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On this episode of Unlocking Us

Dr. Harriet Lerner’s work has transformed my work and my life. She’s a renowned psychologist and bestselling author who has been studying apologies — and why some people won’t give them — for more than two decades. In Part 2 of our two-part series, we share from a course together on her groundbreaking book Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. We dig into the “mischief of defensiveness,” the power of listening, and the secret life of the non-apologizer. We also take on one helluva role play where you get to hear me get schooled and learn a lot and get schooled again.

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: Alright ya’ll, part two of Harriet Lerner’s master class on apologizing, where you get to hear me get schooled and learn a lot and get schooled again. I hope you found the first part as helpful. I hope you found it as helpful as I found it, and less challenging than I found it. I hope you’re just… It’s smooth sailing for you. For me it’s like freaking swimming against the tide a little bit, but I’m getting better. Again, COVID, quarantine, I’m apologizing a lot to my family, to Steve, to my kids, to my colleagues. And in this episode, y’all, we really dig into… There are times that some people will not apologize, and Harriet talks about how we have to have a platform of self-worth on which to stand and offer an apology, and sometimes people drop into shame, so they just… A lot of people who were raised not apologizing see saying, “I’m sorry for doing something wrong,” as saying that, “I’m a bad person.” And so they get into shame so fast they can’t apologize, and we’re going to uncover that. I think the other thing that’s important is, 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.

BB: 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? Let’s dig into this. This is part three and four of her, again, her master class and her teaching. You’re going to listen to me get really stumped in this one, but I hope it’s useful for you. Game changer for me.


BB: Okay, So lesson number three, “The Great Apology Challenge: Defensiveness.” I feel like people say to me sometimes when they hear me speak, they’re like, “How’d you get inside my head?” And I never understand exactly what that means until this moment where I’m like, “How’d you get inside my head?” Defensiveness. The great apology challenge, right?

Harriet Lerner: Right.

BB: Okay, so I’m going to tell you a couple of things that really stood out for me in this chapter, and then we’re actually going to do a role play.

HL: Yes, I’m going to inflict it upon you, Brené.

BB: It’s going to be amazing. Okay. Here are some things that you say that I love. This thing called, “The mischief of defensiveness.” We’re all wired for it, neurobiologically. It’s normal.

HL: It’s normal.

BB: We all want to protect our favorite image of ourselves. We don’t want to see ourselves outside of what we like about ourselves. And so because we’re neurobiologically wired for it, because it’s normal, we have to find a strategy to be aware of it and move out of it. Is that right?

HL: Yes, we need a strategy as well as motivation and the intention to get past our defensiveness.

BB: I love the “mischief of defensiveness”. You say something here that… First of all, this is one of my favorite quotes, and I’ve read every book you’ve written probably four times, “If we would only listen with the same passion that we feel about needing to be heard.”

HL: Yes.

BB: God.

HL: But we don’t. The reality is that we’re much more interested in enhancing our talking skills than we are interested in enhancing our listening skills.

BB: God, that’s true.

HL: It’s so true, and I actually have an anecdote to prove it, because when I was collecting data for The Dance of Anger, a colleague and I were doing these workshops in Topeka, Kansas, called “Talking Straight and Fighting Fair.” It was for women, and people were pounding down the doors to be participants in this workshop. And I decided at one point to do a workshop called “The Power of Listening,” and I had to cancel the workshop because the registration was like four people signed up for it.

BB: Okay, that’s so funny to me, because we line up to get into the power of talking, but no one shows up into the power of listening.

HL: Exactly.

BB: And then you wake up one day and you have the political culture we have today.

HL: Exactly.

BB: No. Everyone’s talking and no one’s listening.

HL: Right.

BB: Is it fair to say, before we jump into this role play, that defensiveness and receiving and giving heartfelt apologies is mutually exclusive?

HL: They are mutually exclusive. Defensiveness is the arch enemy of listening. It’s the arch enemy of connection and intimacy, and it’s impossible to give an apology if we can’t move out of the defensiveness, because we can’t listen. We can’t get it. Obviously, it’s easy to apologize if we see a need for it and it’s a simple thing like I spilled red wine on your couch. Of course, I’m going to apologize. And it’s easy to listen if we like what the other person is saying, like you’re telling me how wonderful… and how wonderful it is to be here with me. It’s very difficult to listen when we’re being criticized, so that’s when we automatically listen defensively. We automatically listen… And this is very important because you have to catch yourself doing this. We automatically listen for what we do not agree with. We listen for the exaggerations, the inaccuracies that will be there. So, we listen for what we don’t agree with and…

BB: Oh my God, that’s true. Wait, I want to make sure I understand this right. When we are feeling defensive, we listen for what we don’t agree with.

HL: We won’t even be aware of feeling defensive. You’re not even feeling it.

BB: You’re not even feeling it. That is defensiveness.

HL: And that’s the way to catch it, because you won’t feel it. You won’t say to… Well, you may if you’re highly evolved. We might say to ourselves, “Wow, I’m being defensive. I feel it in my body. My… ” The way to catch it, whether you feel it or not, is you are listening to correct the exaggerations, the inaccuracies, etcetera. You’re listening for what you don’t agree with.

BB: So, we’re wired for defensiveness. We can engage in it without even thinking about it, but so we need to catch ourselves. And the best way to catch ourselves is when we realize we’re listening specifically for what we don’t agree with, what’s inaccurate, what’s exaggerated.

HL: Exactly. A very simple example that happened recently with Steve is he said that I was paying more attention to my women friends and putting all this energy into my women friends, and I wasn’t putting it into him. And all I could do was to think about the fact that I had not seen my women friends in three weeks. They were complaining they hadn’t seen me, and all I wanted to say to him was that, “That’s crazy. I’m not even seeing my women friends recently,” which, that’s a great example of defensive listening rather… Because it was inaccurate. That piece of it was inaccurate, rather than listening for the essence of what he was saying, which is he somehow felt I wasn’t present enough with him or wasn’t there.

BB: And he’s missing you.

HL: And he was missing me. So, I really had to stop myself from pointing out that he was totally wrong about this thing about spending all my time with my women friends. Okay, so that’s defensive listening. A simple example.

BB: We go back to the statement, “Do you want to be right or do you want to give to the relationship?” God.

HL: And do you want to hear? Do you want to get what the other person is saying, because no apology has meaning if we haven’t listened carefully to the hurt party’s anger and pain.

BB: You have to say that again.

HL: No apology has meaning if we haven’t listened carefully to the hurt party’s anger and pain.

BB: Okay, God, you know what I have? I have like an inner litigator. [chuckle] So when you start saying something to me that I’ve done or how I’ve hurt you, I am absolutely cross-examining you. And it’s funny that you say that, because two weeks ago, you said it had been a week since this happened. But now you’re saying 10 days, so which is it? Is it a week or ten, like I am…

HL: Right, exactly.

