Simple tips from a therapist on how to apologize sincerely.
What does it really mean to apologize?
A true apology has the intention of repairing a relationship by acknowledging that the person apologizing has made a mistake and regrets it. They are demonstrating that they value the relationship and are prioritizing it over whatever feeling or impulse might impede their apologizing—usually pride or ego. It can be very difficult for many of us to apologize, as though we are admitting we’re flawed or surrendering some ineffable piece of our self. An apology admits we made a mistake, and making mistakes reveals we are human. An apology states we want to learn from the mistake. Most importantly, an apology expresses that the most important thing we learned from that particular mistake is that the relationship is valuable to us.
An example of how apologizing can repair a relationship is when a parent loses their patience and calm and yells at a child. Later, when the parent has had a chance to cool off and reconnect with their self-awareness and reason, they go to their child and apologize, saying they were wrong to yell, that they got overwhelmed emotionally and made the mistake of raising their voice. This is a precious lesson for the child: their parent makes mistakes so it must be okay to make mistakes. And when we do, it is important to acknowledge the mistake and ask for forgiveness. The child learns that their parent loves them enough to fix what they had done wrong which then enables the child to feel secure again in the parent’s love.
What should a “good” apology include?
A “good” apology should include specifics about what we did wrong. We need to state that we regret it and that we hope for forgiveness. Whether to include the reason for our mistake depends on whom we are apologizing to. A child might need to know a parent lost their temper, that their “lid flipped,” as a child can relate to such experiences and so understand and benefit from understanding their parent’s behavior. A partner or friend might also benefit from an explanation. But sometimes the fewer words we use to apologize, the more powerful the apology. “I’m so sorry I said that. Please forgive me.” Ask yourself if an explanation would help or hinder the recipient’s taking in your regret. Avoid the word “but….” , as it immediately diminishes the apology. Remember: the point of the apology is to regain the recipient’s trust, not to make yourself feel better about yourself.
Why are apologies important?
As well as repairing relationships, apologizing connects us with our fallibility, which is difficult for the great majority of us. Perhaps this is because many of us don’t feel secure in our position in the world, in our true worthiness. All around us we see people flaunting their money, their power, their material success. How often do we see admission of mistakes? Of regret? Apologizing requires humility, a trait that society rarely promotes but which can be transformative, both on an individual as well as social level. If as individuals, we apologized to one another for our mistakes and transgressions, we might then become more compassionate as a people.
How should you broach an apology, i.e. what steps should you take?
To be meaningful, an apology needs to be intentional and sincere. So rather than say it as a postscript to a conversation or slip it into an email or text, ask the recipient if they have time to talk. Preface your apology with words such as “I have something I want to say.” “Do you have a few minutes for me to talk with you?” Convey that what you have to say is important. Even if it is a short apology, present it within a consciously created moment of being fully present with them.”