Imagine that you have messed up big time—physically abused your child, cheated on your wife, stole money at work, or lied to your husband about where you were. And let’s say you really want to make sure that both you and the people you’ve hurt can trust that you have learned your lessons of how and why not to do that again. How would you go about crafting an apology that would do all that?
The purpose of most apologies today is merely to minimize pain for the apologizers, protect their image, and enable them to avoid the work they need to do but don’t want to do. Like any other form of lying, over time, a weak apology fails at all three of these goals.
Most people don’t know how to go about restoring both the trust of others and their own trustworthiness. That’s because there are so few role models in America for genuine remorse. I can’t recall when I last heard a satisfactory apology from a public figure who had made a moral mess, can you? An effective apology needs to answer three simple questions.
Don’t blame it on the situation, or on anybody else’s behavior, because you can’t guarantee those won’t come up again. Besides, that doesn’t take responsibility for the choices you made about how to handle your feelings.
Sure, maybe you put yourself in a bad situation, and you can change that. But what else do you need to change? attitudes you have harbored that provoked your choice? beliefs you have used to rationalize or excuse your behavior? images you’ve had of yourself and the other people involved here? These ideas in your head can’t be proven right or wrong, but you and others can prove the kind of words and actions these beliefs will provoke and excuse.
Put yourself in their place. Imagine a situation where they could theoretically do something like this to you. Imagine how you’d feel, if there were no real remorse in the other person, how hard it would be to carry on like nothing had happened. What would this do to your mind, your heart, your ability to go on like before, doing things for that person, facing your friends and family, trying to go to sleep at night, or fighting off your own bad, stress-related habits, like eating or drinking to your frustration?
If you have hurt someone in your personal life, you can apply what you have learned to your situation, and to your loved one. “I understand that I have made you have to carry around feelings of ______ and _______, that I have embarrassed you in the eyes of ____, and that now you’re going to have to really struggle with your ________ and _______. This is what I have done to you. What else have I messed up in your life? I know that I have hurt _____ and _____, but who else do you think I have hurt, and how?”
How will you clean up your side of the street? What will you do to help heal the hurt, and earn back the trust you have broken? Again, put yourself in their place—what would you need them to do in this situation to resolve your hurt and mistrust?
Do you need to go have a talk with others you have hurt, to see how your actions have affected them, and tell them you were wrong and you are sorry? How can you show them that you are going to teach yourself a lesson, by making sure you suffer more than all the pleasure you have derived from your bad habit over the years, even if it is possible, more than they will have to suffer for your actions?
Do you need to get an education, like anger management training, or understanding another culture, gender, or generation? Do you need to talk with someone to learn new role models for your behavior in certain situations?
Do you need counseling to work through old feelings that you’ve never expressed toward people in your childhood, feelings that piggyback on your natural emotions to provoke and rationalize your bad habits? Do you need residential treatment to break an addiction, to let your family have a break from you to heal, and to get you away from temptations you can’t resist?
Changing your beliefs requires admitting that you can and should change them, because they caused harmful behavior. You first confess this to people you’ve hurt, but real change inside requires you to tell others who share these attitudes and beliefs, especially the friends and family who may have taught them to you in the first place, by their words and lifestyles. And your lifestyle will also have to change, to express and firm up your new attitudes and beliefs.
Why don’t we ever hear apologies that answer these three questions in America? Very few of us really believe in and practice personal growth. Spin doctors say the public would see repentance as weak, weird and wacko, but I think those words better describe the conscience of any nation which values image over substance, and anesthesia over the truth that hurts while it is setting us free, free of the illusions that we are better than others, and don’t need them.
I pray that America may soon see a genuine, effective apology from one of its celebrities. I pray that you and I will amend our wrongs by helping others get over our messes, by cleaning them up. That way we can bring some major good things out of the next bad situation we create.
Dr. Schmidt is a psychologist life coach with offices in Middletown, Lexington, and Shelbyville.