When we are wronged or do wrong in a relationship an apology is necessary if the relationship is to be repaired. Yet as the song says: ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’ to say. 

I don’t mean the ‘sorry’ which means ‘stop going on about it, I’ve said ‘sorry’. A true apology is when someone really grasps and understands the hurt they have caused to the other person and they show regret and feel remorse at this pain. It is not an uncommon experience for me to sit in my consulting room listening to the distress of the person in front of me and to think what they need is a full and proper apology and the anger would be eased. It is known that when hospitals make proper apologies, the rate of legal action against them drops. So why do we find it so hard to say ‘sorry’?

Humans have a capacity for empathy and the ability to understand and take seriously the feelings of another person is an essential part of our emotional development. When people find it hard to feel or think outside their own emotional needs we call them ‘narcissists’. It isn’t always easy for a person who is narcissistic to make a meaningful apology because it is not obvious to them that the feelings and experiences of others are as important as their own and in the case of their children even more important. Good parents have the capacity to put the needs and feelings of their children first and when it isn’t possible to do this they are able to apologise. Children will forgive you if a proper apology is made.  

Gwen and her husband were divorcing and their two teenage sons were devastated. In the months leading up to their separation Gwen had been depressed and overwhelmed. She found her children difficult and would frequently shout at them. Gwen came into therapy both to get support and find help with managing her unhappiness. As she gradually felt stronger, she came to realise that because of her turmoil she had not been able to be emotionally available to her sons during their time of deep distress. She felt guilty and explained to them how unhappy she had been during this time but this explanation was still about her. What really helped them all was Gwen being able to say how sorry she was that she hadn’t been able to be there for them when they needed her. She could see how abandoned they had felt emotionally.

No one can be perfect but it is important to acknowledge and admit our ‘failures’ when they occur. When something is genuinely recognised, then we can forgive and move on.  

So again, why is it so hard to say ‘sorry’? It is a complex question. I suspect that it is partly based on a notion that we are only loveable when we get it ‘right’ but the truth is that the ability to truly acknowledge fault is far more attractive.

Sue Cowan-Jenssen is a welldoing therapist.