Have you ever had one of those apologies that left you feeling worse than before? Where the person says the words, “I’m sorry” but follows it up with something that negates it. Those apologies that have a but. The ones that spend a millisecond in responsibility and validation of your experience and immediately make a quick 180-degree turn to let you know that you are actually at fault.
Or maybe the “I’m sorry” is not met with action afterward so it loses its meaning. And you’re left feeling confused, dismissed, and struggling to move past the incongruence of someone’s words and actions. Or maybe you learn to live without any “I’m sorry” even though the person’s actions really hurt. You are carrying on with life, but one day you explode about something seemingly small and innocuous, covering up the hurt feelings from 10 years ago.
I have experienced all of these and everything in between. I have given and received terrible apologies. I have been the one shouting “I'm sorry” at the top of my lungs while continuing to do the thing I was supposedly sorry for. While I never meant to hurt anyone, old habits die hard, and I didn’t realize how much effort it would take to correct my behaviors.
I have given apologies that were accompanied by eye rolls and followed up with a “But you did…” that negates every ounce of accountability I was feigning. And the worst one, I have emphasized my intentions and expected the other person to snap out of their emotions because I “didn’t mean to” hurt them in whatever way I did. I feel some guilt about all of these. I wish I could go back and redo them. I would do things a lot differently.
I have also received these kinds of apologies. They have left me feeling confused, invalidated, and dismissed. They have convinced me that I am being silly about whatever I’m feeling and that I should just abandon myself and my real feelings and move on. I have spent hours of mental and emotional time wondering, “Why am I so sensitive?” “Why can’t I just get over this?” And feeling bad about myself for needing an apology in the first place.
Eventually, in these relationships, I find that I disengage. I pull away. My energy turns elsewhere, and I stop being as present with the person giving the half-hearted apology or no apology at all. The truth is, I am an imperfect person who is definitely going to make mistakes and hurt people in relationships, no matter how hard I try not to. And I would prefer to be in a relationship with people who recognize this same quality about themselves. My guess is most of you do too because sainthood and perfection are boring. Right?
So, why is it so difficult for us to apologize sincerely? How come the thought of taking responsibility for our impact on someone else makes us cringe? Why do we lock up and dig our heels in the sand of self-righteousness even when it's obvious that we have hurt someone we care about?
Harriet Lerner has some things to say about this in her book “Why Won't You Apologize: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.” She speaks openly about the human instinct to be defensive. She tenderly explains that we want the people we love to see us in a good light. I prefer angelic light but you know, good works.
So, we dig our heels into our intentions and expect that to recover us from any impact we might have. We insist that we couldn’t have done harm because we didn’t intend to do harm. We insist that we are good people who don't even have the capability of causing harm. And in the process, we miss out on opportunities for deeper connections with each other.
Did you know that in order for a parent to achieve secure attachment with a child, they only need to be correctly attuned 25-35% of the time? That’s right. The parent needs to be “getting it right” only that much to be considered safe and consistent. So, what’s happening the rest of the time? Repair.
Repair is the foundation of building trust. Repair allows me to take full responsibility for my side of the street while allowing you to do the same. In this situation, we are both carrying an equal load of emotional responsibility for what’s happening between us, which weeds out room for resentment and unsolved problems in the future. I used to think I was really good at repair but, I have learned recently that my approach could use some work.
How to Apologize
Here are some ways to give a stellar apology and mean it:
1. Only tackle one person’s issue at a time.
Tit for tat means no one is heard and nothing moves forward. We both end up frustrated and angry. So, when initiating repair, be prepared to shelve whatever your issues are and let the energy of love flow one way, towards the person who is hurting.
For the love of sliced bread, let the person tell you all the things they are thinking or feeling. This doesn’t mean you don’t get to have boundaries around the way in which you are talked to. If you start to get overwhelmed or their expression of hurt feels unproductive, try this magic phrase “I really care about what you’re saying but I cannot hear you when you are calling me names. Would you mind rephrasing what you’re trying to express so I can make sure I understand”
3. Reflect back.
Really. Even if you have to repeat exactly what they said, make sure you really get what they are saying. After you reflect, ask them, “Did I miss anything?” and allow them to expand or clarify
4. Put on your curiosity glasses and sit with what they are saying.
Try to imagine what they might be feeling. Reflect on your guess and check in to see if you are on course.
5. Take a break!
Sometimes we might be flooded at this point, and we may need some time to calm down. Breaks are ok as long as you follow up.
6. Decide what you need to take responsibility for.
Make a plan for how to do better in the future.
7. Communicate your remorse in a sincere way.
Do not bring up any of your hurts or things the other person has done that make them or their feelings wrong or bad.
8. Share what the person means to you.
Tell them how much you value their presence in your life. Be specific about how they add benefit to your time on earth.
9. Share your plan to do better in the future.
Be specific about the steps you are going to take to improve your side of the street. Come up with actions, attach deadlines, and most importantly, FOLLOW THROUGH.
10. Ask if there is anything else they would like you to know.
They may wish to share how your behavior affected them and, if so, listen intently.
11. Wait 24 hours.
If you have hurts you would like to discuss, ask to set up a time where you may share them with that person and begin the process as (hopefully) the receiver of the apology
If you drop a plate during dinner and it breaks, it’s your fault. It doesn't matter that you did not intend to drop the plate. Walking up to the plate and apologizing to it won’t change the fact that it's broken. This is the difference between intention and impact. When we apologize, we are taking responsibility for our impact even if it is unintended. Most of us walk around intending to do no harm, but that doesn't mean we do no harm. The sooner we can relinquish our concept of sainthood, the sooner we can connect with each other and really empathize with each other's humanity and experience.
You might be reading this thinking, “Yeah! That's how they should apologize to me!” but I would challenge you to examine how your repairs measure up. Is there a place in this process where you tend to get stuck or overwhelmed? Sometimes the first step to getting the apology we want is giving it.