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On this episode of Unlocking Us

This is the first episode of two-part special based on a course that Dr. Harriet Lerner and I did together on her groundbreaking book Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. It’s an authentic, hard conversation about making mistakes, healing hurts, and being brave. Harriet is a friend, mentor, and teacher. Her work has shaped my career and made my life better. During a time of deep uncertainty and anxiety — when many of us have struggled to be our best selves all of the time — apologizing has never been more important.

About the guest

Dr. Harriet Lerner

Harriet Lerner is one of our most respected voices in the psychology of women, and the “how-tos” of navigating the swamps and quicksands of difficult relationships. She is the author of 12 books published in 35 languages. These include The New York Times bestseller The Dance of Anger, and her latest book, Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.

Harriet did her undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she majored in psychology and East Indian studies, and spent her junior year doing independent research in Delhi, India. She received an M.A. in educational psychology from Teachers’ College of Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the City University of New York. Harriet completed her pre-doctoral internship at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco and moved to Topeka, Kansas in 1972 for a two-year postdoctoral training program at the Menninger Foundation. She then joined the staff where she was a teacher and supervisor in the Karl Menninger School of Psychiatry for over two decades.

After Menninger closed shop in Topeka and moved to Houston, Harriet and her husband Steve (also a psychologist) moved to Lawrence, Kansas where they currently have a private practice. They have two grown sons, Matt and Ben.

Lerner lectures and consults nationally, while her psychotherapy practice remains at the heart of her work. Feminism and family systems theory continue to inform her writing.

Show notes

Why Won't you Apologize? by Harriet Lerner

Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts by Harriet Lerner

Renowned psychologist and bestselling author Dr. Harriet Lerner sheds new light on the two most important words in the English language, “I’m sorry,” and offers a unique perspective on the challenge of healing broken relationships and restoring trust. Dr. Lerner has been studying apologies for more than two decades, namely, why some people won’t give them. Now she offers compelling stories and solid theory that demonstrates the transformative power of making amends and what is required for healing when the damage we’ve inflicted (or received) is far from simple.

The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner

Production by Cadence13


Brené Brown: Hi everyone. I’m Brené Brown and this is Unlocking Us.


BB: I’m super excited about the podcasts, plural, this week. We have a two-part special this week, Wednesday and Friday, and it’s all about apologizing, and this is a personal one for me, and for many reasons. I’ll start with this: I have apologized more since we’ve been in quarantine and we’ve been in this pandemic, I think I’ve apologized more during this period of time that I have in probably the last five years, added together. I don’t know about you, but I have not been my best self. I’ve been my shitty self more than once, my tired self, my anxious self, my plagued with feelings of like, I’ve gotten used to being like kind of the half ass like, okay, I can’t do it all perfect. Sometimes I feel like a half ass mom, half ass partner, half ass professor, but this has been the quarter eighth ass problem that I’ve been against since the pandemic started, and I find myself apologizing a lot, and I find myself deeply grateful to Harriet Lerner who taught me how to apologize. So in 2017, she wrote a book called, Why Won’t You Apologize? And the two of us taught a class together on apologizing. For Unlocking Us, we have taken that class and turned it into two podcasts that we’re going to drop this week on, what is an apology, how do you do it and why is it important?

BB: There is a lot of good stuff in this podcast, let me tell you, we go there. We really go there. And you can expect some honest hard conversations, you can expect me to resist what she’s trying to tell me and teach me, because she tells me to get my “but” out of my apology because I have a tendency to say, “Look, I’m really sorry, but… ” And we do a role play that I can tell you when we did it in person, we had to take a break after, it was so intense. So you probably heard me talk about Dr. Harriet Lerner a lot. I know I talked about her when I talked about over and under functioning, because she taught me about that as well. She is one of the most respected voices in psychology in terms of helping us navigate the swamps and quick sands of difficult relationships. She’s the author of 12 books published in 35 languages. They include New York Times bestsellers, The Dance of Anger. The first book I ever read about emotion and how our feelings, choices and thinking all interact together, and her latest book is, Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.

BB: She did her undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she majored in psychology and East Indian Studies. She received her MA in educational psychology from Teachers College at Columbia and a PhD in Clinical Psychology from the City University of New York. She completed her pre-doctoral internship at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, and then moved to Topeka, Kansas in 1972 for a two-year postdoctoral training program at Menninger. She then joined the staff at Menninger where she was a teacher and supervisor in the Karl Menninger School of psychiatry for over two decades. After Menninger left Topeka, they actually came here to Houston, lucky us, she and her husband Steve, who’s also a psychologist, moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where they currently have a private practice, two grown sons, Matt and Ben. Ben is an amazing writer, FYI. And Harriet continues to lecture and consults nationally while her psychotherapy practice remains at the heart of her work. She is a life changer for me. Her work changed my life. Shaped my career.

BB: Harriet has a real stance on forgiveness, it’s different than a lot of people, which is sometimes forgiveness in her mind is not warranted, and so I think apologizing and forgiving and what we’re talking about in these lessons, you have to take that into context. Are you in a safe, healthy relationship where making mistakes and apologizing are a part of how you grow and change and stretch? And if so, this is great. And sometimes I think Harriet would say, “You don’t always have to forgive to be healthy. But when it’s time to say, I’m sorry, do we know how and do we know why and do we know what works? So let’s dig in to this first episode with me and Harriet talking about apologizing. How you do it? Friday we’ll drop part two. This podcast covers the first two lessons that she teaches, and then the Friday podcast will cover the next two. Strap yourself in friends, buckle up, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride, but as Harriet says, “I’m sorry – if you love other people and you wanna tend to relationships, they’re probably the two most important words.”


BB: We are going to jump into one of the topics that I think is probably one of the most misunderstood, scary for some and important topics that I’ve covered in my work with you. And that’s apologizing. So here’s the thing, when you spend 15 years studying vulnerability, courage, shame and empathy, you start to hear the same questions and the same struggles over and over again. And one of the biggest questions that I get is, “Tell me about apologizing. Tell me about asking for an apology. Tell me what it takes to give a meaningful apology. I don’t know how to do that, to be honest with you, and I’m not great at it. And I don’t know about you, but I want to be better at it. I’m the kind of person that when someone is telling me something I’ve done that’s possibly hurt them, I don’t listen to anything they’re saying after “you hurt my feelings” because I’m preparing my defense as they’re speaking. And also when I try to ask for an apology, sometimes I often go straight to, “You were wrong, you’re a jerk.” Which is the PG version of what I actually usually say, “And I need an apology from you right now.” That doesn’t work either.

BB: And so there was only one person that came to my mind… And that’s Harriet Lerner. I have to say over 20 years ago, the very first book, and I’ve written about this, but the very first book I ever received that really invited me to think about myself and how I showed up in my life was The Dance Of Anger from Harriet. And my mom sent it to me with a note that said, “I think you’ll like this or at the least need it.” I didn’t read it, she kept checking in with me, and then finally she sent it to me on cassette tape and I listened to it, and it actually changed my life. Because we’re human, we hurt each other, we get hurt, and there’s a way through that, but that way through depends on the ability to deliver and accept a powerful apology. And that’s what we’re going to do in this course.