BB: Yeah, I’m not listening for pain. I’m listening for a right or wrong that I can prove or disprove.

HL: Right, that you can correct. Right.

BB: Alright. Shall we role play?

HL: Okay, so here’s… I’m going to tell you your part in this and my part in it.

BB: Okay, yeah. Okay.

HL: Okay, I am your mother, Brené, and you want to confront me about something really important that happened a long time ago, but it stayed with you, and you feel perhaps that our relationship can’t really move forward unless you can express this and I can get it. So, what this will be about, although you can change it as you feel fit, is, let’s say that when you were 16 years old, I divorced your dad. And during the long period surrounding the divorce, I was totally unavailable to you. I was ignoring you. I was just ignoring you. I was just thinking of myself, and you were going through a terrible time. The divorce was happening to you, too. You were the most vulnerable, you were 16, and maybe something bad happened to you at the time, like your boyfriend broke up with you. And that maybe even you’re in therapy and you’ve been talking about this with your therapist and it’s really gotten all revved up and you want to have a conversation with me. And of course, as for all of us, you don’t just want me to say, “I’m sorry, Brené.” You want me to get it, because this is what the apology is really about. You want me to get it and to feel it.

BB: Okay.

HL: Okay, so I’m your mom. Let me have it.

BB: Okay, here’s the thing, I’ll let you know if I’m dating someone. You don’t need to ask, but I’m not dating someone right now. And of course, I’m talking to my therapist about it all the time, as it turns out, I’m not good at letting myself be in relationships, which probably comes from all the shit that happened when you and dad were going through a divorce, not that you would have noticed, but yeah.

HL: What?

BB: It’s hard for me to be in a relationship because, A, I watched you and dad just completely fall apart in this crazy way, and I had my first boyfriend, you probably do not remember this because you were very self-absorbed with your divorce, who broke up with me during it because I was falling apart and he couldn’t take it. And of course, I didn’t talk to you about it because you, again, were not paying attention, so…

HL: Wait, Brené, could you just please stop for a minute because I’m getting a headache here. Could you slow down and tell me what is the point you’re trying to make here? It’s like…

BB: Don’t ride me about whether I’m dating someone or not because no, I’m not. And part of the reason I’m not dating someone is because I don’t know how to do that, because when I needed you and I needed to talk to you about what this was supposed to look like and feel like and work, you were not available to me.

HL: You’re talking about the divorce.

BB: I’m talking about the divorce and everything I went through, and everything I was going through in my own life when you were getting the divorce. The divorce did not just happen to you. Remember, I lived there too?

HL: Brené, the divorce did happen to me, and I had to put bread on the table, and I was struggling with things I’m sure you didn’t think about in your dating thing. And well, let me ask you a question because I’m just feeling a little upset here. Have you talked to your dad about this? I know you’re such a daddy’s girl that everything is blame the mother, but have you talked to him or is this just me?

BB: I have totally talked to him about it.

HL: You have?

BB: Yeah, and that’s actually none of your business. But I have talked to him about it.

HL: Okay.

BB: And all I’m saying to you is don’t ride me about not dating people. I’ll let you know when I’m dating someone. And if you want to know why it’s hard for me, you should look back to when I was growing up and you were not around. And I get you were putting bread on the table, because guess what? I was the one sitting at the table by myself every night.

HL: Well, Brené, could I ask you, since this happened when you were 16 years old, why are you bringing this up now? Why are you bringing this up now? This is way in the past. What’s got… What is with you?

BB: Because it’s still affecting me, and we’ve never talked about it, we’ve never dealt with it, and you keep pushing on areas that are really tender for me. And they’re tender for me because you did not show up like you should’ve shown up.

HL: So you are accusing me of being responsible for your constant problems with boyfriends?

BB: No, I’m asking you to see the fact that you were irresponsible as a mother when we were going through a very hard time as a family.

HL: I was irresponsible as a mother?

BB: Yes.

HL: I was doing everything to survive. I was doing everything to help you, and you’re telling me I was irresponsible as a mother.

BB: I’m not going to talk about this anymore.

HL: No, talk. No, I want to know… I want to…

BB: No, no. Because you know what? I’m not going to do… I’m not going to tell you how I’m feeling. And then on top of telling you how I feel, try to take care of you because you’re on the verge of one of your great breakdowns. I got it. I got it. I got it. I got it. You’re awesome, bread on the table, hard life. Got it.

HL: Well, I just want to say that I’m very sorry, that I did the best I could, that when you’re older, I think that you’ll understand more about what I went through.

BB: That would be awesome. What age do you think?

HL: What?

BB: What age do you think I need to be to understand?

HL: Something more mature than you are now, and I’ll tell you something else, Brené, because I have heard you talk about not living in the past, and I’ve heard you talk about positivity and about optimism. And then you come to me with all of this negativity, and it doesn’t fit in to anything about being positive or about caring, about relationships. It’s just an attack on me.

BB: Okay. Well, I’m positive we’re done talking. How about that? [chuckle]

HL: Okay. You are much too articulate, Brené.

BB: That was exhausting. [laughter]

HL: Well, there’s an example of something that didn’t go very well in a mother-daughter relationship.

BB: That was hard.

HL: That was hard for me, too. Let’s talk about how it felt to us. Do you want me to start or do you want to say how…

BB: No, go.

HL: It felt like there was no chance of me not being defensive. It felt like I was going to be annihilated and you could talk verbal circles around me which made it… Verbal circles and so quickly and so fast that I couldn’t even slow down my breathing, and I just couldn’t go there. And I just wanted you to shut up. So that’s how I felt.

BB: I felt like going into it, and maybe it’s because I knew what the role play was going to be, you were never going to show up for me. So I just wanted this to hurt as much as possible.

HL: You did it. Because I didn’t intend to do the crying thing. I actually never thought that would happen, and then it came.

BB: And then on the inside you’re like, “Am I making Harriet Lerner cry?” [laughter] Yeah, no.

HL: Yeah, so…

BB: I had to remind myself that I was in a role play when you said, “When you’re more mature, you’ll get it.” I couldn’t believe it.

HL: Yeah.

BB: I couldn’t believe it. Not once you said, “Tell me about your hurting. Tell me what’s hard.”

HL: Right. And I felt I had no space to do it because I felt that you were coming at me at this highly articulate rat-a-tat-tat way, both with the current situation of that I shouldn’t be asking you about boyfriends, and then going back. So even if I were not that defensive of a person, I don’t think I could have taken it in. Sometimes the very speed at which we talk, the very number of words we’re throwing at the person, and the intensity in our voice just makes the defensiveness… I don’t mean to blame you for my defensiveness.

BB: No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

HL: But it makes it harder to hear.

BB: So how do you slow that down? How do you control for that, on the other side of that?

HL: Well, if I were, for example… I can show you that very easily, because I talk much too slowly. I’m told all the time I talk at glacial speed. I think, for example, I might have started by saying, “Mom, I really would like to talk with you about something. Is now a good time?”

