Raise your hand if it’s hard for you to apologize. (Hopefully, I’m not the only one). I’m sure you’ve also been on the other side of hallow attempts of apology that make things even worse. Why is apologizing so difficult and how can we make it easier and more effective?
We all probably learned some version of apologizing as children that went like this: “Now, tell him you’re sorry!” or “Go think about what you did until you’re ready to apologize.” The adult was often at their wits end—frustrated, exasperated, and sounding pretty upset by whatever happened. It didn’t matter if it was on purpose or an accident…if both kids were crying…or if we grumbled “Sorry” angrily with crossed arms and a furrowed brow. If we said it we were off the hook but felt pretty lousy. How confusing.
In the best effort to teach us a very important life lesson and social skill, what did we actually learn (unintentionally)? Apologies were about loss of power. Someone bigger and stronger forcing us to do something we didn’t want to do. No wonder we resist doing it as adults if we feel like it’s being demanded! Apologies were about punishment—to drive home the point that we were wrong with the hope that we wouldn’t make the same mistake again. I think we can learn and teach a better way. Apologies were simply the words “I’m sorry.” Behavior maybe changed. Feelings probably worsened into resentment.
I’m going to share the clear, doable steps for more effective apologies, but first I want to address why it’s so hard—why we resist something that is meant to make relationships better.
Apologizing is vulnerable.
I’ve done a lot of research on pride, self-esteem, guilt, and shame—all play an important role in this apologizing business. Without going into all the fascinating research details (nerd alert), here are the highlights. There is a difference between feeling guilty about our “bad behavior” versus feeling shamed as being a “bad person.” Healthy or “non-toxic” guilt is a negative emotion that can help us self-reflect and serve to motivate positive changes. However, when shame is triggered, it’s a negative emotion that leads to more negative self-focus and is actually discouraging and demotivating. Too often those messages were tangled, and we probably didn’t hear the affirmations we needed to hear when we made mistakes or bad choices. We internalized “I’m a failure” instead of “I failed in this one moment/situation.” Apologies are hard because we don’t want to open ourselves to more criticism or attack—from ourselves or others.
Understandably, if we are feeling shamed or our low self-esteem is triggered, we are going to want to withdraw or defend ourselves. Ironically, others see this as prideful or not “feeling sorry”, when it’s actually the opposite…we may be feeling it so deeply that we want to hide from further exposure. Naturally, the shields we pull up to hide behind are often anger, minimizing the problem, pushing the blame off on the other person (attacking) or on circumstances (excuses). None of these things make for good apologies. When you see that in someone else, try to remember that rather than being prideful, they are likely on a very deep level trying to escape feelings of shame and helplessness (loss of power). If you are coaching a child on apologizing, try affirming and assuring them first so they can put their guard down and be more receptive. “I love you no matter what, and we need to talk about that choice you made…” (avoid “butts”).
Apologizing is a first matter of personal integrity.
We may think apologizing is for the benefit of the other person, but it’s also for our own benefit. It can be an important part of rebuilding our own sense of personal integrity—being the kind of person we want to be and the kind of person we know ultimately makes the world a safer and better place. Apologizing using the tools below can help us decrease the power of shame, increase healthy self-esteem, and increase our own sense of trustworthiness which can decrease a general sense of anxiety and skepticism. This is why learning how to apologize is important for work relationships, interactions with strangers, and difficult relationships. Apologizing isn’t about being weak; it can actually be an effective action in non-violent responses to difficult or unjust situations.
Apologizing is about re-establishing connection.
“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” False. When something in a relationship (an expectation, an agreement, trust) has been wounded or broken, an apology is PART of reconnecting. I say “part” because even if you can use all of the components to build an effective apology, there is no guarantee that the other person will be able or willing to walk across that bridge. Using the bridge of apology means both people are ready and willing to hear and receive each other. When we can’t guarantee an outcome, it makes it hard to take the risk. When we are guarding ourselves against possible negative responses our apologies are likely to sound forced or hallow. It’s can feel unsafe or unwise to apologize to someone who has historically responded harshly or coldly. This is why I think there is a very important first step before making an apology.
