The True Power of Apology

iStock_000017116876XSmallAs I read the article on National Public Radio’s website entitled, “Why Not Apologizing Makes You Feel Better,” I was struck by how deeply I disagreed with the premise. According to researcher Tyler G. Okimoto:

“We … find that apologies do make apologizers feel better, but the interesting thing is that refusals to apologize also make people feel better and, in fact, in some cases it makes them feel better than an apology would have.”

Because of my own experiences with waiting, and needing, to hear a very important “I’m sorry,” I thought perhaps the story was really just an April Fool’s Day joke.

Women are champions at apologizing. Many times, for insignificant things. I have to catch myself to not automatically say “I’m sorry,” for bumping into someone. I practice saying, “Excuse me,” instead. So I understand that aspect of the “no apology” story. But I have to disagree with Okimoto for times when an apology is called for, because they’re meant to benefit the one being apologized to, not the one offering the mea culpa.

You see, I waited years waiting and hoping for an apology from my mother. I longed for the day I would see her precise handwriting with blue (never black) ink on the front of an envelope. I imagined opening it after all those years and reading the words that would mend my broken heart:  I’m sorry. Or perhaps even,  I’m sorry, Dear. Or maybe the letter would begin with, “Joan Dear.”  A formal, but lovely, term of endearment.
But my mother did not hug, she did not gush and, I learned, she did not apologize.
When the nursing home doctor called to say she was gone, I cried. Cried for her passing, cried for her dying alone, and cried for knowing I would never hear the words, I’m sorry. 

My mother and I had a complicated relationship, one I will never understand although I still think about it occasionally. When she disowned me for marrying a black man my heart had a crack in it.  When my daughter was born, I expected her eventual return.

In books and movies the prejudiced parents always melt at the sight of their grandchild. They always feel the flood of love filling their hearts, washing away their bigotry. I was surprised when that didn’t happen in real life.

I sent pictures of my beautiful baby and waited for the letter back. The letter that would say, I’m sorry. Please let me meet my beautiful granddaughter. 

The letter never arrived. The cracks in my heart turned into crevices.

I remember watching the movie Love Story as a young girl. When Ali MacGraw uttered those infamous words,  “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” I thought it was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. Because love means taking care of people’s feelings. Love means not hurting them. And when you do, because you will, it means saying you are sorry.

It takes a lot to say “I’m sorry.” It takes humility and courage.

Many years ago before my husband and I were married, a man glared at us each time he’d see us in the neighborhood. He glared at me when I was alone. I knew it angered him to see an interracial couple. One day we found ourselves on the bus with him. I looked out my window and watched him get off the bus. He turned, looked up at me and spit at my window.

Years later, after we’d married, we saw him again. The man came toward us on the sidewalk. I worried my pregnant bump would infuriate him. I waited for the worst.

He stood in front of us.

I want to tell you how sorry I am for the way I acted to you a couple of years ago.   I was wrong and I need to tell you both how sorry I am.  

My husband and I walked home, stunned, yet bolstered by the unmistakable power of the apology.

It is too late for the apology from my mother.  I will never open the mailbox and see that envelope I dreamed about. But I still think about how much two words would have healed our very broken relationship.

So while not apologizing might make the person who’d be offering it feel good, a heartfelt apology, whether from a stranger or a loved one, is one hell of a powerful gift.

Contributor Joan Haskins has been writing her popular blog on Open Salon since 2009. She teaches yoga to children at Balasana Yoga, which provides material for many of her pieces. She is currently writing a memoir, which goes against everything she was taught as a child about not telling family business. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband, and has one daughter in college who she misses on a daily basis.

Image via iStockphoto

  • I couldn’t agree more. I think one of the most powerful tenets of my marriage is that we will both say it (him more than me because i’m usually right). 😉 It’s a sweet relief to say it, to admit it, and a gift to another when you do. Great writing.

  • This story is so much about loss, and it grieves me to read about the losses of so many levels. People are sometimes just so stupid. It pains me to read about your mother, how you lost years, how your daughter lost years, even how your mother through her hatred and prejudiced lost years.

  • Lezlie Bishop

    Wonderful post, Joan. There are two types of apologies: sincere and insincere. The bigot who finally came around and apologized on the street was as sincere at it gets. He had to come to the conclusion that his thoughts themselves were, in fact, wrong. Nobody told him to do it. He meant it. The only thing worse than no apology at all is an insincere one. Your mother just ran out of time before she realized how wrong she had been.

  • Ann

    Well said, Joan. I am so sorry your mother chose to throw away one of life’s most important gifts: the love of a child for her parent. I know from experience with my own mother that a wound like that never truly heals. You move on with your life because you have to. But the hurt never entirely goes away.

    A much-needed apology that goes unoffered hurts so many people. The worst kind of injury, it seems to me, occurs deep inside the person who refuses to apologize. It creates pockets of denial, blindness and cruelty in that person’s soul that will eventually drive others away.

    We all know and have been hurt by such people. I feel sorry for people who throw away their most important relationships through their own self-centered stubbornness. Ultimately, I believe, theirs is the greater loss. Relationships are precious things. They are what keep us warm and pliable and growing. People who fail to nurture their relationships with an appropriate amount of remorse when it’s called for become inflexible and stunted–emotionally, spiritually and socially.

    Thank you for your courage in sharing this sensitive personal story. You have a message that very much needs to be said.

  • Joan Haskins

    @ Jaime, yes, a relief to the giver, and a gift to the receiver. Well said.

    @ Bernadine, you are right. Losses all around. Except that we, (my family) thrived in spite of it.

    @ Lezlie, I agree, an insincere apology is worthless. Your last sentence brings tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat.

    @Ann, what beautiful thoughts you’ve left here. It’s interesting what you say about what happens inside to the person who won’t apologize…

  • Jason Giecek

    Apologies are nice, but I still love a hello, nice to meet you! better than a sorry in the first place!! 🙂

    Great piece!!!

    • Joan Haskins

      Indeed, Jason. Better than a sorry in the first place.

  • Mary Armenteros

    As important and releasing as apologies are for both the offended and the offender, in the real world many times pride takes presidence over humility. Any offender that really feels better by not apologizing has some very serious stinkin thinkin issues. But above and beyond an apology, I think forgiveness whether or not that apology ever comes is what restores sanity and peace to troubled minds and hearts. We do not have control over what others may say, do or think, but we do have control over how we react to it. In absence of a well deserved apology, forgiveness will always prevail.

    • Joan Haskins

      Mary, that is so true. Thank you for commenting.

  • Beverly

    What a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing. I know you will never hurt someone by your failure to apologize. My daughter and I had many areas of disagreement over her choices but I never allowed a break in our relationship. I know your children and your husband are wonderfully blessed by your tender heart.

  • Richard Brown

    Glad you called out “Love Story.” Love means having to say you’re sorry often, even when you don’t mean it.

    People who feel better about not apologizing are people who are happy being selfish and self-centered. People who feel better about not apologizing are people with whom I do not wish to associate,

  • Joan Haskins

    Beverly, many thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment.

    Richard, here, here!

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