BB: Strap yourselves in, we’re gonna have some fun, and we’re gonna work with Harriet to try to understand what is the heart of a heartfelt apology. Okay, let’s get started. Lesson One, The Profound Power of the Apology. I’m so glad you’re here.

Harriet Lerner: I’m so glad I’m here too.

BB: Okay, I had to tell y’all honestly, I’ve made a commitment to not fan girl during the whole time, but I just wanna say just once to get out of my system, this is freaking Harriet Lerner.

HL: And it’s such an honor to be sitting here with you.

BB: I have to say, and this is true, and I’ve told a lot of people this, because I have bought The Dance Of Anger for probably everybody I know, I don’t think I’d be married if it weren’t for you, honestly.

HL: Wow.

BB: What you’ve taught me.

HL: Thank you.

BB: Just about myself. And now we’re gonna talk about apologizing.

HL: Thank you, Brené. I’m so looking forward to this.

BB: Let me ask you this question before we get started. This is not an easy topic.

HL: Right.

BB: And it’s really ballsy to come out with a book on apologizing. This is important to you.

HL: It’s very important to me.

BB: Tell me why it’s important to you.

HL: Because I believe that the words, the two words, “I’m sorry”, are the most important words in our language. We’re all connected, we all screw up, we’re all imperfect human beings, and for this reason, the need to give and receive apologies, will be with us until our very last breath. And when they’re done right, apologies are very healing, but when apologies are absent, or they go south, it will compromise a relationship, or it can lead to the end of a relationship. So apologizing is… It’s central to everything we hold dear, to family, to marriage, to leadership, to parenting, to our ability to love ourselves and love other people. Apologizing is at the heart of it. So this really matters.

BB: I said in the introduction to the course, this is the question, there are three or four topics that just come up in my career over and over and over again, and apologizing is one of them. Let me ask you this before we get started, because here’s a thing, I know this community, we’re not afraid of hard things, that’s why most of you brave people show up to begin with. Why are we afraid to talk about apologizing?

HL: Well, if you ask people, they’ll just say, “Well, I know how to apologize.” Or they’ll say, “I think it’s a boring topic.” And I think it’s very hard to talk about because, as we’ll see later, it gets to the subject of defensiveness, it gets to the subject of how hard it is when someone is criticizing us to not be making our case as the other person is talking.

BB: Oh yeah.

HL: It gets to the issue of accountability and responsibility, can we be accountable and responsible for the errors we make, and that’s very tough stuff, because we all have a favored image of ourself and we want to see ourself in a certain way, and we don’t want to look at certain things like how we hurt people, how we operate at their expense, how we’ve been insensitive. It’s difficult.

BB: The universe has put this course in front of me for very specific reasons. So have you become an expert apologizer? Are you good at this?

HL: Well, I’m glad you asked, Brené. [chuckle] Because, as the author of The Dance of Angerand a new book on apologies, I am a relationship expert, so I get all of my apologies exactly right. You might say, perfectly. So I move through my whole relational world with perfect clarity and calm and wisdom, and wit, much like a Saint or a highly evolved Zen Buddhist… but actually I’m just kidding.

BB: I’m like, “Oh my god. If she’s not bullshitting me I’m gonna run now.” I’m like just gonna just go right under this table.

HL: Really, I’m totally of course, teasing. Apologizing is really difficult. And one of the things, like with Steve, for example, my husband, I like to apologize for exactly my percent, like 47%. I’m 47% to blame. [laughter] And I’m very good at apologizing for how I work out my percentage, and I also insist that Steve apologize for his percentage…

BB: For the 53.

HL: Well yes, exactly as I calculate it as well. I calculate out his percentage and what he’s to blame, and since we don’t always do the same math, this could lead to the theater of the absurd. But I do think having been putting my energy into apology for the past few years, that I have gotten better at it. I have gotten better at it.

BB: I love that question because people always say, so you don’t experience shame anymore because you study shame. I’m like, I wish it worked that way. You say that there are three really important gifts of a heartfelt apology. Tell me what those gifts are.

HL: Okay, first, it’s a gift to the other person, it’s a gift to the person that we hurt. We all know this first-hand, when I receive an apology, I feel soothed and calmed and my left over resentment and anger and bitterness can melt away. So it’s a gift to the hurt party because it can release them from obsessing. That sort of obsessive anger and bitterness.

BB: Self-righteousness…

HL: Right. It also is a gift to the hurt party because it allows them to feel safe and comfortable in the relationship again. They can feel safe knowing that their feelings affect us, their anger and pain affects us, and that we are going to care about their feelings and listen and feel remorse and set things right.

BB: Oh, I love that piece. So it’ll allow me, if I receive a heartfelt apology, I want to make sure I’m getting this right. And I’m with y’all, I’m a student here of Harriet’s and the apologizing. This is not a strong suit for me. Because I have the words; I don’t have the heartfelt part. And so this is important for me. So the first gift is, as someone who’s been hurt, I can let go of the resentment, the self-righteousness, the blame, the anger.

HL: The waking up 3:00 in the morning, obsessing, how could he do this, how could she do to me?

BB: I’ve got it on loop.

HL: How could she have said that and not see it?

BB: Right.

HL: Right.

BB: How can they not have seen what they did.

HL: How can they not see it.

BB: Yes, the second gift to me, it sounds like it’s emotional safety…

HL: Right, exactly. Good way to put it.

BB: I can be in this relationship again with you and know that my safety in this relationship is also important to you.

HL: Right. And that your pain and your feelings and your voice can affect me, can reach me. Okay.

BB: What’s the third gift?

HL: The third gift, and we’re still on the first gift, which is the gift to the other person but we’re naming sub-gifts within the gift to the other person is that it validates the hurt party’s sense of reality that the whole-hearted apology says to the hurt person, I get it. You’re right. Your feelings make sense. I screwed up. It validates your reality, and that’s so important to people because we all grew up with families where bad things happened and we were hurt, and the important people in our life, like our parents or siblings, did not say to us, “This is real, this is happening, it’s not good for you. Your feelings make sense.” It’s very important that we hear that as adults. That’s the first gift, which is all of these gifts to the hurt party…

BB: Oh my God, That’s a big honking gift to me as the other party.

HL: Yes.

BB: If you did something that hurt me and you deliver a heartfelt apology to me, I wanna go through what that first gift is, it is I can let go of the anger, resentments, all the that kind of dark emotion, I can let go of that. I have a sense of emotional safety, my feelings matter to you, you’ll recognize them and acknowledge them, and you’re validating my reality, which is huge.

HL: It’s huge, right. Exactly.

BB: Because you know what, so many times in an apology, I hear people say, I have said,  “Well, that’s not how I see it.”

HL: Or I could say, “I apologize, Brené your feelings make sense, but they’re a little exaggerated. You may need to work on your sensitivity, they’re a little exaggerated. but I apologize.”

BB: So that’s not validating. So a heartfelt validates my experience is real.

HL: Right.

