How (and Why) to Apologize

Sometimes you can be a good person who does shitty things. 

Because, for whatever reason, no matter how proactive you are at honest self-improvement, you've got some leftover sticky residue of pride or jealousy or pettiness. 

(Of course, there probably always will be some sort of sticky residue--you are human, after all--but that is a discussion for another day.)

So you say or do things to yourself and others that seem, in the moment, perfectly rational or honest or right.

It's not until you see that you've hurt yourself or others that you realize that moment was colored by the lesser parts of you. The parts that are selfish or broken or mean.

You Meant It

You can try to trick yourself or the person you wronged into thinking you didn't mean it. But you did. You absolutely did.

In that moment, you meant it.

You said something cruel or you betrayed a confidence or stuck your dick into someone you shouldn't have. 

You can't take it back. It's done, and those words or actions are now etched forever on minds and hearts, cutting shallow or deep, leaving a mark. 

You're not generally an asshole, so you then have this thunderclap moment, a pounding in your gut that you--yes, you--did something shitty, and as a result, people are hurt, a relationship was broken.

And because you're not generally an asshole, you feel remorse...remorse for not only hurting someone you care about, but remorse in realizing you are also a person who has the capacity to hurt someone. 

I call these moments, "Mirror moments." Take a look, motherfucker. That's you. 

"Sorry" Has Lost Its Meaning

We throw "I'm Sorry" around so much, it's lost its meaning.

"I'm sorry for not sending that attachment," or "Sorry I'm late," or "Sorry, I forgot." Tiny things that might be an inconvenience to someone, but they didn't actually harm anyone or cause a rift in the relationship.

We say "I'm sorry" to be polite, and as a result, we've politely diluted it to almost nothing. A teaspoon of concentrate in an ocean of habitually spoken phrases.

We need the concentrate.

For our apologies to mean more than the things we did to cause harm, they gotta be full strength. Undiluted. Top of the line.

We need them to be full strength, because they have to do double duty for us. They must say, "I feel remorse for the harm I caused, AND I'm willing to change my behavior." 

Which means we have to let go of the need to be right, to stop wrapping or dismissing our bad behavior in a bundle of, "What I was trying to say..." or, "But you did this..."

When You're Ready to Apologize...

When you are ready to apologize, that's the only item on the agenda. Anything else--if there is indeed anything else--can wait for another time. This is about you taking first steps to repair something you broke and you may not multi-task.

It requires precision. It must be deliberate.

Get to the heart of it when you're ready. Dr. Guy Winch says there are three ingredients to an effective apology:

  1. A sincere statement of regret for what happened
  2. A clear ‘I'm sorry' statement; and
  3. A request for forgiveness. 

I'd add a fourth step, which is the acknowledgement that the things that caused you to say or do something harmful are things you are working to overcome. You can't promise you will never hurt that person again (see also, "human"), but you can promise to try harder to be better, for both your sakes. 

Get Ready to be Vulnerable

Sincere apologies are tough because they require a level of vulnerability we are not used to practicing.

You expose your neck to someone, un-guard yourself, take off the armor and show your soft underbelly. You can't pretend to be anything other than flawed in those moments, the real you in all your messiness and disarray and imperfection.

And then you have to ask someone to look at that mess of a person and try to, if not love that mess, then at least not hate it.

You have to ask them to have two truths co-exist in their minds: 

  1. You are the person who hurt them with things that you meant in the moment
  2. You are also the person who is asking them to give your apology more weight than the words or actions that hurt them

Rough stuff. And they can say no.

Why, What, When

Regardless of whether he or she decides to forgive or not forgive (which can be its own messy process for the individual granting it), you are not excused from your part in the process of repair. 

“An apology is not just a tool to make peace. It’s not another way of saying “Get off my back”. It’s not a way of introducing harm, “sorry but I am going to have to divorce you”. It’s not a tool to manipulate others.

A genuine apology is not a habitual apologetic mannerism. It is a deliberate effort to solve a relational problem that you have contributed to.

When should you apologize? Whenever there is a break in a relationship. No matter what the issue, there will usually be a part, even a small part, that was your responsibility. For this you should apologize. Realizing that a disturbance is your responsibility is a giant step towards emotional maturity.”

Take that step. It'll be tough. You may feel as though your insides have been scooped out, and it likely won't be pretty.

Take that step. Do it with your voice, not in writing...writing allows us to package it up neatly, to save a little face, to say things a little too beautifully.

Take that step. Do it even though it's messy and raw. Go.

Listen to more of my thoughts on apologies on Relations: the Podcast, Episode 30.