The Difference Between Explaining & Apologizing

(N.B. What follows is inspired by an article, regrettably no longer available online, that’s inspired many to write about these and related topics: McWilliams, N., Lependorf, S. (1990). Narcissistic Pathology of Everyday Life: The Denial of Remorse & Gratitude. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 26:430-451)

Here’s the situation: someone says or does something that annoys, bothers, hurts, or offends you, after which they “apologize.” But then an interesting thing happens. You don’t feel any better. In fact, you may even feel worse.

You may notice your self-esteem decreasing as a result of the entire affair. You may tell yourself you’re being petulant, childish, spiteful, or “too sensitive.” You could be right, of course (sometimes we just are), in which case it’s useful to lift the value judgments off the condition in question, and tend to it the way you’d tend to a cut, scrape, or any other medical condition.

But you could also be wrong. These are not mutually exclusive propositions, by the way; both could be going on at the same time. That is to say, your feeling of discomfort may actually be trying to tell you something other than “you need repair.”

One tip off in this direction is if you find yourself angrier towards the “apologizer” as a result of their “apology.” If you’re not at fault, then what gives?

Let’s look at what an apology is and isn’t, from the standpoint of the British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Mrs Klein theorized that when people hurt one another, inadvertently or otherwise, there exists a real (not “imagined” or “imaginary”) injury. She further theorized that what healthy people do when they hurt someone is make reparations: some attempt to make the situation right.

Suppose I say something that really gets under your skin, in the heat of an argument and/or casually, out of utter ignorance. Let’s say you tell me, or it becomes unmistakably clear from your expression that I’ve said something hurtful.

Situation A: I tell you that I misspoke, that what I really meant to say was X and that no offense was meant. I say “I apologize if there was any misunderstanding that may have caused pain in any way.” Then I say that if you’re still upset, it’s because you’re taking what I said the wrong way. Come on, I say, buck up and “get over it.” I may or may not imply that this is what grownups like myself do all the time.

Situation B: I ask you what I said or did that hurt you. You tell me. Regardless of whether I understand the connection between my words or actions and your pain, I say, “I’m sorry.” I look you in the eye, if you’ll let me. If not, that’s ok too, and I can go on to say I want to make it up to you, because you matter to me. Then I follow through.

Ok, now compare how you feel between Situations A & B. Unless you’re extraordinarily suspicious in and of human relations in general, Situation B tends to feel better. Why? Well, for a number of reasons.

First, you’re taken seriously as a person and an equal in the interaction. In A, I have what I call the epistemic advantage, and I’m not willing (or able) to share that with you. Epistemic advantage is the authority to interpret experience, but most especially the experience of others. If I have epistemic advantage over you (which means you give it to me, however unconsciously), then what I say about you and your feelings has far more weight than anything you can come up with.

If I don’t, then that means each of us are equally authorized to interpret the world of experience, but that you remain the authority of what’s going on inside you. If we grew up with parents or in an environment where we, our thoughts, words, and feelings were taken seriously, then this is second nature. If not, then we automatically entrust others with the epistemic advantage.

Now if you’re the kind of person who’s accustomed to giving the epistemic advantage to others, then you’re still likely to think this is all your fault (hence the drop in self-regard). That is, you’ll think – and deeply believe – that what’s really going on is that you’re a bad person for harboring injustices, not letting bygones be bygones, or being, you know, “sensitive.”

Not that there’s anything wrong in any way with the “apologizer” or her/his “apology.” No, you see, because once that person achieves the epistemic high ground they’re in a position to interpret experience more authoritatively than you. And yes, that goes for your own experience most of all.

Put another way, it’s not what you’re feeling that counts (because, of course “you don’t”), it’s what they’re feeling that really matters. And if they say you shouldn’t be feeling upset anymore, then they must be right, and you must be wrong for feeling upset.