BB: Okay. The first gift, big… What’s the second gift?

HL: The second gift is less obvious, it’s a gift to the self, when I apologize to you, it’s a gift to myself, and I know it doesn’t feel that way, because when we apologize or consider it, we may feel small and vulnerable, and I might have all kinds of fears. I might fear that you won’t accept my apology, because we have no control over how an apology will be received. I have a fear that in saying, I’m sorry, I’m gonna unleash more anger and criticism, which often happens, you’ll have a lot more to tell me when I say I’m sorry about why I should be even more sorry. Some people feel when they apologize that they are losing something, they’re giving up their edge to the other person and you’re somehow going to use it against me, this is somewhat more common in men than in women.

HL: And of course, in apologizing, we have to admit that we’re not perfect people, that we screwed up, and some of us don’t want to see that. So it doesn’t feel like it’s a gift to the self, but it’s the greatest gift to the self, because in the long term, we grow up in maturity and self-worth, I will grow in maturity and self-worth when I can see myself objectively, I can orient toward reality, I can take responsibility for operating at your expense. This is the basis of good self-esteem, this is the basis of self-respect, so to sum it up, although we may feel vulnerable and small in apologizing, or I might feel that I’ll lose the respect of the other person, parents tell me I don’t want to apologize to my kids, they won’t respect my authority, it’s the opposite, I will be more respected with a good apology. So we actually grow in resilience, in happiness, in maturity and integrity, we grow in these things, one heartfelt apology at a time.

BB: Oh my God. Okay, so that is so counterintuitive, but so true. I am thinking of a very specific example where I had to really show up and hear how bad something… A choice I had made had hurt someone, and I offered a really heartfelt apology and it was so vulnerable and so scary. But I have to say when it was over and I was back at home, I felt so brave and I had so much respect for the fact that I was willing to do that.

HL: Right.

BB: It changed me in a really fundamental way.

HL: Wow, that’s a great, a great example.

BB: I mean it did. It changed how I thought about myself. “You can do this.”

HL: And you stand on firmer ground, however the other person responds. I mean, that’s something we don’t have control of.

BB: We don’t have control. I hate that part.

HL: Right, I hate that part too.

BB: Okay.

HL: Maybe if we get smarter. [chuckle] Maybe after this we’ll not only have control over ourselves, but of course about all these other people as well.

BB: The world at large. You heard it here first.

HL: Yes. Right.

BB: Okay, what is the third gift of the apology, the really heartfelt apology.

HL: The third gift is that the heartfelt apology is a gift to the relationship. That relationships just can’t function if we don’t trust that we will try to heal the disconnection after we mess up. So intimacy and being able to have a good relationship, they just rest on our ability to repair that hurt, because we will… We will mess up, especially in a long-term enduring relationship where we’re not always going to be our best self.

BB: Okay, so along with the power of a good apology, there’s also the negative consequences of a bad apology.

HL: Right.

BB: Tell me.

HL: The negative consequences of a bad apology are pretty profound, because relationships suffer and people actually will cut off from each other. Especially, by the way, if it’s an anxious family life cycle time, caring for an elderly parent, a parent’s death, the funeral, the aftermath of death, and there is an injury and it’s not repaired. Someone is very insensitive and they say a really stupid thing, and we’re not at our best at life cycle events, even happy ones like marriages. And it’s not repaired, this is where I see people cut off. This is where I see sisters cut off and stop speaking to each other, say, around the impending death or funeral of their mom, because someone has said something very insensitive or insulting and they have not tried to repair it. And the other person is pretty unforgiving and doesn’t soften up because it’s a very anxious time, with a lot of…

BB: Because everybody is armored up.

HL: Exactly, exactly. So the cost of not apologizing or a bad apology at its worst would be total cut off, and at its best, there’s this little river of something wrong between you and I. It can be very subtle because we still love each other. We’re friends, but there’s something different that this thing has never… You’ve never been able to see it or repair it even when I’ve mentioned it.

BB: God, and how many of us are in relationships where that river flows through it? I mean, that happens…

HL: Yes.

BB: It’s just that unspoken thing that we’ve settled into it not being what it could be because we don’t know how to get there.

HL: Right. Or the other person is just not going to see that thing, not going to get it, right?

BB: Yeah.

HL: Can I tell a story about a really bad apology that just came to me, because…

BB: Oh, my God, yes.

HL: It happened just recently. And a bad apology that deepens the original injury is worse than no apology. So I was at a reception at about 6:00 at the university by where I live, and I hadn’t eaten all day and I was very hungry. And I get to the reception and there’s this table with cheese and there was one thing, a Brie, and I have a weakness for soft cheese. With hard cheese, I behave myself, but not with soft cheese. So I get there and admittedly, I probably was improper in the amount of cheese I was eating. I mean, [chuckle] I was eating the Brie like I was taking slices of pizza. And a woman who was there, who I’ve known for a long time, but I don’t know her well, in front of a whole group of people said to me, “Harriet, you know, there are other people here. There are other people who would like that cheese.” I felt really badly and I stopped eating the cheese, but it was actually very inappropriate. And she said it so sternly and there are all these people around I didn’t know and some I knew.

HL: So it just so happened that a couple of days later, I ran into her at our local co-op, and she came over to me and she said, “I’m sorry I made that comment and I shouldn’t have made that comment.” And I said, holding the connection I said, “Thank you for the apology. I appreciate it.” It’s very hard for people to say that. It’s a powerful thing to say. Because in saying that I was saying, “Yes, you really should apologize, and I accept it.” Because very often people will say, “Oh, it was nothing to worry about.”

BB: It’s okay. Yeah.

HL: It’s okay. So I said, “Thank you for the apology, I really appreciate it.” Holding the connection.

BB: Yeah.

BB: She then said, “Well the reason I apologized is if I had been in your shoes eating that cheese… I mean, if I had been you, I really would have wanted someone to tell me how to behave.” And she said, “And especially because there were other people who had noticed and were also talking about it.” I said, “Really?” I said, “What other people? Who were those other people?” Because by the way, nameless, faceless criticism.

BB: The invisible army.

HL: Oh, please.

BB: Don’t pull that shit with Harriet Lerner, people. [laughter] Let me just tell you right now.

HL: Exactly. So I said, “Well, who are those people?” And she said, “Oh, I don’t remember. It’s not important.” And she walked away. So she started out with an apology. If she had just left it there, saying, “I’m sorry I made that comment.” And instead she went on to further shame me, and not only that, like that it was inappropriate, and if she had been me, she certainly would have wanted to be corrected for such behavior. But there were other nameless, faceless people who are probably still talking about my cheese-eating behavior, I mean…

BB: I think I read it in the paper.

HL: I think you’ve [chuckle] probably heard about it. So some apologies… It would be better if she hadn’t apologized at all.

BB: Okay, this is a Gouda example. I had do it. [laughter] I had to go with the pun. I just had to. It’s terrible, but no, wait. This is what I make up. This is the story I make up. So I make up, if you would have looked at her and said, “No, really it’s okay.”

HL: Which most people do, by the way.

BB: Right.