BB: No, but how would you have slowed it down if I were the daughter and you were actually…

HL: You were the daughter.

BB: Yeah, but if you were not playing a defensive mom, if you were playing…

HL: Oh, if I were playing myself?

BB: If you were you, yeah. If you were you.

HL: Oh I see, I see.

BB: But yeah, because in my mind…

HL: How would I have slowed you down?

BB: Yeah. How would you have slowed me down? Because haven’t y’all done that before, where… Because I’m thinking of a very specific mother and daughter that really exist. And I’m thinking about a conversation that…

HL: That’s a very good question.

BB: Yeah.

HL: Because being a good listener also means that we know when not to listen. That we can say, I can’t listen now, or I can’t listen in this way. So I think that as the mother, let’s say I’m the non-defensive mother and you’re coming at me like that, I would first say, “Brené, this conversation sounds so important and I really want to hear what you’re saying, but I can’t listen well right now. So what about tomorrow after breakfast, and I’ll have my coffee, that we sit down and I really… I’m going to do my best to try to listen to what you’re saying.” And I might also say to you when tomorrow comes, I might say, “One problem I have is that I very easily feel flooded, and it would just be helpful to me if we could take one thing at a time.”

BB: Oh, I guess, already I’m like this, okay. Let’s start here. Already like I’m…

HL: Right. So you might… So Brené, why don’t we start with the issue that you started with that I wasn’t even aware of, that somehow, my bringing up asking you about whether you’re dating or have a boyfriend isn’t useful to you, because I wasn’t aware of that. So, help me to really get that piece of it. I think I would have to slow you down as the mother.

BB: But I love how you’re segmenting that. But the first thing I heard is you want to listen.

HL: Yes, I want to listen. I do want to listen.

BB: And that you want to care, and then asking for what you need in order to listen.

HL: Exactly, exactly. Because you are so articulate and you’re so fast, and I wouldn’t want to criticize you as the mother in any way for your style, but I would say, “I really do want to listen and here’s how you can help me, because I do want to hear.”

BB: That is so powerful. Oh my God, that’s so powerful.

HL: Yeah.

BB: I want to listen. I want to hear. I care deeply about what you’re talking about. I see you’re hurting. Here’s what I’m going to need to be able to hear you.

HL: Exactly. Right, very well, right.

BB: Did y’all get that down? Okay. So sometimes, in wholehearted listening, you have to know what you’re going to need to be able to hear.

HL: Right, right.

BB: Do you have permission to ask that?

HL: Now, ideally, because you were feeling it so strongly, you might not have accepted it if I said that you… You’d have said, “Look, I want to talk now.” Ideally, I’m so committed to you, I’m going to really just try to sit through this blast and then ask you questions to segment it. But yeah, I might need to tell you that this is what I need.

BB: Yeah. So the mother/daughter that I’m picturing in my head, she said that her daughter really, really attaches every hard thing she has in her life to the way she’s raised and what’s happening in their family. And she said, “I can’t get a word in edge-wise. I can’t even ask a clarifying question.” And so… But you can say, “This is what I’m going to need to hear you.”

HL: Right, right.

BB: Wow.

HL: And also, what’s very useful… This is going to sound like a very silly, simple thing. It’s very useful to go to a new place. In other words, that mother and daughter, and most of us are, if you’re in a family, you’ve had so many arguments in the kitchen and in the living room, and…

BB: Yeah. I have goosebumps because that’s what she told me. It’s always in the kitchen or at the bar.

HL: Right, somewhere else. And one thing that’s very useful is to go to a place where you have never had a fight, like a new place, like a new coffee shop. Like, “Let’s go to this new place and let’s sit down, and I really want to do my best to listen.” Because it makes a difference to actually change the venue, silly as that sounds.

BB: It doesn’t sound silly at all to me, because there’s a history and a pattern that happen there.

HL: Right, exactly.

BB: Okay. Let’s talk about non-defensive listening and go through, you have identified through your research and work, 10 elements of wholehearted non-defensive listening. I’m going to read them, and then can you jump in and let us know what it means exactly?

HL: Yeah, or inexactly.

BB: Or inexactly, yeah.

HL: But yeah, I will.

BB: Okay, recognize your defensiveness.

HL: When we’re criticized, we immediately go into defensive mode. Like you said, we’re hard-wired for it, it’s automatic, it’s normal, it’s universal. And just recognizing our defensiveness can give us a little bit of distance from it. That sort of tense… But, but, but, but we want to say, but we are listening for the inaccuracies. So, recognizing it is the first step to having the intention of moving past it.

BB: Do we all have tells, tells that we know on the inside?

HL: If you pay attention, you can feel it in your body.

BB: Okay.

HL: Right, yeah.

BB: Number two, this comes up in every course I teach when I’m teaching with someone else, like a self-compassion, Kristin Neff, breathe.

HL: Right. Defensiveness does start in the body, and it does make us tense and on guard. So, slow down your breathing and do whatever mindfulness technique or what you’ve learned in your, I don’t know, childbirth class, whatever. Any breathing technique that works for you to calm yourself. You cannot listen with an overheated nervous system, it’s not possible. So, breathe.

BB: What about for those of us who are breath holders?

HL: Breathe.

BB: Breathe, that’s hard.

HL: Breathe.

BB: Okay. Listen only to understand. This is hard for me because shouldn’t you be preparing your case?


HL: This is the hardest one. It’s really the hardest one, listen to discover only what you can agree with, and do not interrupt, don’t argue, don’t correct facts, etcetera. And if your points, these points that you’re making in your head, if they’re legitimate, all the more reason to save them for another conversation when the person might really hear you. Don’t use them as a defense strategy.

BB: Okay. So, it reminds me a little bit of Stephen Covey seek first to understand than to be understood.

HL: Yes.

BB: Yeah, look for what we share in common.

HL: Look for what you can understand and agree with.

BB: You can understand and agree with. Okay. Ask questions about whatever you don’t understand.

HL: Well, very often a criticism is vague, like, “You don’t respect me,” “I’m not important to you,” whatever it is, and it’s very helpful to say, “Can you give me a specific example where you felt that I wasn’t respecting you?” because that’s going to help me to better understand. So, ask questions to better understand the person’s experience, but don’t… It’s not nit-picking, don’t act like a lawyer, even if you are one.

BB: So, don’t say, “Tell me exactly what I did. No, tell me exactly what I said.” Don’t do that. Say, “Help me understand what you mean, can you give me an example? Can you tell me a time when you felt like that?” So, so much of this is also in how you’re showing up.

HL: Right, and then your tone, there’s such a difference in your tone.

BB: Your tone, right.

HL: The difference between curiosity and nit-picking or picking on the person.

BB: Or the… What’s it called? The deposition, being deposed.

HL: Right, exactly.

BB: Okay, find something you can agree with.

