Written By: Rebecca Hirsch, AMFT
Symmetry Counseling Chicago
It is safe to say that we have all been hurt or angry at someone important to us before, whether it is a partner, a friend, a parent, or someone else who holds value in our lives. Often times when we feel hurt, we hold on to a lot of anger, resentment, hurt, and frustration. We also may behave in ways we normally do not, such as yell, act out, become passive aggressive, or ruminate on past issues. As humans, when we hold on to that much emotion and unresolved anger and sadness, it has negative impacts on our mood, health, and overall wellbeing. New studies are showing us that unresolved and bottled-up anger and resentment can lead to anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and increased risk of heart attacks. When people discuss how being angry or hating someone uses more energy than letting things go, they are referring to the phenomenon shown in these studies: the power of acceptance and forgiveness. When we bottle up all of that anger and hate inside, the only person we end up hurting is ourselves.
Apologizing as well as accepting and requesting forgiveness are often major themes in couples therapy. Couples will often come to counseling with deeply rooted anger and pain that usually has not be addressed successfully. I will often hear a hurt partner say, “I just want you to take responsibility for your actions and apologize.” In contrast, I will hear the other partner say, “I have already apologized a million times, how long will I be punished for a mistake I made so long ago?” In a common dynamic like this one, there are two major components at play: a sincere apology and the ability to accept and forgive.
If you are the apologizing partner, or the partner requesting forgiveness, the first step is to be able to give a sincere and genuine apology. Apologies that may not seem genuine may sound like, “I’m sorry you feel that way” or just saying “Sorry”. We often feel left in the dark with how to apologize in an effective manner, especially if we never witnessed our parents apologizing to one another or if we have never received in genuine apology from someone else. Luckily, researchers have conducted studies on what an effective apology really looks like. The research has identified six components to an effective apology: an expression of regret, an explanation of what went wrong, an acknowledgement of responsibility, a declaration of repentance, an offer of repair, and a request for forgiveness. What the research also shows is that the most important aspect of an apology is an acknowledgement of responsibility. The apology will be seen as more genuine and authentic when the apologizer recognizes his or her part in the issue and accepts responsibility for his or her actions.
One of the advantages of apologizing and requesting forgiveness from someone we care about is that we actually end up feeling better about ourselves after. Even though the issue may not be fully resolved, there may be a sense of fulfillment by knowing that you acted in
a mature and respectful manner or behaved in accordance to your own value-set. This feeling may ultimately allow us to forgive ourselves for our wrongdoings.
On the flip side, granting forgiveness can be just as hard as genuinely apologizing, if not harder. When someone we love hurts us, it can take time to heal those wounds and move forward. Research on forgiveness teaches us that forgiveness has two important elements: a behavior we need to perform (an action saying that you forgive the person who has caused harm) and an emotion (a feeling that we are letting go of). This is even the case when we cannot say we forgive someone in person, such as if they moved away or passed away. Being able to tell yourself that you forgive them is a first step. If you are unable to forgive someone inperson, another great way to get all of your feelings out is by writing a letter, which you may not even send.
Being able to effectively apologize and forgive are two key elements to maintaining a successful relationship. I often feel the energy in the room change when doing couples therapy when one partner genuinely apologizes for a wrongdoing and takes responsibility for their actions. It is then up to the other partner to find it within themselves to forgive the other, which can take time and healing. When processing hurt feelings and moving toward forgiveness, keep in mind the benefits of granting someone forgiveness, not only for your relationship, but also for your physical and mental health.
If you and your partner, or another loved one, are having a difficult time moving forward from past issues due to a lack of apologizing and forgiveness, contact Symmetry Counseling to set up an appointment for individual, couples, or family therapy.