Notes on Apologies

Written by Jennifer Griggs

“Apologize to your sister. I remember being small and getting in fights with my sister, four years younger than me. The grownups would insist that I apologize, which I did through gritted teeth, fists by my sides. I’m sure you’ve been there or seen this in your kids.

It always felt unfair even though I loved my sister beyond words and even though such events were about, oh, 99% my fault. These were forced apologies and most certainly not from my heart.

And then this happened last week. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” they said. 

And then there’s the “I’m sorry you were hurt,” or “I’m sorry, but you…”

You know what I mean, yes? The non-apology apology.

A lot has been written about apologies, including how not to make them. Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger, The Mother Dance, and Why Won’t You Apologize, has written about the attributes of a good apology. For an apology to be a good one, there needs to be no excuse or justification, no or blaming, complete acceptance of responsibility, acknowledgement of the harm, and no expectation of anything from the aggrieved person (including forgiveness). Oof, that’s a lot, and it makes complete sense. In fact, between starting and finishing this post, the New York Times published this article. (Let me know if you would like me to “gift” it to you.)

The word apology comes from the French or late Latin from Greek apologia, which means “a speech in one’s own defense.” (An apologia is a work, such as an essay or speech, that defends a stance or belief system.) So it’s a bit of a contradiction–to apologize without defending oneself, without making excuses. Ideally, the person apologizing would make a commitment to doing better and to do something to right the wrongs.

The word amends comes from Old French amender, from Latin ēmendāre, which means “to free from faults, correct, improve, remedy, amend, revise, or cure.” Making amends requires action that remedies, corrects, or revises. While it may be the case that there is nothing that can be done to amend a past situation, we can commit to positive change moving forward. Saying, “I’ll try to do better” is more effective than the defend-and-deny response.

A stiff apology is a second insult… The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt.

-G. K. Chesterton

The expression “I’m sorry” originally referred to sorrow, distress, and grief. In the 1600’s, it slid over to its current use as a lead in to an apology whether skillfully employed or not.

When we don’t need to apologize. Some of us make a habit of apologizing. A friend and I had breakfast a couple of days ago. Our experienced and knowledgeable server apologized about everything–things that weren’t real. She apologized for having kept us waiting (she hadn’t), that there was a wait for a fresh pot of coffee (it was worth it), and for the restaurant not having oatmeal that day (not her fault). I found myself wondering what need she was meeting by apologizing and, furthermore, if it helped her feel safe and secure. 

There’s a making ourselves small that happens when we apologize in this way. A shrinking back from an expected assault perhaps or a not wanting to take up space. I’ve seen this more among women and recall many times I’ve caught myself wanting to say “sorry” for things that were the other person’s fault. It really is okay to take up space, to not apologize for our mere existence. 

How about you? Have you received an apology that was done so sincerely that it helped you heal? Have you struggled to make a sincere apology? What would making amends look like if you’ve been hurt or hurt someone else? I’d love to hear from you.