Today, I thought I’d write a short primer focussing on how to apologize to someone who's undergone deep trauma. I’ll examine this topic from a trauma-informed perspective, which will hopefully include a few helpful pointers along the way.



1. Pray



Ask God to prepare your heart to listen and love well. Entreat Him to enable you to be humble and self-controlled.



2. Listen



No two people’s stories or experiences are the same, and because of this, our reactions can vary wildly.

In order to properly repent and apologize, first we have to understand what it is we’ve done. We cannot hope to repent well without knowing what we are repenting of.

This is a critical first step. It requires a great deal of humility and self-control.

During this listening phase, we should be careful not to inject ourselves into the discussion. This is about listening to the experiences and wounds of the other person, not about us.

The only things we should allow ourselves to say are:



a. Things reflecting back what the other person has already said, in our own words, to make sure that we’re understanding what they’re saying correctly


Because we each have our own perspective, we also tend to interpret certain events, emotions, and words through the lens of our own experience. We each have our own “internal dictionary”. We need to be careful that we’re correctly understanding the sentiments being expressed by restating things in our own words.

As you listen, you may come up with certain theories about why things happened or what the other person is feeling. Make sure to submit these theories to the other person and allow them to correct you. The problem with pet theories is that too often they make us feel smart and accomplished, as if we’ve figured everything out. When we fall in love with a theory, we might be tempted to fit what we’re hearing into our theory, rather than formulating our theory to what we’re hearing.

It’s important that we don’t make unilateral decisions on “what person X is feeling” or “why person Y acted this way”. This is where humility comes first. We are to elevate the wounded person, and give him or her power and authority over their own story. You are not the expert on who they are or what they’re feeling. They are.



b. Questions, to help us understand the other person’s perspective better


Be careful with this one. Questions can communicate impatience. So, try to reserve most of your questions for after they’re finished their narrative. Allow their story to unfold as they need it to.

Be sensitive to the timing of the questions you ask during their narrative. If someone is in a particularly vulnerable state, and sensitive to interruption, ask permission to jot down your question and circle back to it later. [1]

After the narrative is done, ask questions until you are confident that you understand. Then reflect back what you’ve heard to make sure you have a good grasp on the answer. If you don’t get things right, continue to ask questions until you understand completely. It may be necessary to work through this over a longer period of time, as too many questions all at once may become emotionally overwhelming for the wounded person. Allow them to dictate what they can and can’t handle, and give your wounded neighbour the space to change their mind about what they need.

Make sure not to allow yourself to become defensive. Questions should not be used to protect ourselves or try to convince someone that their unique perspective and wounds are “wrong”.

Ask questions slowly. Take time, before opening your mouth, to imagine if your wording could be received as combative or argumentative. When in doubt, change your wording.



We must listen. We must absorb the meanings, the feelings, the memories. We must allow ourselves to be moved by compassion and grief. We must allow ourselves to be broken by the things that have broken our wounded neighbours.



3. Repent before God



Bring the things you’ve heard to your Heavenly Father. Ask Him to examine your heart. This can be a difficult and painful process. Take as much time as you need.

Ask Him to reveal any sins to you that were not addressed in the time of listening. These might include sins of pride and racism.

Especially ask God to reveal where you’ve committed sins of:

  • Assumption (taking something for granted, and making broad conclusions that elevate your own perspective)
  • Presumption (accepting something as true, and yourself as the source of truth and goodness)
  • Entitlement (thinking that something is your due that really isn’t) *
  • Indifference to the suffering of others

* Hint: the best posture to start with is that in our natural state we’re due nothing but hell. Somehow we often imagine that we’re better than that. This is in itself a form of entitlement. It is often the case that we approach situations involving our own sin from a position of thinking that our sin is less severe than it actually is. These attitudes only multiply the barriers to reconciliation.

The act of repenting before God will prepare you to repent well before people. It will be instrumental in enabling you to understand your own sins better, and to offer a more genuine and complete apology.



4. Repent in front of the people you’ve wronged




a. Discard self protection


If we are taking a posture of repentance, there can be no defensiveness or self-protection allowed into our attitudes and mindsets. We cannot afford to protect ourselves when someone else has been so unprotected, so vulnerable. We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable, even if it hurts. We must not fight back. We must not point the finger to someone else and say, “It wasn’t me.”

