Saying I’m Sorry: 3 Steps to a Genuine and Heartfelt Apology

holding Bouquet of Roses Behind BackWe ask acts of contrition from our children as though saying “I’m sorry” is as simple as saying “please” or “thank you.” We are right to teach this skill early in life. Apologies are part of the social glue that bind us as a society. They add to the everyday courtesies that make it safe to walk the streets. When bumped while waiting in line, all it takes is a simple “excuse me” to ease anxiety, brush off the offense, and usher a return to relative social harmony. At this level, even a child can understand that apologies are best kept direct and even somewhat cursory.

But interpersonally, among those with whom we hope to entrust our deeper selves, saying “I’m sorry” is a far more complex task. To repair deeper hurts, we need a deeper level of contact. Cursory apologies just will not do.

In my work as a couples therapist, I bear witness to the myriad routes people take to avoid accepting responsibility for the mistakes they have made. Unresolved hurt and unaddressed regret can end up playing two lovers like puppets on a string: a highly nuanced dance of blame and denial.

Both parties know all too well what it’s like to receive an empty apology.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, but …”

Hearing this, it takes no psych degree to see that the person isn’t really sorry at all. Rather, the person is taking a moment to briefly acknowledge the other’s existence before bulldozing forward with explanations of their innocence, good intentions, and misery at being misunderstood. Attempts to gain quick forgiveness leave both parties feeling even more alone with their hurt. They both clearly see the depth that’s missing when receiving such apologies, yet find it equally difficult to offer depth in return.

True apologies can justifiably take years to accomplish. Occasionally, though, with encouragement, a moment of freedom will occur. The hurt dissolves, and the two are alone no longer. I offer the following three skill sets as an outline for the complex work involved.

1. Start with Self-Compassion

Crushed with guilt. Wallowing in shame. Drowning in self-hatred. If these are the emotions being asked of us by those we’ve wronged, it’s no wonder we resist. If we are healthy, there should rise within us a strong countervailing force. We need to construct reminders of our own basic goodness in order to care enough to correct our mistakes. Self-compassion doesn’t come naturally when we’ve done something out of character. But it’s important we start there.

Creating space for self-forgiveness is a private task. For some, it helps to have faith in a higher power that is witness to our goodness even when it appears hidden. Others may need to grasp at positive memories that hold them in a special light, where their worth was unquestioned. It can be helpful to turn to a trusted friend who we know can hold us in that light. But we should beware of going immediately to the one we have wronged for this support. It is not the victim’s job to forgive the aggressor or to see the bigger picture.

Uncovering and remembering our own basic goodness does not require us to deny the wrongs that have taken place. The work of self-forgiveness can take place even while the damage of our actions is still apparent. Reminders of self-compassion offer us silent reprieve while in the heat of accusations. It takes effort because it involves holding opposing views of ourselves at the same time.

“I am at fault for this AND I am not a bad person.”

“I have hurt the one I care about AND I am still a caring person.”

“I am being seen as guilty AND other times I have been seen as innocent.”

“I must rebuild trust all over again AND I consider myself trustworthy.”

The desire to empathize with someone we have hurt is rare. It is inspired by a resilient sense of self-compassion and an unusual kind of love for the other person. But it is also a naturally rewarding act. Caring puts us in accord with our natural sensitivities. Even as we experience the other’s hurt and share in that sadness, we feel liberated by our own largeness, our connectedness, our transcendent capacity to share in the aliveness of another.

2. Empathy as Its Own Reward

Empathizing with others carries intrinsic pleasure for us, for we are physiologically social beings. Putting ourselves in the shoes of another is a freeing activity. We care about the perspectives of others simply because we can.

We can get a thrill while standing on the shore just by watching and imagining the experience of a surfer riding the crest of a wave. We know empathy is rising in us by the sense of a general softening in our mental attitude. “I am safe enough here. I wonder what it feels like over there?” How liberating our empathic imagination can be. The cutting cold of the glassy water sliding below. The rumbling foam crowding from behind. For fleeting moments, we share in the aliveness of the surfer, almost as though their experience was our own.

But what pleasure is there in caring for a hurt person? Especially, why should we want to care for the views of someone who is accusing us of something we regret and would just as soon downplay or forget altogether? The honest answer is that most often we choose not to care. We buffer ourselves from their reproach by steeling ourselves from empathy. If we are clever enough, we can do this while pretending to care. We can say all the right words that a caring person would say while never having to feel the pain that we have caused.

