I touched a little bit on the art of apology in my last article (see: Overcoming Jealousy in a Relationship – practical advice), and I think that the subject of apologizing merits a dedicated post. It’s inevitable in life – you’re innocently (or not-so-innocently) being you, and somehow you manage to screw up, offend someone, or cause some damage that warrants repair. You may have been trying your best, but that’s no excuse, and now you owe someone an apology. How do you apologize in a way that really acknowledges the way that another person is feeling, and in a manner that might even bring about some internal change within you? In this article we’re going to talk about how to apologize, and we’re ALSO going to talk about how to deal with your own main obstacle to apologizing effectively: the desire to be right all the time.
First thing first: How to apologize
An effective, authentic apology is actually very simple. Think about what you’ve done – the facts of what you’ve done. Apart from what certain politicians will tell you, facts DO exist. You did something. And that “something” has created a problem. Also, think about how your actions have affected the person to whom you’re apologizing. What are they telling you about how it has affected them? Don’t read into it. All you have to go on is what the other person is telling you, and the facts of what you did. Ask yourself, “Do I really want to apologize for what I did?” For instance, perhaps you don’t mind having the other person’s being mad at you, or feeling wronged? The only way that your apology is going to ring true is if it is coming from your heart, from a true compassionate desire to right the wrongs that you’ve committed (whether inadvertently or purposefully).
If the answer is “Yes, I do want to apologize” then here’s how you do it:
Say “I’m sorry that I <insert what you did here>. I see how my doing that has <insert what you’ve been told about how the other person is affected here> you. It doesn’t feel right to me, and I’m truly sorry.”
That’s the apology in its entirety. Notice how there’s nothing about how you “didn’t know that such-and-such was going to be a problem” – there’s ABSOLUTELY NO EQUIVOCATION OR ATTEMPT TO EXPLAIN AWAY WHAT YOU DID. As soon as you start explaining, you are effectively saying “I’m not really sorry. If you only understood, then you wouldn’t be angry, and there’d be nothing to apologize about.” Notice how the word “if” is also absent from this apology. You’re not “sorry if I offended you” – this person’s anger is telling you that you DID offend them! As soon as you put an “if” in your apology, you are invalidating what the other person has told you about how they feel. How effective will your apology be in that case? Not very!
If you’d like to add anything to your apology, you might try talking a little bit about what you’re going to do to keep what you did from happening again. Stating what preventative action you’re planning to take will help to communicate to the other person that you are sincere about not wanting to duplicate whatever just happened. If you’re not sure what you’re going to do, you can always say something like “I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do to prevent this from occurring again, but I want you to know that it’s important to me that this never happen again.” Or you can even ask the person what preventative steps they think might be helpful in the future, though that creates the danger that they’ll think you’re not taking full responsibility for your actions. Your best bet is to think about it thoroughly enough that you DO know what you can do to keep the offense from recurring.
Finally, if you’re not sure what else to do, and if it doesn’t feel quite “over”, you can always ask the other person: “Is there anything else that I can do right now to help correct what I’ve done?” At that point, the other person should be well on their way down the path to forgiveness, and the majority of the heaviness of the situation should be gone.
Why is it so hard to apologize sometimes?
Let’s just assume for a minute that most of us tend to act with a certain degree of intention in our lives. We’re trying to do right by the world, and so we generally think that we’re doing our best. And when we’re doing our best, we often feel like we can do no wrong. Or, if we have done wrong, that it’s “not our fault” – because we were trying our best. There are all sorts of reasons to explain why we did what we did – surely ONE of those reasons will help the person we’ve managed to offend (hurt/anger/etc.) understand that we didn’t MEAN to hurt them. Right? No apologies necessary then!
When we apologize to someone, we’re admitting that we messed up. That we’re not so perfect. In fact, it’s more-or-less completely incongruous with the way that we conduct ourselves in the REST of our lives (going around doing “our best” – and doing no wrong). To top it off, many of us harbor internal fear of being “bad” from whatever reprimands we faced as a child trying to figure out the right way to act in an adult’s world. As soon as we’ve admitted “wrongdoing”, we’re setting ourselves up for the big spanking (I’m speaking metaphorically, of course) that awaits us.
Stop and think about it: Why do you need to be right all the time? What are you afraid of?
When you’re finding it difficult to apologize, stop and ask yourself “Why is it so important for me to be right?”, and take time to find the real answer to that question. Most likely, there is some fear within you that is hindering your apology. Are you afraid of being “less than” the person to whom you’re apologizing? Remind yourself that there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes in life. After all, the way we learn (and succeed) is by giving energy to our successes and learning from our mistakes. It doesn’t make you a bad person to admit that you’ve hurt someone and to apologize for it – in fact it shows that you’re oriented towards growth and compassion.
When you notice that you’re having difficulty apologizing and you sense that you have a need to be “right” – stop yourself. Experiment with breathing, and just letting go of the “you” that is scared of being wrong/bad/etc. It’s not important to be right, after all – what’s important is to learn more about how to connect with the people around you and how to truly be the best you can be. The “you” that’s not afraid of apologizing for a mistake (and accepting responsiblity for your actions) will ultimately be stronger than the fearful “you” that has to be right all the time.
Why it’s important to apologize
When you can let go of your need to be right, your need to be perfect, you are opening up the door to profound growth opportunities. Ultimately the act of apologizing is a healthy dose of self-awareness: awareness of your actions and the effect of those actions on other people. Most importantly, in taking responsiblity for your actions, you reinforce the power that you have to affect the world around you. The honesty of a sincere apology will actually give you MORE clarity about who you are in this world, because you won’t be all caught up in what you “wish was the case” (not having hurt or offended someone) – instead you will be recognizing the reality of what IS.
Amazing things happen almost effortlessly when you develop that awareness. For one thing, having been honest in your assessment of what you did and the undesired effect that it had on another person, you will naturally be much less likely to repeat the offense. Abandoning the need to be an all-knowing, infallible expert will allow you to be more curious, opening you up to learning more about the world around you. You’ll also experience much more alignment with the people around you, who will sense that you’re available for real connection and communication. And if any of those people have trouble letting go after you’ve apologized, don’t worry – we’ll be covering “how to forgive” in an upcoming post. 🙂
note: here is my article on how to forgive in four easy steps