I’ve read of a few apologies to Indigenous people that have started with the line, “Though we weren’t directly involved…” This is self-protectionist. It demonstrates that we are more interested in protecting ourselves and our own reputations than in caring for the hurting. This only multiplies the hurt and deepens the wound. We are essentially communicating the principle that we believe we are still more valuable than they are. It would be better not to apologize at all than to start in this way.



b. Confess your sins


List out the sins that you personally have committed, and the ones that you have inherited through your associations. Do not differentiate between them. [2]

Repeat some of the words and phrases that you heard from them in the “listening” part of your repentance. Demonstrate that you understand what they said by reflecting back some of these sins in your own words as well.



c. Apologize


Make sure that the words you use are an actual apology. “My bad” is not an apology. It an expression of blame, but not regret. It also sounds flippant. “I didn’t mean it” is an excuse, not an apology. Make sure to include an expression of regret, and the actual words, “I’m sorry.”



d. Don’t ask for forgiveness


Asking for forgiveness confers a burden on the wronged person. Now they must decide (immediately) whether to forgive. If they decide to forgive, they may feel forced, in your timeline, to begin the process of forgiving.

Let me be very clear: the hurt person doesn’t owe you anything.

I have personally experienced severe abuse at the hands of Christians. One set of unrepentant abusers had the gall to presume—while they were still abusing me—that because I am a Christian, my forgiveness was a given. [3]

This attitude of presumption and entitlement is vile and has no place in our hearts.

A wounded person’s forgiveness is hard-fought, and deserves to be honoured and respected. It will come when they are ready, and not before.



5. Consider public repentance



If we’ve committed sins publicly, we are obligated to also repent publicly. We should proclaim our repentance to anyone who will listen.

Think through how to express the depth of your sorrow and repentance. Perhaps it will be in words. Perhaps you will write an essay, a poem. Perhaps you will draw a picture or write a song. Perhaps it will simply be a heartfelt “I’m sorry.” Give this preparation a significant amount of time and thought. Personalize it, but be sensitive to the unique needs and requirements of the hurt person. Don’t let yourself off the hook by doing this half-heartedly.

We should apply the same principles from step 4 when making public apologies.



6. Maintain that posture



It’s important that we maintain our posture of repentance and humility even after our apologies and repentance have been offered and received. We can’t expect a traumatized person to “move on” from their wounds simply because we’ve apologized. It often takes years, decades, or even a lifetime to heal from deep trauma.

The human brain has a remarkable capability to protect our sanity by hiding our traumas from us. As we heal from one layer of trauma, in time it reveals the next layer to us, and eventually the next. Each layer will likely require intensive work, both in therapy and personal exercises, before healing can take place. This can be exhausting, terrifying, and disheartening.

If we demonstrate impatience, disdain, or judgement because the process is taking so long, we will only increase the trauma and our own sin against our wounded neighbour. Though it may be uncomfortable for us, we will need to find the balance between receiving God’s forgiveness (allowing Him to remove our guilt), and turning with compassion, patience, and humility towards our neighbours.

In some cases, the wounded party may say that they forgive us. Just because they’ve stated their forgiveness, this doesn’t mean that their journey is over. As they peel back the layers of trauma, they may discover new feelings and memories that weren’t present when the original forgiveness was offered. If they’ve decided to forgive, they will have to forgive you again and again for each new layer. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to apologize again, but it does mean that we need to continue to listen to our wounded neighbours as they uncover new things, and allow them to continue the dialogue for as long as they need to do so.

It’s only when the former victim has healed that the conversation can stop. The victimizer doesn’t get to decide when the conversation ends.




NOTES



[1] If you need to take notes, here’s an example of how you might be able to ask permission to do this in a sensitive way:

“I’m sorry. I don’t want to interrupt your story with a bunch of questions later that will intrude into your narrative. Would it be okay with you if I take notes on the questions I would like to ask? I want to be up front with this request because I don’t want you to think that I’m not paying attention if you see me writing things down. I’ll do whatever you think is best.”

[2] EDIT (July 9, 2021):

Perhaps this point needs a little clarification about inherited sins through association. It would be disingenuous to apologize for something that was done by a group you didn't belong to. For instance, I have been a member of several Baptist churches in Canada, which were all part of FEB (Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist churches). FEB didn't exist at the time that the Baptist residential school was in operation.

However, we are linked by association to these atrocities through our Canadian citizenship. I might say something like,

"As a Canadian, I'm deeply ashamed of what the governments I've elected have done. I acknowledge that I have been indifferent to your suffering, and that I have adopted racist attitudes that have  blamed you for the mental and physical manifestations of the generational trauma you have endured. I have taken too long to dig deeper into what the residential schools were. Others stood up against them while they were still operating. I am ashamed to say that I was not among them."

This would be an example of confession, without inserting excuses or self-protection.

[3] If we are Christians, we do owe it to Someone to forgive those who have harmed us. But a perpetrator should never act as though this is their due.

(Picture source)