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November 18, 2015

When "Sorry" Isn't Enough

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about how to apologize. One of the points in that article was that apologies are meaningful only if they are sincere.

One measure of sincerity is whether or not there is true remorse. Some people say they feel remorse, but what they really feel is just regret at having been caught doing something wrong. They feel bad for themselves because they may have to face someone else's anger, and there may be some kind of unpleasant consequences or a penalty to pay. Maybe they even wish they hadn't done whatever it was they did, but only because they don't like paying the price.

True remorse leads to the resolve not to repeat the offense. The person who says, "Sorry," and then does the same thing again and again is not sincere. People like this have not learned from their mistakes, or perhaps they have learned that they can use apologies to keep getting away with things -- at least up to a point. Eventually, people simply stop believing them.

True remorse requires empathy for those who were harmed by one's actions. We have to be able to understand someone else's pain and to feel some of that pain ourselves. If we can do that, then our regret is not just for ourselves, but also for the other person. Empathy has the power to enlighten us, to expand our awareness beyond our own concerns, so that we become less likely to do regrettable things, because we can predict and care about the likely outcome of our behavior.

Mignon McLaughlin wrote that "True remorse is never just regret over consequence; it is a regret over motive." The genuinely remorseful person feels regret over his or her failure of character, the greed, laziness, carelessness, or selfishness that caused harm to another. He or she wishes to be a better person, a person who would do the right thing whether or not there was a chance of being caught. At its best, remorse teaches us what we need to do to be better people and live better lives.

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