Sorry is what people say…

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In season two of The Morning Show, the main character, Alex, played by Jennifer Aniston, shares how sorry she is feeling for the impact of their actions, only to be slapped with the reply, “Sorry is what people say when they want permission to stop feeling bad”, shortly followed by, “Apology not accepted.”

Apologies and punitive justice:

That response connected me to our culture’s idea of punitive justice, where there is an expectation that people be really sorry before there can be forgiveness. In that model, being sorry consists of feeling bad about themselves and diminishing their self worth. When they have felt sufficiently bad and have been sufficiently punished by outside forces or by themselves, they can be forgiven, and given permission to stop feeling bad.

I have long had the opinion that this kind of thinking perpetuates trauma and pain in the world.

I have long had the opinion that this kind of thinking perpetuates trauma and pain in the world. In punitive justice, when someone makes a mistake or creates harm, harm is bestowed upon them, increasing the amount of harm. Even if harm isn’t applied externally, I think most of us are so well trained to feel bad about ourselves when we make mistakes, that pain in the world still increases by us punishing ourselves.

For example, the same day I saw that episode, I was working with someone who was being told that their behaviour was really hard to take when they complained often to a friend about a mutual friend. He was hearing difficult messages about himself and regretted the impact he had. He was internalizing that message, thinking he’s a bad person. From that energy, he was expressing sorrow.

That apology might have an energy like:

“Oh, I feel terrible shame. I’m sorry that I’m such an awful person who nobody wants to be around. I’m embarrassed and disgusted with myself, so I’ll go hide in my room where nobody else has to suffer my terribly annoying behaviour.”

From my experience and research, if an apology coming from that energy is accepted, there may be a little shift, but likely not a profound and meaningful one. The behaviour will still be hard to take, the person saying they are sorry will probably still feel all that shame, and both people will probably still feel separated. If the apology isn’t accepted, the person who said they were sorry will likely feel even worse. They likely will either diagnose themselves as unworthy of forgiveness or diagnose the other as unkind because they are unforgiving.

Does any of that ring true for you? It does for me, and I think there’s a better way.

A more conscious alternative:

This punitive apology is in contrast to the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) method of expressing regret, which is in alignment with restorative justice. In restorative justice, there is a focus on correcting the wrong instead of punishing. In NVC apologies, we focuses on the needs that were not met, instead of diagnosing people as bad and deserving of punishment.

In NVC apologies, we focuses on the needs that were not met, instead of diagnosing people as bad and deserving of punishment.

The NVC alternative is to consider what needs are not being met for both people involved. In the example above, the person sharing that they don’t like the behaviour may not be getting their needs met for ease and enjoyable connection in this relationship. The person receiving this news may feel regret that they didn’t meet their needs to contribute in a meaningful way, create connection, and to care for the other person’s needs.

An apology from that thinking may have an energy like:

“Oh. Thank you for sharing that with me. It sounds like you’re really frustrated and feel awkward about the way I talk about our mutual friend. You really want it to be a safe place when we talk, safe for you and for our friend. And it sounds like you’re requesting a different kind of connection, where we talk about more positive things.

I’m sad to learn that those needs weren’t being met when you spent time with me, and really appreciate that you care enough to let me know. It’s really important to me to create a safe place for you, and I also want a more happy connection. I regret that I wasn’t meeting either of our needs for enjoyable conversation when I was stuck focusing on negative things.

Would you be willing to help come up with ways for us connect that are more enjoyable for both of us?”

How does that feel compared to the previous example, that came from punitive energy?

Benefits of a conscious apology:

Expressing from that level of awareness will likely create a deeper bond:

  • Thanking the person for sharing their frustration is unexpected, as people expect the usual responses like defence or shame. This unexpected response and energy creates an opening for shifting things.
  • Guessing what they are feeling and needing focuses the attention on them and better possibilities. It also shows you care and have or want a real understanding of the impact of the unwanted behaviour.
  • Sharing sadness that their needs weren’t met lets you express regret without taking on shame and blame.
  • Seeing what they said as a caring expression demonstrates that you see the positive intent behind the frustration.
  • Sharing that it’s important to meet the needs that weren’t being met further demonstrates that you truly care.
  • Ending with a request to work together for a different type of connection shares the responsibility for changing the dynamic and moves things forward in a positive direction.

I’ve seen that it takes a lot of practice and mindfulness to think in this new way, especially in the moment when you have just received some painful feedback about how you are being received. However, it’s worth the practice. Every time I have done role plays to dig into what’s behind an apology with people, this quality of understanding naturally emerges. This makes me confident that this NVC energy is hiding behind every apology.

Bringing it back to The Morning Show, I think saying we’re sorry isn’t what we say when we want permission to stop feeling bad. I see it as a courageous attempt to say we care and want to connect, but I don’t think it’s as effective as we would like. What do you think about this other way to express yourself when you didn’t meet your needs to be who you wanted to be?

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John Reel

Want better relationships? Get in touch for coaching on how to connect on a deeper, life-affirming level. I’m trained in Nonviolent Communication mediation, and on the path to NVC trainer certification. I'm also a coach, currently training to specialize in relationships.