Apologizing as a Developmental Stage

Why is it so hard to apologize?

Posted Dec 06, 2017

Apologies, and the lack of them, seem to be at the center of the responses to allegations that range from rape and child molestation to various forms of sexual harassment or just vile behavior against President Trump, Judge Roy Moore, Senator Al Franken, Representative John Conyers, Jr., Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer….and the list goes on.

Dustin Hoffman is one of several movie stars accused of sexually inappropriate behavior. During a panel moderated by John Oliver for a 20th-anniversary screening of "Wag the Dog" at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Hoffman said, “I have the utmost respect for women and feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation. I am sorry, it is not reflective of who I am.”

Oliver challenged Hoffman’s apology saying that to say that bad behavior is “not reflective of who I am” is a dismissal of the hurt it caused. There are several elements of dismissal in Hoffman’s apology, not just that. Of course, Oliver is right.
How can someone’s behavior not be reflective of who they are? All of our behaviors are reflective of who we are! What else can they be?

But there is more that undermines Hoffman’s so-called apology. He says, “anything I might have done.” That implies he might not have done it. So he is not taking responsibility for what he did. Worst of all, the so-called “apology” is all about him.

As I mentioned in an earlier post on this subject, “A full apology involves two elements: taking responsibility for playing some part in the other person's hurt and being sorry the other person is hurting. An even better apology has a third element: an explanation of your motives or situation.” Dustin Hoffman is sorry the other person was “made uncomfortable” but does not take responsibility or explain his motives or situation.

Glenn Thrush, a New York Times reporter accused of unwanted advances toward young journalists and Kevin Spacey, an actor accused of making aggressive sexual advances toward a 14-year-old boy, both excused their behavior by saying they were drunk at the time. Being drunk does not excuse sexual harassment or child molesting. Harriet Lerner calls these type of apologies “faux apologies.”

What makes it so difficult to apologize? What is so hard about saying, “I did that and it was horrible; I’m sorry I hurt you; I have no excuse.” In my experience, being able to apologize is rare. Yet it is a central aspect of being an integrated person.

Being able to fully apologize requires a high level of ego development; you have to be able to tolerate the bad as well as the good in yourself. That’s hard. Many people defend against feeling bad about themselves because they cannot hold on to anything good if they do. They split themselves into “good” and “bad” and never fully integrate the two. They cannot accept being a mixed package. Hence, apologizing is not possible because it’s too dangerous to feel you are a bad person.

Jordan Whitt/unsplash
Source: Jordan Whitt/unsplash

Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein called this stage of development in children “the depressive position.” She thought it occurred very early but current thinking is that children are five or six years old before they can understand they have caused pain, feel empathy for the other and feel guilt. Guilt involves feeling bad about yourself because you’ve done something you feel is wrong in contrast to shame, which involves other people seeing or knowing what you’ve done. Many children never master this developmental stage and, as adults, cannot accept responsibility for hurting someone else without losing their sense of self. That makes them unable to truly apologize.

Sadly, the inability to apologize is not only hurtful to the person you’ve hurt, it is also destructive to yourself because the process of apologizing allows one to accept the bad and the good and forgive yourself. It builds the core of the self and makes a person feel stronger and more resilient while the inability to do so leaves one brittle and vulnerable.

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