Connect with yourself FIRST. It would be great if nobody ever got angry or offended…if we always were given the benefit of the doubt and we were always gracious and understanding with each other, but that’s not reality. You can create that world inside yourself. When you realize you made a mistake or hurt someone’s feelings, say to yourself, “I’m human. I’m not perfect and that’s ok. I had my reasons…I didn’t know xyz. This doesn’t define me as a person. What’s important is trying to make it right/make peace.” It’s much easier to shift into the apology process from a place of affirmation and self-compassion. This is the first message that children need to hear when they are being coached and taught about apology because ultimately this is about social learning, so we need to create a safe environment for learning.
Apologizing is different from forgiving.
Situations are complicated. Sometimes it’s hard to apologize because we have also been hurt. There is this subtle belief that if I say I’m sorry than I’m taking full responsibility and my hurt will go unaddressed. In conflict this can be a sticking point of who was more hurt, who was more wrong, etc. To feel safe and close again with a person, involves apology, forgiveness, reconciliation, and rebuilding trust. Each of those are a different process that require time and intentionality. It also requires participation by both parties, and sometimes both parties are not ready for that. Conflict and messing up is not a sign of a bad relationship. However, if you find yourself in a relationship where you are practicing healthy apologies and the other person is not able to eventually reciprocate, that might be a sign of an unhealthy relationship. Sometimes it’s ok to accept someone’s apology and be honest that you are not quite ready to forgive or pick up where the relationship left off. That can be hard to hear and accept, but it also can be a way of setting good boundaries and rebuilding trust. Check in and see if your motive is power or if it is genuine protection.
Apologizing isn’t a quick fix
When we are quick to apologize with the hope of making everything better, it may not appear to work. That’s because we often overlook the need to grieve, especially when there has been a significant hurt in a relationship. We don’t only grieve the end of the relationships, we also grieve the things that happen in the relationships we have. If we don’t know how, then resentment and disconnection grows. The Recovery Components in The Grief Recovery Method©, provide a way to sort out the complexity of our hurt, our regrets, and the pain of what happened. Doing that individual work, helps us to do the relationship work much more effectively. We can’t demand an apology nor demand to be forgiven. Even with a good apology, everything may not feel better right away, so that’s where we have to learn how to sit with and soothe our discomfort, disappointment, and sadness—in other words grieve some more.
Anatomy of successful, effective apologies
When something has run off the rails and warrants an apology, first take good care of yourself and don’t go into a shame spiral. Next, get clear and adjust your motivations for apologizing. Manage your expectations for the immediate versus long-term outcome. Get familiar with the key components of successful apologies which are described in various resources. Before talking, do some sincere self-reflection so that you can feel empowered to communicate. Here is my take on the anatomy of apology:
- Recognize the Impact on the person. Put yourself in their shoes. Feel free to ask with compassion and sincere curiosity. Listening to understand is a great place to start.
- Express Remorse. Sometimes you may not regret your decisions or actions, yet you can express regret for the impact they had on the person or how you went about them, etc.
- Attempt to Repair. Offer actions to make things better, to re-establish trust, to instill kindness, or to change patterns of behavior. Try to identify some tangible first step. Ask if they have ideas. This may require some extra support or brainstorming. Again, no quick fixes. This is only effective after the emotional parts have been attended to.
- Offer to Reconcile: Acknowledge out loud that now may not be the time for forgiveness or to be trusted again, and you respect that they may need time to heal and grieve. You can let them know if that is your hope. You can express your desire for connection and let them know your request to also have the chance to explain your perspective, your intentions, and how you were also impacted by the experience. Let it be ok for it not to be now if they need time to sit with the apology first.
All of these steps work together. When we are frustrated by an apology, it’s likely because the person is only doing one of these steps so it doesn’t feel complete or feels like they are trying to short-cut or take an easy way out. All of the parts matter but different aspects will mean and matter more to different people. Develop your language of apology so that you can speak more effectively to those you love and ask for what you need.
Did your parents ever apologize to you? This can be the most effective way to model what we hope children to learn, yet, most people can rarely remember parents apologizing. Try it using these steps and let us know how it goes.
Tamara Hanna, LPC, specializes in grief recovery, couples counseling and spiritual injury.