For a better 2021, follow this famous Kansas psychologist’s advice and apologize

January 1, 2021 3:16 am

With the new year’s promise of a fresh start, says Kansas psychologist Harriet Lerner, apologies make good resolutions. (Thomas Vogel/Getty Images)

Everybody needs to apologize.

We’re not talking, for now anyway, about the enormous public apologies some people with great power currently owe us. For now, we’re talking about the personal responsibility type of apology that would give us all a cleaner start to what any sane person hopes will be a better year.

“If done well, the good apology is deeply healing,” said Harriet Lerner, the renowned Lawrence psychologist and bestselling author whose most recent book is “Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.”

It was Lerner who, over the summer, helped us understand how cranked-up chronic anxiety was making “even smart people do very stupid things” as leaders throughout Kansas struggled to chart various ways through the pandemic. With the annual promise of a fresh start, she said, apologies make good resolutions.

Even more so after a year that brought new levels of neighborly hatred.

“The apology is especially important at this point in time because of what we were talking about in in our last conversation: We’re all swimming around in an anxious soup, there’s a raging pandemic, democracy is unraveling,” she said. “When people are anxious, we’re even more grumpy and irritable and have more to apologize for.”

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

“A good apology validates the hurt party’s sense of reality,” she said. “It says, ‘Yes, I get it, I screwed up, I was wrong, your feelings make sense, I want you to know I’m not going to do this again.’ That’s how we strengthen our relationships: when people know we’re capable of seeing ourselves objectively, reflecting on our behavior, being motivated to set things right.”

Nonexistent or bad apologies “put a crack in the very foundation of a relationship and can even end it,” she said.

There are three main ways people “muck up” their apologies, Lerner said.

Lawrence psychologist Harriet Lerner is the author of 12 books in 35 languages, including “Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.” (Submitted)

One is by following the apology with some variation of “but.”

“The word ‘but’ almost always signifies a rationalization, a criticism, or an excuse,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if what you say after the but is true, the but makes your apology false. So get your but out of your apology.”

The second biggest apology error, she said, is focusing on the other person’s reactions rather than naming and apologizing for our own behavior.

“A sincere apology always begins with specific words or behaviors that we are sorry for rather than implying that you’re sorry that the person is hurt or angry,” she said. “It’s a subtle difference. For example: ‘I’m sorry I offended people by the joke I told at the meeting.’ That is not an apology — there’s no accountability there. A real apology would be: ‘The joke I told at the meeting was insensitive and out of line. I’m sorry, and I want to assure you it won’t happen again.’ ”

The third biggest apology error, she said, is using the apology as an excuse to get out of a difficult conversation. For example: “The husband says to his partner: ‘I told you 15 times I’m sorry about the affair. Why are you still bringing it up?’ ”

When someone else is telling us something we don’t want to hear, Lerner said, we naturally get defensive.

“When we listen defensively, we automatically focus on the exaggerations, distortions, inaccuracy that indeed will be there. Then we tend to swing into debate mode to correct the facts and make our case,” she said.

Then she made a big declaration: “If only we would listen with the same passion we feel about being heard, that would make it a different world in 2021.”

But, Dr. Lerner, many people have been purposefully cruel over this past year. They deserve no apology! In fact, they owe others an apology!

“The New Year’s resolution is about focusing on our own self,” Lerner said.

“There will always be people out there who are unable to admit error and they will always wrap themselves in the blanket of defensiveness and denial,” she said.

The rest of us are grown-ups.

“It’s an essential aspect of our own level of maturity and integrity and self-worth when we really can take an objective look at ourselves, and when we can take clear and direct responsibility for our mistakes and insensitivity,” she said.

So, how about it, Kansas? Are we ready to make 2021 the year of maturity, integrity, self-worth and taking responsibility?

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C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.