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When an Apology Does More Harm Than Good

It happened again on Monday. Andy Pettitte apologized to everyone and to no one for his use of human growth hormone.

Still, the New York Yankee went on to explain that he simply used HGH to recover from an elbow injury and not to gain an advantage over other baseball players and therefore did not consider himself a cheater.

An apology can do wonders for the human psyche.

For one, it can boost the feelings of good will in the minds of both the one giving the apology and those on the receiving end of it.

But what about empty apologies? Do they make anyone feel better?

Not really. In fact, they may do more harm than good. Still, empty apologies are given by celebrities and even regular folks quite often.

A few weeks ago, for example, Dr. Phil began his television show with some well-chosen words following an ill-fated and much talked about trip to see Britney Spears during her first stay in a Los Angeles hospital mental ward.

Instead of his usual introduction of light-hearted empathy mixed with an element of judgmental hostility, he spoke about himself and his actions in a recent entertainment news scandal. Although he avoided using the A-word — except to say that he was absolutely not doing it — to the untrained ear, he did, in fact, seem to be doing it: Apologizing.

The details of his apology are irrelevant, except for the fact that he seemed to admit responsibility for his actions while simultaneously denying that he should have done anything differently. But the motive and effect of this humble Hollywood near-apology is worthy of a close-up.

As children, we first learn to apologize around the same time that we learn to lie. Why? Well, both require intent, or acceptance of responsibility of your actions. But both also require the child to know what the other person wants to hear, or what is expected of them. An apology, then, isn’t innocent or even necessarily self-sacrificing. And in an industry governed by publicists and financed by the all-mighty image, is it any wonder that an apology has become as good as a blank check?

What is an apology? In theory an apology is three words: I (my fault, my responsibility) am (feel, think, be) sorry (regret, remorse, guilt). Of course, possession of an adequate thesaurus or genuine emotions can result in countless elaborations and meaningful moments that surround the apology. But until recently an apology has always gone back to the same general concept: I take responsibility for the actions that have hurt you.

There is something that has become disingenuous about a Hollywood apology. Why am I being apologized to? Did Dr. Phil hurt me? No, that was his professional reputation, which is likely to bounce back quite quickly among the public and more slowly in the psychological community.

What about Barry Bonds and Marion Jones? They apologized to me, but did they hear what I had to say in return? How about Michael Vick, did he hurt me? He hurt his freedom, his arrest record, possibly his football career, and several innocent animals (none of whom are likely to accept his apology). Oh yeah, and his media image, he hurt that too.

The list of public figures hopping on the apology bandwagon is astounding. We have heard from the bad drunks (David Hasselhoff, Pat O’Brien), the celebs that insist they can drive (Mischa Barton, Paris Hilton, Michelle Rodriguez) and those that surprise us with their racist rants (Michael Richards, Don Imus, Mel Gibson). We have seen the follies of youth in Lindsay Lohan and Tara Conner, and then proof from Sean Young that impulsive, inebriated actions have no age restrictions.

It seems that instead of religious confessions, public figures now seek salvation from a microphone and a press conference.

But here’s the thing: Although I imagine an apology was involved, I don’t know what Tom Brady said to Bridget Moynihan when he found out she was pregnant as their relationship was dissolving. And despite the fact I’d bet my life that the word “sorry” was uttered, I don’t know what was said between Bruce Willis and Demi Moore as they were going through their divorce. Because I don’t need to.

The apology wasn’t issued to me; it was between a man and the mother of his baby, and a couple who realized that they couldn’t make a life together. And in neither case did the sentiment come from the instructions of a savvy publicist. A genuine apology should be intimate, emotional and heartfelt. It is a moment between two people that care about each other. It is often poignant, painful, and thought-provoking all at once. And although this may disappoint the media and eager fans, this means that a true apology should probably take place behind closed doors.

As a child, the real apology came when you accidentally kicked your best friend instead of the soccer ball, not when your mother held you by the hand and mandated those words.

The problem with the Hollywood apology is that it steals the power from the words and the emotions from the intimate experience. Instead, an apology is reduced to words “mommified” by a prudent publicist instead of an exchange rife with the sadness of regret.

The separation between public statements and private feelings may soon get lost, and sooner or later we will stop hearing how our loved ones really feel, and instead expect only a sound bite when we are wronged. The power of the apology and the difficulty of having to own up for your actions will be lost. And what then?

Apparently there’s only one thing to do when a public apology fails: go to rehab and give that whole apology thing a try again in another thirty days.

Dr. Lindsay Weisner is a licensed clinical psychologist.