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Couplespeak™ : The Power Of An Apology

  • Broadcast in Self Help
Susan Lager

Susan Lager


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In this half hour episode, Susan Lager explores the benefits of an apology on both the wrongdoer as well as the impact on the  wronged person in a hurtful situation or event. 

She also touches upon the "How To" of an effective, heartfelt and impactful apology, drawing from her new book, "Become Relationship Smart Without A Lifetime of Therapy."

Tune in, or you may be sorry!


0:31 Susan Lager

Hello everybody! Welcome to the Couplespeak™ Relationship Forum on Blog Talk Radio. I'm your host, Susan Lager a psychotherapist and coach at The Couples Center and Couplespeak™ in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where I broadcast live every month on Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Tonight's show, March 27, 2013, The Power of an Apology, will be a short half hour show about what I have learned professionally and personally about the benefits of an apology. I'll also touch upon the way to do it and the way not to do it as I described in my new book, "Become Relationship Smart Without a Lifetime of Therapy", which I can happily say, is now available for sale on amazon.com as a paperback as well as an e-book! If you would like to join me on the air with a question or comment, just dial 1 on your phone and you'll be in line to join me. As always, I welcome calls, so don't be shy. I think what I will do is I'll just take calls tonight as they come in, given the brevity of the show. Now most of you have probably had the experience of feeling wronged by another person, who was then either grown up enough to apologize, or didn't. I'll start by saying something about what I've learned over the years about the effect of no apology forthcoming when one would seem to be.

2:05 Susan Lager

In all my work over the years with individuals and couples, I have seen a great deal of damage that happens around transgressions, things that feel like violations of one kind or another. It could be an affair, it could be the breaking of an agreement about the kids, it could be about re-violation, inappropriately sharing something private, it could be a boundary violation or the breaking of an agreement about money, or it could be something really small like being late or forgetting events. What I can tell you is that whatever the transgression, whatever the event, it does not bode well for a relationship when there is no apology forthcoming. It tends to leave the person, the injured party as I will call them, in a state of not feeling acknowledged, having to swallow it and absorb the sense of injury all by themselves without feeling either understood, or seen or validated by the other person. What I've seen a lot of couples do is just kind of sweep it under the rug, pretend to forget about it, and deny and avoid the issue, hoping that it just goes away. And there is a kind of collusion to let it ebb away until the next time, but this does not bode well for relationship. It has very corrosive effect on trust and on closeness. So, I will just begin with that: It's not good to not apologize!

4:00 Susan Lager

I'll be talking tonight about the benefits of apologizing and why is so important emotionally to both the giver and the receiver of the apology. Apology is really crucial to our mental and even physical health. Research actually shows that receiving an apology has a noticeable positive physical effect on the body. It's a very healing thing physiologically, and an apology may actually affect the bodily functions of the person receiving it. Research has indicated that blood pressure decreases, while the heart rate slows, and breathing actually becomes steadier. It's remarkable! I'll be very interested to see about long-term studies that may link, (and I am not aware of any that are out there), but that may link either reduction in diseases over time for people who have experienced apologies to some regularity, versus the disease process for people who have not, That would be, I think, a very interesting piece of information to get. But the apologies also have very strong emotional benefits. I'll talk a little bit about the benefits to the hurt person, in case you're somebody who is not in the habit of apologizing, or just feels it's too humiliating to do it, I would like you to know a little bit about what it actually does for the person on the receiving end. A person who has been harmed feels emotional healing when they're acknowledged by the wrongdoer. It's a very validating experience. There is a feeling of being understood around the injury, so in my work with individuals and couples, people report feeling seen, feeling understood, and feeling really appreciated around the sense of injury, whether it's large or small.

6:08 Susan Lager

So, that's a very important benefit to the hurt person. Also, when we receive an apology, we no longer perceive the wrongdoer as a personal threat. An apology tends to have a neutralizing effect and it's tends to humanize the wrongdoer. We see them as fallible and we see them as taking responsibility, so that they are no longer perceived as threatening to us, or at least it reduces our experience of seeing them as a threat. An apology also helps us to move past our anger and prevents us from being stuck in the past. I call a good apology a really effective bitterness deterrent, because when you're left with an experience of injury, and it's unchecked, and it hasn't been acknowledged, it obviously creates an experience of violation. This tends to create anger and resentments, and resentments over time are very, very corrosive to relationships. So, an apology really helps kind of mitigate the immediate anger that we may feel, and it helps us move into the present from the past. An apology also opens the door to forgiveness, and this is probably the most important thing -- it allows us to have empathy for the wrongdoer.

