“You know, it's funny,” said Mary, “but it isn't even what he did that bothered me so much. It was the way he apologized. He said that he was sorry if he hurt my feelings. If? He forgot my birthday!"
My patient Mary's story echoed hundreds that I've heard before. Anyone on the receiving end of a half-hearted apology knows that the sincerity (or lack of it) is more important than the words themselves.
So, next time you need to own up to a mistake, keep these three ingredients in mind to make sure your apology is felt in the spirit it was intended.
1. Skip excuses.
Your apology doesn’t need explanations, reasons, or validations. “I'm sorry” is one of the most healing sentences in our language, yet it's so often left unadorned. We feel compelled to add, “but I was just so disappointed” or, “but you really hurt my feelings.” These three words weigh as much in the heart of a waiting recipient as “I love you," and are crucial to the health of enduring relationships.
So, why do we always feel the urge to excuse ourselves? When we realize we’ve hurt or offended someone, we get embarrassed and afraid. Our instinct is to protect ourselves from the consequences, the anger, the hurt.
It always takes a little time to digest — to process what I did, why I did it, and put myself in the place of whomever I offended. A genuine apology never comes instantly, and it shouldn't. It requires perspective, vulnerability, and bravery.
2. Say the words.
One of the best outcomes between the injured party and the one who inflicted the pain is that both hearts become softer toward one another. Among the couples who visit my office, gratitude is the most common response to a sincere show of remorse. It’s as if the person who was hurt is in emotional limbo, and gets rescued by those few words. They have permission to stop shielding themselves from the other.
3. Don’t ask for forgiveness.
Depending on the nature of the misdeed, it takes a while to come to forgiveness. Asking someone to forgive you immediately makes your apology feel like quid pro quo. Wait. Be patient, and let the other person come to a state of forgiveness on their own.
Anyone can forget a birthday, miss a meeting, speak in anger — we share the common bond of being expert mistake-makers. The important thing is how we deal with the aftermath. It’s no one’s responsibility but our own. Accept that, and the process of apologizing and being forgiven will become much easier, and much more healing.
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