hypocritical, but this doesn't change Jordan's feelings of resentment in the moment. By acknowledging Jordan's resentment, apologizing, and expressing a desire to be supportive, Terry gives Jordan the relief of being heard and understood, which generates capacity to overcome resentment and to forgive.

When a parent takes responsibility for his or her shortcomings and offers a sincere apology like in the alternative script above for mom, what decent daughter wouldn't be forgiving? On the other hand, when mom tells her daughter "I only want what's best for you, and it's your fault for not getting a full scholarship," the daughter's resentment naturally grows stronger.

Of course, there are some in this world who consistently look to take advantage of those around them. Some people repeatedly do what they want regardless of negative consequences to others, and have no shame in offering meaningless apologies. I would suggest that such people are not worth spending our life energy on - by offering such people empathy and even apologies for their grievances, we only cripple them further. As the Irish would say, such people need a bit of tough love, and sometimes, tough love means moving on and letting them know what won't be tolerated.

But when someone we know to be a decent person takes the time to thoughtfully express genuine hurt or discontent, let's remember the power we have to facilitate healing with a genuine apology. Developing the maturity to offer such empathy and a heartfelt sorry is possible for all of us, and it begins with recognizing the value of developing this level of emotional intelligence.

Let's be clear that this isn't easy. How many people do you know who can receive criticism but can put their own hurt, defensiveness, and anger aside until they have first helped the other person feel whole again? We're almost talking land of unicorns here. Really, when you're having a heated argument with a loved one, how often does your loved one put all his or her stuff to the side and place the entire focus on your feelings until you feel heard, validated, and ultimately, cared about? This is what it comes down to, doesn't it? When the other person doesn't give us the empathy that we need, we feel they just don't care about us, or they care a whole lot more about themselves.

For a relationship to be relatively healthy, I believe that at least one partner needs to develop and consistently display this level of maturity. Someone has to go first, someone has to put their resentment on hold first, someone has to apologize first, someone has to let the other heal first.

What do you get when two people consistently do this for each other? A truly special and magical relationship.

 
 

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Comments

"Greater love hath no man, than he lay down his life for his friends." - John 15:13

This was beautifully and thoughtfully written and I applaud you for it. I have never seen an article quite like it. There is a lot out there on forgiveness, but not so much on saying "I am sorry" sincerely. This type of expression of empathy is indeed healing, bonding and lifegiving ~ and it is a mature and wise person who practices it. Thank you.

Thanks Dr. Kim! I have been receiving your emails for 3 years now, and your wisdom never fails to hit the mark! We can all learn from this and engage in much more meaningful relationships with close friends and family.

Thank you for this great post. It should be required reading for every adult whether single or married.

One modification in both the post and the corresponding Quote of the Day (please see below): BOTH partners need to develop and consistently display this level of maturity.

"For a relationship to be relatively healthy, I believe one partner needs to develop and consistently display this level of maturity.
"What do you get when two people consistently do this for each other? A truly special and magical relationship,,, "

Dr Ben as usual you have hit the nail on the head. I am in the exact situation you are discussing and it is not easy. But healing is happening and relationships are being restored. You are awesome. Your relationship with your parents especially your dad has been a blessing I believe in making you into such an empathetic and wise man.

I believe being genuinely sorry and having chance to express it can start the healing process. It can certainly make it easier for the other party to extend forgiveness.

I've given a lot of thought to my relationships over Lent this year, and one relationship that's still fractured came to mind. I did something to cause hurt, although I didn't realize I had done so. The other party took on an injured air and decided to stay stuck there.

I repeatedly offered apologies, and they were sincere and heartfelt. No soap. All were at least rejected, and many were mocked. I had to let go and walk away. While I wish it could have ended differently, it didn't. It did teach me a lesson that if I feel resentment, I need to process it as soon as possible and find resolution. Otherwise, it will live in me and fester. If someone wrongs me and sincerely apologizes, I need to embrace that and allow forgiveness to release the hurt.

A mutual acquaintance let me know some time back that this other party had grown to be a very toxic person. Made me sad and also confirmed to me that accepting a sincere apology was best for the other person and me.

