When someone seriously harms us, the results can be devastating, especially when it’s intentional. Whether it’s a single event or years of abuse, the outcome can hinder or even eliminate the ability to achieve a happy and fulfilling life.
In the days and years that follow a traumatic event, a victim may feel overwhelmed with negative emotions such as rage, humiliation, misplaced guilt, a sense of betrayal, and a burning need for justice. However, even when justice is seen to be done, if the perpetrator does not show sincere remorse, it is rarely enough to promote real healing.
In her TED Talk, playwright and activist Eve Ensler describes her lived experience of child abuse and the decades she spent yearning for an apology that never came. She describes how later in life, in an attempt to heal herself, she wrote the apology she wished she had received from her father. That difficult process uncovered what she asserts are the four vital elements of an authentic apology.
Say what you did, in detail.
An authentic apology starts with the wrongdoer describing what they did. This confirms that what the victim said happened, did happen. Phrases such as “I’m sorry if I hurt you” or “I’m sorry you feel this way” are vague and suggest the victim does not have cause to feel the way they do. Passive language such as “what happened was wrong” is also commonplace in insincere apologies as is “I made a mistake” which suggests the hurt was an accident rather than a choice. Much better would be stating exactly what was done, for example, “I hit you and called you terrible names” and “I was unfaithful to you and betrayed the commitment we made to each other”.
Examine why you did what you did.
This is important, Ensler asserts, because survivors are haunted by the “why?”. In her case, she learned that her father had endured a very unhappy childhood during which he was never allowed to be his true self or express emotion. Finally, his decades of repressed feelings metastasized and he directed his torrent of anger at her, his eldest daughter. Knowing what might have contributed to the abuse does not mean it should be excused. However, it may help the victim deal with the legacy of the horrendous actions foisted upon them which previously seemed unfathomable.
Open your heart and feel how your victim felt.
The third component of an authentic apology requires the wrongdoer to get into their victim’s shoes. They must ask themselves how their victim must have felt as they were hurting them — the horror and the betrayal — and how deeply damaging their behaviour must surely be over the long term. It means “letting your heart break,” says Ensler, “you have to sit with the suffering you have caused”.
Take responsibility and make amends.
No apology can be authentic without this final step. The wrongdoer must accept responsibility for their actions, tell their victim that, and try to make amends.
So why would anyone want to go through such a grueling and humbling process asks Ensler. They should do it, she says, because it is the only way to set the victim free, and it is the only way to set themself free. She argues that the wrongdoer didn’t just destroy the victim, they destroyed themself. No one, she says, enacts violence on another person without suffering the effects themself. “It creates an incredibly dark and contaminating spirit that spreads throughout your entire life,” says Ensler, and while our first instinct may be to punish, without a truly authentic apology it is difficult for healing to begin.