In the best of times, it’s hard to admit you’re wrong. There’s nothing like digging into a piece of humble pie to remind you that — even if you’re a hot-shot, a genuine smarty-pants, or the nicest of nice guys — you still make mistakes. And, in a society that insists we all have to be the best and the brightest, apologizing can feel like an unbearable admission of weakness. So, instead of admitting our fault, we deny, counterattack, make excuses, or simply pretend it never happened.
But at what cost?
Think back to a time when you could have apologized but held back. The apology stuck in your throat for whatever reason, and — because the hurtful or offensive act was never corrected — the grievance persisted, tainting your own quality of life and/or the other person’s. When left ignored, a small scratch can even become a deep wound. And, what’s worse, by stubbornly clinging to our own righteousness (even in the face of another’s pain), we fray the bonds of safety and trust that make our world livable.
• We signal that we don’t value the relationship — or the other person — leading to loss of trust, love, and respect.
• We make the injured person wonder if it’s their fault, or if their suffering is even worthy of notice. This can stunt a person’s sense of self — and possibly cause the hurt to be paid forward, like this girl who was bullied and then became a bully in turn.
• We sacrifice our own integrity, breeding a guilty conscience and hacking away at our own self-esteem.
• And, if the act of wrongdoing violates a social code of conduct — backbiting in the office, for example — we might slowly find ourselves marginalized and wonder why (think L.A. Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling, whose non-apology after the leak of his racist comments only made the situation worse).
Fear-based thinking leads us to believe that apologies are a sign of weakness: We’re scared to face the world without our armor. But, by letting our pride stop us from making amends, we narrow our universe and (unwittingly) disempower ourselves.
A sincere apology releases you from the burden of being infallible, and the chain reaction that results can be truly inspirational. You demonstrate that your relationship is more important than being right. You release the injured party from pain. Your apology can reverse the tide of hurt and anger, smoothing the path for forgiveness and healing in a relationship, according to a 2014 study by the National Academy of Science. Instead of closing yourself off with negative thoughts, your apology reopens the door to human connection.
It takes courage and a secure sense of self to be able to check your ego at the door — and that’s something of which to be truly proud. This exercise can help ease the way:
• Separate the objective details of what you did from why you did it. Create an unbiased statement of your actions that isn’t colored by your emotions or the actions of the other person.
• Consider your action statement from the standpoint of your values and the person you want to be in the world. Where is the gap between you at your most authentic and you at the moment of the hurtful act?
• Think about your actions in terms of how the offended person saw and felt them. How would it make you feel?
• If you find yourself justifying your actions with phrases like “But I need to…” or “But she did…,” start this process over until you can remove the reasons and see your actions solely for what they were.
Then, with love instead of anger in our hearts, here’s how all of us can make a genuine apology:
- Admit you were wrong. A vague sorry won’t go far. You have to name exactly what you did, without skirting the gory details, even if they’re embarrassing. Describe what you did in plain language, and show that you understand why it was wrong. This might include recognizing, in words, the other person’s pain or humiliation.
- Explain your actions. Your explanation has to show that, though you committed a fault, your action isn’t the same as who you are. Give context. Tell the story of how X (a horrible day at work) led to Y (a short fuse that caused you to snap at your best friend).
- Show real remorse. A real apology shows your humanity. It goes beyond your own self-interest to reveal that you genuinely feel bad about hurting others and/or violating a shared moral or social code.
- Make good. Sometimes it’s tangible: You took someone’s stuff without asking, so you complete your apology by replacing it. But, most times, it’s a person’s dignity and self-worth that are at stake. Ask “what can I do to make this better?” Listening, caring, and honoring the other person’s emotions go a long way toward healing.
Anyone’s who has ever been on the receiving end of an insincere apology knows how a hollow-sounding “sorry” can actually aggravate the situation. Watch out for these pitfalls:
• The non-apology apology. “I’m sorry that you felt that way” is a highly unsatisfying way to make amends. It admits no wrongdoing — and shifts responsibility to the other person for being just too darn sensitive.
• Making excuses. There’s a distinct line between explanation and excuse-making. Excuses are when you let yourself off the hook; an explanation reveals the unbiased truth about your bad behavior.
• Faking it. If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be sorry for, don’t apologize until you genuinely understand the nature of the offense. Sorry for its own sake isn’t reassuring because it offers no guarantee that you won’t do it again.
• Avoiding saying “I.” By saying “mistakes were made” instead of “I made a mistake,” you blame a third party, instead of yourself. You need to own your own actions for the apology to be effective.
• Acting indifferent. A quick, emotionless “I’m sorry” signals that you don’t really mean the apology — even if you do. Be vulnerable enough to show your real emotions. Look the other person in the eye.
• Playing a drama queen. Don’t grovel or go on-and-on about how unworthy you are. When you’re chewing the scenery, the focus is all on you and your ego — when it should be on the other person’s perspective and feelings.
• Over-apologizing. If you repeatedly apologize for the same offense, you may keep wounds open and prevent the process of healing and moving on, for everyone involved.
• Taking forgiveness for granted. It’s the other person’s right to forgive you or not, and you need to be generous enough to allow that. By assuming it, you undermine the sincerity of your apology.
So start to say sorry when you really are.
Check out my related post: How does forgiveness reduce stress?