The S word

Saying sorry can be healing, but also scary

Are flowers an easy out when it's time to say you're sorry? Steve Ilardi, associate professor of psychology at Kansas University, says the best apologies very often come with more than words.

The holidays can be stressful. Relatives get together, expectations of gaiety run high, and – almost invariably – words are spoken or events transpire that hurt someone.

An apology is in order, but issuing one that’s meaningful can be tricky.

“An apology can be offered without sincerity, simply to get out of a predicament,” says Harriet Lerner, a best-selling author and clinical psychologist with a private practice in Lawrence.

“Some folks apologize with a grand flourish but then go on to continue the very behavior they are apologizing for, whether it’s drinking or coming home late from work when they’ve agreed not to.”

Although human relationships can be extraordinarily complicated, Beverly Engel says the components of a sincere apology are pretty straightforward.

“I call them the three R’s: regret, responsibility and remedy,” says Engel, a psychotherapist and author of “The Power of Apology” (John Wiley & Sons, 2001).

The elements break down like this:

¢ Regret: Make it clear that you truly understand the pain you’ve caused.

¢ Responsibility: Take complete accountability for your actions. Don’t make excuses or lay blame elsewhere.

¢ Remedy: State your plan of action to prevent repeating the offense in the future.

Sounds easy enough. So why isn’t it?

“For some people, it’s pride. Some people find it enormously aversive to look weak or admit they’re wrong. Maybe they were punished for that in their family growing up,” says Steve Ilardi, associate professor of psychology at Kansas University.

“For other people, it’s the discomfort of being emotionally vulnerable. When you apologize, you’re setting yourself up for potential rejection or for being on the receiving end of anger.”

‘More than words’

In general, an apology should be issued as soon as possible after the infraction, Engel says, because making the wounded party wait can add insult to the original injury.

“But if it’s a really big event – for example, if you’re unfaithful or you’ve gossiped about a friend and it really causes harm in that person’s life – then you’ve got to be careful not to apologize too quickly or flippantly,” Engel says.

Delivery is everything. That’s why it’s usually best to apologize in person, Ilardi says.

“Then if you’re sincere, hopefully the authenticity will show through,” he says, noting that tone of voice and body language aren’t detectable in written communication.

And Ilardi says there’s something to the cliche of the man who forgets his wife’s birthday and then brings her flowers the next day.

“The best apologies very often come with more than words,” he says. “It often really does mean something when the person who’s apologizing brings more than words, some sort of gesture of contrition.”

Rules of remorse

Engel says it’s even fair to request an apology, “especially if you sense that you really need an apology to get past something.”

But don’t expect to get one just because you ask, she says. And don’t say “I’m sorry” just to get an apology in return.

“Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of an apology in which it feels like the person is leaning back with their arms folded, waiting for us to reciprocate,” Ilardi says.

It’s also important to remember that an apology is often the first step, not the last step.

“I think there can be this expectation that everything will return to exactly the same place it was before the offensive action occurred,” Ilardi says. “We still have a right to feel hurt or angry, even if we accept the apology.”

Tool for healing

The holiday season complicates family dynamics, Lerner says. People tend to be on edge. It’s the worst time to bring up difficult subjects or expect people to be accountable for their bad behavior.

“My best advice for the holidays is to reduce your expectations to zero and use lightness and humor when things get intense,” Lerner says. “Apologize when an apology is due – but don’t expect healing conversations or apologies from others.”

So just when is an apology due? When major offenses are perpetrated, certainly. But subtle disagreements can be more ambiguous.

If you have an internal sense that you crossed a line or a perception that you hurt someone’s feelings, it couldn’t hurt to say, “I’m sorry.”

Even if you don’t feel like you’ve done anything wrong, an apology can be a powerful tool to smooth relations in the short term, especially with a family member you might only see once a year. (Vindictive apologies, such as “I’m sorry you hold such dim-witted political views” or “I’m sorry your pumpkin pie tastes like wallpaper paste,” don’t count.)

An apology also is healing for the person doing the apologizing, Lerner says.

“We need to know we can make mistakes or act badly, and then repair the disconnection,” she says. “Without this possibility, the inherently flawed experience of being human would feel impossibly tragic.”