HL: Well, I might only agree with 7% of what you’ve said, but that’s what I should be focused on, and I can apologize for that piece first. And if there’s nothing you’ve said that I can agree with, then I could tell you that I appreciate you bringing this up, and I’m really going to be thinking about it.

BB: Okay, let the offended party know he or she has been heard and that you will continue to think about the conversation.

HL: The continuing to think about it is a really important point. You don’t want to think that I apologized, I heard you and then it just slipped out of my brain that I never think about it again. So, a very important part of a heartfelt apology is to let you know, Brené, that what you told me is not going to slip out of my brain, that I’m going to continue to think about it. And that I also, I want the lines of communication to be open between us and if more comes up for you, let me know.

BB: That’s a very vulnerable thing.

HL: It’s so important because nothing is processed in one conversation, if it’s a really important hurt, so you as the hurt party need to know that what you said affected me, and that I’m going to come back and I’m going to initiate another conversation, not just leave it up to you. I’m going to initiate the conversation and let you know I’ve been thinking about it.

HL: It’s so important.

BB: But it’s rare.

HL: Well, we always leave it up to the hurt party, to bring up the next hurt.

BB: Yeah, to bring it back up.

HL: And it falls on the hurt party because the wrongdoer doesn’t initiate the next conversation. And we may never initiate it with good intentions, we might say, “Well, she’s not bringing it up again, maybe it’s too sensitive,” and it’s very important if I’ve neglected you like that and you find the courage to tell me that I initiate a conversation, to let you know I’m thinking about that, and I admire your courage in bringing it up.

BB: That would blow my mind if someone did that.

HL: So important.

BB: Okay, and I can think of a million work examples, this is just as much at work.

HL: Right.

BB: Okay, thank the critical person for sharing her feelings.

HL: It’s important to express gratitude where you’re going to expect defensiveness, but it’s important, even though you’ve just blasted the hell out of me that I could say to you, “Brené, it’s been hard for me to listen. But I want to thank you for your courage in bringing this up and what’s really important to me is to have a relationship where we can talk about things. Although it may take me a while to really take in everything you’re saying, I want to thank you for the conversation.”

BB: Who does that? Again, that’s vulnerable. And brave. Alright, define your differences.

HL: Okay, that’s a very, very important one. You don’t have to define your differences when you’re in the apology corner, I love that image.

BB: Yeah. Me too.

HL: Because you want to keep a pure apology. Now, expressing a difference does not mean I’m trying to convince you or fix you or change your mind, or get you to see it my way, it just means I can say, “You know Brené, this is one thing we see differently.” So it’s defining a difference.

BB: That’s really helpful on the receiving end, because it makes your apology more believable.

HL: Oh, absolutely.

BB: Do you know what I mean? It seems like it’s counter-intuitive, it seems like you would think that it didn’t make your apology more believable, but if you’re willing to say, “Yeah, I apologize, I own this part, I really… But here’s where I don’t really… ”

HL: Right. For example, where I see it differently, Brené, is that I do not feel that I was responsible for your dad’s drinking after the divorce. He’s a grown man. It was up to him to get the help he needed. I feel responsible for my behavior, but I do not take responsibility for your dad’s behavior and that’s a difference.

BB: It’s huge modeling around boundary setting too and around… it’s clarity.

HL: Exactly. And it’s very important that you think about it as defining your differences, not confrontation.

BB: No, right.

HL: No, I hate that word ‘confrontation.’ It’s defining your differences while allowing the other person to think and feel and react differently.

BB: And own their…

HL: And own their stuff.

BB: We can be in a relationship, we can exchange a heartfelt apology, we can deepen our relationship and still disagree on certain points.

HL: Right. Because intimacy requires a huge tolerance for differences.

BB: Yeah.

HL: And respect.

BB: And respect.

HL: For differences, right.

BB: Okay, so do you want to do the role play again?

HL: Oh, I’m scared because you’re… You’re so intimidating, Brené.

BB: Well you told me to be really tough.

HL: I did. Okay.

BB: And you told me not to let go.

HL: Okay.

BB: And I was like, and I kept like “I’m going to start crying, I want to let go.” Okay, want to try it again?

HL: Let’s try it again, we’ll try it again.

BB: Okay.

HL: So I’ll aim this time for non-defensive listening and I’ll aim for those things that we went through.

BB: Okay, yeah.

HL: Yeah, okay.

BB: I really wish you would stop asking me about who I’m dating. Because I’m not dating.

HL: Wait, wait.

BB: Yeah?

HL: Have I been… I’m sorry that I’m a little, feeling a little defensive. But back up a little bit, Brené, what is it with the dating that you’re wanting me to hear?

BB: No, I feel like you’re always saying, you always say something like, “So what are you doing on your weekends?” and I feel like it’s your way of saying, “Do you have a boyfriend yet?” and “When am I going to have grandkids?” and like…

HL: Oh, I see, I see.

BB: And I don’t, I don’t have a boyfriend right now. And it’s a really hard part of my life.

HL: I see, and I’m really glad you said that, because I didn’t realize that I was coming on like that you should have a boyfriend. I was feeling it more as curiosity. But I really hear what you’re saying. And…

BB: Just want to start crying right now, and be like “Thanks, mom.” [chuckle] Yeah. Can we go back and we’ll role play?

HL: Okay, I will really pay attention. I’m sorry, because now that I think about it, I have sort of been like a broken record around the boyfriend thing and… I’m glad you brought that up. Thank you.

BB: Well, I think for me, it’s hard because, like, I’m in therapy now, I told you I’m seeing a therapist. And she said, basically between what I went through with the divorce with you and Dad, and the fact that my first real love was during that period of time, and we had a horrible breakup and I didn’t have anyone to help me through it, you just weren’t around, that I’m very guarded. And that it’s going to be hard for me to find someone and really have a great relationship with someone if I’m this guarded, and you weren’t really around.

HL: Wow. Well, I’m at a temporary loss for words because what you’re telling me is very difficult for me to hear, and I really, really want to understand it. Can you say more about my not being around? I know I was very depressed. I know that. But, share a little more with me about, like, what you remember about my not being there.

BB: You really want to know?

HL: Yeah, it’s hard, but I absolutely want to know. I…

BB: Well, you were working all the time. It was before dad got sober.

HL: Right.

BB: You were working all the time, you weren’t around. I was having a really hard time, and I’m sure I was… I don’t know what I was acting like. But Carl, my boyfriend was like, “I can’t deal with this. It’s too much. You’re too sad all the time, you’re too freaked out about your parents’ divorce, I just want to have fun.” And there was no one to talk about it and you were… And so not only has dad gone and he’s moved out, but I’m home alone all the time, there’s no one there, and… Yeah, it just… It was… It sucked.

