The Blog

I'm Sorry

We read and hear a lot about the importance of the balm of forgiveness, how it heals the giver and as well as the given too. But I think we don't think enough about the power of of asking for forgiveness, to knit together what feels irretrievably broken.
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Many years ago I viewed a documentary on a PBS channel that addressed the effects of the Holocaust on the second generation, children born of concentration camp survivors. Much has been written and studied on the effects on the second and even third generation of survivors of the Holocaust. The secondary wounding of offspring of trauma survivors, whether they be survivors of war, concentration camp or childhood trauma are well documented.

It must have been in the mid '80s that I watched a PBS documentary on the relationship between adult children and their parents, Holocaust survivors all. It was fascinating and heartbreaking. Engraved on my memory over the intervening decades is one scene in particular.

In the film, adult "children" were discussing with their parents what it had been like for them to be shut out of their parents' experience and/or to be victimized secondarily by it. There were poignant dialogues between the generations. Among other things, the younger adults had felt that their own suffering, their own experiences of pain were never quite as valid as the horrors and loss that their parents had suffered. Some felt it fell to them to redeem, to heal their parents.

The scene that has stayed with me was a unique one. One daughter tearfully addressed her mother with her suffering. The mother, who had been a child during the Holocaust, and clearly unaware of the effect her experiences had had on her daughter, was at a loss, initially, as to how to respond. Finally she said, "I'm sorry, I'm really, really sorry." More than any other words intoned in those dialogues, those words held the most power.

Viewers witnessed the potential for repair in that very moment.

I've held on to this scene in the intervening decades and even shared the story with patients who clearly were in need of having this kind of validation in their own lives. It is both a phrase that I have not heard enough in my own life and one that I have employed far too sparingly myself. Two words that we all long for.

We read and hear a lot about the importance of the balm of forgiveness, how it heals the giver and as well as the given too. But I think we don't think enough about the power of of asking for forgiveness, to knit together what feels irretrievably broken. Forgiveness is a hard nut to crack -- that is, offering forgiveness that isn't a thinly disguised form of denial. But we can all apologize for wrongs we have committed. An attuned apology is not necessarily asking for forgiveness but rather an expression of empathy, compassion, "heart feeling" for the person we have wronged in some way, or at least they have perceived a wrong and have been wounded.

It happens sometimes in my clinical practice that an angry client confronts me with some way in which I have hurt them. Maybe I have been too blunt, insensitive, or just plain wrong. My timing has been lousy. Sometimes I'm not guilty, but more often than not I am. At least a little. After years of trying to explain, clarify, interpret, really to defend myself, I have come to realize that it is all a waste of time. A simple, but "attuned" apology is what is called for here. Whatever my motive or the context for my misstep, I have hurt someone.

This is sometimes difficult in the midst of an attack -- an angry, no holds bar, maybe even abusive client is not someone easy to apologize to. But there is always time for the interpretation, the exploration, and the meaning of the attack. In the moment, "I'm sorry" may be the only way to get back on track.

Recently a client shared with me what was a pivotal moment for him. He was berating me for a misstep, which he had done before, and hinted strongly that he was seriously considering leaving therapy. I asked: Do you want to repair the rent in our relationship? Stopped in his tracks by the question he had to admit that that was indeed a novel idea, "repair." He had never witnessed it within his own family. Either a violent argument was forgotten, denied, disowned or it "broke" the relationship forever. The notion of repair was alien. Eventually he replied in the affirmative, yes he wanted to see if this relationship could be fixed. I offered an apology and he was able to re-join the collaboration and let go of the all too familiar role of wounded adversary.

Dan Siegel, the interpersonal neurobiology psychiatrist, clinician, and researcher makes the important point in a recent publication: the ability to initiate repair requires a certain humility, an acceptance that we are imperfect.

It is part of being human to contribute to disruptions in connections with others. Yet processes like shame can keep us from freely acknowledging our role and making a repair to reconnect with the other person. These impediments to repair can severely constrain the health of a relationship (The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology).

In other words, my general tendency to defend my actions was probably rooted in an expectation of myself that I would never wrong a patient. "Mistakes might be made," but never by me!

I will let Rumi, the 13th Century Sufi poet summarize for me:

Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing
There is a field.
I'll meet you there.