We talk to psychologist Harriet Lerner about how to genuinely apologize—and forgive.
In this moment when acknowledging badly bruised feelings and mending fences seems imperative, both at a national political level and among neighbors, we can all be glad that psychologist Harriet Lerner is stepping up to help us. The author of The Dance of Anger, the best-seller on the importance of acknowledging rather than ignoring resentment—a book whose superfans include shame expert Brené Brown—has turned her eagle eye on saying sorry well and deciding which apologies we should accept, in her latest work, Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts (Touchstone). After all, she writes, it’s part of the human condition to “take turns at being the offender and the offended.”
ELLE: WOMEN OFTEN HEAR THAT WE APOLOGIZE TOO MUCH—WHAT’S UP WITH THAT?
Harriet Lerner: It’s true that over-apologizing interrupts the flow of conversation and irritates the person who has to stop and offer reassurance, like, “No, it’s fine, don’t worry about it.” But far greater than the challenge of toning down unnecessary “sorrys” is offering an apology when one is due. Even over-apologizers become non-apologizers when it comes to taking responsibility for behaviors that conflict with our favored image of ourselves. And the more serious the wrongdoing, the harder it is to offer a genuine apology—one without a hint of abasement, excuse-making, or blame-reversing.
WHY IS APOLOGIZING SO ESSENTIAL?
Being able to make a sincere apology—one that says, “Yes, I get it; I screwed up. Your feelings make sense, and I’m taking this seriously”—is at the heart of being successful in leadership, parenting, and friendship, as well as our own integrity and self-worth. And the failure to apologize? Even a good relationship will suffer quietly—because we really feel it when someone won’t take responsibility for what they said, or didn’t say.
I WAS SURPRISED TO READ THAT YOU THINK PEOPLE DON’T ALWAYS HAVE TO FORGIVE—OR DO SO COMPLETELY. HOW DOES WITHHOLDING A MEASURE OF FORGIVENESS MAKE US STRONGER?
It’s counterintuitive, I know. Every time I open Facebook, I see a post with something like, “We must forgive or be prisoners of our own bitterness and hate.” People think that forgiveness is all-or-nothing, but this myth hurts people. You can forgive 10, 97, or 14 percent. Forgiveness is complicated. Often when someone apologizes—like a parent who says to a child, “I’m very sorry I neglected you when you were a kid”—they also ask, “Do you forgive me?,” because they want the other person to be over it.
However, healing can take a great deal of time. And if we forgive too quickly, we cut the process short. This is especially challenging for women: We’re raised to be the nurturers and steadiers of rocked boats, to hold relationships in place as if our lives depended on it. But it shores up your own dignity and integrity if you’re able to say, “There are a million things I love about you, and I want our relationship to continue. I forgive you 95 percent, but not this 5 percent.”
YOU WRITE ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF RESTITUTION, ACTIONS THAT REINFORCE AN EARNEST VERBAL APOLOGY. IS THERE A CONTEXT IN WHICH YOU CAN IMAGINE A NATIONAL APOLOGY FOR AN OFFENSE AS LARGE AS SLAVERY THAT COULD ACTUALLY HELP?
Well, there are some things for which there is no apology, and on the question of slavery, there is no adequate apology for ripping people out of their homeland and bringing them here in chains. There is no adequate apology for the ongoing horrific legacy of racism. Clearly, it’s an absurdity to think that words could ever be enough. We need the words, we need reparations, and we need to understand that it will take many generations to heal an atrocity this large—if it is ever healed. Yet still, we have to try.
THE CONVERSATION OVER THE FINAL WEEKS OF THE ELECTION REMINDED SO MANY WOMEN OF LARGELY SUPPRESSED EPISODES OF SEXUAL ASSAULT, AGGRESSION, AND CREEPY BEHAVIOR WE’VE SUFFERED AT MEN’S HANDS. HOW WOULD YOU SUGGEST WE DO—OR DON’T—CONFRONT THOSE WHO’VE HARMED US?
I’d say that while it’s normal to long for an apology, if you really need it, you’re not ready to speak to whoever harmed you. Non-apologizers tend to walk on a tightrope of defensiveness above a huge canyon of low self-esteem—they just can’t listen to anything that’s going to set them off balance. So focus on what you say for your own sake, because you need to hear your own voice telling the truth. You can find a safe place to do that, with a therapist or at a speak-out.
“NON-APOLOGIZERS TEND TO WALK ON A TIGHTROPE OF DEFENSIVENESS”
WHAT’S THE BEST APOLOGY YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?
Great question! I spent years researching this subject but never once thought about that. The best apology, I think, was from my husband, Steve, who slept with a close friend of mine decades back, when we were committed to being life partners but not yet married. And many of the factors that made Steve’s apology so healing are universal. One important thing is that he confessed to the affair, rather than my discovering it. And he’s never blamed the affair partner, never implied that I was responsible—for example, by suggesting my unavailability had something to do with his choice. He looked deeply into his own history in terms of why this happened, but he never used that history as an excuse. To this day, Steve initiates conversations about this and listens carefully to my feelings; he’s never said anything like, “Harriet, you know this happened decades ago! Why do you have to bring it up again?” He’s carrying some of the pain. And what I really want to stress is that, more than anything, our ability to listen without defensiveness is at the heart of a sincere apology.