A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill Goldson: Why is it so hard to say sorry?

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Elton John was right, "sorry" is the hardest word. Photo / iStock
Elton John was right, "sorry" is the hardest word. Photo / iStock

The journey from feeling offended to feeling aggrieved is alarmingly brief if the stakes are high enough. And if the source of grievance is in the family or at work, the proverbial stone in the shoe can become almost impossible to endure.

Being told to "move on" or "be the bigger person" just doesn't cut it and often makes the feeling worse. Not only has someone wronged you but also your hurt is being invalidated to the point that you feel to blame for showing emotion.

This can become unendurable and it is not uncommon for these pent up feelings to begin to flow at the start of a new year.

It is not only counselling rooms that hear this, medical clinics too are dealing with patients who arrive with symptoms including headaches, stomach complaints, high blood pressure and substance abuse to name a few. And they so often share at their source, a simmering sense of injustice and hurt.

Two elements make up the most powerful treatment to deal to this malaise and constitutes a prescription which has only positive side effects. The first treatment is having the courage to name the pain and the second is the apology for causing it.

The power of this transaction is one of those everyday miracles, which restores peace, clears the skies and creates a release of energy. This alchemy can change physical health radically and instantly alter demeanour. The flood of good chemicals to the brain is proven by studies examining neuro imaging of the brain. For the laymen amongst us, the results can be described as a weight being lifted off the shoulders.

Sorry is the hardest word

Elton John was right - so why is it that people resist apologising? We are taught very early in life to say "I'm sorry" so what is it that makes the adult experience of apology so hard?

Defensiveness and pride are inevitably one part of the explanation. Surveys suggest that some people buy into a quasi legal perspective, where to apologise is to make an admission of guilt that can damage a legal case - yet studies show overwhelmingly that an apology can play a positive role - especially where dignity and reputation have been impacted. The need for justice is not only sorted in the courtroom, counselling and therapeutic mediation is an effective and economic alternative.

Digging down, it seems that the real resistance to apology is the sense of fear of being seen as all bad. Rather than feel bad about their actions, the non-apologist feels bad about himself or herself. The sense of having done something wrong becomes indistinguishable from being bad as a person. So a struggle ensues where the fear of crumbling psychological defences creates muteness, and the mandate becomes management of challenging emotions, in an effort to feel safe. Added to this is a fear that apology can be seen as a willingness to take full culpability for all elements in a relationship and to risk being positioned from here as the guilty party.

The power of apology

The irony is that far from giving up power, the apology can restore a sense of dignity and control to both the person making the apology as well as to the person to whom the apology is being made.

Far from grovelling or opening oneself up for attack, making an apology sends a strong message that you have empathy and that you are capable of experiencing care and concern for the other. It is this component of empathy which plays the star role. Without empathy we are lost and with it we are equipped to navigate the intermittent turbulence of our key relationships. True leaders have empathy, an essential ingredient in benign power. Lack of empathy and the accompanyin emotional generosity - its golden cousin - results in brittle and defensive posturing which hurts everyone involved.

If you don't feel empathy when you apologise, then the apology will be hollow and pointless. Much like when at the age of six, your little brother was made to apologise to you, and said "sorreeeeyyy ... not!". The adult equivalent is "I'm sorry you feel that way" echoing that enraging childhood insincerity.

Components to an apology

Fundamentally there are three components to an apology:

Empathy: "I am genuinely sorry to have offended you by not including you and I can understand how being left out like that will have felt incredibly insulting and unfair."

Ownership: "I realise that it was unprofessional and careless of me to invite the other two team members, and not you."

Compensations: "Can we work on a way to change this situation by having a new process which opens the communication up and brings all team members on board so that a mistake like this doesn't reoccur."

When delivered sincerely with follow up, the alchemy of apology and acknowledgement of injury can transform a desire for revenge into a willingness to forgive.

"Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care"

The bard got it right - we need to rest - and we can't when we are in a clench of grievance and resentment in the small hours, rehearsing plots and actions which fade into stuckness again as the day starts.

Take my client Ron who spent the whole of last year in a twist of injurious grief about the way in which his older adult sibling had excluded him from decisions about his elderly parents' estate. The brothers' two families with young children ended up not even having Christmas together - a first.

Ron came to see me in a miserable sense of being in a double bind. Talking him through the situation was going to be poor relief. In such circumstances, trying for a mediated meeting was his only courageous solution. His brother agreed to come to the party and in good faith they met. Ron's brother turned out to also be intensely unhappy and full of anxiety about the way his actions had been construed. An apology was made and accepted. A way forward was forged.

Then there's Vanessa, the unfortunate recipient of an offensive and intercepted email which insulted the huge efforts she had made to work on completing a project before the summer break. The injustice of the misrepresentation was repaired by a sincere apology from the colleague who wrote the email along with working on constructive changes in their employment relationship.

It seems the earth exhales again once a sincere apology is made. Significantly, and almost magically, physical and mental health is restored. And so is proper rest.

There is background work involved in understanding how such grievances arise. Often it takes some skillful unpicking of the context. Sometimes that is better achieved with brief professional help.

Forgiveness in response to apology is another topic and worthy of discussion in its own right.

When we anticipate that there is no way to act, then we limit any possibilities of change. The most impossible obstacles can have the simplest solutions when one person is able to take the first step.

- nzherald.co.nz

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A relationship expert with over 25 years experience counselling couples, individuals and families.

Jill's fascination for what makes us tick stems from sheer bloody-minded curiosity and a genuine desire to see people live healthy, happy lives. Born in Manchester, the award-winning family and relationship counsellor moved to Auckland when she was nine. Being the middle child of an immigrant family she was neither the oldest nor youngest child, neither a Pom nor a Kiwi. This kicked off a lifelong fascination with how people can make sense of transitions and how uncertainty can be turned into a greater understanding of ourselves and of those who push our buttons. Her career has spanned more than 25 years, and seen her working for the Family Court; in hospitals; universities; aboriginal training programmes, inner London social work practices, and now–her own private practice in Auckland. Whether she's counselling everyday Kiwis, highly paid power couples or the children of Bengali immigrant families, Jill has an inherent ability to tease out what's really going on in people's lives, and strategise to improve the situation, whatever that may be. • Jill Goldson is a Family Dispute Resolution mediator and counsellor, and Director of The Family Matters Centre in Auckland.

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