How Good Apologies Enhance Our Well-Being, From A Psychologist

Clinical Psychologist By Molly Howes, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist
Molly Howes, PhD, is a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist and writer.
Two Friends Smiling and Embracing Outdoors

A well-made apology enhances your spiritual well-being and potentially expands your range of humanness. In other words, by facing your own mistakes, you can find a greater sense of compassion for others'.

Facing your own failure or error can make your understanding of other people's failings more complex. Rather than a morally simplistic view, you don't have to think of other people as either like you or unlike you. By dealing directly with your responsibility to someone you've caused pain, you transform wrongdoing into an opportunity for positive change.

When guilt is allowed to push you to make a relationship repair, it becomes transformed into self-respect. As humbling as it can be to face the fact that you've been wrong or done wrong, taking your lumps for imperfection—in a productive way—improves your outlook and, effectively, your character. 

Your willingness to tackle good apologies can become an example for the people around you. For children, in particular, learning about this transformation can have wonderful effects. They often have a natural sense of fairness, sometimes annoyingly so. A child can learn a parallel sense of empathy. If a young person can repair a hurt effectively, only good things follow: increased self-esteem, a more peaceful playroom/classroom/home, and a deeper understanding of how our interdependent lives affect one another for good or ill. 

These elements form the basis for good relationships with other people. If a child can make things right when they've done something wrong or made a mistake that hurt someone, the experience is bone-deep. They internalize a model in which—as in restorative justice—everyone is treated with compassion rather than punishment, which is more likely to promote shame.

Many conflicts between people are more complicated than a four-step model, used once, can fully resolve. Especially when the situations have been ongoing, there are usually hurts and complaints on both sides.

If you are the one taking the first step toward making an apology—regardless of how hurt or angry you are about something the other person did—you must set your own need for an apology aside, temporarily. That's much harder than it might sound. It requires remembering that the point here is to do what you can do to restore your relationship while keeping track of your needs, too. 

The 4 steps of a good apology:
  1. You must come to understand the other person's injury, including the effects of your actions. This usually involves asking questions and listening.
  2. 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.
  3. You must make reparations. This can include material restitution, although in relationships that's less likely to occur.
  4. You must make a convincing plan to prevent the problem from happening again.

It's only after the first round of the apology process (all four steps) that you get to bring up your own grievance. At that point, roles are exchanged, and the person previously in the role of injured party becomes the apologizer and has to inquire and listen, and so on. We're talking about taking turns so that everyone's hurt is dealt with. The first apology is not always the final, tidy resolution; rather, it can be just the first round, the beginning of an ongoing conversation—or one that can be reopened when needed.

Adapted excerpt from the book A Good Apology: Four Steps To Make Things Right by Molly Howes, Ph.D. Copyright © 2020 by Mary J. Howes, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.  

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