Editor’s Note: This article is from the archives. Originally written about eight years ago, it came to mind when I heard that Dr. Harriet Lerner, (I love her!) author of the classic The Dance of Anger, came out with a new book, Why Don’t You Apologize?. Then I read Jane E. Brody’s article in the New York Times, The Right Way to Say ‘I’m Sorry’. That did it! I had to re-read my article and re-share it here. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
When I was seven years old and preparing for my First Communion, we were expected to go to Confession first. Back in the day, that was a scary prospect, involving a dark booth, hell’s fire and spilling your guts to a shadow behind a screen. What does a seven-year-old have to confess?
I knew exactly, because I was a convicted thief. I stole a fancy little brush from Joyce Weber, my friend from down the street. I coveted that pink and blue plastic brush and I took it! When my Mom discovered my sin, she marched me over to Joyce’s house to hand the brush back and apologize, face to face. It was agonizing. What more penance could there possibly be?
As a dear friend said, “Apologizing sucks.” Apologizing is uncomfortable, at least if you are doing it right, but it is the pain of cleansing a deep wound so that it can heal properly. Here are a few suggestions on how to make a good apology:
Seven ways to apologize:
- Avoid defensiveness. “I don’t have anything to apologize for!” Really? Think about it.
- Be humble. You may even consider groveling if your transgressions were extreme, like an affair. In that case, expect to grovel for a long time, but not forever.
- Make it from the heart. When my son was three years old and banged his little sister on the head with Buzz Lightyear, my mother witnessed his apology. “That’s not a sincere apology,” she said. “He should mean it.” Well, he was three. “Form first,” I said. “We’ll work on sincerity later.” By the time he was five or so I figured he should be able to understand the concept of meaning it. Unfortunately, there are many adults out there who still don’t.
- Don’t lean on candy and flowers. Gifts may be used only to open the door or as a thank you after the apology has been accepted. But don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re a get out of jail without apologizing card. No, not even a diamond tennis bracelet.
- Face to face is best, maybe because it’s the hardest. A phone call comes in second. Don’t even think that email or texting works for a serious apology, even if privacy could be guaranteed, which it can’t. A hand written letter might work. The writing needs to be carefully thought out when the advantage of voice and body language is absent.
- Stick to the issue at hand. Don’t apologize for all the sins of the past. That can smack of insincerity. If all the sins of the past is the issue, one apology won’t cover it. You probably need a mediator, like a pastor or a therapist. I’m not kidding.
- Say you’re sorry once, genuinely said, with all the sincerity you can muster. Then let it go. Like a message in a bottle, send it off, be patient and hope it lands in receptive hands.
Receiving an apology isn’t easy either.
My mother wouldn’t allow me apologize to her. Yes, my mother had a double standard regarding apologies. She was a complicated woman. She was of the ‘love is never having to say you’re sorry’ school, but only when it came to hurting her feelings, not those of others. Excuse me, but I always thought if you can’t say you’re sorry to those you love, who could you say it to? What was I missing here? It was crazy making.
As the one usually doing the apologizing, this is what I appreciate from the person I’ve hurt:
- Be direct with me. Please. There is nothing in this world worse than a cold shoulder, or finding out from someone else. The unexplained “You should know what you did!” is a hopeless statement. I know I have a bugaboo about this because that’s what my Mom would say. I could never get mad at her for fear of her cold shoulder. For that reason I really appreciate directness. Tell me you are mad and why. Give me a clue and the opportunity to make amends. It hurts on both sides, but it’s an acute pain from which healing can begin.
- Don’t beat me over the head. The opposite of being direct could be stewing or nagging endlessly. Once you’ve been direct, and assuming an apology is justified, wait for it patiently, it will come. If it never does, that’s a kind of answer too.
- Have an open heart. There are usually two or more ways to look at a thing. Give yourself time. Hopefully, once the white heat of anger and hurt burns out a bit you can poke around and see if you had any part in the problem. Try seeing the situation from your transgressor’s point of view, or from God’s. Compassion doesn’t replace the apology, it does make it easier to hear.
- Accept the apology when it’s sincerely given. You can tell the difference. If it wasn’t given honestly there was no apology, thus nothing to accept. Unless we’re talking about something simple like bumping into someone by accident, I’m not in favor of phrases like, “Oh forget it”, “You don’t have to apologize”, “It was nothing,” “No problem.” In a more serious conflict, it’s too easy to go there when everyone is clearly uncomfortable. When you both know it really was something, a sincere, heart-felt and simple “Thank you,” followed by the offer of a celebratory stiff drink, usually works best.
Giving and accepting an apology with grace is just that. It’s a blessed state for you both. It’s a blessing for the one doing the apologizing because you chose to allow yourself to be vulnerable rather than get defensive. For the one who accepts the apology, because you used your power over a vulnerable soul with generosity of spirit instead of twisting the knife. Now the healing can begin.
Photo courtesy of Xavier Mazellier via Flickr
Great article. I’d like to add that sometimes, when an apology is sincerely given from someone we love and are willing to forgive we not be emotionally ready yet. There are times I’ve had to say something like, “Thanks, I accept your apology but I’m still hurt and I’m going to need a little time to get over this.”
Yes, forgiveness takes time and I like your suggestion for what to say in case accepting the apology is one thing, really feeling OK about it is another. Sometimes we could use a script when the tension is high. Thanks, Estie.
Dr. Aletta, I’d like to know what has happened to the social apology. When I was young it was considered common courtesy to apologize when bumping into someone. It did not matter if it was your fault, theirs or no ones. It was, bump, and then an ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘excuse me.’ Now you get nothing. These small lapses isolate us even more from the masses around us. This detachment from our fellow Earthlings is as another blow to our humanity and another step toward a narcissistic society.
You are so right. It is sad that fewer people are taught the small courtesies that are important aspects of a civilized society, the social apology, as you describe it, being one. I try to focus on my own small, but I hope significant part in behaving well myself, saying sorry if I bump into someone, keeping the door open for strangers, etc. and teach my children to do the same. At least I can do that.