HL: Don’t worry about it.

BB: Yeah, don’t worry about it. It’s okay. And I really was overboard on the Brie.

HL: Which I was by the way, but that’s beside the point.

BB: That’s none of her freaking business.

HL: Right.

BB: Yeah.

HL: Exactly.

BB: Yeah. But I think if you would have said to her… This is what I make up, “Oh my God. It’s okay. I totally… I just… I shouldn’t have done that.” She would have said, Well… [chuckle]

HL: Yeah, right, Right.

BB: We are all falter sometimes, yeah. But when you said… Because one of things I have done with my children religiously since they were old enough to offer apologies and accept them, is you are not allowed in my house to say, “That’s okay.” You have to say, “Thank you. I appreciate it. That means something to me.” And when Ellen does that with school… My daughter who’s a senior in high school. When someone else say, “I’m really sorry about that.” And she said, “I appreciate your apology. That was a really hard thing for me.” She said they almost look like they’re going to be sick.

HL: Right. It’s really interesting. And by the way, do you want to know the number one reason from my research that children do not apologize?

BB: Why?

HL: Children learn not to apologize as adults because their parents cannot say, “Thank you for the apology. I appreciate it,” without all these add-ons. “Thank you for the apology, I appreciate it, but I really hope you’ll think a lot more about how you excluded your brother. And I don’t know if you really mean that apology, and I don’t know if it’s sincere. Maybe next time you can apologize before I ask you to.” So the parent, rather than saying, “Thank you for the apology,” goes on and on, and the kid wants to stick their fingers in their ears, and it sounds like a very simple thing. It is really hard for parents to say, “Thank you for the apology. I appreciate it,” without the little add-ons they want to put on like, “Why did it take you so long and… ”

BB: “And you better think twice about that and let it not happen again.”

HL: Exactly. “Really and say it like you really mean it. I would like you to apologize like you were up holding your arms like this.”

BB: “Stand up straight and look me in the eye when you do it.”

HL: Exactly.

BB: As opposed to… Yeah, and it goes… Yeah, no.

HL: Don’t do that. If you want to teach your children to apologize, forget that, “Look me in the eye. Say it like you mean it. Think about that more.” You can have that conversation later.

BB: Later. Yeah, for sure.

HL: Okay.

BB: Okay.

HL: We did that. We did the parenting piece.

BB: Yeah, no, because I mean it’s…

HL: It’s very important.

BB: It’s so important because the people I’ve interviewed over the years who can’t apologize, when I’ll talk to them, “What’s scary?” A lot of times… I’ve heard that sometimes, “Well, apologizing to my parents was always a mistake, because they use it as a discipline moment.” But the other thing is they will say, “I never saw my parents model what an apology looked like with me or to each other.”

HL: Right. Right. It’s so important to model good apologizing for your children. Because if you can’t apologize to them, why should they apologize to you? In my experience as a therapist though, when the parents don’t… You know how kids look at their parent’s limitations and mistakes, and they think, “I’m going to do that differently.”

BB: Yeah.

HL: And they do. So that’s the number two reason why kids learn not to apologize. The number one reason is that when they do apologize, something icky happens. And the same with adults, like in marriage like…

BB: Oh yeah.

HL: People will tell me, “I don’t want to apologize to my wife because she’ll just lay it on me more when I’m doing something wrong.”

BB: “Use it against me later.”

HL: Right, or it’ll unleash an ocean of more criticism. So it’s tough to give the apology, despite all of the things that the receiver of the apology might do wrong, and to be able to and accept an apology just with the words, “Thank you for the apology.” And you can save the rest for another conversation.

BB: Yeah. A lot of times what I’ll tell people, and I think I got this either… I probably got this from either your book or my therapist, which is wholeheartedly apologize, receive with a whole heart, and some of the other work that needs to follow up, that’s a different conversation.

HL: Exactly.

BB: Just sink into the moment of the apology.

HL: Right.

BB: Alright, lesson two. This is where we’re going to start to put the lessons that Harriet’s teaching us into practice by learning the nine essential ingredients to a heartfelt apology. This is from Harriet’s book, Why Won’t You Apologize? This is the moment for me in the book where I got my big aha. I saw what I did well and I saw what I did not do well. So we’re going to go through the nine, and here’s how we’re going to do it. I’m going to read it. Help me understand it. Is that okay?

HL: Okay.

BB: Alright. Number one, a true apology does not… It’s hard right off the bat, y’all. Okay, a true apology does not include the word, “But.”

HL: This actually, I think is the easiest to understand because it’s the most common apology error. When you say, “I’m sorry, but… ” Whatever follows that “but” is going to be a criticism, a justification or an excuse. Like, “Brené, I’m really sorry that I forgot your birthday. I totally spaced it out, but it was a really busy time for me. Everything was falling through the cracks.” So once you say, “I’m sorry, but… ” It doesn’t matter if what you say after the but is true, it will cancel out your apology. So drop the “but.”

BB: What if you say like, “I’m really sorry, but you are being an asshole.” [chuckle] How does that work?

HL: That’s an apology?

BB: Yes, that’s one of my favorites. Does it not… Is that not? What if it’s true?

HL: It doesn’t matter. Well, you can tell someone they’re an asshole, but don’t pretend it’s an apology.

BB: Oh.

HL: In other words if you’re… [chuckle]

BB: Oh. Did you all get that? Wait.

HL: Right. So if your intention is to give an apology, don’t use the add-on “but” because it makes your apology false. “I’m really sorry, Brené, that I spoke to you so harshly, but you were provoking me a little bit.” Drop the “but”.

BB: That stopped feeling like an apology. Okay, that’s good. Drop the “but.”

HL: And notice other people’s “buts” as well, but I mean that in the correct sense of that word.

BB: Yes, yes. I’m pretty sure that our folks will find you very appropriate by comparison. [chuckle] But here’s the thing, what I love that you said is, if I want to say that to you and I want to call out your behavior, in some way you hurt me or showed up in some crappy way that was not okay for me, that’s okay. You’re saying that’s okay for me to do that, just don’t call it an apology.

HL: Right, right.

BB: Woah. Okay, my mind is blown and we’re on number one. [chuckle] Okay. A true apology… Number two, a true apology keeps the focus on your actions and not on the other person’s response.

HL: This is a very important one, and it’s very difficult for people. If I say to you, “Brené, I’m sorry that you felt hurt that I corrected your stories at the party.” That is not an apology, “I’m sorry that you felt hurt.”

BB: Okay, I don’t know. I’m pissed off just hearing that.

HL: There’s no accountability there. The accountability would be saying, “I’m sorry I corrected your stories at the party. I know you don’t like that, it was out of line, and I will not do it again.” Actually, I have a great example from the workplace.

BB: Yeah.

