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Forgiveness: The impacts of an apology

Forgiveness can be difficult to navigate and so can apologizing. Learn how to apologize and the benefits of apologizing.

When is the last time you forgave someone for something they said or did? Did it take a long time or just a few minutes? Did it come with an apology? Did you forgive for the good of yourself or your family? Ever wonder what exactly forgiveness is? “Forgiveness: What is it and how do I do it?” discussed how to define it, the steps of forgiveness and some of the benefits associated with forgiveness. Having an open discussion about forgiveness and the feelings or emotions associated with a situation that may need forgiveness is vitally important to building a strong family unit, as discussed in “Forgiveness: Discussing it as a family.”

Forgiveness is something that can occur with or without an apology. When an apology is done with respect and sincerity, it can create an opportunity for a relationship to mend, heal and even grow. What happens when you want to apologize, but you’re just not sure how to? Check out Robert Gordon’s TED talk, The Power of the Apology, where he outlines three main elements of an apology:

  1. Acknowledgement
  2. Remorse and empathy
  3. Restitution

Acknowledgement. Being able to see how your actions impact others is key to making a sincere apology. The acknowledgment part of the apology needs to start with "I.” For example, "I am sorry for being late tonight."

Remorse and empathy. Remorse is truly feeling bad for what you've done. Empathy is about being able to put yourself in the other person's shoes and know how they feel. The remorse and empathy components of the apology would sound like, for example: "Lisa, I am so sorry I said that to you. I don't like myself for becoming that reactive and I know from when my brother was harsh and judgmental with me, just how much that can hurt."

Restitution. This means taking action to provide an act or service to make up for the transgression. For example, consider the husband who is short and abrupt with his wife when she is excited to share with him about her first day on her new job. The husband can provide restitution by offering to listen better after first preparing her a cup of tea and by doing some extra housework while she relaxes a bit.

When an apology contains the three components listed above, it can be incredibly powerful and give benefit to both the receiver of the apology and the giver of the apology. It allows for the repair of the relationship to begin and supports how future communication or action will take place. In “The Power of Apology” published at Psychology Today, emotional benefits of apology include:

  • A person who has been harmed feels emotional healing when they are acknowledged by the wrongdoer.
  • When we receive an apology, we no longer perceive the wrongdoer as a personal threat.
  • Apology helps us to move past our anger and prevents us from being stuck in the past.
  • Apology opens the door to forgiveness by allowing us to have empathy for the wrongdoer.

Furthermore, “The Power of Apology” outlines the benefits of an apology to the receiver and the giver:

  • The debilitating effects of the remorse and shame we may feel when we've hurt another person can eat away at us until we become emotionally and physically ill. By apologizing and taking responsibility for our actions, we help rid ourselves of esteem-robbing self-reproach and guilt.
  • Apology has the power to humble even the most arrogant. When we develop the courage to admit we are wrong and work past our resistance to apologizing, we develop a deep sense of self-respect.
  • Apologizing helps us remain emotionally connected to our friends and loved ones. Knowing we have wronged someone may cause us to distance ourselves from the person, but once we have apologized we feel freer to be vulnerable and intimate.
  • There is another little-talked-about benefit: Since apologizing usually causes us to feel humiliated, it can also act as a deterrent, reminding us to not repeat the act.

To learn more about empathy, see these Michigan State University Extension articles:

To learn about the positive impact children and families are experience due to Michigan State University Extension programs, read our 2015 Impact Reports: “Preparing young children to success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2015, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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