HL: Wow. I’m actually, you know… I want to tell you how sorry I feel. Because in fact, I remember the boyfriend, but I don’t remember being there for you when he broke up with you. And I don’t remember getting, in any way, how painful that was for you. I think I was really out of it. I have no excuse. I think I was thinking so much of my own pain that I didn’t get how incredibly painful that breakup would be for you. And especially as your dad and I were breaking up. Just to help me refresh my memory, did we talk about it at all? Or did we…

BB: No, we only had one conversation about it, and you said, “It might be for the better because you know that he drinks too” and we could possibly wind up like you and dad.

HL: I said that you could wind up like me and dad? It’s a really stupid thing to say, Brené. Because you’re you, and I’m me, and that was a really stupid thing to say. I’m very sorry. I wish that I could go back in time and do it differently. Is there, in addition to my ignoring the breakup, was there… I know this isn’t just one conversation because I want us to be able to have a relationship where we can continue this conversation. Is there anything that also really stands out? About the way I left you alone?

BB: No, but maybe dad wouldn’t have drank so much if you wouldn’t have pushed on the divorce.

HL: Say more about that.

BB: What was really hard to have a dad who was like drunk and like almost losing his job, and all it was was fighting about the drinking, and maybe if you were not so hard on him about the drinking, he wouldn’t have drank so much.

HL: Well, that’s a piece that I see a little differently, because your dad is and was a grown man. And, while I take total responsibility for my behavior, I don’t take responsibility for your dad’s drinking and not getting help so that… And we can talk about that piece later, but that’s a piece I do see a little differently. What is it like for you that I see that piece differently with your dad? What is that like for you?

BB: I think you can see it differently; I’m just trying to figure it out, I’m trying to find a reason why it happened.

HL: Why what happened?

BB: Just why everything fell apart.

HL: Why the divorce happened.

BB: Yeah. Why it happened? Why I’m having a hard time dating? Why I’m 24, I still don’t have a boyfriend? They say… My therapist says, you know, I don’t… I don’t let people in. I try to beat hurt to the punch, and so I’m just trying to figure out why it all happened so I think it’s easier for me to think, “Well, if you’d have done something differently, I could do something.” I don’t know, I’m just trying to figure it out.

HL: Right.

BB: I feel like you weren’t there, I never thought about… I never thought about before about, you know… I never thought about some of the things you were saying before. So I need to think about them, but I know you’re not going to want to talk about it again, but I think I just need to figure it out.

HL: Brené, I totally want to talk about it again. And in fact, what you’re bringing up and you’re understanding the divorce better from my perspective, and your pain, and the way that I ignored you. I… First of all, want to thank you for initiating this conversation. I know it must have taken so much courage and hard work in your therapy, and what I would like is, let’s get out our schedules and let’s make another time, and go out and have lunch together or coffee, or whatever you would like, and let’s continue the conversation. And I want you to know that although I can’t go back and be there for you like I should have been there for you, I want you to know that I am going to do everything to be here for you now, and I will never ignore you again when you’re in pain.

BB: That was amazing.

HL: Went a little better than our first conversation.

BB: You know what changed everything? I’m like in a state of shock. This is like heavy… This is intense, right?

HL: It is intense.

BB: You know what changed everything?

HL: What?

BB: Your curiosity.

HL: My really wanting to know.

BB: Yes.

HL: My genuinely wanting to know.

BB: Yes.

HL: Right. Right.

BB: So, do you think everyone can do that? Not just… A therapist with 40 years of experience and a researcher.

HL: No, not everyone can do it. And if I felt, for example, so insecure as a mother, and I felt that you were telling me I was a toxic mother, a bad mother, a narcissistic mother, if you threw that label at me, and I felt really badly about myself, I could not do that because I would just collapse into shame. So not everyone can do it, but we can all do better, we can all work on it. And that’s why we’re doing this. I think we long for that.

BB: Oh, God yes.

HL: We long for it from our parents or sister, but defensiveness is so powerful that when it happens, it’s a great gift. But it’s difficult.

BB: Yeah, I am going to share something really personal, like, so my parents went through a very difficult divorce when I was 21. And when she and I through the years have talked about it, I remember when she first started talking about… When I first started talking about it with her, and this was hard and helped me understand. She would ask me 1000 questions and she would say, “Do you mind if I write down what you’re saying so I can read about… I can read it and think about it later, because I can get really overwhelmed, but I really want to understand.”

HL: Wow.

BB: And she was very much in therapy and very much, part of, like, turning the family around. At first I was like, “Are you really going to write down.” She’s like, “Yeah. You can read it if you want to. But I just want to be able to… ” And I thought, she cares enough about what I’m saying. And then she’ll say, “So what does that mean again for you, like, what was your thinking when I said that?” And I’ll be like, “Can you get this down? I was thinking this… ”


BB: But I don’t think until this moment in my life at 50, that I understood the power of being curious.

HL: Right. Curious about the other person.

BB: In an apology situation…

HL: Right.

BB: Can you give me an example? Can you help me understand?

HL: Right. Yeah.

BB: And that’s just…

HL: That’s wonderful.

BB: That just changed my… It rearranged my entire being during that conversation because you can’t fake that. You couldn’t fake that, right?

HL: Well, the other person would pick it up.

BB: Right.

HL: You could try to fake it. Yeah. When you told that very moving personal story about your mother, I thought of my father. Who was the opposite, where nothing would get through. He really lacked empathy and he didn’t have very much capacity to connect and he never apologized. And one of the things he did is he always favored my big sister, Susan, who’s five years older, over me. But openly… And, it was really bizarre. He saw Susan as a great genius, and he would even introduce us, like, I remember him introducing me to a neighbor in Phoenix when I visited, and he said something like, “This is Harriet and Harriet writes books. But you should meet Susan, because Harriet is very bright, but Susan is brilliant.” And this was like his theme, you know, about like, I was this little turtle kind of moving forward and Susan was brilliant. So, in the meantime…

HL: I remember once I visited him again in Phoenix, and it was a time of great success in my life, and I was on the New York Times list and Susan had just lost her job. And I approached him, I was really going to, in a very curious way, not in a way that would make anyone defensive, raise this issue again. And I said to him, because he made one of his Susan is the brilliant one, and I said to him, and in my Jewish family, being brilliant and achievement was next to godliness, so I said, You know dad I have the feeling that even if I won the Nobel Prize, I came back and told you I won the Nobel Prize that you would still say that Susan is the brilliant one. And he said, Yes, that’s true.

HL: And I said, Well, that’s interesting. Help me to understand that. He said, Well, if you won the Nobel prize, you would win it because you’re good at one thing, but Susan is brilliant, she’s good at everything. And at that moment, I didn’t even feel angry, it was like a moment of total acceptance that there was no getting through, and there was no changing his fixed ideas of this issue. And it wasn’t even an apology I was looking for I was looking for isn’t that interesting? I won the Nobel Prize.

BB: Yeah.

HL: My sister had just been fired actually from a job and was really struggling and so I guess it’s an example of sometimes we accept that another person is not capable of hearing us, but we really give it a chance. I mean, I really had…

BB: Kind of in a gentle way.

