I spend a lot of time thinking about apologies. It’s not a Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur thing for me; my friend Susan and I publish a website called SorryWatch year-round, analyzing apologies in the news, history, literature, art, and pop culture. We’re interested in apologies precisely because they’re so hard to do well. By parsing the good ones and vivisecting the bad ones, we hope to make everyone able to say they’re sorry just a bit better.
I’ve talked on Tablet’s Unorthodox podcast about what you need to do to apologize well: Explicitly say what you did wrong (don’t just say “I’m sorry for what happened” or “I’m sorry if you were upset”); use the actual words “I’m sorry” rather than “I regret” (regret is about your emotions, not the other person’s); show that you understand the consequences of your actions; tell how you will ensure that this doesn’t happen again; and make reparations if possible.
And don’t just take our word for it. We may just be mere fans of the art of apology, but science backs us up. This past May, a study came out in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research that presented fictional apologies to 755 people and looked at the elements that made the apologies most effective. The researchers found that the best-received apologies had the following attributes: an expression of regret, an explanation of what went wrong, an acknowledgment of responsibility, a declaration of repentance, an offer of repair, and a request for forgiveness. By far the most important element of the six was the acknowledgment of responsibility. The least important was asking for forgiveness. Which is good, because Susan and I feel that asking for forgiveness doesn’t belong in an apology at all! In our view, asking for forgiveness is like asking for a present. Of course a beautifully wrapped package is a source of joy, but to explicitly request it is presumptuous. You gotta wait until it’s offered (and then act surprised, delighted, and humbled, because even if you think you’re entitled to a present, guess what, you’re not.) The person you apologize to gets to decide whether to forgive you, and they get to choose the timetable. You, on the other hand, have to sit with your discomfort, marinating as if you’re wearing a too-hot and itchy sweater. Similarly, do not say “I’d like for us to move on” after you’ve apologized. That’s not your call to make.
As I’ve mentioned here before, there’s a moving-on/forgiveness scene in the book Eat Pray Love that made me crazy. The scene takes place in India; our narrator has a revelation on an ashram rooftop that her estranged husband has forgiven her. It’s not presented as wishful thinking; it’s presented as an otherworldly, beautiful thing that has actually happened. Nope. You do not get to decide that transcendence has occurred. When there are residual bad feelings in the wake of a shattered relationship, when you know another person is still harboring resentment and grief and anger, you have to live with that. Again, this is not comfortable. Ambiguity can be miserable. But it’s real. Conjuring up resolution and repair—like Captain Picard announcing, “Make it so!” and lo, it is done—is not.
So I’m particularly irked by the trend of encouraging self-forgiveness. It’s a notion that has skyrocketed in the last few decades (look at this geeky chart I made, in Google Ngrams, analyzing how frequently the word has appeared in books published between 1908 and 2008, the most recent year for which stats were available!)—and a quick spin through the internet finds a lot of rabbis’ Yom Kippur sermons focused on this notion. I’d argue that self-forgiveness is actually something we have way too much of.
First of all, self-forgiveness as a preoccupation isn’t very Jewish. We’re a people that do guilt. We don’t let go easily. We don’t forget. The notion of simply releasing your emotional burdens feels like a very modern-day American, hippie-dippy concept: Let it go. C’mon, man, lighten up. You gotta be kind to yourself. Put yourself first. Take a mental-health day. Meditate on that. Yeah, no.
In my experience, the reason we see so many lousy apologies at SorryWatch is that people are actually entirely too eager to forgive themselves. They want bad feelings to be the other person’s fault, not the lingering result of the shame they rightly feel. We all yearn to blame someone else for the situation we’re in the position of apologizing for: Hey, I was provoked! I’ve been working too hard and was exhausted! You don’t understand my sense of humor! You’re too sensitive! Some of my best friends are black/gay/trans/Muslim, and they weren’t offended! Mistakes were made!
And I worry that self-forgiveness is actually a harmful, destructive, self-justifying force that keeps us from apologizing to others. Indeed, psychologists who’ve studied the relatively new concept of self-forgiveness have found that as a mental health tool, it’s a mixed bag. Research indicates that while forgiving yourself can help relieve your uncomfortable feelings, it can also reduce empathy for others and motivation to apologize. Why? Because our puny, weak, self-justifying human brains will grab onto any excuse to not have to face others with evidence of our flaws. In the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson look at precisely why it’s so hard to apologize to others. To some degree, it’s because we desperately want to believe that we’re good people, and good people are in the right, so we try to twist facts to make them conform to a version of reality that tells a story that makes us right. (Or at the very least, provoked.) Because if we’re good, and we do something not good, well, Holy Cognitive Dissonance, Batman! “To reduce dissonance,” Tavris and Aronson write, “most of us put an enormous amount of mental and physical energy into protecting ourselves and propping up our self-esteem when it sags under the realization that we have been foolish, gullible, mistaken, corrupted, or otherwise human.” This, I think, is why we jump more quickly to self-forgiveness rather than apology. We don’t need rabbis urging us to forgive ourselves when we’re pretty darn excellent at doing it all on our own.
But humans are flawed. It’s normal. We screw up. We need to embrace that fact and use it as motivation to apologize to others rather than stubbornly refusing to own up to our responsibility.
There’s an argument to be made that feeling bad is good for us—at least when the bad feelings lead to action instead of a narcissistic, inward-turning, Eeyore-like self-concept that says there’s no point in apologizing because everything is depressing and bad and the apology probably won’t help anyway. (Oh, bother.) A 2005 study in the journal Self and Identity asked 138 undergrads to think about times they’d offended others. The study found that being unable to get out of your own head wasn’t helpful, but neither was being reluctant to accept responsibility thanks to your own ego. “Feelings of self-condemnation were associated with maladjustment, as shown in prior studies,” the authors write. “However, participants reported more prosocial responses (repentance and a sense of being humbled) if they accepted responsibility, experienced remorse, and found that reducing negative feelings required effort.” The authors suggested that future studies look at the difference between remorse and self-condemnation. The former is a positive, pro-social feeling that makes you want to make amends; the latter is paralyzing and can lead to depression and anxiety. It’s a good distinction. (Hey, rabbis, you still have time to rewrite those sermons!)
Along those lines, a 2014 study in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that self-forgiveness is most effective if we make amends first to the person we’ve hurt. This study asked 269 participants to think about actual offenses they’d committed in their lives. They were then asked whether they’d apologized and committed restitution, whether they felt the other person had forgiven them, whether they forgave themselves, and whether they found self-forgiveness in this case “morally appropriate.” Basically, the harder they worked to make amends, the better they felt about self-forgiveness. And when the other person actually told them they were forgiven, they felt even better about self-forgiveness. They needed the external impetus.
This High Holiday season, maybe think twice about the whole self-forgiveness thing. Taking the brave, vulnerable step of apologizing to others—for specific offenses, with specific words that indicate you know the specific impact of what you did and with specific promises to be better in the future—is menschier.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.