As Yom Kippur approaches, many of us find ourselves in a more reflective mood than usual about our lives and our relationships. It is both a somber period, as we consider our mortality and flaws, and a hopeful one, as we resolve to make next year a better one and improve ourselves. Much of this focus on self-improvement is solitary, introspective work, in which we identify negative character flaws and negative behavior, express regrets about them and commit ourselves to curtailing this behavior in the future. However, an equally important component of repentance is interpersonal, as we approach those we have wronged in the past and ask for forgiveness. In fact, according to Jewish law, when it comes to sins of an interpersonal nature, approaching the wronged party is a necessary prerequisite of atonement.
Psychology can provide guidance as to how to navigate the potential minefields of asking for forgiveness and responding to requests for forgiveness. How does one approach a friend or family member and ask for forgiveness? How does one respond when approached by another person who is asking for forgiveness? Here are some pointers to keep in mind as you navigate these sensitive tasks.
1. Pick up the phone and call!
In this time of digital technology, many people, particularly millennials, are more apt to text or email others than speak with them on the phone. When it comes to a sensitive conversation about resolving interpersonal conflict or forgiveness, there is no replacement for hearing a person’s voice. Through our voices, we not only convey words, but also convey emotions and other meaningful content that is impossible to effectively convey through text. Phone calls also allow for a more reciprocal, two-way interaction that allows for both parties to respond to one another in the moment so that hurtful texts or emails are not lingering or hanging over the head of the person on the receiving end.
2. Take the time.
Time is short this time of year, with all of the holiday preparations and crammed work schedules, so there is a real temptation for requests for forgiveness to be short affairs, done on the cell phone minutes before Yom Kippur begins. But it is worth leaving time for these conversations. They are unique opportunities to build intimacy with others and have a meaningful moment with a loved one or friend.
3. Be specific.
If you feel you have wronged others, it is best to be specific about the way you have wronged them and about how you will change your behavior in the future. A vague statement like, “I’m sorry if I hurt you at all over the course of the year” may be a sincere expression of remorse, but can also seem superficial or perfunctory. An example is, “I’m sorry I can be so critical of you when it comes to caring for our kids. I will try to be more patient and communicative with you about my feelings in the future.”
4. Keep calm.
It is best to enter into a potentially emotionally laden conversation feeling calm and collected. Take a deep breath before starting the conversation and try to tune in to your internal emotions. When you are mindful and aware of your internal state, you are less likely to act it out with others. Sometimes it is best to “strike when the iron is cold.”
5. Don’t play the blame game.
If someone approaches you asking for forgiveness for an interpersonal transgression in a sincere way, they are opening themselves up and allowing themselves to be vulnerable with you. Don’t use it as an opportunity to criticize them further and add salt to the wound by saying something like, “Well you shouldn’t have done that to me. That was really mean!” If you still have lingering hurt as a result of the offending action, you can use this conversation as a chance to be honest about how the other person’s behavior affected you. An example would be, “When you criticize me in front of the children, I feel really embarrassed. At those moments I become so furious with you—it makes me not want to be around you.”
6. Nip it in the bud.
There’s an old saying, “Don’t go to bed angry.” While this time of year is an auspicious time for repentance, it is best to address wrongs of an interpersonal nature as soon as possible, so they don’t fester and lead to increased tension with the other party. If you feel that you hurt someone, you might be tempted to push off apologizing, as it may seem easier to avoid addressing the offense. But while apologizing might be difficult in the short run, repairing your relationship with another person will be better for all parties in the long run.
I wish you and your families a cleansing, meaningful Yom Kippur and a year full of personal and interpersonal growth. Shana Tova!
Dr. Gottesman is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Valhalla, New York. He also works part time as a psychologist at the Harlem Child Development Center. He works with clients of all ages, but specializes in child and family therapy.