HL: With a guy who was consulting with me, and he told me that, at a meeting, he had made an unfortunate joke about women having smaller brains. He made some kind of smartass comment about that. His boss is a woman. And after the meeting, he said to her, “I want to apologize. I’m sorry if you felt hurt by the stupid joke that I made.” And she said to him, “My feelings are not that easily hurt.” And it was clear that she was irritated and he didn’t understand why. That rather than saying to her, “I’m sorry that I made that stupid joke. It was out of line. It was inappropriate. I won’t do it again.” He said, “I’m sorry if you felt hurt by the joke,” as if her sensitivity or her oversensitivity might have been the problem. So it’s very important when you apologize, you’re apologizing clearly, unequivocally, for what you have said or done or not said or done, and not on the other person’s feelings. Do you get it?

BB: Oh, no. I get it. I get it. I have to take a moment, okay. Let me run some practice ones by you.

HL: Okay.

BB: I’m sorry you were offended by that.

HL: I don’t feel apologized to, because I don’t know what you’re apologizing for.

BB: That you felt offended.

HL: You’re apologizing that I’m offended? No, I have a right to be offended. Why are you apologizing? Why don’t you talk about Brené, the offensive thing that you said? That’s my… Just a gut reaction to that.

BB: Roasted. Yes, it’s so good, okay.

HL: Right.

BB: Okay, okay. I’m really sorry for what I said. I know that’s a real area of sensitivity for you.

HL: Oh God, I want to give you a smack.


HL: Right.

BB: No, I’ve had someone say that to me, “I know that you’re really sensitive in that area.”

HL: That happened to me. I put this in my, Why won’t you apologize? book where someone kept using the wrong photo of me. I had asked for a current photo. He was using one from 20 years ago. Maybe he thought a younger looking photo would attract more participants, and it was really difficult because he wouldn’t correct the photo. And he ended up saying, “Well, I apologize. I didn’t realize that you were so sensitive about this.” And, “Harriet,” he added, “I really don’t think the participants care as much as you do about how you look.” And I was saying, “This is not the issue. The issue is I want you to use the current photo that I supplied for you.” But I felt so insulted that he turned it into, “I’m sorry that you’re so sensitive about this photo issue.”

BB: That feels shaming to me.

HL: Very shaming. It was awful.

BB: Okay, so number two is a true apology keeps the focus on your actions, not on the other person’s response.

HL: Right, and feelings.

BB: And feelings, okay. Number three, a good apology includes an offer of reparation or restitution that fits the situation.

HL: Absolutely. If I borrow your scarf and I lose it, it’s not enough to say, “Brené, I’m really sorry that I lost your scarf.” I mean, obviously, I need to buy you a new scarf or offer to pay for the scarf. And that’s a very simple example. I don’t know if you relate to that one. Can you think of an example where you needed to make a reparation or…?

BB: Yeah, I’m sure. Yeah, I’m sure I can come up with an example where I need to make a reparation.

HL: Or someone else did.

BB: Well, I don’t know if this is a good example, but I’m going to use it because it’s a hard thing in my life right now. There’s a person who I had a really good friendship with and it was thought very reciprocal and very connected. And since my platform and visibility has changed, and the last 10 times this person has reached out to me, everyone has been a request to do something for either him or someone related to him or someone that knows him that needs something. And so I never mind signing a book, but it’s always, “What can you do for me?”

HL: Right.

BB: And it’s… Maybe it shouldn’t hurt my feelings. I don’t know. Now, I’m getting vulnerable talking about it, but it really hurts my feelings because it makes me feel like, “You don’t care about me. You care about what I can do for you.” And so I don’t think I’d be able to be back in deep connection with that person if that was not acknowledged and there was some amends made, and also a corrective behavior. Do you understand what I’m talking about?

HL: Exactly. Have you been able to find the courage to tell the person what you just told us that it’s hard for them that they’re asking so much, because it makes you feel like things are out of balance and that they don’t really care about you as a person? Have you told them? [chuckle]

BB: Let’s go to commercial break. No, no, no, actually. I’m just accumulating all the offenses.

HL: I see, [chuckle] I see. So you can say, “You have done this 23 times. You have asked me… ”

BB: No, I’m literally accumulating them and numbering them.

HL: Well, and then what’s your question? [chuckle]

BB: So I think the thing is, so what would an… So if you were that person, let’s say, and I said to you… And pretend like I’m going to say it right, because I haven’t rehearsed this, but…

HL: Yeah.

BB: Like I would say to you, “Here’s how I feel about how things…

HL: Right. It’s a good start.

BB: Thank you. Harriet Lerner liked my start!

BB: I did!

BB: Here’s how I feel about the direction our relationship has taken over the last six months. It’s hurtful to me because I felt before then, our relationship was very reciprocal. I was there for you, you were there for me. And now it doesn’t feel like that anymore for me. I’ve documented the last 20 times you’ve text… No, I won’t say that.

HL: That’s where you lost me.

BB: Yeah. That I feel… I would probably say, “What I make up is, every time you reach out to me recently, it’s for me to do something for you or… ”

HL: No, as soon as you’ve said every time, you’ve lost me too. Because I’m going to think of a time when we were in connection and I wasn’t asking you for favors.

BB: Yes. No, I like those big words.

HL: Right? For…

BB: Okay, so…

HL: I’ll get defensive.

BB: Okay, alright. So it feels like often when you reach out, it’s to ask me to do something, not so much for you but for people who are coming to you saying, “Can you get Brené to do this for us? Can you get Brené to speak here? Can you get Brené to sign this or donate this?” And it’s just hurting my feelings.

HL: Well, I wasn’t aware at all that it was hurting your feelings, and I’m really sorry. And I’m going to think about it, and I’m not going to do that again. And the…

BB: Because I want to start crying, but that’s… Because so… So let me tell you what I’m feeling.

HL: Yeah.

BB: I’m feeling like that’s really kind and that’s exactly the right thing, but I’m not going to be able to bash you over the head with my list.

HL: Well, you’re also going to be seeing whether the apology was heartfelt, because it depends on what happens now.

BB: Oh, it totally depends on what happens next.

HL: Right. So if I call you tomorrow and I say, “Brené, someone really important to me wants you to speak at this event, could you?” The apology means nothing. So I don’t think I could repair it in terms of repair and restitution, but I could show you through a corrective action that I meant the apology. Let me give an example of this. We’re on number three, right?

BB: A good apology includes an offer of reparation or restitution. So in this case, the reparation would really be that moving forward, his actions reflect his deep understanding of my hurt, and they are not about getting things from me.

HL: Right.

BB: Okay.

HL: And let me give you an example more concretely of reparation and repair.

BB: Okay.

HL: Because I just thought of something that was very painful for me, where I was working at a psychiatric hospital over a number of decades, and I did a lot of publishing and I published very early. And I felt undervalued because I was very interested in the psychology of women. Feminism had not yet come to this institution, and I felt in general, ignored. And I went around complaining to my colleagues that I was not being valued, which is a very bad thing to do in the workplace, to go around complaining that you’re not valued. But I was young, and I didn’t know any better. So anyway, something happened that was enormously painful for me sometime later, which is that they compiled all of the publications of the staff and circulated it to all of the staff, and I was left out. My publications were left out, or rather like one was mentioned. But I was really, pretty devastated. So, it took all my courage, but I went to the chief, whatever, and I said how terrible I felt.

