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The admittance of wrongdoing, the righting of the wrong, the acceptance of the part you played in hurting someone else, and the first step to repentance. Saying I’m sorry is hardwired into us from an early age as the right thing to say, it’s just what you do, the way we make amends, build bridges, and put out fires. I’m sorry doesn’t absolve us of our sins but lays them at our feet giving the recipient the basis on which to start healing.
So why, does this statement often fall flat, why does “I’m sorry” often feel like nothing more than a reactive motion. How do we get this so wrong, so often? And what can we do to fix this?
I hold a grudge. I don’t like this, it doesn’t serve me, but I do. I really am a forgive (kinda) but don’t forget type of person.
I struggle with accepting apologies because I am completely signed up to the “actions speak louder than words” school of thought. I have heard so many apologies that are not then followed up by action, change, or learnt behavior that I now feel immune to those words.
Holding onto this anger is not healthy for us, it doesn’t change anything, and it certainly does not allow us to let go. Realising this, I sought to understand further and try in the process to understand the power of an apology and why so many of them I have received left me feeling dissatisfied and, in some cases, worse!
The most common apology we hear (and give) goes a little like this: “I’m sorry you felt that I treated you that way but it was not my intention for you to take it like that.”
This form of apology is one that is so common (I am sure we can all relate). So, what’s wrong with that? In one word—everything.
In an apology, the onus of responsibility/the reason for the apology should be in your actions. The recipient needs to know you are genuine. Using words like “made you feel that way” or “you to take it that way” shows that, whilst you are apologizing, you do not accept responsibility for how it made them feel. You are putting the onus of responsibility back on them—their response becomes the problem, not your actions—therefore these sorts of apologies fall flat in their effectiveness. It could also make the receiving party feel much worse.
The point of an apology is to hold your hands up and accept you are wrong, validating the recipients’ experience and acknowledging their pain. It may just seem like semantics, but it really is the difference between hollow words and a heartfelt apology.
The second mistake in our above example is the use of the word “but.” An apology that has a but in it, is automatically a failed apology. This is not the moment for your feelings to be absolved; it is not the moment for justifications or excuses. An apology is for the other person. Don’t make it about you. Any apology that has but in the middle of it, is no apology at all. It’s not received well, does not have the desired healing effect, and will not end well.
Dr. Harriet Lerner is a renowned psychologist and relationship expert who has written a book on this very subject; Why Won’t You Apologize takes a long hard look at the construction of our apologies, the effectiveness and theory behind them—and the reasons so many of us do not get the results we desire from giving them. I have found this book profoundly informative, alongside gaining further insight into the transformative effect of a true and wholehearted apology in healing broken relationships. Lerner puts a microscope on the ways in which we apologise and the differences between an effective apology and an ineffective one.
For me, I realised how my own apologies were much more centered around me than the injured party. Which goes a long way to explain why I never seemed to feel good giving them, nor receiving. This is not uncommon—we use apologies often to justify and pacify our own behavior, when in fact, it should all be about validating the other person.
For me, a good apology must be short and to the point. I want to know that you are sorry for what I am saying you are responsible for, be that my pain, betrayal, my feelings being hurt, or anything else. The basic premise must be that you accept and apologise for your actions, not my reactions.
When a person says you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t. ~ Louis CK
Another insight from Dr. Lerner’s book that really struck me was our instinctive belief that an apology automatically earns us the right to forgiveness. It does not.
You can accept an apology without having to forgive someone; receiving an apology does not necessarily mean you are able or even will be able to forgive. What it does do, however, is provide a basis for letting go, moving on, and a foundation for forgiveness, should that be a place that you want to go.
“Not everything is forgivable. Accepting an apology doesn’t always mean reconciliation. The best apology in the world can’t restore every connection. The words ‘I’m sorry’ may be absurdly inadequate even if sincerely offered. Sometimes the foundation of trust on which a relationship was built cannot be repaired. We may never want to see the person who hurt us again. We can still accept the apology.” ~ Harriet Lerner
When an apology hits the mark, you will feel instantly calmer. Whilst you may still be angry, and still be hurt—it will smooth the edges and initiate the healing process. An apology made with sincerity and with clear acceptance is an incredibly powerful thing. A real apology is transformative.
You may think that you need to justify your side of the story when apologizing. Whilst you are more than entitled to give your side of the story and provide an explanation to the injured party, that should be a separate conversation—and not forming part of your apology. Whilst your intention may not have been to cause them pain, you must recognize that your actions, nevertheless, did hurt this person; acknowledging that regret needs to be the sole purpose of your apology.
Following up an apology with action is also critical. Whilst saying “I’m sorry” is as simple as muttering words, to complete this apology you must not repeat that behavior. Whilst “I’m sorry” will open the doors to letting go and repairing a connection, a repeated apology because of a repeated behavior will certainly only fall on deaf ears.
Here are Harriet Lerner’s nine rules for delivering a sincere apology:
1. Does not include the word “but.”
2. Keep the focus on your actions and not on the other person’s response.
3. Includes an offer of reparation or restitution that fits the situation.
4. Does not overdo.
5. Doesn’t get caught up in who’s to blame or who started it.
6. Requires that you do your best to avoid a repeat performance.
7. Should not serve silence.
8. Shouldn’t be offered to make you feel better if it risks making the injured party feel worse.
9. Does not ask the hurt party to do anything—not even forgive.