We’ve all been hurt by other people. You’ve also hurt people yourself. Whether the transgression was accidental or intentional, it hurts. Sometimes a loss of trust like this is temporary and can be healed. Other times, it leaves long-term scars, discord, and irreparable damage that ultimately ends the relationship.
As a mental health professional, I’ve witnessed all too often the pain and hurt we face due to our own wrongdoing and the wrongdoing of loved ones. As I help my clients repair their relationships, I am constantly reminded that the most damaging part of any wound is a lack of remorse, repentance, understanding, and acknowledgment of the pain they’ve caused.
When you remember being hurt, what hurts you the most? The offense committed or the lack of understanding and genuine apology from the offender?
We have to face it: We are going to hurt people and we are going to be hurt. It’s unavoidable. If we recognize that, why are so many of us unwilling or unable to take responsibility and apologize?
For one thing, apologizing is an art form. It’s not instinctual. We have to learn from others—preferably our parents and caregivers—as we develop. If your parents weren’t very good at apologizing, or just never apologized at all, you may struggle with it, too. No one modeled repentance for you effectively.
For another, we live in a power-driven world. Our society values influence, perfectionism, and ruthless self-improvement. People tend to associate apologizing with emotional vulnerability and emotional vulnerability with weakness.
Every one of us is flawed. We all make mistakes. This doesn’t make us weak. It makes us human. The ability to take responsibility and apologize is crucial to happiness, satisfaction, and longevity in relationships.
Effective apologies increase empathy on the part of wronged individual, allowing them to forgive the wrongdoer. Empathy is the crux of forgiveness. A heartfelt apology has the power to heal and ultimately change lives. It’s fundamental to building lasting, meaningful relationships.
Here’s how to give a truly meaningful apology:
1. Be sincere.
When you prepare to make an apology, consider your intentions. The only time to apologize is when you’re genuinely remorseful. Don’t apologize just because you think you should. You may feel pressure from others to apologize, but you should avoid any apology that is forced.
The person you are apologizing to will pick up on your insincerity, causing further feelings of distrust. If you’re not 100 percent sure you’re apologizing because you truly feel remorse, don’t apologize at that point. Wait until you can be sincere, however long that takes.
2. Be honest and vulnerable.
In order to show your sincerity when apologizing, you must be honest and vulnerable. Brené Brown, leading researcher on shame and vulnerability, says that vulnerability is about “showing up and being seen” by others.” That can lead to huge rewards and cultivation of meaningful relationships.
It can also lead to rejection, which is what makes it so scary. When you apologize, be willing to share openly and candidly, allowing emotions to flow freely, so that you can be fully seen.
3. Admit fault.
Take responsibility for your actions and admit your mistakes or transgressions. State them out loud. Yes, it will be scary. It will feel shameful for a time. But it is worth it.
4. Explain why you did what you did and the reasons it was wrong.
This is not to be confused with offering excuses for your actions. Rather, explain the process by which you chose the route you did. State your understanding of the reasons this was not the best choice and how the choice (or series of choices) affected both you and the other person. This is the best and only way to birth compassion and empathy after a breach of trust.
5. Use “I” statements.
When speaking to the person who was negatively affected by your actions, it may be tempting to want to point the finger and place blame on the other person involved—or maybe even a third party.
Take care to avoid blaming others for your mistakes. Use statements that are about you rather than others involved, by starting your sentences with “I.” Try some of these on for size:
“I behaved ______________ because ________________ .”
“I felt/feel _________________ when _______________.”
“What I want/need is ________________.”
“Next time I will ___________________.”
6. Say “I’m sorry.”
Have you ever had someone attempt to apologize to you who never actually said, “I’m sorry”? If so, you know how infuriating that can be. It’s also pointless. An effective apology always includes the verbal acknowledgment that you are sorry.
7. Make amends.
Now that the hard part is over (saying "I'm sorry"), you get to offer a suggestion of how to correct the problem. The person receiving the apology will want to know how you plan to make things right again in order for them to start rebuilding trust and moving forward.
State what you will do differently next time, to avoid repeating this type of transgression. You can get really thoughtful here, but keep it simple. An honest apology should not include fancy gifts, excessive praise, or penance.
8. Avoid pushing the other person toward forgiveness.
Now that your part is done, the only thing left to do is to sit back and wait. This can be very difficult. In this time of waiting, work to release the guilt and let go of the desire to be forgiven. Don’t imagine the ideal response from the other person, or envision how your relationship will unfold moving forward.
The person you apologized to must have time and space to collect their thoughts and decide for themselves what is best. Let them make their own choice about what to do on their time.
Let’s be clear: It’s likely that your relationship will change. You may need to make new rules and set new boundaries. The other person may have additional requests or questions. Take these one step at a time. Don’t rush.
9. Remember that apologizing does not make you weaker. It makes you stronger.
Offering an apology does not make you weak or less than the other person involved. Admitting fault and offering an apology is hard work. The easy way out is to shrug your shoulders, walk away, and do nothing about your transgressions toward others.
By recognizing and acknowledging your faults and attempting to make amends to the injured party, you are taking the high road. This demonstrates your strength, courage, compassion, and wisdom.
I hope these tips help you apologize more effectively next time you accidentally cross a boundary.