How easy is it for you to give a sincere apology? A genuine, heartfelt, vulnerable “I’m sorry”. We seem to live in a world that doesn’t tolerate mistakes, which makes it hard to acknowledge we may have screwed up. When the result of our actions has been to hurt someone else, in order to remain blissfully unaware and apology avoidant we use all kinds of sleights of mind. For example, we blame the other person – “You are the one who’s angry”. We deny the event occurred in the way they describe – “That’s not how it happened”. Or shift responsibility to the injured party – “You know I didn’t mean it”. Apologies have been in the news recently as a number of high profile figures have stepped up to publicly apologize for their behavior. The thing is these mea culpa’s seem rote and hollow and it made me think about my own struggles with saying sorry. If I’ve been ‘caught out’ my go-to behavior is to ‘act out’. Instead of apologizing, I throw all my toys out of the pram and regress to the mindset of a young infant. It’s not pretty. And definitely not effective. However, there is a method in my madness. I’ve noticed if I go on the offensive I don’t become the injured party. A.K.A. my self-esteem is protected, and I avoid any feelings of shame.
The problem with my behavior is it prevents me getting in touch with my own vulnerability and compassion, and more importantly, it denies the person I have hurt validation and a chance to feel seen and heard.
The failure to apologize for even a small thing can put a crack in the very foundation of a relationship when the other person doesn’t get the validation she needs and deserves.
How to Apologize
Over the years I’ve found a few simple rules can keep me on the straight and narrow when it comes to saying sorry.
- Own it. To give a sincere apology you have to take responsibility for your actions. This is harder than it sounds, and it sounds pretty hard for most people. To own an apology we have to make sure we don’t slip into defensive mode, ‘well you did provoke me’, or emotional reasoning, ‘I felt angry’ or intellectualization, ‘the reasoning behind your position was wrong, but I shouldn’t have said what I did’. To own an apology, you have to first own up to yourself. For example, if you said or did something that diminished or criticized someone, own that action and acknowledge the hurt. You then have to side step the inevitable raft of emotions and intellectualizations your unconscious uses to defend you from having to apologize. Only then can you articulate your apology. Less is most definitely more. “I’m sorry” will often suffice and is much better than a rambling soliloquy.
- Mean it. Starting an apology with, “You know I’m sorry right?” makes the other person responsible and keeps you in control. Part of saying sorry is to stop clinging to some sense of superiority and need for control. Meaning it requires opening yourself to really hear what the other person has to say and feeling their pain. It’s sometimes terribly hard, but without empathy and compassion – feeling with and feeling for -your apology will sound hollow and insincere. Meaning it also requires listening and timing. Many of us, in an effort to minimize our own psychic pain, rush to apologize. Usually we do this hoping we can get away without hearing how the other person really feels. This adds insult to injury as it demonstrates that we are not really sorry, and in our rush to admit fault we cause further injury by invalidating the injured party’s experience.
- It’s not about you. As a result of the #MeToo movement we have seen a number of crass sound bites from a number of celebrities who have publicly apologized for their behavior. The problem with these carefully constructed sound bites are that they feel and sound scripted and are about rehabilitating our impression of the perpetrator, not our compassion for the victim. If you are apologizing your role is to keep the focus on the person who feels hurt, not insert yourself into the spotlight.
The essential truth of an apology is that not only does it validate and honor the person you are speaking to, it also improves our own wellbeing and sense of integrity. So, next time you are in the wrong, late for an important meeting or have just screwed up, say sorry. The psychological benefits for the other person and for you will be significant.
Want to try my beta course on how to identify your defenses? Just click the link and you can access the course for the next two weeks. Defenses are at the heart of a good apology. ?