Secondly, your injury is taken seriously. It’s not belittled, disparaged, or dismissed as imaginary or childish. To take an extreme example, imagine writhing with chest pain in an ER. Under those circumstances, it helps a lot to have a doctor who thinks there’s something the matter with which she can help.

Injuries that aren’t acknowledged can’t be healed but only covered up, in which case they fester – emotional injuries perhaps more so than physical ones. This is why some “apologies” leave us angrier than before: because they’re implicit rejections of the validity of our experience. In legalese, they most often come in the form of subjunctive, or “if” statements: “if anyone was offended, if any harm was caused.”

As if that were ever in question.

Thirdly, some real effort is made at reparation, or healing. It can be a cupcake, a note, or sometimes even a smile. And the relationship heals, which means, among other things, you may feel closer to or trust the person who hurt you more. Those on the other end who grew up in an environment where they and/or their words were taken less than fully seriously will tell you just acknowledging you f**ed up goes a long, long way.

Now if B is so much better, why doesn’t everyone do it? Put another way, why do some folks go with B instead of A? We have to shift away from Melanie Klein here and towards someone named Heinz Kohut for the answer, which is because they can.

That is to say, some folks – because of the way they were raised or some innate gift – have enough of a certain psychological commodity in their own bank to be able to use it to repay the people they hurt. This commodity is most commonly known as respect. And being grownups, they know that hurting people is as avoidable as breathing air, so they have some practice in the art of dishing out respect and making amends.

If you’re short on respect, then you’re holding on to whatever quantities you have and are very reluctant to share it with others. You may need to put other people down in order to feel good about yourself. You may need to “command” respect, which is often shorthand for taking it away from others (in as socially appropriate a way as possible, of course). Some folks also need to excel for this reason (as opposed to, say, a pure and total love affair with what they’re doing, which is infectious).

When someone is low on respect, they’re having enough of a hard time giving it to themselves to even consider giving away or even lending any. They’re just not convinced that they’ll get anything in return for their investment, so they hog things like the upper hand, the last word (“bottom line” is a common catchphrase here) or the epistemic advantage whenever they can.

This is the kind of person who can never be wrong, ask for help (or directions), or acknowledge that they hurt someone because this damages their image of themselves as perfect. They protect this image the way someone in the throes of an addiction protects their supply of their preferred substance: fiercely.

So when you get upset over something they do, you hurt them. How? Well, by hurting their image as someone incapable of harming others. The more (publicly) you hurt, the harder it is for that person to maintain the illusion of perfection. Thus you must be dealt with, by being ignored, marginalized, or disparaged.

This is why, when you’re hurt, it becomes all about them. As a moral point, it shouldn’t be. But as an emotional reality, it just is, and we can often make matters a lot worse for ourselves by demanding people be (or pretending that they are) healthier or better put together than they actually are (in the moment).

This is also, I think, is the central dynamic behind the Vatican’s slow response to the sexual abuse crisis. In psychological terms, it’s the inability to apologize because too much energy is being directed towards maintaining an image. In Christian terms, it’s an inability to acknowledge the sin of the Church so that grace can come in and do the unbelievably hard work of healing (I don’t suspect converted Catholics invest this power in a Holy Spirit for nothing).

When we can’t apologize, we explain instead. We explain what we really meant, how grownups behave, or what’s “really going on” for the benefit of all concerned.

When we’re strong enough to do so, we apologize, which means acknowledging our imperfections and the reality of conflict and pain, and taking responsibility for fixing that which we broke. We let explanation come later, if at all.

Notice that you can apologize effectively (as measured by the strength and health of a relationship) even if you feel you’re done nothing wrong. All that matters, in this case, is that someone else did and that you may very well be in a position to do something about it. In those rare cases when you’re not, then as painful as that fact may be, you can still live with it without disparaging another or their experience.

Oh, and to make things more complicated, guess where the word apology comes from. The Greek ἀπολογην (apologēn) means, of all things, to explain. Go figure. 🙂


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