HL: And I said, “Can you help me to understand this? That all of my scholarly publications aren’t on here.” And he was fabulous, and it seemed very heartfelt. He said, “I am so sorry. I will find out who did this. There is no excuse for it. You’ve published more than everybody.” He was very kind. I left his office feeling very good. I later, over the next week or weeks, started feeling less good. And the reason that I felt less good has to do with reparation and restitution, which is that he never sent around a new list. He never made a new list with my publications. He never said to the group of the psychologists, “We left Harriet off the list. You’ll get a new list. We know that her publications are so valued.” So it became empty because leaving me as a staff person off that list needed a reparation.

BB: Oh yeah.

HL: In front of the group, do you understand that one?

BB: Oh, yeah, I totally understand.

HL: Okay. Right.

BB: I think this is really helpful because I get the scarf, for sure. Because I’ve borrowed someone’s umbrella and lost it or a scarf.

HL: Right.

BB: It doesn’t even… To me it almost falls under manners. Like, “I apologize. Here’s the new scarf.”

HL: Well, that’s an easy one, right?

BB: Yeah.

HL: Right.

BB: The reparations around the publication. And then also for me, I think the example I shared is that the reparations, sometimes it’s going back and making… But it also it’s you cannot separate action and behavior from a heartfelt apology, can you?

HL: Right.

BB: Dang. Okay, let’s go to number four. A true apology does not overdo.

HL: Okay. Well, we know that a true apology doesn’t under-do.

BB: Right.

HL: Like, if for example, I have really done something damaging to you or really hurtful, I don’t want to sort of under-do it, like as if I broke your coffee cup, “Oh, gee. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.” But you can also overdo an apology. And there are two kinds of overdoing, one is what women are… [chuckle] We’re so famous for. Like, my generation of women apologize for taking up oxygen in the room, and we’re taught to feel guilty and responsible for everything. We were guilty about leaving our work for our children. We were guilty about leaving our children for our work. We were guilty if we didn’t have work. We were guilty if we didn’t have children. We were guilty about feeling guilty, so we did everything. We apologized for everything and we still see this. And it’s not helpful to women, but, “Oh, Brené, I’m so sorry. Did I knock your coffee cup? Or oh, did you want to sit in this chair? Or I’m so sorry.” Or “Oh, I’ve been talking so much. I’m so sorry Brené. I always end up sort of talking too much.” So if you over-apologize in this way, it disrupts the flow of conversation and it irritates your friends.

BB: Yes.

HL: So if you’re apologizing for failing to return your friend’s Tupperware, don’t apologize like you’ve run over her kitten or don’t… Don’t overdo it. And it’s funny because if you’re an over-apologizer it seems very self-effacing, but it really makes everyone pay attention to you. If you’re always over-apologizing, rather than my talking about what I want to talk about, I have to say, “No, it’s okay Brené. Don’t worry about it, Brené.” So it… So okay, so we don’t want to do that.

BB: Okay.

HL: There’s a more serious kind of over-apologizing and it’s where… I see it a lot between mothers and daughters where a daughter gets the courage to confront her mother about something very painful in the past and then the mother gets so full of her own pain and remorse and, “Oh my god. I’m such a bad mother.” And the mother starts to cry, so then the daughter has to take care of the mother.

BB: Has to take care of the mother.

HL: So yes, if you’re confronting me with something that I really hurt you, I want to show that I carry some of that pain. But if I overdo it, I am hijacking your pain.

BB: Oh, for sure.

HL: I’m hijacking your story.

BB: For sure.

HL: So the moral is, if someone has the courage to confront you with their grief, don’t act like they’ve just rubbed your face in a plate of dog food. And now you can never say another word because you’re such a bad person, and you realize that everything you do is wrong, and you’re a bad mother, and don’t overdo it in that way. Is that clear? That’s a harder one.

BB: Oh yeah, it’s clear and it makes me crazy. Let me ask you this, why does that behavior… Because that’s a behavior that I’m sure I need to look into for some therapeutic reason because it really makes me crazy. Why does that feel so passive aggressive to me?

HL: I don’t think of it as passive aggressive. I don’t use that word very much, but I understand your thinking of that word. Because if you’re confronting me that I did something very hurtful, and it turns out that I’m so regretful and so remorseful that you feel that your pain is…

BB: I’m apologizing now. Yeah.

HL: Right. You’re feeling badly like you really hurt me and now I feel really badly. But whatever we call it, it’s not an apology anymore. It’s not an apology because it’s an invitation that you should take care of me and focus on my pain. An apology serves only to calm and soothe the hurt party. It’s not for me to turn the tables and invite you to take care of me, because now I feel so terrible and filled with guilt and remorse that you’re going to go home and worry…

BB: I am.

HL: About me. It’s not an apology.

BB: What about this behavior at work? What about this behavior at work? Let’s role play this real quick. You say to me, “I know we’ve talked about the fact that you’re struggling with this.” You were saying, “I really need you to give me an accurate estimate of when you’re going to have this deliverable web ready because a lot of people down the line are counting on it.”

HL: Right.

BB: Okay, let’s just say that.

HL: Okay. “It’s very important to me that you give me an accurate… ”

BB: “Oh god, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, you’re right. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just… I’m so sorry. Are you mad?”

HL: I would think you’re very immature. [chuckle]

BB: But what happens when it’s that over kind of like. “I’m so sorry, I can’t do anything right. You’re right, I’m so sorry.”?

HL: Well in a work situation, my reaction would be, “No need for the apology. What’s important is that you’re responsible with this. Because in the past, there’d been two episodes where you haven’t gotten things in in time.” So it’s like I feel that my message, which has to do with your being accountable and responsible is getting… Because this is a work system, that it’s getting turned into a sort of emotional… I don’t know what. So, yeah, it does…

BB: So you would just stay on…

HL: I would want to stand on target. I would say, “You don’t need to apologize. My point is it’s really important you get it done by this stage.” Right?

BB: It’s very helpful because I hear… I mean, I work with a lot of leaders who say they’ll get through feedback and they’re trying to be not emotional and just very tactful feedback. But people start profoundly apologizing and apologizing, and then they just stop all the feedback and stop talking about the issue and start taking care of the person.

HL: Exactly and that’s the mistake of the leader because the person in charge needs to say, “This is not a condemnation or anything. Let’s just go through this.”

BB: Got it. Helpful. Okay. Okay, so now we’re going to go to essential ingredient number five. I feel like you put this in there just to piss me off.

HL: Oh, I did, Brené.

BB: I really hate this one. Okay, a true apology doesn’t get caught up in who’s more to blame or who started it. You apologize for your part of the problem, even if the other person can’t see their part.

HL: Right. This is the hardest one for me because I feel that if I’m less than 50% to blame, that the other person should apologize first because they’re more to blame, and that I don’t feel like apologizing if they haven’t apologized. But by the way, it is a recipe for a relationship failure to wait for the other person to change first, to wait for the other person to apologize first. So this is a very hard one for me. I could give many examples, trivial and serious. You want a trivial one?

BB: Yeah. Because actually, I’m not on board.