I had a difficult relationship with my mother and many times I offered to her a heartfelt sorry. As I grew more mature I realized that she resented me in ways that were not healthy - I was thin and she was fat, for instance. I didn't try to be thin. I didn't even talk about it, but she did. How I'd look so much better if I gained weight. She called me guttersnipe and trollop and it's amazing I didn't fulfill the insult. The last time she hit me was across my face when I was 15 standing in her kitchen. I hit her back and she never hit me again. I wish I'd known that earlier as she was short and I was always tall, but she cowed my personality into feeling 3 ft. tall. She took away my education and forced me to leave school when I was 15 and I was bright enough to go to university. When I worked she charged me as much for board as what I paid for a bachelor apartment when I left home - almost the minute I turned 18. I was a good daughter - I wrote home, I paid to visit my parents and went there at least three times a year. I learnt eventually if I stayed three days it was safe, any more, she would cause a huge argument. I'd read books since I was quite young about learning to like yourself. Used to think I should summon my courage and tell her how I felt about her actions towards me. I married an abusive partner - bit like her I guess. I couldn't tell her, or she would say it was my own fault. After he threatened to kill me, I separated and divorced. I am proud that I never ever hit my son. We have a pretty good relationship. In retrospect I'm not sorry I didn't wind up apologizing again - because that is what would've happened - I would have been forced into that position again. It's take me a lifetime to learn to like myself, but I'm getting there. When she died she was with her favourite daughter who conveniently, after the cremation, told me she had ended my mother's life. She was a nurse. I did take her to court (my background is in law) and my motion was heard in her country and she had to attend. I knew she wouldn't be found guilty, but that was my way of telling her she's not my sister now and what she did was horrific and wrong. My mother had the smarts to have a living will and all the etceteras. My sister changed the will to her advantage. All that stuff isn't important and liking yourself really is. Sometimes there are people who want to control us and it is inappropriate to apologize to them. Yes, I am unable to have a mutually happy relationship with a man. But that's due to being stuck in the oedipus part of my relationship with my father who loved me. When you're on the Titanic you do need something to hold on to! I do love being alive. I'm creative and on the whole quite peaceful now.

This was such a WONDERFUL article!! Thank you so much for writing it and sharing it with us :)

As so many have already said, we, your community, appreciate your thoughtful wisdom. A heartfelt apology is the best way to approach being forgiven and it makes extending forgiveness easier. I have also learned, however, that we can grant forgiveness to someone who is not even aware of how they hurt us, nor would care if they did know. Unforgiveness is simply harboring with ill-feeling an offense against. I believe it is this harboring, hanging onto, that causes us the emotional stress you describe in your article ... the kind of stress that allows physical ailment to set in. We don't need an apology from someone to let this stress go. We simply let go ... we forgive them. They do not realize they have hurt us. In some cases, it wouldn't do them any good to know. So, we forgive them, within ourselves, letting go of the stress so we can be whole and healthy. I find that when I do this, I am then able to be kind to them and that "kindness leads them to repentence", or, they then realize on their own what they did and come forth with an apology of sorts. This is what Christ does ... he is kind in his grace towards us and this draws us to relationship with him. It works the same between us because we are made like him. We extend grace, it draws those who have hurt us to new understanding and both then change for the better. It doesn't always happen this way. I've had to forgive my ex husband for terrible things he did. I've had to let go so I could move forward without the stress of bitterness. He will not ever likely reciprocate. But that is okay, for now, for me. That is in his circle, not mine ... since I chose to forgive anyway.

Thanks, Ben ... good thoughts.
Kathy

In secular relationships, mutual empathy not sympathy, is the most effective attitude in any relationship. Simply put yourself in the other person's shoes to get a better idea of who is wrong and needs to apologize.
The Greek New Testament distinguishes between 3 types of love, with Eros often most selfish and exploiting, and its opposite, agape love, totally unselfish or sacrificial never seeking or expecting a return favor. The middle ground is phileo, a 50/50 relationship of mutual love as seen in happy marriages and as practiced in biblical Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love (not referencing current PA).

Thank you so much for this Dr. Kim. I'm going through a painful time with one of my family members right now. Your explanation about being emotionally mature to listen and apologize to keep the relationship whole and move forward is so true but so difficult. Thank you again for this.

Dear Dr. Kim

I am always moved by your graceful offerings, by your authenticity and humility. How can our bodily health not involve our psychological and spiritual health?

It's obvious that you walk the talk and I thank God for your presence on the web.

In profound gratitude,

Anne

Thank you once again, Dr. Kim, for sharing your thoughts so eloquently on this topic. As I grow older, I appreciate the power of a sincere apology even more than I did as a younger adult. Especially as I watch our children become adults. Having empathy and owning one's effect on relationships is so powerful. I have witnessed the steamroller, the person who bullies others through life, without taking into account the effect that behavior has on not only the person they are bullying but those that witness the behavior. When the excuses start, I feel very uncomfortable, not knowing how to react, other than withdrawing and removing myself from the equation.

As usual your insights are broad and profound. Thank you, Dr Ben!

Beautiful! Thank you.

Louis