When Being a Therapist Means Saying You are Sorry

We all try to understand people. Counselors and personality experts use formal systems for the job. The therapist begins with lists of human characteristics, a bit like a Chinese menu – beef, chicken, pork. If you fall into one column or another, you are given the name at the top. Not fish or fowl, but introvert, extrovert, narcissist, schizophrenic, etc.

These systems all tend to put people into a box they fit imperfectly. We therefore add other words as qualifiers to make the label more precise. Kind of like saying a person is not merely “tall,” but “muscular,” or “slender” or also has “a winning smile.” Still, they are all generalizations and even the one with the dazzling teeth isn’t grinning all the time.

Our boxes are not made of corrugated cardboard or wood. They come from knowledge and experience, imagination and instinct. Without using them to “place” every person we meet, we’d be like small children, unable to make sense of people, neither responsive to their needs nor capable of securing our own.

On occasion the categorization strategies don’t come close to making the human world comprehensible. Not all labeled people and their motives are well-captured by name tags. They are more complex. Those individuals don’t quite think the way we do or feel the way we do, making our comprehension of their nature harder to achieve. Our effort at understanding another, too often based on how our own minds work (or we think they work) can fail. Therapists share this experience of failure with everyone else. Less often, we hope.

I’ve met only a few unique people in my life despite having more in-depth human encounters than most. These few burst any categories in which we place them. Usually, however, the boxes work well-enough or better. Indeed, many times they are spot-on.

Everyone outside the doctor’s office, however, is at risk of resorting to stereotypical, pejorative labels, condemning those who are different because they don’t understand them. The labeled crate becomes a confinement of accusation and punishment. Look around: nationalists of all countries transforming races and religions and different national groups into imagined monsters.

It makes the world less scary to do this. Life is simplified into one pile of good people and one pile of evil people. The individual doing the sorting is never in the evil stack.

Being a therapist means you must be humble and open to those who can be difficult to categorize and sometimes, just plain difficult. If you are over-matched by the task of grasping and managing the therapeutic relationship, maybe you should make a referral from the start. Usually, however, you don’t realize your understanding is flawed for a while. By then a referral will not be simple. No matter the desire to do good by the patient, your rejection is likely to sting or devastate. The client came to you for repair and you made him worse.

Some counselors will keep the same box and keep using their failed understanding to treat the person. Some try to jam the client’s body into a differently labeled container and still treat him, even when box #2 doesn’t work either. Most will try to learn more, be humble, and look for a right-sized carton or no box at all until things are clearer. None of these tacks is sure-fire, but I favored the last one when I was in practice, often with the help of a personality test.

The therapist in all such situations confronts his own limitations. He needs modesty before he can achieve mastery. He needs to acknowledge his errors. He needs to figure out what is best for the patient while keeping his brain from exploding a little from the frustration and the fear he won’t be able to handle things.

Not all of us can do this in therapy or in life, and no one does it all the time with those for whom we care and those we care about.

If you’ve read the black on white scribblings I seem to endlessly produce (to my own astonishment) you know I don’t offer too many simple answers. Like you, I keep trying to understand this thing called life that appears so simple on the surface and no one ever fully gets right.

Life is a squirmy creature. You believe she is in your grasp and one second later she wriggles away. You think you are the master of yourself until your lack of mastery can’t be ignored. People don’t fit into a carton, and life – of all things – oozes and leaps and bumps against any enclosure we attempt to put it in.

Our boxes, as essential as they are, can injure people around us and limit our own understanding: understanding of the complexities of our fellow-man and our ability to be understanding, comforting, and kind.

The irony is that our use of boxes puts us in a box, too.

The moral of this story is to acknowledge the artificiality of labeled cartons and know they are also needed to get through the day. And then, perhaps, drink a glass of wine and accept the universe as it is.

No wonder religious faith is so appealing. The idea of “giving control over” to a benign, all-powerful, all-knowing being is consoling for those who can. For others, myself included, the wine will have to do. And tomorrow you will find me, not at a wine bar again, but back at repairing and enlarging my boxes, fashioning some new ones perhaps, trying to make them work as well as they can.

To be our own best selves, therapists or not, at some point we awaken to the guidance so easy for every one of us to forget.

Each box should be labeled “Handle with Care.”


The top photo is called Box Loading and is the work of Surya Prekash, S.A. The second image features U.S. Troops Surrounded by Holiday Mail during World War II, ca 1944. It comes from the Smithsonian Institution. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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.