By Claude Steiner PhD
to Home Page?
When, in the course of everyday life, one
person injures another in minor or major ways, almost always in the form of some
sort of violence—emotional or physical, subtle or crude-- an apology, with
amends if necessary, is a powerful transaction which can deliver peace of mind
and healing for all parties involved.
Apologies and atonement are as old as guilt.
The Jewish faith establishes a yearly week-long period of self-examination and
atonement. The Catholic religion makes apology to and forgiveness from God a
principal aspect of its catechism. AA has devoted a whole step in its 12 step
recovery program to making apologies and amends. In each case however these have
become rituals, which though arguably bringing peace of mind to the wrongdoer,
seldom have the result of righting the wrongs that people inflict on each other.
Apologies are usually associated with guilt.
The word “guilt” can refer to a judgment as in: “The defendant is
guilty!” or it can refer to an emotion. As an emotion, guilt has come to be
seen as relatively useless in that it does not necessarily lead to any positive
results. Structurally, guilt is probably an Adapted Child emotion responding to
Critical Parent accusations. Guilt is considered ineffectual because the Adapted
Child feeling guilty and not OK is not likely to make important changes or
deliver heart-felt amends. Forgiving a guilty child is not necessarily a
However, guilt is not the only reason why one
would apologize. Regret, an emotion akin to sadness rather than guilt, coupled
with a realization that we bear responsibility in another person’s suffering
is far more likely to bring the changes in behavior and amends that can generate
true forgiveness. Unlike guilt, which causes most people to be defensive and not
to want to apologize regret motivates the person in the opposite direction,
toward apology and making things right. The most effective apologies are
manifestations of sadness and regret experienced by the Natural Child coupled
with an Adult program of amends.
Looking at this distinction between guilt and
regret from the point of view of scripts, guilt accompanies the counterscript
that follows a script of wrong doing played out by endless “Schlemiehl,”
“Drunk and Proud,” “Kick me” and other aggressive games. Regret is the
first step to changing the script and not repeating the injurious behavior.
The question arises how to help a person
replace feelings of guilt with feelings
of regret. Regret is based on being aware of the discomfort of pain that we have
caused another person. In other words ir requires empathy or being able to feel
with the victim of our behavior. Inviting the person to move their attention
from their guilty feelings to the feelings of sadness, disappointment,
hopelessness or pain that the other experienced is usually effective way to
accomplish the desired change.
Clearly, apology, forgiveness and atonement
play a major function in social relations. When they are taken seriously they
signify a recognition of the fact that people do actually wrong each other, that
when they wrong each other people are responsible for their behavior, that it is
possible to correct one’s wrongdoing with apologies and amends and that when
aggrieved by another person we can ask for an apology and amends, and that even
if offered, apology and amends may not lead to forgiveness.
Sadly, in modern times, apologies as a method
of creating harmony between people are regarded with suspicion. Probably as a
reaction to previous guilt driven times, there is a powerful cultural strain
that holds that people cannot be responsible for each other or each others
feelings and that apologies are irrelevant and old fashioned . This view has
been promoted by the human potential movement and unwittingly, I believe, was
launched and bolstered by Fritz Perls with his prayer which in states:
I do my thing, and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you and I am I,
If by chance we find each other, it's beautiful
If not, it can't be helped.
To be able to endorse the views expressed in
this paper, a person would have to reexamine the notion that we are in no way
responsible for what others feel and consider anew the possibility that we may
indeed be involved in, and in that sense, responsible for other people’s
emotional states, as they may be for ours. Otherwise why apologize when we
frighten, sadden, or anger others?
Some have argued that to forgive unilaterally,
to turn the other cheek as it were, without need for an apology is the more
enlightened path. Some may argue that this article is an essay in victimology
which ultimately reinforces game behavior. Both views have their grain of truth.
It is true that some are able to forgive unconditionally; most of us are not
quite so ego-less and when hurt need some sort of justice and redress. The fact
is also that there are people who gladly occupy and even seek the Victim role in
the Drama Triangle and may not be quite deserving of an apology, but there are
also others who are true victims of other people’ misdeeds.
For most relationships to flourish and move
forward it is essential that we ongoingly correct the errors we commit; we are
fallible and human and sometimes give in to our dark side. When they are not
corrected these errors add up and can drag down and eventually kill the best of
relationships. A complete apology is a transaction that constitutes a corrective
An apology, like any transaction, consists of
two parts: a stimulus (the apology) and a response (the granting or denial of
forgiveness.) Both parts are required for a complete apology and errors can be
committed in both. Accordingly there is in this view of apologies no place for a
one sided apology no matter how well delivered. If there is no response the
apology is incomplete in the transactional sense. There may be some value to a
one sided apology but that is not the subject matter of this paper; a
transaction which effectively defuses violence when completed.
Apology (Asking for forgiveness.)
People apologize all the time, but that does
not necessarily mean that they are asking for anything or expecting a response.
Very often the apology is a ritual, basically:
Consider the Source; Attitude.
Apologies and asking for forgiveness can come
from a variety of ego states.