HL: Very gentle way, and I had told him earlier in a gentle way, that it hurt my feelings when he would constantly mention that Susan was the brilliant one and Harriet’s the one who’s good with people. That was the framing, Susan’s the scientist. She went to Barnard and Stanford and Yale, and Harriet, she’s good with people and she went to the University of Wisconsin and he wouldn’t put the decal on the car, only Ivy League. So, this was like a very…

BB: Pervasive.

HL: Pervasive and big thing for him, but certainly there was not going to be an apology and there was not going to be any attempt on his part to think about this, to be curious about himself. So that’s in striking contrast to your mother, but we don’t choose the family that we’re born into, the family we’re born into is the deck of cards that fate hands us, and what we make of it though and how we navigate the relationships is up to us.

BB: Okay, lesson number four, our final lesson, and I love this because it’s the title of your amazing book, Why Won’t You Apologize? So, one of the things I’ve learned from you in this work and in this book is kind of in the secret life of the non-apologizer, where you’re not going to get an apology. There’s actually two primary reasons for not receiving one. One, we have a part in, as the wounded person, we’ve made it very difficult to apologize.

HL: Yes.

BB: And the second piece we’re going to talk about is, you’ve just got someone who is entrenched and absolutely not going to do it.

HL: Right. They are never going to hear you, they’re never going to care about your feelings, and they’re never going to be sorry.

BB: Okay. Let’s start with the one where we have a part.

HL: Right. Well, we should start there because the whole challenge of apology and reconciliation is a dance usually that occurs between two or more people, so although we don’t like to see this, we do have a part in the apology not coming, because we’re really throwing fire. I mean a typical example is where we started with the bananas where rather than my simply pointing out to Steve, that his again, buying five ripe bananas meant that three would end up in the compost bin I went from that to, what kind of person are you? And what kind of citizen are you? And of course, when we exaggerate, when we blame the blamer or shame the shamer, a perfectly natural impulse when someone has hurt us we want to strike back.

BB: Yeah, of course.

HL: We make it very, very unlikely that we can get through or get an apology. So that would be the most common actually scenario, yeah.

BB: And that’s better because we have a part in that and maybe we can do something.

HL: Exactly. Exactly.

BB: So, let’s jump into a scenario. And we’re going to do a work scenario for this one.

HL: Good. Okay.

BB: Okay, and this is going to be amazing because here’s what we’re going to do. I am going to tell a story about a work situation, and I’m going to talk about how this person dealt with it, and then Harriet is going to come in and she’s going to clean it up and set the stage for probably the only possible reconciliation apology we can get from this. So, let’s jump in. So, this is a story about John who has been with this company for 15 years, high producer, well-liked, well respected. John is in his mid-40s and finds himself in a very, almost kind of blindsided way, struggling with some major addiction issues, and so John goes into his boss’s office and says,

BB: “I am going to take three weeks and I’m going into recovery, and I’m going to in-patient treatment. Not only will I not be here, I will not be available. I will not have a phone or email, and all the things that go with going into recovery,” which are important, important parts of it, and John’s boss is not receptive to this.

HL: Now, has John told his boss that things will be covered, that he’s taken care of?

BB: Yes, absolutely.

HL: He has? Okay.

BB: Yes, well, he has a plan that he wants to run by John first because he wants… I mean he wants to run by his boss first.

HL: It’s not just like, “I’m going… ”

BB: No, it’s not like “I’m leaving at 3 o’clock and I won’t be back.” No, he’s got a plan for a hand-off.

HL: I see. Okay.

BB: And a pretty sophisticated hand-off, “Here’s who I think should take over this, here’s this… I will be able to clean up this one thing,” which is not always a luxury when you go into treatment, because sometimes you go intervention in, but John’s going and John’s boss, not receptive, not respectful. And so, John’s boss’ response is he is clearly disappointed. He uses language like, “We all have problems. I don’t know why you can’t push through; you’re really dropping the ball. I don’t understand why treatment is really important; I don’t even know that I believe in this whole thing of addiction, who told you you have the problem?” and John leaves his boss’s office pissed off and ashamed and just angry. So, John’s response is to fire off an email.

HL: Watch out for email.

BB: Yes.

HL: Great lesson, sleep on an email.

BB: Yeah, and so John was really interesting in his email, because he took all the values he’s heard his boss and this company espouse and write them and then say, “Here’s why you’re a hypocrite.” You know we say family and health first, I call bullshit, I’m trying to take care of myself and you’re putting me down. It says ‘we can trust each other.’ I told you something, now you’re calling me weak.” And so he has got a literally two-page email to his boss, trying to catch him in hypocrisy, really slamming this guy and saying, “I thought I could count on you, but really you’re just another talking head from this corporation. You only care about us as long as we’re producing, everything you’ve said to us for the last five years is… ” So this is the email, this is not going to lead to an apology, is it?

HL: No, it’s not going to lead to an apology.

BB: Why not?

HL: Well, unless his boss is a very highly evolved Zen-Buddhist-like person, it’ll take him a nanosecond before he shuts down. People take in very little information when they’re being criticized and they don’t want to hear what you’re saying, and it’s true that the boss shamed John, but John is shaming him back, and courage is not in blaming or shaming the person who hurt us. And in fact, writing a letter like that can only backfire because the boss will just see John as a problem. He’ll just see him as a problem person in the institution, and the boss, because of this massive criticism, will just wrap himself even more tightly in a blanket of rationalization and denial. There’s no way that the boss will be able to look at himself.

BB: Okay, so here’s what we did, we took this scenario before we came on to tape this lesson, and Harriet has these five points of how you really state your case in a way that people can hear you.

HL: Right, right.

BB: And it’s not a two-page shamey-blamey email.

HL: Right, because if we want an apology, meaning we want the person to get it, which is really what we want, you can’t shame the shamer or blame the blamer; it doesn’t help.

BB: Okay, so I want to go through these five before you read.

HL: Okay.

BB: The power of shorter.

HL: This is so important, it’s so hard. It’s the hardest thing for me because I over-talk things when I’m anxious, when I’m intense, when I’m angry, if I were John, I would automatically over-talk it, so don’t send that angry email, and also things on email can be read much more harshly as we know. Even than they’re meant. So, if you want to be heard, keep in mind, and the research verifies this, that people will take in very little information when they don’t want to hear what you’re saying, and it’s very important to keep it short, very important.

BB: So when people don’t want to hear, even if you’re avoiding shame and blame, when people don’t want to hear when it’s hard, it’s small.

HL: And you know people… It’s so interesting because when people try to get through and what they’re doing isn’t working, do they stop and do something different? No, they do more…

BB: More of the same.

HL: More of the same. So they write an angry letter to their boss or their co-worker, their sister, their mother, or they give a long lecture to their child, and that doesn’t work, so they add more points, they lengthen the conversation as if then the person will get it. Everyone who gets me as a therapist gets me as an editor and I always help people to say it shorter.

