THE POWER OF A HEARTFELT APOLOGY WHEN A REAL WRONG HAS BEEN DONE
I agree with those who say that one should never apologize for something he or she has not done.
It is self-destructive to apologize, almost automatically, when people are angry with you—even if you don’t believe you did anything wrong.
The “automatic apology syndrome” (my words) can get started in childhood. Imagine you were arguing with your brother or sister and got blamed for starting it all when you didn’t. Your dad was frustrated with you and demanded you apologize. You protested. You knew you hadn’t done anything wrong, but that just made your dad yell more. Maybe you even became teary-eyed because you weren’t being heard, but then your mind did a quick, unconscious bit of calculating and came up with the idea that apologizing was the easy way out. Since your dad’s face had become red, it seemed like the only way out. Say two words and all the trouble would probably end. So you said them—I apologize—even though you didn’t mean them. Just as you had thought, your dad’s anger started to evaporate. He stopped yelling.
Easy enough, right? Two simple words, and your world was back to normal. Wrong. You had just learned a very toxic lesson: It’s worth giving up on the truth and giving up on yourself to get out of the line of fire.
If something like this happened to you—and maybe happened a few other times in other situations—you could easily have become convinced that surrender without pain is preferable to standing your ground and taking the pain. That isn’t true and is never worth it.
When you do have something real about which to apologize, however, then offering that apology can itself be empowering. It shows others and reminds you that you aren’t afraid of being wrong and that you’re strong enough to admit when you are.
Thirty-six years ago I heard Reverend Jesse Jackson speak at the Democratic National Convention. Earlier that year, he had referred to Jews as Hymies and New York as Hymietown—both derogatory slurs. And I have never forgotten the apology he issued at the convention when he said:
If, in my low moments, in word, deed or attitude, through some error of temper, taste, or tone, I have caused anyone discomfort, created pain, or revived someone’s fears, that was not my truest self. If there were occasions when my grape turned into a raisin and my joy bell lost its resonance, please forgive me. Charge it to my head and not to my heart. My head — so limited in its finitude; my heart, which is boundless in its love for the human family. I am not a perfect servant. I am a public servant doing my best against the odds. As I develop and serve, be patient: God is not finished with me yet.
That apology didn’t weaken Jesse Jackson. It showed he had courage. It ennobled him. And it brought me close to tears.
Never apologize simply to appease your critics when you have done nothing wrong. But never fear apologizing when you have.
Dr. Keith Ablow