I recently watched a woman doing forgiveness therapy using what is known as “the empty chair” technique. To an onlooker it might seem quite insane.
The technique was popularised by German-born psychiatrist Fritz Perls, one of the founders of the Gestalt therapy movement. An empty chair faces a client who imagines someone in it and begins a confronting dialogue under the guidance of the therapist
In this instance, the woman “Alice” began to address the invisible person who was her father. She said a lot of things to the chair, sobbing, crying, emoting, while a group of us sat in silence giving her support. A little later, she swapped places and sat in Dad’s chair. Reversing roles and seeing it through the other person’s eyes is part of the ritual.
As she “became” and channelled her father, she told the chair that was Alice what had happened and why. There was a lot of faltering, as Alice struggled to explain the things that had transpired for him at the time. As an observer, I thought of how it was quite miraculous how much we “know” at an unconscious level about those we love (and hate). On it went. Until finally the moment we had all been waiting for:
“Alice, I never meant to hurt you. I’m so sorry for the pain I caused. I’m sorry for what happened to you since.”
Changing back to her seat again, Alice held her head in her hands and wept. Then she bravely looked back at the chair and said: “I accept your apology, Dad. I know you were doing the best you could, you were doing what you knew to do.”
At that point we all got up and hugged Alice and everyone cried. But the energy in the room was lighter because of the uttering of that most powerful word, “Sorry”. It was spoken with genuine grief and shame, in a way that can cut through ice and years of pain. And though her late father was not there to say it, Alice was able to forgive decades of grief and pain in a moment.
The afternoon proved to me there is nothing as powerful as a heartfelt apology.
Not the petulant ones our children give us looking like they’re chewing a spider: “Mum, enough! I said I’m sorry!”; or the curled-lip apologies we get from our partners: “What do you want from me? I’m sorry, OK? (not)” Or the ones used as a get-out-of-jail-free pass so bad behaviour can be repeated. But the genuine ones.
A friend recently looked me in the eye and repeated back everything I said had upset me, before apologising. It profoundly altered my relationship with her. To feel really heard and seen enabled me to let go of all grievances. Her courage shone through.
Psychologists believe the word “sorry” offered or received sincerely has the magic of a releasing spell. Alice tells me that hearing (even in her mind) her father’s apology has shifted a lot of rage and she feels untied from the past.
On a neuroscience level, it can act like a circuit breaker, allowing the brain to rewire by creating new neuro-pathways that bypass the links associating a person or situation with threat, providing relief. “Sorry” releases feel-good chemicals in the reward centre of the brain. It has the power to restore friendship, alleviate anxiety, bolster self worth, and recreate a sense of safety.
In his book On Apology, psychiatrist and authority on the psychology of shame and humiliation, Aaron Lazare, writes: “Apologies have the power to heal humiliations, free the mind from deep-seated guilt, remove the desire for vengeance, and ultimately restore broken relationships.”
He writes that an effective apology can heal on many important levels. It can aid in the restoration of dignity when someone has been insulted. It can be a validation that the victim was not responsible, as in rape and child abuse cases when the victim irrationally blames themself. It can provide assurance that the offended party is safe from a repeat offence — such as in racial vilification. It offers reparation as the victim receives a form of compensation for his or her pain even if it’s just to see the perpetrator suffer. It helps the victim grieve their loss, including loss of face.
But he writes that apologies are useful only if done correctly. Not “the pseudo-apology of ‘I’m sorry that you are upset with me’ rather than ‘I’m sorry I hurt you’ ”. Bad or botched apologies can ruin relationships and create grudges.
A good apology is a work of art. The anatomy is as follows:
First, you have to acknowledge that the terms, moral norms or values of the relationship were violated, and you have to accept responsibility for it.
You need to name the offence and show you understand exactly what damage was done. No generalities like, “I’m sorry for what I have done”. Rather, the visceral specifics: “I betrayed you by telling Jenny your secret” or “I didn’t come to your mum’s funeral”. The sufferer’s concerns cannot be trivialised.
The third ingredient to a successful apology is an explanation for why you committed the offence. Not by way of feeble excuse — rather to distance yourself from aberrant behaviour that you are sincerely ashamed of. You may offer that you were ill, intoxicated, irrationally jealous, tired or deranged with love. The implication is “I won’t do it again”. The victim should feel safe with you now and in the future.
Personally, I am slotting in timing. Some things can’t wait. But in other circumstances the apology must wait until the receiver can receive it.
Lazare, who died last year, writes: “A good apology also has to make you suffer. You have to express genuine, soul-searching regret for your apology to be taken as sincere.” He says that by communicating anxiety and sadness, it demonstrates that the potential loss of the relationship matters to you. Guilt tells the offended person that you’re distressed over hurting him or her. And shame communicates your disappointment with yourself.