How to Apologize and How Not to Apologize: When “Sorry” Isn’t Enough

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Is saying that you are sorry the same thing as making an apology? Indeed, many of us have said “I’m sorry for your loss” too often to keep track: to relatives, friends, business associates, and acquaintances. Were we trying to apologize or attempting to provide a consoling message? Were we admitting guilt for what happened or expressing sympathy?

The answer should be easy. When we say that we are “sorry for the loss” we are voicing concern and attempting to comfort, not taking responsibility for the death. Unless, that is, we specify that we caused the demise of the loved one. But ordinarily, we are communicating that we are sad that it happened, not culpable.

When a person is, in fact, blameworthy, he has not necessarily done something terrible. Accidents do happen and sometimes injuries are very small. But, surely the most difficult apology to make must be to acknowledge one’s part in the death of a child. I bring this up because George Zimmerman, the man whose gun shot killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin following a conflict with him in February, is widely reported to have “apologized” to Martin’s family when he said the following in court at a bond hearing:

I wanted to say I am sorry for the loss of your son. I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am, and I did not know if he was armed or not.

Yet, whatever his intention, Zimmerman did not actually apologize. Leaving aside the legal wisdom of making such a statement in court, I’d like to discuss what would have been required for Zimmerman to apologize rather than simply express sympathy, which is what he accomplished.

According to Aaron Lazare’s book On Apology, one must:

  1. Acknowledge the harm that you inflicted — for example, “I broke your toy” or “I shoplifted the purse” or “I shot and killed your loved one.”
  2. Say that you are sorry for what you have personally done, admit that you should not have done it, and express remorse; not simply that you are sorry that a loss occurred.
  3. Attempt to compensate the injured party or parties in some way. In the case of public humiliation caused by a cruel joke, for example, it would be appropriate (although perhaps impractical) for you to make a public admission of your foolishness in front of the same people who were present when you embarrassed the other person. Similarly, if you broke his window, you would need to repair or replace it, or get someone else to do this.
  4. You must do your very best to make sure that your behavior isn’t repeated.

Simply saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Nor is it sufficient to state, “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you,” a turn-of-phrase we hear from public figures, but one that is absolutely inadequate. According to Lazare, it is crucial that the transgressor be precise in admitting what exactly he did that caused harm, making no excuses that diminish his responsibility. This is the same sort of thing that happens in court, when, after a plea bargain, the accused admits exactly what he did without justifying it, and recounts the consequences that followed from that behavior. In legal terms it is called “allocution.”

Although George Zimmerman didn’t apologize to Trayvon Martin’s family, he did try to explain away his (unspecified) action when he stated, “I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am, and I did not know if he was armed or not.” If we look at the requirements of an adequate apology listed above, we can see that Zimmerman met none of them. He did not state that he was responsible for the death of the teenager and the pain that the family is suffering, he did not say that he was sorry for taking the action, he offered no compensation to the family, and he said nothing about changing his behavior (such as trying to avoid future conflicts or deciding not to carry a gun, for example). I understand that the legal process made some of this inadvisable, but that fact does not alter the definition of what an apology is and what it is not.

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Clearly, we cannot and do not apologize for everything. But, if we spill some milk, it really is nice and proper for us to say that we are sorry for what we’ve done and try to clean it up. Most of us do, except for those times when we blame the other by saying “You shouldn’t have put the milk there” or expect someone else to mop the floor.

Apologizing can be surprisingly rewarding, even if difficult. It can help to repair injuries and improve relationships. Apologies can sometimes provide closure to those parties who have suffered significant losses, where adequate compensation is not possible. They can contribute to mutual understanding and lead to forgiveness and letting go.

An example of an attempt to produce such reconciliation between perpetrators and victims was the Republic of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created after apartheid was ended in that country in 1994. Apartheid was the white government’s policy of racial segregation, denial of human rights, discrimination, and mistreatment of blacks. The Commission included public hearings in which some of the victims testified to their experience. Perhaps more significantly, perpetrators of violence were also permitted to make public statements of their responsibility for wrong-doing and to request amnesty.