An Adult apology is essentially an
unemotional, even legalistic appraisal of one’s wrongdoing. It sounds good but
may fail to satisfy.
Bill: (seriously) “I showed
lack of judgement. I may have misled you and for that I apologize”
An Adapted Child apology is a guilt laden
self-rebuke in response to Critical Parent which somehow manages to avoid
John: (weeping) “ I was weak, and gave in to
the Devil, I deserve eternal damnation. I am, oh, so sorry!”
An apology can also come from a hypocritical,
smug, rebellious Child who with tongue in cheek manages to make light of the
injury it has caused:
Mark: (smiling) “I know, I know I am so terrible, I am sorry.”
times people apologize for an action that was not problematic, sometimes instead
of an action that was. John, at a staff meeting repeatedly ignores Mary’s
statements. Eventually he offers coffee or tea to every one except Mary. Later
she complains bitterly to him about his behavior.
I apologize, Mary.
What are you I apologizing for?
for not offering you coffee. Will you forgive me?
(thinking) Actually I don’t particularly care about the coffee I need you to
apologize for the way you kept ignoring the suggestions I made at the meeting.
this Mary has described John’s offending actions. Now John knows what to
apologize for if he wants to deal with Mary in an effective way.
addition to a description of the offending behavior the apology needs to include
a recognition of its magnitude. Accordingly, apologies can be said to be first,
second or third degree.
Did I really? I don’t think that it was that bad but I am sorry.
It was, and has been a lot worse than you seem to think. I need you to recognize
this point John needs to examine the situation a bit more seriously. He wants to
deliver a first degree apology about tea and crumpets. Mary has a larger second
degree offence in mind. Can he accept that he has been seriously discounting and
thereby causing Mary feelings of anger, sadness embarrassment and hopelessness?
If he does he will acknowledge the magnitude of his discount, if he demurs he
may fail to satisfy Mary.
delivered an emotionally literate apology requires an emotionally literate
response to be complete and effective. The response can be one of three:
Acceptance or non-acceptance?
an apology transaction to be complete it has to be fully heard, contemplated and
responded to. All too often an apologetic statement is deemed to be sufficient
and the assumption is made that once made an apology will be accepted by a
good-natured, forgiving person. But this implies that an apology is a one-sided
process when in fact it is a transactional
cycle. When, as in the case of the game of Shlemiehl or Alcoholic, a person
keeps messing up and apologizing and the apology is repeatedly, routinely
accepted, the transaction is not healing but noxious, the participants are
locked in the drama triangle and each apology, instead of producing healing
results, supports both person’s scripts.
injured person hears the apologetic statement.
“Mary, its hard to admit it but you are right. I have been ignoring your
statements at meetings and had not realized how that must feel to you. I am
really sorry, it won’t happen again.”
apology corresponds to the dimensions and magnitude of the injury suffered and
so Mary reacts with an open, forgiving heart.
“Thanks, John, I appreciate that, I forgive you. Make sure to offer me coffee
next time as well”
apology is accepted. Healing occurs.
injured person hears the apologetic statement
but his heart does not open.
Perhaps something more is needed perhaps nothing can be done at this time.
“I am sorry but you don’t seem to really understand how difficult your
behavior is for me. I am afraid that I can’t accept your apology… I need
more than just words to feel better.”
occasion someone injures another person so grievously that second-degree apology
even with amends fails to release the injured person fom his or her feelings of
rage and grief. In such a case what may be needed is a corresponding emotional
response of deep regret and grief perhaps guilt without which the emotional knot
will not be cut.
the healing effects of an apology is a finer skill which requires the three
elements of Permission, Protection and Potency
Permission to apologize which essentially tells the client’s Child that is
important to apologize, and that it is also OK; something to be proud rather
than ashamed of. The therapists’ permissive role involves an empathetic role
with respect, both to the guilt and fear of the perpetrator and the need for
apology and amends of the victim. Any hint of Critical Parent attitude in the
therapist will send the apologee’s Child running for cover. What is needed is
an Adult who says: It is important that you do this and it is OK to admit
There is a reason why people find it difficult to apologize. The very idea that
one is a bad person or that one has committed a serious mistake unleashes the
harshest and most energetic activity on the part of the Critical Parent and
causes an irresistible need to explain and defend against those accusations.
That is largely why guilt is such an ineffective basis for apologies. The
therapist’s protective role is to shield the apologee from these harsh
Therapeutic potency is required to maintain a calm, objective and nurturing
stance in the midst of the emotions generated by wrongdoing, guilt, regret,
apology and its acceptance, or rejection. Minimizing of the importance of an
apology when one is required (or going along with a flawed apology) can be a
fatal therapeutic error that will cause the loss of confidence in the therapist
by both the wrongdoer and the victim.
The apology transaction is a powerful tool in the transactional analyst’s
repertoire. In every relationship there will be times where one person power
plays and perpetrates some form of violence –emotional or physical--upon the
other. When people make a contract to improve their relationship, apology can be
a crucial and sometimes spectacular aspect of the cure. The therapist’s role
in deciding when an apology is due, what is an appropriate apology and guiding
the process to an effective conclusion is an important skill in modern therapy.
to Home Page