I can count the number of truly transformative moments in my life on one hand – maybe two if I think hard enough. A few of them involve the births of my children, not surprisingly, and another seeing myself through the eyes of someone I love. But the most powerful of them, hands down, was the day my mom said she was sorry.
When it happened, we were sitting in our therapist’s office, my mom twirling the straw of her soda between her fingers. She was quiet at first, which wasn’t typical, and I could feel a difference in the energy that existed in the space between us.
This was round two of family therapy for the two of us, the previous episode being almost decade before. The first time, an older, wiser friend had urged me to get my mom in therapy with me. In what I took as a loving encouragement and an urgent warning, she had said it was the best thing that I could do for myself and my future children. I’d asked my mom if she was willing, and we met Deborah a few weeks later.
In this new season of life, we were back on Deborah’s couch again, some of the dynamics that had plagued us before getting reactivated by recent changes in our family. It had been several weeks of round two, and I was finding myself more and more skeptical that things could ever really change between us. With decades having worn smooth the grooves of feelings and patterns, it seemed unlikely.
Not to mention I’d spent the last several years trying to convince myself that I didn’t actually need anything from this woman. Sure, it would be great to have a closer connection, but look at this life I had built without it. The self-empowerment culture was urging me to remove her from life anyway. You get to make your own family, it reassured me.
But what I knew at a cellular level was that the absence of a mother – even for the sake of self-protection – was never without grief.
So when Deborah invited me to tell my mom about how I experienced a profound hurt while growing up, I did so tentatively at first. Parts of me were yelling loudly for me to stop, that she would never understand, that I would end up invalidated and more wounded. But because, I think, I trusted that Deborah would hold my emotions even if my mom couldn’t, I spoke.
When I stopped, I braced myself internally for my mom to defend herself and for the familiar flood of guilt to subsume me. But this time, she didn’t. She had tears in her eyes when she looked at me, and I could feel that she wasn’t trying to protect herself. In this moment, she felt safe enough to keep her energy focused on me. “That must have been so hard for you,” she said.
And then she apologized. It wasn’t elaborate, and it didn’t really need to be. She didn’t rattle off excuses about how hard things were for her at the time and she didn’t try to make me feel like my reaction was overblown. She simply said that she was sorry and that she loved me. And I wept.
That’s the day things changed.
For all of the brain studies out there, we don’t have very many that have looked at what happens in the process of an apology. What we do have though suggests that they are, in fact, as meaningful as they seem.
So far, scientists have watched as the brain regions most associated with empathy light up when someone receives an apology, helping them start to piece together the interactional process. It seems that when someone apologizes to us, our brain lets us tap into the apologizer’s feelings and empathize. When we can feel some of what they feel, we experience a sense of compassion that can, in some cases, allow forgiveness to happen.
Forgiveness isn’t always on the table, and one could debate if it even should be for all transgressions. But the cool thing is that whether we reach a state of forgiveness is less important than how we are affected by receiving an apology. Scientists know we are changed at least in the moment. I know we can be changed for a lifetime.
I participated in a training a few years back on facilitating therapeutic apologies for clients. You might be surprised at how much skill is involved in facilitating this without doing harm. Or maybe you wouldn’t be surprised. Apologies are certainly tricky.
The training covered how to engage family members or couples in offering a healing apology to one another, but it also addressed how to help someone get an apology from someone they would never get in real life. The person they’ve been aggrieved by might be long deceased, geographically remote, or just seemingly incapable of offering what’s needed.
How this works is that the therapy client essentially plays two roles: the role of self and the role of the person who caused hurt. They switch chairs for dramatic effect (and for psychological reasons, too) as they alternate between these two roles. As themselves, they share the hurt that they experienced with the empty chair in front them. Then the switch, and as the perpetrator of the hurt they offer the most sincere, heartfelt apology that they can. There’s more back and forth that happens, and, when done well, there’s almost always tears.
No one’s been hooked up to a brain scanner while doing this, as far as I know, but my best guess is that it works because it activates the exact same neurological process as in an apology with a real person. Even when we’re the one technically saying the apology to ourselves, our brains’ empathy systems light up and a release occurs.
Two things happen, in my estimation. Frist, we feel the other person’s acknowledgement of our pain. And I’ll say until the end of time – at the end of the day, we all just want to be seen and known. Even if the other person can’t take back or away what we experienced – knowing they know and see the harm helps us feel whole again. It also lets us release ourselves from the underground belief that the harm was actually our fault.
And second, we feel something for the other person. Maybe it’s not forgiveness, per se. We could call it empathy or understanding, perhaps. But in that moment, despite even our best defenses, our hearts soften just a bit toward this other person and we see them as just as broken and as fallible and – perhaps – as human as we are. And in that moment, we are brought back to our own humanity as well.
And this can all happen with just an empty chair. Therapy is weird.
A few days ago, we had a really rough morning at my house. After a series of difficult days, my kids and I had spent the early hours in a particularly frustrating struggle to get out the door. My youngest son had nominated himself as the Unruly Kid of the Week. He didn’t want to go to school. He didn’t want to get dressed. He didn’t want to eat breakfast or speak to me or essentially do anything that would make my life a half percent easier.
After getting the other kids secured in the car, he was still inside with a yogurt pouch running from room to room. It was somewhere between watching yogurt spray all over the floor and my other kids yelling from the car that I most officially lost it. I yelled at him in a voice that didn’t even sound like my own. I got closer to him with my finger pointing in his face, screaming that he had to listen to me.
I snapped back into myself when he burst into tears. His small body crumpled to the floor and then mine did as well. “I’m sorry,” I whispered through my own tears, my overwhelm spilling out of my body. I reached out my arms to him, wanting to let him know I was here, but that I also understood if he didn’t want to be close right now. He crawled into my lap.
“Mom yelled really loud and you felt scared, and that’s not okay,” I told him. “I wasn’t handling my feelings well and I’m sorry. You’re a good kid, and I’m sorry.” We cried there together for a few moments as I rocked him back and forth. I felt such profound shame for scaring him when my core value is to be his safe space. I was caught in this spiral of my own deep regret when he snuggled in even closer. “It’s okay,” he said softly.
We were very late to school.
In the therapeutic apology training I mentioned, Dr. Adele LaFrance kept driving home how hardwired we are to restore connection. The group of clinicians I was with lodged scenario after scenario at her, trying to show that there are just some situations in which repair just couldn’t happen – or might even be detrimental.
“What about when there’s been abuse?” someone asked.
“Even then,” she said.**
“What about when the parent was abusing drugs and never there?” someone asked.
“Even then,” she said.
Situation after situation – some of the most brutal you can conceive of – Dr. LaFrance remained steadfast.
Repair, she told us, is always possible.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about relationships – whether we’re talking about parent-child, friendships, or intimate partnerships – is that they are comprised of a series of ruptures and repairs.
Some relationships end up being cut short because the repair never happens, while the very best and strongest relationships weave in and out of rupture and repair process.
If there’s two things I’ve learned about relationships – it’s that it’s never too late for an apology.
**Note that repair work can only be done when someone is no longer in threat. As long as a child or person is at risk of continued harm, this is not possible or safe.