BB: Okay.

HL: Yeah.

BB: Move from blaming to assertive claiming.

HL: Right. Blaming, as I said, especially in a workplace, never works. It will only hurt you. If you study good leaders, they do not blame.

BB: Right.

HL: Parents, sort of, can’t help it, because you’re living 24/7 with a kid, but it’s just not useful to blame, and with assertive claiming, what it means is that you are defining yourself, this is what I think, this is what I feel, this is what I believe, this is the ground I stand on, while respecting that other people will see it differently.

BB: Okay.

HL: So no blaming. No shaming. Assertive claiming.

BB: No blaming, and I love assertive claiming.

HL: Right.

BB: Here’s my truth.

HL: Right.

BB: Okay, focus on how you feel on the other person’s crime sheet. Dang it.

HL: Right.

BB: So not a litany of everything they did wrong.

HL: Exactly. You focus on your own feelings, whatever, “I left your office feeling hurt and disappointed. I felt like I was a smaller person who didn’t meet your standards, wasn’t tough enough.” Those are your feelings as opposed to what you describe John doing in this long letter of, “You are a hypocrite. You say one thing. You do another thing.”

BB: Okay.

HL: So focus on your feelings.

BB: Do not ask for or demand an apology.

HL: Right, don’t ask for an apology, no, or demand it. It’s not useful… People do not like to be told how they should think and feel, and that goes for apologies too. When you ask for an apology or demand it, it can make an adult feel more like a child, like you’re asking them to, you know.

BB: Yeah and everyone goes back to that moment where your mom’s, “Apologize to him right now.”

HL: Exactly, and then if they apologize because you’ve insisted on it, it’s not as meaningful anyway. It’s really not useful to say, “I want an apology.”

BB: Okay, standing on the highest ground, whether a defensive wrong-doer hears you or not.

HL: Right.

BB: So you are not writing this letter, I want to make sure, for any motive other than to the assertive claiming and stand your ground and integrity.

HL: Right. You have the motive to be heard, so we all want to get through.

BB: To be heard, yeah.

HL: We all want to exceed the other person’s threshold of deafness, but basically you write a letter of integrity and maturity and you’re standing on higher ground, you’re being your best self, and again, unfortunately, we have no control…

BB: Right.

HL: Over how the other person responds, but we can be thoughtful about the best way to get through.

BB: So I want to ask you this because I get this question a lot in my work, and I think it’s really important, I’m sure I learned this from you somewhere along the way as well, but the healing of writing this should not come from the response.

HL: Oh, absolutely.

BB: It should come from the writing of it, not controlling the response to it.

HL: Absolutely, right. That’s very, very important. And it’s especially important as a therapist, I work so often with adults who in the course of therapy, like they get in touch with something they’re very angry about, and they get on a plane and they parachute down on their family, and they bring up some very intense issue of whatever it is, and no one’s talked about nothing more than sports and weather, and this family, they’ve never laid a groundwork for the conversation, and it doesn’t go well. Surprise, surprise. So if you’re going to confront someone, I actually don’t like the term confrontation. If you’re going to open a conversation about a very difficult issue, especially if you’re opening it up with a defensive person who’s hurt you, you do it for yourself, you do it because you need to hear the sound of your own voice speaking what you really believe. If you need a response, say from a parent, then you’re not ready to open up the conversation; of course, we want a particular response, but you do it for yourself.

BB: But if you do it you become dependent on it.

HL: That’s right.

BB: That’s very dangerous ground.

HL: Exactly, exactly.

BB: Okay, so two-page email, you’re a hypocrite and a liar, you don’t mean anything you say.

HL: Right.

BB: You talk about trust, you’re a joke, and that’s a joke.

HL: Or you don’t care about me.

BB: You don’t care about me, what is John right?

HL: Okay, so I condensed it a little bit.

BB: I see you’ve got seven lines.

HL: Right.

BB: Okay.

HL: Okay. So “Dear, So-and-so, it was difficult to tell you why I needed three weeks away from work, but I’ve come to see you not only as a leader but an important mentor in my life. I came to you with the truth about my addiction struggles because you have consistently talked to us about the need for trust and truth in our team. When you frame my struggle as weakness of character and ask me to suck it up, I left your office feeling like I had disappointed you and lost respect in your eyes. My hope is that you will support my decision to get help. I believe it is the bravest, most respectful and best thing I can do for myself, my family and this team.”

BB: Okay.

HL: Shorter, a little shorter.

BB: Short sort of claiming. No blame. Focus on how John feels, not there was no crime sheet at all, do not demand an apology or ask for one.

HL: Right.

BB: And complete high ground.

HL: Complete high ground and John didn’t lecture or preach or interpret or criticize or blame like you were saying he…

BB: Yeah. Wow.

HL: However John’s boss responds, John has behaved in a way that will increase his own sense of integrity and self-regard.

BB: It’s really funny because there’s nothing you can do if you read this letter except think respect. I respect this person. I may not agree with what they’re doing. I may feel like a lot of feelings about my behavior, but I respect this person. It was very interesting because I went through a very… I write about this in “Rising Strong.” I had a very shaming experience from an event planner who sent me an email after an event, really ridiculing me for how I mispronounced Pema Chodron’s name and said that if I was going to call myself an academic or a thought leader, I should at least have the respect to pronounce people’s names right.

BB: And I was devastated. It was so in my shame area of imposter and not being eloquent and educated enough. And I wrote a letter. And I called out some of the behaviors this woman had engaged in at this conference, which were very questionable, and I wrote the opposite of what you said it was shaming, it was blaming, and I CC’d her boss on it. And I didn’t send it, but I…

HL: You didn’t send it?

BB: I did not send it. I was smart enough to print it and take it to my therapist.


BB: And so Diana, I had… Diana said, “I want you to read it to me.” And now I know why she wanted me to read it to her, so I read it to her. And she said, “Wow, annihilation. You’re going on for full-kill here.” And I was like, “Yeah.” And she goes, “Tell me how you want this person to feel when she reads it.” And I was like, “I want her to feel small and found out and caught. And I was like, Oh my God, I want her to feel like she made me feel.”

HL: Exactly. Exactly.

BB: And it was such a moment for me, that like when you answer shame with shame and blame with blame, there’s no end to that cycle.

HL: Right.

BB: There’s no high ground there. Everyone’s in the sewer.

HL: There’s no high ground. And there’s also a paradox. Because if your intention was that she recognized how awful she was and that she would feel as bad, if not worse, that she had made you feel, that letter won’t do it.

BB: No.

HL: Exactly, it’ll do the opposite.

BB: It’ll defend her. She’ll be defended. She’ll be attacking.

HL: She’ll see you as even more of a difficult…

BB: She really is crazy.