There is quite a distance between spilled milk and spilled blood, no question about it. But the possibility of reconciliation, however remote, can only come with a properly voiced apology and the expressed regret that should come with it. Life is full of disagreements, differences, and damage, in addition to unintentionally hurt feelings. Those who are able to feel remorse and admit wrong doing set the stage for the possibility of some amount of healing. Indeed, the perpetrator and the victim are very occasionally bonded together more strongly by the experience.

I hear you saying, “That’s a lot easier to say than to do.” True enough. As one of the members of the comedy team Cheech and Chong used to say, “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” Self-interest often recommends denial of fault, as in the case of a trial in a court of law. And yet, sometimes common decency, conscience, and a caring heart dictate that we try to repair what we have broken.

The first image is St. Francis in Meditation, a painting by Francisco de Zurbaran from 1635-1639. It is followed by an 1885 Caricature of a Marriage Proposal by H. Schlittzen. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Therapy, Responsibility, and the Nuremberg Defense

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Therapy, like life, requires taking responsibility for what becomes of you. But, as the comedy team Cheech & Chong famously noted, “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” What does that have to do with “the Nuremberg Defense?” Read on.

If you are old enough (or a good student of history) the word Nuremberg has a certain resonance for you. It is a German town that was a center of the Holy Roman Empire and the Renaissance; later becoming the host of Nazi Party rallies between 1927 and 1938, the site of the passage of the Nuremberg Laws stripping German Jews of their citizenship, and equally well-known for the war crimes trials that were held after WWII, in an attempt to hold Nazi villains to account. Such Nazi higher-ups as Hans Frank, Rudolph Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Alfred Rosenberg, Albert Speer, and Julius Streicher were brought to justice there (see above photo); Hermann Goering escaped hanging only by committing suicide.

A common refrain during the testimony of the accused was the statement “I was only following orders.” This line of explanation was used so often that it became known as “the Nuremberg Defense.” It was found insufficient by the judges, who reasoned that the accused had the moral responsibility to refuse orders to commit “crimes against humanity,” even assuming that it could be demonstrated that such orders were given.

Since I don’t treat war criminals, you might be asking yourself how the failure of some of these long-dead Nazis to take responsibility applies to treating people with less dramatic problems of depression or anxiety or relationship disappointment? In the course of talking with my patients, I often discover that they have suffered from some sort of misfortune; be it inadequate, negligent, or abusive parents; accident or injury; or unfair treatment at school, at work, or in love. Sometimes the stories are heartbreaking. It is perfectly proper for patients to blame at least part of their unhappiness on these events and these people. Moreover, it is often essential that they grieve those losses, give voice to their anger and sadness, and rail against the unfairness of life. And it is important for a therapist to help them as they process their grief.

But therapy cannot end there.

The patient, if he is to improve his life, cannot simply assign responsibility to some other person as a release from the need to take charge of what becomes of himself in the future, any more than a Nuremberg defendant might hope that assignment of responsibility to the commanding officer would take him off the hook for the unspeakable acts he committed.

Put more simply, neither the war crimes defendant nor the common therapy patient can point to someone else, say “He is the one who caused this,” and leave things at that. Just as the SS criminals were asked, “And then what did you do?” so must we all, regardless of what misfortune has happened to us, ask ourselves, “Now what? Do I simply accept the injustice, forever blame others, and stay defeated and aggrieved in-perpetuity, or do I grieve my loss, take responsibility for my life, and try to get beyond the injuries I’ve suffered?”

We all know people who, however small or large the disappointment that they have experienced, never get beyond criticizing, blaming, whining, and feeling sorry for themselves. While some of this is often necessary to get past the hurt, a lifetime of it is simply a waste, a personal failure to take control and to admit and accept that if life is to have meaning and value, we all have to do something positive with that life, regardless of bad breaks. Even if fairness demands that others compensate us for our losses, if such compensation cannot be obtained, life still calls us to repair ourselves. As a therapist colleague of mine, at the risk of sacrilege, used to tell those patients who seemed to forever bemoan their fate, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

Shakespeare commented on responsibility-taking in Julius Caesar when he gave Cassius the words:

“Men at some time are masters of their fates:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

This is not always literally true. But there is no better way to live than to try to make our circumstances the best we can, however unlucky our lot. A good therapist will help you get there.