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Could an Apology Cause Its Recipients More Harm Than Good? Perhaps.

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Oct 4, 2019

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The #MeToo movement highlighted that a lot of us (especially men accused of sexual misconduct; looking at you, Aziz Ansari) are incapable of offering a genuine apology. Ranging from gaslighting to a flat out denial of their actions, their (non) apologies have been heavily dissected. The Swaddle has also provided a how-to guide for delivering apologies — but what, if anything, does an apology even accomplish? Whether it be in the context of #MeToo, or in more benign situations, a simple ‘I’m sorry’ can be construed in myriad ways; what is the effect of an apology — genuine or otherwise — on its recipient?

“Apology is not just a social nicety. It is an important ritual, a way of showing respect and empathy for the wronged person. It is also a way of acknowledging an act that, if otherwise left unnoticed, might compromise the relationship,” Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist and author of The Power of Apology, writes for Psychology Today. “Apology has the ability to disarm others of their anger and to prevent further misunderstandings. While an apology cannot undo harmful past actions, if done sincerely and effectively, it can undo the negative effects of those actions.”

But in a world where an apology can be, and has been, distorted to completely strip the accused of their wrongdoing, can it still right the wrongs, as Engel says, or could it cause more distress to the person receiving it?

“Some of the worst apologies I have received are those that go: we’re sorry if you felt bad but hey lighten up, or I am sorry if [I] hurt you or embarrassed you or made you uncomfortable, always with a tone of surprise/condescension,” Saumya Sinha, 29, said. “By doing this, they are putting the onus on me for being too sensitive without considering that they are probably not sensitive enough to take ownership. The subtlest form of gaslighting … I strongly feel that it comes from a general lack of empathy.”

Sinha says such fake apologies have made her feel “rejected, unloved, misunderstood, lonely.” They have also made her doubt herself, making her ask herself, “if I’m being unreasonable and if I am just someone with an inflated ego.”

Isha, 18, evaluates apologies on the amount of time an individual has taken to deliver their apology. “I … feel that if people apologize right after they have done something they should be sorry for, it’s almost as if they don’t care. It feels like they just want to get done with it or maybe just end the discussion as soon as they can. That kind of apology is meaningless for me. I mean why apologize when you haven’t even analyzed what you’ve done?” Isha says, adding such apologies invoke disgust, and a resolve to cut the other person from her life.

Sincere apologies, on the other hand, delivered after considerable time spent on reflection, show someone is guilty and is not yet over what they have done, she says. For Isha, a sincere apology can often undo her anger, making her feel she had been overreacting.


Related on The Swaddle:

India’s #MeToo Apologies Are Rolling in; Do Any Warrant Forgiveness?


Research has shown an apology or confession often increases empathy within its recipient, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The resultant empathy makes it easy for the recipient to forgive, researchers found.

An apology brings closure, Suguna G., 23, said. “Realisation is a blessing is what I feel and I know how painful the guilt and regret one feels after they realize things. It’s a huge eye-opener. It makes me happy that a certain individual is seeing what [they have] done, although we might not exactly be able to say if [they] will make the same mistakes but it feels like there is still hope.”

Closure, however, can take a long time to arrive. R.M., 24, was bullied in high school, to the extent she nursed emotional wounds from the experience for several years after. She says she never stopped protesting the bullying, which eventually led her bullies to apologize — “I could tell they were sorry and it made me feel vindicated, like I was right. It made me feel like I was right — not good — but that I was right and I got what I wanted, [which is] a sense of closure — the closure took more than five to seven years to arrive,” she said, adding that she struggled with intimacy and self-image issues for a long time.

An apology doesn’t repair the damage — mainly, stress — the original action causes, Shehbaz Shaikh, 27 says. “Apology can’t fix it, but [it brings] a relief that the wrong-doer has at least realized their mistake.”

Depending on the sincerity of the apology, acceptance, even forgiveness is possible. However, “Acceptance [of an apology] … only means I have accommodated in my heart — both the apology and the mistake,” Isha said.

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Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news in New York City. Back in the homeland, she spends her free time trying to dismantle societal beauty standards, laughing uproariously at comedy shows, and fervently following her football team, Arsenal.

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