HL: Crazy, right. Now, let me make one point of clarification. The point of clarification is that this exercise is an exercise to have the best chance to be heard by the person who hurt you. If that’s your intention… If your intention is to just let it all hang out, and your intention is to write a three-page letter that’s going to blame and shame the person, that’s your decision. So it’s important to know your intention.

BB: Oh, always.

HL: Yeah, right.

BB: Always. Yeah. I mean, on this especially, because if you want to write something from a point of self-righteousness and feel good and put everything out, that’s great. That’s not going to get you heard.

HL: Right, it won’t get you heard.

BB: Right. Good, thank you.

HL: Right.

BB: Okay, so we’re going to jump into this last part of our last lesson, which is kind of the entrenched non-apologizer. So I think it’s fair to say that everyone has probably been hurt at least once in their life by someone who is really never going to apologize.

HL: I would say it’s safe to assume that we’ve all been hurt far more than one time by someone who is never going to apologize.

BB: Okay. What in the hell is going on with that entrenched non-apologizer? Okay, and let’s say we’ve done a good job, we’ve done the great higher ground, seek to be heard.

HL: Yes.

BB: Some people will never apologize. And in order to apologize, a person needs a big platform of self-worth to stand on. And when they stand on that higher platform of self-worth, they can look out at their bad behavior and their mistakes, and they see those mistakes as part of a much bigger part of their being human, of their being an ever-changing, complex self. People who do really bad things and people who do the greatest harm to us are least able to apologize, because they stand on a small, rickety platform of self-worth. And they’re not able to then be able to see the bad things they’ve done as just a part of the whole complexity of being human. They’re very vulnerable to collapsing into shame, and they just can’t do it.

HL: You know, it’s very easy for anyone to apologize for a small thing. If anyone spills the coffee on your rug, they’ll say that they’re sorry, and they’ll really feel badly. They will. But it’s different for people who do a lot of harm because they have so much shame, and we can apologize for what we do. We stand on a platform of self-worth, we look at… We can’t apologize for who we are. If I said, “Brené, can you please apologize for being not a very great person… [chuckle] No one can apologize for that. Actually, there’s a wonderful… My favorite Peanuts cartoon shows Lucy at her five-cent psychiatrist booth thing, and she says to Charlie Brown, “Charlie Brown, the trouble with you is that you’re you.” Well, you know, what can Charlie Brown do with that?

BB: Yeah, what do you do?

HL: Right. So that people who do very bad things, who have a lot of shame, who have a rickety platform of self-worth are entrenched non-apologizers. The non-apologizer walks on a tight rope of defensiveness above a huge canyon of low self-esteem.

BB: Oh. I think for a lot of people, it will be counter-intuitive. Because it looks like non-apology is a function of arrogance and greatness.

HL: But what is arrogance?

BB: Right.

HL: Exactly. Arrogance is low self-esteem.

BB: Arrogance is low self-esteem. And one of the things I found that was so shocking in my research, the willingness to apologize and make amends was such a function of self-worth. The higher the self-worth, the higher the self-respect.

HL: Exactly, exactly. Right.

BB: The greater the willingness to apologize and make amends.

HL: Right. So that when someone really does serious harm, exactly, and they don’t have self-worth and they have shame, that if you confront them, they will really desperately, justify and minimize and reverse the blame.

BB: Oh yeah.

HL: And even say, “You caused it. You brought it upon yourself.” Or that it didn’t happen, it never happened.

BB: And validate the reality.

HL: And validate the reality. So that, it’s very important that if you are going to speak your truth to someone who’s done serious harm to you, you do it to hear, because you want to stand on that ground of speaking your truth, because it is very unlikely that the person can hear you or apologize, they’re too filled with shame.

BB: And so that becomes our work to do on our own.

HL: That’s our work to do on our own, but it’s also important to know that it doesn’t mean the person doesn’t love you, does not mean your dad or mom don’t love you because they behave badly and they can’t hear you. It doesn’t have to do with love, it has to do with the size and the strength of their platform of self-worth, and you can’t give another person self-worth, we can only do that for ourselves.

BB: Yeah, and it won’t work either you say, “You’re great, you’re amazing, now can you please apologize?”

HL: Right.

BB: Yeah, it doesn’t work. Right?

HL: Right, right.

BB: First of all, let me say thank you from the bottom of my heart.

HL: Oh, you’re welcome. And thank you from the bottom of my heart.

BB: It’s amazing.

HL: Yes, thank you.

BB: I just want everyone to know, there’s no way I would be doing the work that I’m doing today, if it weren’t for you. Really. You know that right?

HL: Thank you.

BB: Yeah, it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal. Yes, so we’re going to end with a parable. Yes.

HL: Okay, this is the parable I love.

BB: Yeah.

HL: And I asked Brené if she would read it?

BB: Okay, hold on.

HL: I’m still figuring out why I love it? I have some ideas.

BB: I’m emotional now, and now I’ve got to find the parable. Okay, I’m ready.

HL: Okay.

BB: Okay. So, according to an ancient acidic parable, a king quarrels with his son, and in a fit of rage, exiles his son from the kingdom. After a number of years, the King heart softens and he sends his ministers to find his son and ask him to come home. But the young man resist the invitation, he feels too bitter, too hurt to return. When the ministers present the sad news to the king, he sends them out again with a new message for his son, return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to meet you. I had goosebumps.

HL: Yeah.

BB: What does that mean to you?

HL: Well, I don’t know why it touches me so deeply, there are reasons that are obvious to me that I like the parable, and one is that the king, in this parable doesn’t have the false notion that by sending a word of apology by saying, I’m sorry, that that in itself, could heal the broken connection that that in itself is going to heal his exiling his son, and I also like the fact that he did not send his ministers out again with a request for forgiveness. He didn’t send his ministers out to say to his son, “The king is really, really sorry, and hopes that you will forgive him. Please forgive him.” He didn’t do that. The king instead performed his apology by letting his son know that he was prepared to travel for as long as it took to meet his son and bring him back. He didn’t say, “Come halfway, and I’ll meet you.” Somehow that wouldn’t have…

BB: No.

HL: It wouldn’t have done it.

BB: No.

HL: He said, come as far as you can, even if that’s one step, and I will come the rest of the way to meet you. And so in my mind, if we continue the parable into real life, in my mind, the son takes a few steps and the king, and this is the reparation, takes a very long journey to meet him and brings him back, and then with all of the lessons that we and our students have learned also with language, because language is part of what we have and with the reparations he can make, let’s his son know how sorry he is and what a terrible mistake he made, and all the grief he carries for that and of course, they live happily ever after because it’s a parable.

BB: Yeah. No, it’s beautiful, and I’m going to add this last piece that you just said to my final takeaways, which are apologizing is a function of self-respect and self-worth.

HL: Right.

BB: Choose the relationship over choosing to be right.

HL: Right.

BB: Stay curious and perform the apology.

HL: Yes. Yes, very good.

BB: Thank you all so much.

HL: Thank you all so much.

BB: Yeah, it’s been amazing.

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

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

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