7:57 Susan Lager

There cannot be genuine forgiveness, or the ability to forgive somebody who has done us harm when they haven't apologized, because we cannot have compassion for them. We cannot see things through their eyes. So, the receiver of the apology experiences a more opened-hearted place when they are on the receiving end of an apology, and it opens up that very healing process of forgiveness. Now, an apology also benefits the giver in several ways that are really critical, (and people don't tend to think about this), but it's equally as healing for the giver. The debilitating effects of the remorse and shame we may feel when we hurt another person can really weigh at us until we become emotionally and physically ill. So, by apologizing and taking responsibility for our actions, we help to rid ourselves of a esteem-robbing self-reproach and guilt. And I've seen everyday how guilt and shame are toxic elements over time to feeling good about oneself.

9:16 Susan Lager

So, I encourage people to get more comfortable with the apology process. I talked about this in my new book "Become Relationship Smart Without a Lifetime of Therapy," that one of the key things is to apologize. Be big enough to own up and take responsibility for your action, and acknowledge your own humanity, it's not going to kill you, but it's going to actually do very good things for your own self-esteem. Even people who are very blocked and tend to live in denial: underneath all that is often a feeling of shame that's being kept down. Shame and self-reproach, and that is not good to one's self-esteem. It takes a lot of energy to keep that down, but you release yourself from that when you deliver heartfelt apologies. Another impact on the giver of the apology is that it has the power to humble even the most arrogant person. When we have courage, we admit we're wrong, we work past our resistance to apologizing, we then develop increased feelings of self-respect. It takes a big person to apologize and to have humility. So, I encourage people to do that partly as a correction against feelings of bravado or false pride, or a pumped up sense of oneself. There is such a thing as an appropriate and helpful degree of humility and I think apologizing really fosters that.

11:04 Susan Lager

Now I have a few people on the line. At this point given the fact that it is a very short show, if you have a question, again, just dial 1, I'd be happy to take a question or comment. I don't see any yet, so unless I see one come up I'll just keep moving on. Okay? Okay! Now, apologizing also helps us to remain emotionally connected to our friends and loved ones. Knowing we've wronged someone can really cause us to distance from the person, but once we've apologized we feel free to be vulnerable and intimate, so what I say to people is to take your lumps. There's such a thing as carrying appropriate shame. When you don't do it you'll notice, and I encourage people to look at this, that you tend to avoid people when you behave in ways that are shameful or not. I can think of some experiences in my life where I didn't call back in a timely way, and then it got worse and worse and worse, and before I knew it, the relationship was very distanced, and you know, that went onto my bucket list to get to it. It just was not a good thing. I don't think I am atypical. We tend to stay away from things that make us feel bad, and if there is an internal event, there is often a very small voice inside that creates some feeling of guilt or shame, then you're likely to withdraw, whether you realize it or not. There's another benefit of apologies, and that's because apologizing usually connects us with an experience of our own humility when we do it. It can also act as a deterrent; it reminds us not to repeat the act. It's not fun to apologize. It takes a big person, and if we remember how hard it was to apologize, and how hard it was to feel so humble and to carry the shame, we're less likely to repeat the act that really set the stage for the whole event. So that deterrent effect, I think is really strong.

13:32 Susan Lager

Now, there is also a connection between apologies and empathy which I think is very important for people to understand. To forgive, most people need to gain some empathy and compassion for the wrongdoer. This is where apologies come in. When someone apologizes, it's a lot easier to view him or her in a compassionate way. When wrongdoers apologize, we find it easier to forgive them. It tends to humanize people, and it happens because when someone confesses and apologizes for hurting us, we're then able to develop a new image of that person. So, instead of seeing them through the lens of anger and bitterness, what we see is the person's humility. We see them as more fallible and vulnerable, and we see them in more humanistic ways. We see the wrongdoer as more human, and more like ourselves, so we can connect and identify with them. So again, it bridges the distance. We're less likely to marginalize that person around an event, but to say "you know, they're fallible." It opens the door for us to begin to think about what set the stage for their behavior. That's another whole show, how you can develop more compassion for people who have wronged you, but I can tell you that one of the first steps is being on the receiving and of the heartfelt apology. Now, I see a question coming in, so caller with the 917 area code you're on the air.

