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4 Steps to a Good Apology

It’s Not Too Late to Make Things Right

I'm sorry typeset

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Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Here is how to address what still nags at you, and to finally right those long-standing hurts.

During quarantine, the need to resolve conflicts has come up in new and more pressing ways. Between people who are sheltering together, unaddressed problems can cause tensions to grow. For those who are kept apart, avoiding conflict can lead to progressively more distance. 

In these strange and doubt-filled days and nights, many of my psychotherapy patients—as well as my friends and family—are wondering about people with whom we’ve lost touch. An old hurt or regret that remains unhealed can also insinuate itself into our awareness, returning now to remind us that it’s not finished. It’s the unresolved, the never-made-clear losses that haunt us. Echoes and shadows of earlier decisions—and especially mistakes—show up more readily these days. 

Adding urgency to the mix with old regrets is the ever-present coronavirus worry. How long do any of us have? Is the window of opportunity narrowing? On a bad day, trying to make up with someone from your past could seem like the hardest task in the world—and also the most imperative. 

A Long Overdue Apology

My patient, Ruth, lived in London with her friend Amy when they were young women. As Ruth describes, the two had grown up together—closer than sisters, closer than anyone Ruth had known before or since. 

But the pair lost contact somewhere in the intervening decades. Like many of us, Ruth was now ruminating about how the relationship ended. Both women are now in their early 70s and, although healthy, Ruth has acquired some risk factors that place her in the vulnerable group.

In a quarantine phone session, Ruth worried, “What if Amy is sick?” “What if the chance to be in touch with her is suddenly limited?” And, then, more hesitantly: “Would she respond if I did reach out?” 

I asked what she was afraid of. She paused before describing how the two didn’t part on very good terms. “I wasn’t the best person then. I don’t think she ever forgave me for going out with the man she liked.” She sighed. “I knew I shouldn’t have done it.”

At first, Ruth had kept the relationship a secret, but after Amy found out, “things were never the same again,” Ruth told me. When Ruth received a job offer in the States, she left, filled with guilt, but afraid to bring it up. 

The two wrote letters and cards, but, for Ruth, it always felt awkward. She told herself that their growing families were to blame for the two falling out of touch.

“It sounds like it still hurts to think about this.” 

“Yes, it’s like nothing has changed. I’ve never gotten over it,” she responded.  

“Well,” I countered, “it sounds like something may have changed. You have been working hard [in therapy] to claim who you most truly are and what your life means. The balance between your need to avoid this sour memory and a wish to reach out may have shifted.” 

“I think it has. If nothing else, I want to apologize to her. It’s 40 years overdue.”

Pandemic Pain: Unresolved Conflicts and the Apology Tour

As the stories of people losing loved ones to COVID-19 come closer, the rest of us can’t help but worry. Grief is in the air. Anticipation of loss visits us during wakeful nighttime hours. Not only elders, but many others have had to consider or face their mortality. The prolonged uncertainty having already unsettled us, it’s a strangely fertile ground for reckonings. 

In preparation for later stages of life, people plan their retirements. We create trusts and clear out our basements. We fill out the healthcare proxy and advanced directive forms, and file them with our primary care doctors. 

When we approach the potential for our own demise—or the death of others—it ought to be part of routine planning to figure out how to repair old hurts and face unresolved conflicts. Today, the presence of a worldwide, life-threatening disease that goes on for months casts a spotlight on these issues. The heightened risk to older people in particular won’t let us put them off anymore.

Where to Begin: The Apology Letter 

So, what did Ruth need to do about Amy?

Sometimes, I recommend people begin a long overdue apology by writing a letter, one that is not meant to be sent. What would you want to say if you could say anything to that person? It generates ideas and clarifies aims. 

Ruth wrote such a “practice letter” and emailed it to me before our following session, saying the letter was very difficult for her to write. “I made myself write the things I’d done that hurt her so much back then,” she explained. “And then I had to say the more recent things I’ve done, including letting go of her altogether. You saw I wrote that I have no idea how all this affected her.” Her voice was thick and indistinct: “What a terrible friend I’ve been.”

She cried for a moment. Then, she spoke almost in a whisper, “This is really hard, but I know deep down that trying to heal this relationship is the right thing to do.” I assured her that I agreed—and that she had already begun the hardest, bravest change in this process of healing old hurt.

Finding Courage and Humility to Seek True Forgiveness

Ruth clarified further: “I don’t just want to get my guilt off my chest. I want to know—if she’s willing to tell me—what this has been like for her.”

To approach this kind of repair, you have to be both courageous and humble. Ruth had begun to address the harm she believes she caused someone who’d been dear to her. Rather than allowing shame or defensiveness to keep her regrets hidden, she turned and faced her mistakes with a clear-eyed, realistic assessment. 

Her willingness makes it possible for her to go further, to contact her old friend. The alternative is to stay stuck in disappointment and distance. 

To reach out to someone you hurt is brave, but it’s also vulnerable. Maybe it’s brave because it makes you vulnerable. In my experience, that’s the riskiness of intimacy—opening yourself up to learning things that might hurt. 

In this case, Ruth had to invite Amy into a conversation about how her actions had affected Amy, despite the likelihood that the answers would make her feel bad. It would take courage to remain curious. It’s often harder to ask and listen than it would be to speak the words “I’m sorry” right off the bat. 

Opening the Dialogue for an Overdue Apology

Why, you might ask, does she have to ask first? Why not just write an “I’m sorry” letter?

For one thing, she doesn’t know for sure how hurt Amy is—or by which of her actions. Until you know the other person’s experience of the events you shared, you can’t know the whole truth. In almost any circumstance, it’s powerfully valuable for a hurt person’s story to be heard. 

We are talking here about Step One in a four-step process. If Ruth is lucky, she’ll have a chance to complete the other parts of a good apology too.

 Here are the four steps of a good apology:

  • You must come to understand the other person’s injury, including the effects of your actions. This usually involves asking questions and listening.
  • You must articulate a sincere statement of regret. You must acknowledge what you did and how it affected the other person. This is no small feat for most of us, especially when we didn’t intend to hurt someone.
  • You must make reparations. This can include material restitution, although in relationships that’s less likely to occur.
  • You must make a convincing plan to prevent the problem from happening again.

Read more on the power of practicing forgiveness.


About the Author

Molly Howes, PhD, is a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist and award-winning writer. She has been published in The New York Times Modern Love column, Best American Essays, NPR’s Morning Edition, and elsewhere. For 35 years, she has maintained an independent psychotherapy practice in which she treats couples and individual patients of all ages. Her new book, A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right (Grand Central Publishing), will be released in July 2020.

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