Saying sorry

In my 20s I lived in Japan. At that time the Japanese establishment denied the presence of HIV/AIDS in the country, despite many businessmen having unprotected intercourse with sex workers in Thailand and China. The powers-that-be refused to acknowledge that Japanese men could do such a thing, and as it’s an island nation, they fooled themselves into believing that the virus couldn’t possibly be present there.

As a consequence of this collective shame-based denial, the medical services didn’t screen blood for HIV/AIDS. The inevitable happened: thousands of haemophiliacs were given transfusions with infected blood and developed full-blown AIDS. It was a national scandal of epic proportions.

I watched a news feature in which parents of those who’d been infected confronted the Health Minister and other high-ups, whose denial had caused the problem. These middle-aged men in grey suits got down on their knees on national TV and bowed in deep apology, humiliating themselves in front of millions of their countryfolk. They had fucked up and they were subjugating themselves to acknowledge it. And with that, it was done.

When I got back to England, I told my dad and stepmother what had happened. I found the public apology deeply moving, a fitting way to bring the shame in and own it. A humiliation like that was effectively the end of these men’s careers – they could never get another job after that. It felt elegant, profound and complete as it was.

My dad and stepmother didn’t agree. It was outrageous that these men could get away with what they’d done with just an apology! They should be stripped of everything, sued, punished, imprisoned. Something drastic needed to be done!

What they couldn’t see was that something drastic had been done. In a country where honour is a core value, the men who’d committed this act had lost any shred of dignity by apologising publicly. Their apology cost them everything, which was appropriate to the scale of the wrong they’d committed.


A while back I had a situation with a lover in which I felt she’d wronged me. She often felt afraid around me, convinced I would get angry if she spoke her mind, and she blamed me for this. I watched with surprise and hurt as she spun a story around it, projecting her fear onto any scrap of my behaviour she could get hold of, making the whole situation my fault.

We’d been here before, and the first time we’d both had a part to play; but the second time around, it really didn’t have much to do with me. I was simply being me, and when she got triggered by my presence, she blamed me for it. And then she dumped me.

I was very upset and deeply hurt. I didn’t deserve that. I broke off all communication and was sure that any kind of relationship between us was over.

A few weeks later, something wondrous happened. We found ourselves on a Tantra retreat together. For the first few days I avoided her; but at the end of a ritual towards the end of the week, she came up to me with bright clear eyes and said, “You were right, I hurt you and I’m sorry.” We stood there looking into each other’s eyes and I could see that she really meant it. I burst into tears.

She had dared to admit that she had done something wrong and was humble enough to apologise for it. We stood together and cried a little while gazing into each other’s eyes. And then it was done. The air was cleared and we quickly became friends again.


In order to apologise to someone, we need to master the two-sided coin of pride and shame. Shame is that feeling we hold deep inside that we are not good enough. It’s the sense that we are fundamentally wrong, broken, unloveable, bad, useless etc. It is, to use Brené Brown’s word, the great human gremlin and one of the root causes of much ugly behaviour, both individually and collectively.

Pride is the flip side of the same coin. It’s the bit of us that compensates for ‘not good enough’ with ‘better than others and don’t you dare question it.’ It’s a shield we hide behind when deep down we feel bad about ourselves, a way to deny the shame by flipping it on its head.

… continued …


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