Psychologist and popular writer, Harriet Lerner’s new book, Why Won’t You Apologize? analyzes the interwoven dynamics of what it is to apologize to and forgive another. Hers is one of the most realistic deconstructions of the two sides of a single coin that’s crucial to healthy relationships.
Since apologies are something we can all do better, it’s a must read. Lerner writes: “I believe that tendering an apology, one that is authentic and genuinely felt, helps the other person to feel validated, soothed, and cared for and can restore a sense of well-being and integrity to the one who sincerely feels she or he did something wrong.”
A genuine apology isn’t a common occurrence. So much of what initially sounds acceptable either doesn’t take responsibility for the act or even blames it on the other person. And then there are apologies that are about the person who is apologizing rather than the hurt party.
Often the apology really isn’t. It consists of some language that says: “I’m sorry if that hurt you.”
That common trope doubles the initial offense. Not only are there the actions or words for which someone should be apologizing, but it adds the additional implication that the issue is the feelings of the other, not the actions of the person supposedly apologizing.
I’m not really sorry for what I did, then, I’m sorry that you responded the way you did. More crudely: “I’d do it again if you wouldn’t respond so badly.”
Then there are the apologies that add excuses as if the action wasn’t really the offender’s fault and shouldn’t be taken too badly because there’s something outside their control that caused it.
“If you are the person offering an apology,” Lerner writes, “it is essential to speak the language of cause-and-effect, and to take unambiguous responsibility for the consequences of your actions and its impact on the other person.”
But what about forgiveness? For Lerner, forgiveness is “earned through a process of openhearted listening and self-examination.”
But it requires an apology. And, contrary to what is often preached, it’s not required in order for the offended party to move on:
“You do not need to forgive a person who has hurt you in order to free yourself from the pain of negative emotions,” Lerner advises. “You can even reach a place of love and compassion for the wrongdoer without forgiving a particular action or inaction….Most importantly, it is no one else’s job – not that of your therapist, mother, teacher, spiritual guide, best friend, or relationship expert – to tell you to forgive – or not to.”
Forgiveness based upon my own religious studies professor perspective also means that:
- Forgiving people who have not asked for your forgiveness is an assertion of a superior moral position over them. It’s passive-aggressive.
- Forgiving people for what they’ve done that hurts and continues to hurt others is to assert that I have the right to forgive what you’ve done to others, that I am god.
- Telling people they should forgive someone who hurt them is preaching at them and minimizing their pain. At the very least, it’s insensitive. At the most, it’s abusive and another assertion that one thinks oneself morally superior to those who haven’t forgiven.
- People are ready to be forgiven when they say that they were wrong (not just that they’re sorry if you were hurt) and are ready to make amends, or, in old fashioned terms, to repent (the Greek word for “repent” in the New Testament is metanoia, that is literally “turn around”). It’s a basic principle of AA.
- Not forgiving until asked by the offender does not mean one is to be instead inhuman, bitter, or does not treat the offender as a full human being. It instead accepts that the reason why someone is not so asking for forgiveness is that they’re not doing their own work, emotional work that will help them get beyond their own issues. So, forgiving them is enabling them to stay stuck in their own mire.