15:32 Susan Lager


15:33 S2

Hello! Hi Susan! I found this a very interesting topic. I just really basically have a comment, it's not a question. Everything that you're discussing, the benefit for the giver and the receiver of the apology, are things that I myself have felt, and at one time it was a very, very difficult for me to apologize, and so it was taking something away from me, and I think a lot of people tend to feel that way. They feel very vulnerable, but I find it very liberating, and in a sense, that my partner, who is a very caring and tender person, finds it hard to verbalize his love, but interestingly, he does not have a problem expressing his apologies when he has hurt me! He will say "I'm wrong," and I learned from him to do that...

16:30 Susan Lager


16:31 S2

And in a sense I feel it's a great thing to show the person that you love him by apologizing.

16:37 Susan Lager

Well, I'll just say, he may not say the words "I love you" very often, but it sounds like he is telling you he loves you by acknowledging what he's done that may have been hurtful to you, and by telling you that he understands and by caring -- I call it caryring appropriate shame. If he is big enough to carry the shame around his behavior and fess up, its another way to show and tell you that he loves you.

17:14 S2

I totally agree with that.

17:16 Susan Lager


17:17 S2

I really do.

17:18 Susan Lager

Yeah, there could be another whole show about, you know, saying "I love you," and maybe why it may be hard for him That may have everything to do with what was modeled for him in his family of origin. Maybe the family wasn't demonstrative in that way or, you know, maybe its an area of vulnerability, maybe he has had experiences around those words that have made him a little gun shy about that, but you're a case in point about how when you're on the receiving end of an apology it's very cleansing, hard as it maybe to do it. It's a very healing experience when you feel really cared about in this way.

18:03 S2

Completely, I like myself more. I really respect myself more when I am able to apologize, as hard as that is.

18:13 Susan Lager


18:14 S2

A lot of what you're speaking about, it really holds true for me, and thank you. I had an epiphany while I was listening to you, how it is that makes one feel very loved when someone apologizes because it is not easy as it's...

18:26 Susan Lager

That's right.

18:27 S2

Not easy for people to share their feelings. Well thank you! This is so interesting!

18:30 Susan Lager

You're welcome, thank you for your comments!

18:32 S2

Thank you so much Susan, Not at all.

18:33 Susan Lager

One of the things, by the way, I say to people, and I say this to couples who have children, is that it's really important for you to start really young when you, as a parent do things that have a negative impact on your child, and can be experienced as hurtful or disappointing or mean in some way. It's really important to begin modeling this behavior as soon as your child can understand your language. I remember in my family apologies were not very forthcoming, and I remember when we had our son, deciding that that was not the best part of my family. They have a lot of other strengths and wonderful things, but I'm not going to carry that legacy forward. I am going to model something for our son that was not done much in our family. So, I remember a very interesting impact, you know, beginning to say, "oh mommy is sorry, I shouldn't have done that, that was mean or that was--that wasn't very nice what I did, and I am sorry, I could see that that felt very hurtful to you. I'll try to do that differently." One of the things I saw just in terms of the modeling experience, is that as soon as our son could talk, he would parrot. He would kind of imitate that behavior. What he would do was say he was sorry for his part in a situation too, and I'm talking as early as three years old where he would say "well, I wasn't very nice either" in his own little child-like way! I never expected that as an outcome.

20:29 Susan Lager

That the modeling would make it so much more possible for him, and to this day, he is really very good about apologizing. So, I would say if you have children, start early and see it as a parental strength, see it as a gift that you're giving your child. You're showing your children that this is a normal part of life, we all screw up and part of being an adult and part of being a really good person is to let people know, to acknowledge how you've hurt them, and that you feel badly about it. Now, what I would like to do with the remaining time is talk a little bit about the "how to's" of an effective apology, but before I do, I just want to say one thing - that apologies are not always forthcoming, and, you know, there are lots of situations in life where no apology is at all likely. Let's say, you have a home invasion, and the people who broke into your home and brutalize you feel very entitled. Maybe they're sociopaths or their just criminals, and there is no apology forthcoming. They are just defensive. They lawyer up, and they just defend themselves. or there are situations where maybe you have a partner who's had an affair, and they are not grown up enough to acknowledge what they did, or someone has died, maybe someone has done something that is very hurtful to you and then they die, and so you don't have the benefit of a process that would lead to a genuine apology. Apologies are not always forthcoming, and sometimes not possible within a certain timeframe.

