I have been wanting to write this blog post for a few years now. The original inspiration for this post happened back when my daughter was in preschool and a classmate bit her. When I asked her teacher if the classmate had been told to apologize, she said that they don’t encourage insincere apologies at that school. While that answer didn’t satisfy me, it intrigued me and launched me on a quest to try to figure out how to teach my children exactly what a sincere apology is. On this quest, I’ve observed my own defenses around apologizing, I’ve witnessed my children exploring all manners of insincere apologies, I’ve been the recipient of insincere apologies and I’ve watched politicians apologize insincerely just for appearance’s sake, mostly because they got caught doing something. In fact, today my daughter overheard me talking about Trump’s recent “apology” about the taped conversation where he was caught demeaning and sexually objectifying women. She wanted to know whether or not his “apology” will now get him elected. I suddenly felt inspired to write about the difference between sincere and insincere apologies, so here I am doing so.
Insincere apologies come in various forms. There is the apology that is meant to silence the anger of the person who has been wronged. When this happens, the person who has been wronged is flipped into the position of wrongdoer if they aren’t silenced by the apology. If they are not satisfied with the apology, they are met with an indignant form of “What do you want? I said sorry!” Another kind is the apology that is actually a plea for comfort. When this happens, the person apologizing doesn’t really own what they have done, but wants to hear “It’s okay,” because they want to know that they are okay, that the person who is hurt still loves them. The person who was wronged gets flipped into the position of comforter. A close relative to this sort of apology is the kind where the word sorry is followed by justifications and evidence that the wrongdoer is actually “a good person.” In this scenario, the wronged person is made invisible, eclipsed by the need of the person apologizing to clear their name. Trump’s “apology” is a good example of that sort of apology. He talks about how he is different now, but never once mentions what he did wrong then, or who he wronged. There is also “Sorry if you feel hurt,” which makes the wronged person seem crazy and overly sensitive and there’s the “Sorry, but…” which turns the apology into an accusation or an excuse that absolves the apologizer. The most transparently insincere form of apology is an aggressive-sounding “Sorry!” which sounds more like an insult. The insincere apology comes in all these different varieties, but the result is the same: the wrongdoer avoids culpability and at the same time invalidates the feelings and the experience of the wronged person.
A sincere apology demands accountability from the wrongdoer and validation of the wronged person. This grows from brave self-examination and a willingness to hear from another that you have had a negative impact, that you have hurt them, that you have been imperfect. This is not for the faint of heart. When you truly apologize to someone, for a moment you give control of the situation over to the person you’ve wronged, because in order to truly apologize to someone, you must permit that person to express how you hurt them. To sincerely apologize, you need to acknowledge the pain you caused the person you are apologizing to. If you are truly sorry, you offer to make amends to the person you hurt, and you let that person decide what those amends could be.
If you are not ready to do all of the above, then you are not ready to apologize, and you could use a little more time to examine what’s going on for you. You may notice yourself wanting to take any of the paths mentioned above to the insincere apology, and wisdom can grow from that noticing. You might notice that you are about to say “sorry” but what you really mean is “Please tell me I’m a good person.” You need to hear that from someone, but not from the person you are apologizing to. That someone is you. If you can tease out what you need to do for yourself from what you need to do for the person you wronged, you can move forward. Acknowledge your goodness to yourself, and acknowledge your wrongdoing to the person that you have wronged. To accept your humanity is to open up to the greater humanity. This is the power that lies in the sincere apology.