Many of us can recall an experience of being made to apologize, especially as children. Some of us also remember being on the receiving end of such an apology. Perhaps a sibling argument escalated to name-calling and a parent or other adult intervened, insisting the children say sorry to one another. Likely, both children angrily and begrudgingly blurted out the words “sorry” in a tone devoid of any remorse or understanding of the other person. The pattern calls into question the point of apologies and what they teach us about making mistakes, apologizing, and accepting apologies from others.
Interactions involving ineffective apologies are problematic and lead to distrust, resentment, and destruction of the involved relationships. Why is apologizing so hard for so many people? How can we do better ourselves and teach our kids to do the same? The answer may lie in creating a safe environment.
First though, we must acknowledge that everyone in the world makes mistakes because everyone in the world is human and incapable of not being so. I am continually surprised by the number of people I encounter who truly believe making mistakes is unacceptable despite the fact that we all make them. If we are going to get better at navigating this, we need to accept that even with our best efforts put forth, mistakes are going to happen because of us and sometimes to us. This does not mean we need to accept hurtful or otherwise unwanted behavior. We can acknowledge an apology that feels genuine and complete without ever accepting the behavior as okay.
With this in mind, what conveys a genuine apology? What do hurt people need? Our apologies ought to begin with accepting and verbalizing that our actions or words hurt another person. It is important to own whatever that was as our own responsibility, and we must express an understanding for the hurt we caused. Validating the feelings and experiences of the hurt person helps them feel our empathy and feel that we understand how our behavior has impacted them. Another element of a genuine apology includes communicating a commitment to the hurt person to do better moving forward. Making an effort to adjust the hurtful behavior and following through with that promise builds trust and safety, which not only repairs but often strengthens relationships.
When an apology with the necessary components is offered and received, both sides often feel seen, heard, and safe. When people feel safe defenses lower and kindness, compassion, and acceptance replaces them. Increased capability to understand one another and a decreased need to self-protect can result.
There are some pitfalls to avoid: disingenuous apologies often include words such as “I am sorry if…” which does not take responsibility for the behavior, and “I am sorry, but…” which actually negates the apology and can be perceived as justification for the behavior used. Also, repeatedly stating “I’m sorry” often fails to convey the apology because it puts the onus on the hurt person to care for the one who hurt them. It is true that when mistakes are made, the people who made them deserve understanding, however that understanding should not be sought from the person they hurt, but from someone else who can listen and offer compassion for being human.
Apologizing is not easy and although we have a better understanding of how to effectively do it, many people still have difficulty doing so. This occurs for various reasons including histories of giving apologies and having them rejected. Responses in the realm of “you are not sorry” or “I don’t care if you are sorry” lead to shame and shut down. Apologizing is a vulnerable experience. When we make ourselves vulnerable and our genuine efforts are rejected, vulnerability in future apologies becomes even more challenging.
Lastly, keep in mind that just because someone is ready to apologize does not mean the other person is ready to hear it. They are entitled to their own boundaries and decisions about when they do feel ready. On the other side of the coin, it is possible to hear and acknowledge an apology even if we are not ready to let go of the hurt or interact with the person who caused the hurt. It is simply acknowledging that they recognize their mistake and have made a reparative attempt. Not being ready to engage is not rejection, is not selfish, and does not mean there is no desire to work towards resolution when ready.
Carrie Niles, MA, LPCC
Individual and Family Therapist
Lakes Center for Youth and Families