men having difficult discussion

The Power of a REAL Apology

Judith Herman, MD, author of Trauma and Recovery, one of the earliest books that really put a spotlight on trauma and its impact as well as what people need in their recovery process, recently published a book called Trauma and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice. This is such a rich book filled with important principles about what survivors of abuse and neglect need if they are ever going to recover.

I thought I would share with you some of the points she makes about apologies that raised my awareness of what a genuine apology is and how many times apologies are ineffective and even hurtful.

She begins by stating that, “Many survivors yearn for a genuine apology. They want their perpetrators to admit their crimes and take full responsibility, with remorse and without excuses, to recognize the suffering they have caused, and to show that they are willing to do whatever needs to be done to make amends.”

If you are someone who has been violated, abused or otherwise traumatized by another person, was there any kind of genuine apology in which the person admitted what they did and took responsibility for wounding you, did it with remorse and without excuses, showed that they could appreciate the suffering they caused and that they now want to find a way to make amends?

She shares that when an offender humbles himself, there is a reversal of the power dynamic between victim and offender. As a result of this, there is the possibility that the victim’s dignity and self-respect can be restored.

She adds to this that, “Unfortunately, such full and genuine apologies are rare.” She adds, “Genuine apologies foster the hope that evil deeds can be redeemed, insecure apologies add insult to injury by mocking that hope.”

It seems like we live in a world where most people are unaware and/or incapable of offering full and genuine apologies to those who have been violated, abused or otherwise traumatized. How sad to think of all the people who feel their injury has been mocked! Most may not even realize their wounds have been minimized by an insincere apology but continued to feel the pain of the original offense.

Herman shares what playwright and feminist activist Eve Ensler in her book The Apology states there are four steps that must take place in the mind of the perpetrator: “ First, engaging in deep introspection about what made one capable of their crimes; second, acknowledging in full detail what they had done; third, developing empathy: feeling and understanding the impact of the harms they had influenced; and finally, taking full responsibility in making the apology.” She notes how similar the steps are to those practiced in the various 12 step programs.

To consciously take these four steps requires the time needed to dive deeply into each one to get to the place where they are able to make a sincere and genuine apology. I believe taking personal notes could serve as a guide to this process. Framing an apology that includes putting words to each of the four steps to share with the person to whom they are apologizing provides the opportunity for resolution and healing on the part of each person.

I think how valuable it would be for parents to have a better understanding of what a genuine apology involves as they guide their children in processes of making amends when they inadvertently or blatantly hurt others. What rich conversations could come out of an explanation to children of what a genuine apology involves and that if they only say “I’m sorry, please forgive me” they are not doing justice to what is needed to repair a relationship!

Again, I highly recommend this book and encourage readers to consider purchasing it and studying it to get many more insights about what truth and repair involve. It is a great book for a small group book discussion and is so eye-opening and powerful.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Can you recall times when you have been wounded, hurt, or somehow traumatized by the actions or even words of someone else? How would a genuine apology have helped you regain your power and recover from those wounds?
  2. Have you had experiences where people quickly said the superficial, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me,” after they did something hurtful, and you know that they aren’t genuinely remorseful; rather they are going through the polite motions that are expected?
  3. Does it seem that until now you might not have realized how important a genuine apology is? Do you feel better equipped to apply the four steps Eve Ensler shared when you need to make a genuine apology?