In case you missed it, hidden video revealed a famous person named Britt McHenry to be cold, mean, and petty. (Her employer, ESPN, suspended her for a week as the result of her malevolent outburst.)
McHenry later tried to apologize:
In an intense and stressful moment, I allowed my emotions to get the best of me and said some insulting and regrettable things. As frustrated as I was, I should always choose to be respectful and take the high road. I am so sorry for my actions and will learn from this mistake.
A part of me hates critiquing the written apology of someone I have never met, because context and tone can get lost in the jump to judgment.
But I am going to critique it anyway, because there is a subtle but essential point to be made here that we can all benefit from.
A subtle but important difference
Unless we are apologizing to ourselves for something, we are apologizing to someone else — for hurting them, for inconveniencing them, for misleading them, whatever it may be. Which means the apology should be focused on that other person.
Look at that apology above.
“I” is used four times in three sentences. The subject of McHenry’s rancor is not mentioned once. In fact, more than half of the apology is spent justifying the action that is ostensibly being apologized for. Once McHenry finally gets around to the actual apologizing, all she can muster is: “I am so sorry for my actions.”
This is a perfect illustration of narcissism crowding out empathy; and an apology is nothing but wasted breath if it doesn’t come from an empathetic place.
Is McHenry sorry for her actions? Or is she sorry for the negative impact that her actions had another human being? It’s a subtle but important difference.
I tweeted this point earlier today. A good friend then tweeted back, “Is that a chicken vs egg thing? Had the action not occurred, the harm wouldn’t have happened, hence regret.” Perhaps.
But if McHenry is experiencing the emotion of sorrow because of her actions, as she claims, what is causing that emotion?
Is she sorrowful that her actions were caught on camera, that they revealed her meanness to the world, and that she got suspended? Or is she sorrowful that an intense and stressful moment caused her to make mean, condescending, and hurtful comments to another human being?
Narcissism … or empathy?
Perhaps in McHenry’s heart it is both. I don’t know her. We ought to give her the benefit of the doubt if we’d expect it ourselves, which we would. Perhaps this was truly her worst moment. None of us wants to be judged by our worst moment.
But the dearth of empathy in her words that attempt to make amends for the moment is unavoidable.
Which makes her apology ring hollow. And that’s a shame.
Apologies are opportunities
An apology is a terrible thing to waste, because it’s such a wonderful opportunity to make amends, to lift up a person you’ve let down, and to lay the foundation for renewed trust and connection in a relationship.
And an apology is one time where pride and humility need not be in immediate balance. In fact, apologies are typically times when we are pulling ourselves back into balance with a extra dose of humility after pride has run rampant.
Think about apologies you’ve had to make. How many of them were the result of unchecked pride? Probably a lot of them. I know that’s true for me.
You can’t correct a mistake of pride with more pride. You correct a mistake of pride with humility.
I hope Britt McHenry was sincere when she said that she will “learn from this mistake.” I wish I could say that her apology gave me any measure of confidence that she has.
Since this unnecessary, unfortunate situation happened, we might as well learn from it.
Lesson 1: You learn a lot about a person from how they act when they think no one is watching and from how they treat people whom they think are “lower” than them in terms of stature and accomplishment.
Lesson 2: Apologize with genuine humility. Otherwise, you’re probably just compounding the original mistake with the same mindset that caused it in the first place; and not apologizing at all is better than an insincere, self-serving apology.
Let’s tuck these lessons away for the next time we are in an intense and stressful moment, and the next time we have something to apologize for.
Each is a great opportunity to show kindness and empathy when it might not be easy. We ought not ever let such an opportunity pass us by.
Flickr Creative Commons Image via Todd Lappin