The Power of the Apology


We’ve all experienced that horrible moment. The moment we realize something we’ve said or done has truly hurt another person. Our first response is to justify. We’re hard wired with defense mechanisms to ensure we maintain enough self-esteem to live with ourselves and carry on. Coupled with our aversion to confrontation, we ignore the situation praying the memory of our wrongdoing will simply fade with time. Sometimes it does but often it doesn’t, and not just in the mind of the victim. The wrongdoer also experiences a lingering sense of shame, guilt and a diminished sense of self.

Back in High School, being the drummer for a Rock, Blues and Klezmer band provided me with more self-esteem than anything else. However at a Chanukah concert before hundreds of my peers, I began to stumble as the band started to play Led Zeppelin’s famous “Stairway to Heaven”. I just needed a moment to remember the beat but before I could do anything, some other drummer from the audience took over and played the song as I watched in total humiliation. I was crushed. Angry and hurt, I carefully avoided the other drummer for weeks. It was a terrible feeling, and I could tell he felt awkward as well.

Jewish tradition for over 2000 years has recommended and mandated the most simple and straightforward way to resolve conflicts: Take responsibility and say “I’m sorry”.  Recent advances in science and mental health fields demonstrate that there’s more to this ancient tradition than meets the eye.

Firstly, apologizing is good for our physical health. Research shows that receiving an apology has a noticeable, positive effect on the body: blood pressure decreases, heart rate slows and breathing becomes steadier. The positive physical effects are seen in the person offering the apology as well. When we apologize and are genuinely remorseful, we relieve ourselves of the negative emotions that otherwise manifest in “forms of depression or anxiety, or as stress-related conditions like heart disease, ulcers, and muscle aches,” explains Daniel Watter, PhD.

Apologizing is also crucial for mental health and can be an extremely powerful tool for healing strained relationships. In a moving article in Psychology Today, writer Beverly Engel describes how a simple “I’m sorry” from her mother, after being estranged from each other for three years, was able to help her heal emotionally and bring mother and daughter back together.

The positive effect of apologizing can also be seen in business: Behavioral economic research has shown that a willingness to forgive is strongly influenced by direct, person-to-person apologies. A field experiment conducted by researchers at the University of Nottingham, UK, tested the effect of how businesses react to dissatisfied customers. They found that customers of an online store who received a verbal apology forgave twice as often compared to those receiving just monetary compensation.

When is the best time to apologize?

Experts like Aaron Lazare, author of the book On Apology, explain that for an apology to be effective, timing is crucial. Most argue that an apology should be offered as soon after the infraction as long as both parties have had sufficient time to cool off; the one receiving the apology has had time to vent, and the one giving it can be genuinely remorseful. Though there is perhaps an ideal window of time to offer an apology, we must remember it is never too late to say sorry. According to Jewish tradition, if you missed your chance before, the month leading up to Yom Kippur is an ideal time to ask forgiveness from anyone one may have wronged over the course of the previous year.

Why before Yom Kippur?

Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Aruch (the authoritative Code of Jewish Law), quoting from the Talmud (Yoma 85b) explains that Yom Kippur only atones for sins committed by a person against God. However, when it comes to sins committed by one person against another, Yom Kippur does not atone unless the wrongdoer secures forgiveness from the person he or she offended. I’ve always appreciated this tradition. After all, why should one be forgiven for stealing his neighbor’s lawn mower or badmouthing someone if all he did was go to synagogue and pray? Until the wrong is righted with the actual person affected, unless one returns the lawn mower or apologizes for the slander, praying alone should never be enough.

Apologizing works so well because it opens the door to forgiveness by allowing one to have empathy for the wrongdoer and at the same time it helps the wrongdoer rid himself of self-reproach and guilt. Researchers from the Center for Neuroscience at the University of Bonn, Germany, found that empathy related brain regions showed increased activation when participants received an apology. The activation of reciprocal empathy lays the foundation for and increases the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.To receive these tremendous benefits of an apology, however, it has to be done right. Insincere apologies or simply going through the motions are not only ineffective, but they can make matters worse, making the wronged party feel like the offender feels no remorse at all.

So how should one apologize?

Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung (1892-1987) summarized the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides’ approach to repentance and securing forgiveness through what he nicknamed “the 3 R’s”:

  1. Recognition – One must first recognize and admit to the wrong-doing. This is the first step in all transformative programs — take Alcoholics Anonymous for example.
  1. Remorse – One must express a true sense of remorse about the wrong-doing; that one truly feels badly to have put the other through this negative experience. Thus it’s not enough to say you are sorry or to try and fake it. The person hearing the apology must believe you mean it.
  1. Resolve – One must commit to a new way of acting in the future so as not to repeat the offense, and must communicate this to the offended party.

These 3 R’s and Maimonides’ whole approach have a strong parallel in today’s Narrative Psychology movement. If you’re familiar with the work of Tony Robbins, you may notice the overlap. Robbins, and others like him stress the importance of taking responsibility as a vital key to happiness and empowerment. When we stop blaming others and playing the victim, when we stand up and say, “I was wrong”, we are able to write our own story.

One day, the drummer got up the nerve to approach me in the cafeteria. It was a dramatic moment as he shuffled up to me, my eyes sternly focused on the contents of my lunch, bracing myself for a fight. And then he said it. He, a high schooler, said those two simple words that are hard enough for most adults with ample self-esteem to say… “I’m sorry”… “I shouldn’t have done that to you at the concert. If someone had done that to me, I would be embarrassed. I won’t do it again.”

In an instant, this kid who had previously been my “enemy” became my inspiration. I remember feeling not only instantly relieved by his apology, but also developing a huge amount of respect and even awe for this person who had the courage to put our relationship above his ego and make things right. This simple act allowed me to lower my own guard and not only forgive him, but offer a return apology to him for avoiding him those past few weeks. We both felt so much better. To this day, every time I find it hard to swallow my pride and say those words, I remember the drummer and how he was able to rewrite our story with one simple, meaningful gesture.

Although apologizing makes us feel vulnerable and temporarily shifts all the power to the other person, ironically saying “I’m sorry” is the ultimate way to take control of a situation. It is a profoundly empowering experience, good for us physically, mentally and spiritually. Most importantly, it is an effective way to right a wrong and transform from subject to author of our own narrative.

About the Author
Rabbi Mark Wildes, known as The Urban Millennials' Rabbi, founded Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) in 1998. Since then, he has become one of America’s most inspirational and dynamic Jewish educators. Rabbi Wildes holds a BA in Psychology from Yeshiva University, a JD from the Cardozo School of Law, a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University and was ordained from Yeshiva University. Rabbi Mark & his wife Jill and their children Yosef, Ezra, Judah and Avigayil live on the Upper West Side where they maintain a warm and welcoming home for all.
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