The Power of an Apology

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About three years ago, I got a Facebook friend request from an old school acquaintance. We had known each other from first grade all the way through college, but it would have been something of a stretch to say we had been friends. I was one of those bookish, shy, utterly unathletic types — an easy target for more rough-and-tumble kids. I was pummeled on a fairly regular basis throughout my early years, and threatened with it almost daily. This girl was one of my more dreaded nemeses.

But all that was more than 30 years ago, water under the bridge, and I felt comfortable clicking the “accept” button. I was curious as to how her story turned out.

After we made the connection, we said “hi” over Messenger.

And then, unbidden, she apologized for how she had treated me when we were kids.

It wasn’t something I would have ever asked for. But once I saw the words on the screen, I realized how much I needed it. With those words, my classmate acknowledged that I had been wronged all those years ago. It gave me emotional space to forgive something I didn’t even consciously realize I was hanging onto.

Apologies are essential to how we relate to each other as human beings. It’s impossible to go through life without hurting others…or being hurt. These wrongs cause psychological wounds — ranging from tiny insults to major blows — and when we don’t acknowledge that we’ve done someone a wrong, we make it even worse.

“An apology won’t stop the conflict or erase the wounding,” says Mimi O’Connor at Ornish Living. “However, it can soften the pain and it often has the power to stop the emotional bleeding.”

That said, it has to be sincere. People have a pretty good feel for when an apology is forced, or less than heartfelt. Studies have shown that being on the receiving side of an apology can actually lower a person’s blood pressure — unless they feel like it’s an act. You can’t fake it. It has to come from a place of real remorse.

Apologizing benefits the giver as much as the receiver. It’s not an easy thing to do, because we have to admit that we’ve done something hurtful. But when we apologize, we’re taking responsibility for our actions. It deepens our sense of humility and empathy. It can help us move past shame and self-recrimination.

In the end, I turned out fine, and my classmate turned out fine. That would have been the case even if we’d never crossed paths again. But having settled that past feels good. After some forty years of knowing each other, I’m proud to consider her a true friend.

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