Apologizing vs. Empathizing

I've previously written at length about the art of apologizing, since a full apology is much more than saying "I'm sorry".  It's important to highlight one point which gets often gets overlooked when one person tries to apologize to another. It involves the important distinction between apologizing and empathizing.

In my Atlanta counseling an therapy practice I help a lot of couples heal from the devastating impact of chronic infidelity, problematic porn use, sex addiction and other forms of problematic sexual behavior.  One message I convey from the start is that broken trust of this magnitude does not repair easily.

People who have betrayed someone's trust almost always feel and express sincere remorse for this behavior once it has been discovered. Even in situations not nearly as damaging as repeated infidelity, people who know they have caused pain to another person often use apology to try to mend the situation. And of course that's a good thing.

But while apologies are necessary to show remorse, they often don't bring as much healing as people would hope. This is in part because words are cheap and a person who is trying to make amends for causing pain needs to "walk the walk and not just talk the talk". This is especially true in situations where a person's trustworthiness has been seriously compromised.

What often gets overlooked is that an apology primarily focuses on the feelings of the person who has caused the harm. "I'm sorry; I feel terrible about what I did; I really feel embarrassed by my behavior, etc." are all statements about the person who engaged in the inappropriate behavior, not the one who has been hurt by those actions. Their impact may not be fully satisfying because they can sound like wounded narcissism. "I feel bad, I hate myself, I, I, I, I....."

The missing ingredient is empathy. This is the attempt to acknowledge and reflect the pain of the injured party. It is the most important part of the verbal equation and sadly it is the one that is expressed the least.

Empathy requires actively voicing recognition of the pain that the other person feels because of your behavior. "You feel betrayed and your ability to trust has been stolen from you; you don't know how you are ever going to recover from this shock; you're isolated in your pain because you fear you'll be judged if you talk about it; you feel like crying a lot; etc." Notice that these words have nothing to do with the person speaking them. They are entirely focused on the receiver.

I think one reason it can be difficult to move from apology into empathy is because empathy hurts more:.  It involves reaching out and embracing the pain of the person you have injured rather than merely showing them the extent of your own remorse. To talk only about what you feel can protect you from the rawness of the pain you caused the other person. Empathy actively seeks that rawness and invites it into your own heart.  It takes real work and it will grow you as a human being.

Empathy heals wounds while apology merely acknowledges them. This ability to actually reach out and touch the pain of another is necessary to achieve a deeper level of healing in a relationship.  Like any important skill it takes practice to develop the ability to express empathy.   I can assure you the reward is well worth the effort.


Bill Herring, LCSW, CSAT is an Atlanta expert on healing relationships damaged by chronic infidelity and he is a well-recognized expert on all forms of addictive and other problemaric sexual behaviors.