HL: You’re not. Why not? You’re not on board because you don’t get it or you’re not on board because you don’t like it?

BB: No. Oh, I get it. I get what you’re saying. I’m just calling bullshit. Okay, let me read this again. A true apology does not get caught up in who is more to blame or who started it. You apologize for your part of the problem, even if the other person can’t see their part.

HL: Okay, I’m going to give you an example that’s actually a failure of this. This is my problem with this.

BB: Okay. Okay.

HL: And it’s a stupid example, but it’s very common.

BB: Okay.

HL: Especially… Okay, so this is with my husband, Steve. So he comes home from the grocery store with five totally ripe bananas. I immediately demand an apology. There are just two of us in the house. I don’t need a lot of bananas. I don’t even like bananas. This means three of them are going to end up in the compost bin. We have talked about this banana thing before, so I’m angry, and demand an apology. And when he doesn’t apologize for bringing home these five totally ripe bananas, I was in a bad mood. I was having a low self-esteem day to which I respond by getting critical. So I went at him like a trial attorney like, “How can he bring home five overly, not overly, but totally ripe bananas knowing that they’re… ” But then when he still didn’t apologize, I said, “What kind of person? What kind of person,” I say to Steve, “doesn’t care about letting food rot in a world where people are going hungry?” And…

BB: That’s good.

HL: Right? [chuckle] Then I go on from there. So he gets defensive. Surprise, surprise. He tells me I should do the shopping myself if I’m going to criticize how he does it. I get furious, because why am I suddenly the bad guy? I would never come home with five totally ripe bananas.

BB: Right.

HL: Which makes me the better person, if not the more highly evolved world citizen. So I argue with him and then I stomp off, and no one wants to apologize because… And this gets it at this one. I don’t want to apologize because I feel like he’s making me the bad guy when he did the wrong thing. I mean, he came home with five bananas at the same level of ripeness. What’s wrong with him? [chuckle]

BB: I don’t understand it either, unless you’re making banana bread. I don’t.

HL: We don’t make banana bread. Oh. By the way, I added that at the end of my demand for an apology. I said, “What’s wrong with you?” By the way, “What’s wrong with you?” Are the four words that will drive any conversation downhill. When I said, “What’s wrong with you?” Then he said, then he said, “You could do the shopping yourself,” But I’m not going to apologize because he started it and he did the wrong thing, and we’ve talked about this banana thing, so he, I said, he should apologize.

BB: Yeah.

HL: And there’s no way he’s going to apologize when I leap from how many bananas are going to end up in the compost bin… I leap to that he’s not a good person. Like, “What kind of person does such a thing?” Really, what kind of person. So we’re stuck in this thing. Because I think he started it, and he feels that I have been absolutely awful and ridiculous, so no one’s going to apologize.

BB: So what’s the solution?

HL: Well, the solution is for Steve to apologize. [chuckle]

BB: Right. Now we’re on to something. Number five is making sense to me all of a sudden.

HL: How we really do it. Right.

BB: This is a class for my husband, Steve. Go ahead.

HL: Exactly. So since Steve was not a good enough person to apologize, I eventually calmed down, and I went to him and I said, “I’m really sorry that I overreacted to these five ripe bananas.” And that’s all. I wanted to say, “But don’t do it again, you jerk.”

BB: Right.

HL: But I just said, “I’m really sorry for… ”

BB: And what did he say?

HL: He said, “It’s about time you apologized.” But I left it at that. I felt in thinking about it…

BB: Yeah. I get it.

HL: That I had a bit overreacted to the bananas, but that happens a lot in a relationship.

BB: Oh my gosh. Shut up. Every day. God.

HL: Things go from zero to a hundred, and then each person is mad and wants the other to apologize. So this rule means apologize first for the part that you can agree with, even if it’s only 5%. Do the right thing. Be a stand-up citizen in the relationship.

BB: If you apologize for your part first, even its smaller. No. Really, I need to know this. And then they in turn don’t apologize, can you retract your earlier apology? [laughter]

HL: I guess you could. You could say, “I take my apology back.” Since you’re being such a jerk and you won’t apologize.

BB: Right.

HL: You can, but since we are in this difficult subject, learning about being our best self in a relationship, you would not then take your apology back. A colleague of mine has a great thing she says to couples. She says, “It’s just when the other person is being the biggest jerk that you’re called upon to be your best self.” So even though I knew Steve was being the bigger jerk with his five ripe bananas, I calmed down enough to want to be my best self, and I apologized.

BB: Okay. I’m going to have to work on five.

HL: Alright.

BB: Yeah. Because it’s not a meritocracy.

HL: I could give my banana lecture later to him. That’s okay.

BB: Yeah. Just not an apology. Not in the apology corner.

HL: Right. Not in the apology corner. Right.

BB: Okay. That’s hard. Let me tell you something, people have a really hard time with us, with me first. Six, a true apology requires that you do your best to avoid a repeat performance.

HL: That’s an obvious one.

BB: Yeah.

HL: That an apology is not going to have meaning if you continue with that behavior.

BB: If you repeat that behavior.

HL: Right. And that can be very, very tough because for example, if I’m apologizing to you for being so distant, but I’m a distancer, it’s very hard to modify that, or if I’m apologizing to you for being a pursuer instead of hovering and being the sort of boss that delegates, but then has to look over… It’s hard to modify these habitual styles, but as we’ve talked about before, an apology has no meaning if you’re repeating what you’re…

BB: The behavior…

HL: Apologizing for. Exactly.

BB: Okay. Seven, a true apology should not serve to silence another person. An example, I said, I’m sorry 10 times. Let’s not bring it up anymore.

HL: Right. Exactly. I hear that a lot. For example, in my work as a therapist around infidelity, where, for example, he says, “I have told you I’m sorry over and over again. And you keep bringing it up. Are you going to punish me forever?” And…

BB: What if they say, “No. I’m just going to keep punishing you until I stop hurting.”

HL: That would be a very good thing to say.

BB: Right. I came up with that.

HL: [chuckle] I hope you don’t have to use it, but it’s a good thing to say. But very often, we do use an apology to silence people, so often we use it to get out of a conversation. In fact, there’s a joke among men, the joke is that… Let me try to remember. I actually heard it first in Spanish, so this must be a cross-cultural issue in this joke, where the joke is that the man should always have the last word in any argument or fight, and the last word should be “I’m sorry. I was wrong. You were right, dear.” Something like that. It’s not really a funny joke, but it has in it what we’re talking about, that the woman is so difficult to deal with that she’s going to over-talk it so much that the man is told, “Just apologize.” Just say, “I’m sorry, dear.”

BB: Just to shut this thing down.

HL: Shut the hell up, yeah. “I’m sorry, dear. I’m really sorry. I’m sorry.” And that you’re really saying that because you don’t want to listen, rather than saying what the men might need to say, because many women do over-talk things or over-criticize, that he might say, “You know, I really want to hear your criticism, but I’m feeling flooded.” So let’s find another time to talk about it, and I want you to bring it up with respect and not like I’m a big jerk, but I can’t talk about it right now, and not in this way, but instead it’s easier to just say “I’m really sorry, I’m sorry.” Did I complicate that too much?