22:33 Susan Lager

There's a wonderful book that is written about how you can release yourself from the kind of bitterness that happens around no apology forthcoming. How you may not be able to do forgiveness, because that's a two person transaction, but you can do what is called "acceptance." You have two options - either "acceptance," or "cheap forgiveness," where you let somebody off the hook, and you forgive them even though they haven't earned it. This may reduce the conflict in the immediate, but its not good for your own self-esteem, and it lets the other person off the hook. Or you can do the "acceptance" process. "Acceptance" is where, in essence, you do with yourself internally what would have been done with you in terms of the acknowledgement. If you have questions about that, I would refer you to Janis Abrahms Spring's book, "How Can I Forgive You." Iit's all about forgiveness, and how it happens, also when there is no apology or remorse. In any event, so you know a little bit about the "how to's" of a heartfelt effective apology, I go into this in more detail in my book "Become Relationship Smart Without a Lifetime of Therapy." What I talk about is that there are three main parts to a really important apology that has weight. The first part is remorse. The offender expresses remorse using an "I" statement. "I'm sorry I was late, I feel really badly about being late again. I don't feel good about that". So when you express remorse it's an "I" statement.

24:32 Susan Lager

Not: "I'm sorry, you're upset, I was late." What are you -- what do you feel remorse about doing? That's the ownership process, and it's behavior you're addressing. The second key part is an empathic statement. So, it's very important when you're apologizing to acknowledge what your understanding is about the impact of your behavior on the other person. It might sound something like "I can see how when I was late, I held you up," or "My lateness was worrisome to you," or "I can understand how my lateness contributed to a situation where you where then late, and you missed your event." Or "I could understand when I was late, you felt a, b, c or d". So it's important to let the other person know your sense of what the impact of your behavior was on them. "I know it hurt you," or "I know it offended you, I could see how it offended you; I can understand how you would be worried," etc. That is the part that helps the person feel really seen, really acknowledged around the injury. You're joining with them. The third part of a heartfelt apology and, I don't know if I would call it the most important part, but certainly a critical part, so you're not always apologizing again and again, which is toxic if you do nothing about it.

26:26 Susan Lager

It's a statement that addresses corrective action. So, it might sound something like "I know I've been late with some frequency, I will be more vigilant about putting my appointments in my day planner," or "I will check my alerts on my phone with more diligence, so that I am not late. I value our time together and this is what I will do to prevent it from being an ongoing occurrence". We've all heard about, you know, the classic alcoholic story where the alcoholic beats his wife and then comes home and gives her flowers as a gesture of apology, and then really doesn't say anything, or may say "I'm really sorry that I beat you up, I'm sorry that I hit you, I'm sorry I drank so much," and then proceeds to doing it again and again. That's equally as bad as not apologizing because in effect, there's no responsibility for corrective action. What I say to people is that words by themselves are cheap. So, if you feel remorse, and you know you've wronged somebody, think about what you're willing to do in a way of some kind of corrective action. Tell the other person, and then do it! People are very forgiving. Most people are not going to require 100% compliance or perfection after that, but if they see you're working on it, that will have a very healing effect on the relationship. Now, unbelievably enough, the show is almost over!

28:25 Susan Lager

I am always really shocked that this half hour show goes so fast! If you want more details about using "I" statements in a little more detail, about what an apology looks like, and what it doesn't, (and I go into some details about what it doesn't look like), feel free to get a copy of my new book "Become Relationship Smart Without a Lifetime of Therapy." It's now available, as I said earlier, on Amazon, and it's available as a paperback and also as an e-book for Kindle and IPad. Go to amazon.com, you just key in Susan Lager and it will take you to that book, as well as my first book. Anyway I've got to go. Thank you to my listeners for tuning in, and thank you to my caller. I appreciate your comments and your sharing. Thank you everybody for tuning in. I'd like to let you know that my next episode will be in one month on Wednesday April 25 at 8:30 p.m. It will supposedly be Spring by then, who knows, but its 8:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. I will be announcing the topic in a few weeks, what the topic is, and whether or not I will have a guest. I wish everybody a very happy Easter and happy Passover and a happy Spring. It looks like it will be coming. Good night!