BB: No. You didn’t. I just am painfully close. Okay. Eight, a true apology should not be offered to make you feel better if it risks making the hurt party feel worse. All apologies are not welcome.

HL: Right. It’s not an apology if you’re apologizing because you need to heal, you need to lower your guilt quotient, or you’re working the steps in AA. But the other person really does not want to see you and doesn’t want to hear from you, and that’s what needs to be respected, an apology is not for you. It’s not to help soothe you, it’s not to lower your guilt quotient. If I’ve said to you, let’s say we’re boyfriend and girlfriend and you were my boyfriend. And I’m breaking up with you, and I’m saying to you and you’re having a hard time hearing it, “It is over, and at this point in time, I need space and I do not want to hear from you.” But you’re feeling so anxious, you’re wanting to send me emails of apology and flowers and slip notes under my door, no. When someone really doesn’t want to hear from you…

BB: Be respectful.

HL: Be respectful, and that includes not apologizing and explaining yourself and saying you’re so sorry when the other person really doesn’t want to hear.

BB: God. I’m going to go back to lesson one, when we talked about the three gifts of the apology. I can’t decide whether it’s amazing and I love it, or it’s pissing me off. I cannot get over how much apologizing for the apologizer is about self-respect and integrity. It is not about what you get back.

HL: Right.

BB: It’s about doing the right damn thing.

HL: Right. And the right thing, if someone says, “No contact.” Or, “I don’t want to… ”

BB: Is respecting no contact.

HL: Exactly.

BB: Alright. Last one, this should be in kindergarten curricula across the world. Okay. The apology… Shoot. Let me do it again. Last one, number nine.

HL: Do you want me to do this?

BB: Yes. You do the last one.

HL: Let me do the last one.

BB: I can barely speak it.

HL: [chuckle] A true apology does not ask the hurt party to do anything, not even to forgive. Not even to forgive.

BB: Okay. I want to take the forgive part off for a second, and just go… Before we even talk about forgive, a true heartfelt apology does not ask the hurt party to do anything. So what about this? “I apologize that I made that shitty comment when we were getting ready for dinner tonight. It was insensitive and it wasn’t thoughtful. Let’s go to dinner, get ready.”

HL: Well, I would like you to leave a little more space because I felt that I didn’t even have time to react to your apology, I felt you just wanted to go to dinner.

BB: Because we’re late.

HL: Right. So you wanted… You did that because you wanted to go to dinner. So I’m not going to go to dinner with you, Brené, you have to do better.

BB: But we’re late for dinner, they’re expecting us. Am I just going to go to dinner without you?

HL: Well, actually, I’m like it depends. For me, the mature thing might be that I’ll talk with you about this later and that we’re going to go to dinner.

BB: So apologizing to get the hurt person to do something.

HL: Well, for example, when I apologized to Steve for overreaction to the five ripe bananas, I really wanted him to say at that point, “Yeah. You overreacted, but I made a stupid mistake and I won’t do it again.” I wanted an apology back, that was example of wanting something.

BB: But you can’t set that up as a pre-requisite in your heart, in your head.

HL: You can… You can set it up in your heart. For example, when we give an apology, of course, we would like forgiveness. We want that person to forgive us.

BB: Totally.

HL: An apology is not a bargaining tool for which we get something back, like forgiveness. Very commonly, if I apologize to you, and then I too quickly, “Do you forgive me, Brené? Do you forgive me?” You don’t have time. I’m cutting your process short to sit with it and to see whether you have some leftover anger or pain. So that is a hard one too, that the true apology doesn’t ask for anything back for oneself. Not in that corner of apology.

BB: Right.

HL: I like your term, corner of apology. An apology is not an end to the conversation.

BB: That’s what’s huge here.

HL: An apology is what de-intensifies the situation so that two people can move forward and we will have room for further conversations.

BB: And you know it really drives nine home for me? Because I kind of get the forgiveness piece. I get that I can apologize, it’s important for me to apologize and disconnect forgiveness from that, that I just need to apologize whether forgiveness is coming or not. The part that really is hard for me that I think I actually do sometimes is when you said apologizing is not a bargaining tool, because sometimes I think I apologize to get some shit done that we need to get done like, “I’m sorry. So now let’s go do this.” I’m bargaining. I will apologize if in turn, you will get back to normal, so we can go the movie, so you can get back to normal, so we could do this. As opposed to saying, “I’m apologizing for true heartfelt reasons regardless of what happens next.”

HL: Right. And there can be both. You can give a heartfelt apology, and of course you can also feel I really want to de-intensify the situation so that we can move forward and go to the movies and not be stuck on this. So one one can do both, but in the purity of being in the apology corner, one doesn’t ask for anything. It’s about giving.

BB: It’s not your intention. Your intention for the apology is not to get something you want in a heartfelt apology. Is that true?

HL: It’s not your primary intention.

BB: It’s not your primary intention, right. So I could say, “I really apologize for making that critical remark when we were getting ready, Harriet, it was hurtful.”

HL: Right. Exactly.

BB: And then I could say, “I hope we can move through this and find a way to go to that dinner tonight, so I think it would be fun.”

HL: Right. Absolutely.

BB: But if we can’t, I understand that too.

HL: Right, absolutely. That’s good, Brené. Wow!

BB: You can teach me. You could, yeah.

HL: But you know what, that’s really good.

BB: Well, because I just got it.

HL: Mm-hmm.

BB: Yeah. Okay.

HL: Brené, we have to take a break because I want to teach the audience proper banana buying because this is what I tried to teach Steve and all of you and it’s worth price of admission. I want to tell you what I do when I buy bananas. Five bananas, I take them off different like banana bunches. So one’s gonna… I can eat tomorrow for breakfast, and then the other I figure out how they’re going to ripen, and I pull them off the stem. By the way, this is not unethical, this is not a wrong thing to do, you don’t have to buy them in the bunch. So this is like an extra thing that I would like to teach.

BB: Alright. So you have the nine greatest challenges of your life and a quick tutorial on bananas. We’ll take the banana tutorial and run like the wind. This is so good, because you know what this makes me excited about this, and this is probably really selfish in some way, maybe it’s not, I don’t know, it makes me excited about not what I can do for my relationships, but who I can be.

HL: Yes.

BB: How I can live in alignment with my values.

HL: Right. Exactly.


BB: Whew. I hope you got as much out of that as I did. I was worn out when we taught it the first time, and I’m reinvigorated and recommitted. I mean I just have to keep hearing this stuff over and over. When I’m learning it, I’m like “I get it and I’m going to do it like this forever,” and then I’m listening to it now again and I’m like thinking “Man, talk about the back slide.” Whoa. Part 2 will be this Friday, so get ready for that. Stay tuned. It will be coming in a couple of days. Do some deep breathing between now and then. We got this.

© 2020 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2020, May 6). Harriet Lerner and Brené I’m Sorry: How To Apologize & Why It Matters Part 1 of 2. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13.

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