The desire to empathize with someone we have hurt is rare. It is inspired by a resilient sense of self-compassion and an unusual kind of love for the other person. But it is also a naturally rewarding act. Caring puts us in accord with our natural sensitivities. Even as we experience the other’s hurt and share in that sadness, we feel liberated by our own largeness, our connectedness, our transcendent capacity to share in the aliveness of another.

3. Trust as a Social Experiment

Grasping that we have some understanding of the pain our actions have caused brings us face to face with another choice: Is it safe to express that I was wrong? We live in a litigious world and are advised to remain vigilant over our rights to remain innocent until proven guilty. One could try to hold attorneys at fault for this entrenched need to appear blameless, but really attorneys are only exacting in public the kind of relational untrustworthiness that goes on in groups all the time. There is genuine risk in exposing our faults to those who feel wronged by us.

Victors have a tendency to punish those who have admitted defeat. Recouping power after a bruising battle unleashes a natural sense of self-righteousness. Victims have a biological need to vent against their perceived aggressors. Saying “I’m sorry” (and meaning it) allows the other an opportunity to act out to even the score. Whether the person’s anger is warranted or not, apologies can temporarily add fuel to the fire. The softening, where the wronged person acknowledges and accepts the apology, often happens later—if it happens at all. Building trust after the apology, no matter how authentic the apology, takes time.

Do not be surprised by your own unwillingness to admit that you have made a mistake. It comes with the territory of belonging to a species prepared to fight in order to survive. Since receiving mercy is not a given, it takes great courage to bow one’s head and say:

I see what I have done.
I can feel what it has done to you.
I hope you will be able to forgive me.

Is it worth the risk? This is a very important question we must first ask ourselves. It may require remembering cherished times with that person in order to answer the question accurately. But if the answer is yes, that it is worth the risk, there is only one thing left to do.

Be courageous.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jonathan Bartlett, MA, MFT, Relational Psychotherapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Holden

    June 3rd, 2015 at 2:15 PM

    Know what I hate worse than anything? When someone tries to offer an apology but really it just sounds like they are blaming you more, like “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.” There is no if to it, you did hurt feelings and you should apologize for that.

  • Helen

    June 4th, 2015 at 10:41 AM

    It can be quite difficult to juggle those opposing views of yourself, especially if you are like me and are such a people pleaser but know that you ultimately have to admit that you have done something wrong to hurt someone.

    This goes against everything that you believe and believe about yourself, but the thing is that you will never be able to make peace with yourself or with another person until you challenge yourself and find a way to admit and own up to it when you have wronged another person.

  • Jemi

    June 5th, 2015 at 1:50 PM

    Don’t you think that we forget what it feels like to be on that end of the hurt so we put very little thought into the apology. I think that if we thought a little more clearly about it and really took a moment to think about how those words could have made someone feel then our apologies would likely be a lot more sincere and a lot more heartfelt.

  • nell

    June 6th, 2015 at 8:56 AM

    There are just going to be some people who care very little about what their actions mean for other people and they have this adverse reaction to having to say that they are sorry because they would rather do almost anything other than admit if they were wrong or have made a mistake.

  • Stef

    June 8th, 2015 at 8:48 AM

    Especially when you know that you are not in the wrong, it can be hard to accept that you could have still hurt someone’s feelings. But do not discredit their feelings just because you don’t understand how it could have happened.
    Be big enough to accept that somewhere along the way there was a misunderstanding… and that if you want to save the friendship then you say that you are sorry and move on.

  • Glenna

    June 9th, 2015 at 1:21 PM

    It’s all so repetitious, so disingenuous that we really don’t mean it even when we are saying the words. It feels more like a script that we are supposed to say., not really that we mean it.

  • curtis

    June 10th, 2015 at 2:47 PM

    should also stress that it can be just as important to know how to accept an apology as it is to give one

  • Anna

    October 6th, 2015 at 2:40 AM

    How do you forgive the person who keeps on hurting you over and over with the same thing and ask for forginess. obviously they don’t mean it.

  • BambooPanda

    November 17th, 2015 at 7:28 AM

    Each individual is unique. Comment X or Behavior Y may “hurt your feelings,” but it’s possible that the same comment or behavior directed toward me, may not “hurt my feelings” in the least and may not even register on my radar as anything negative or unpleasant because I have different sensibilities and different experiences that make me uniquely who I am. This being the case, it is totally possible that even my best-intentioned words and actions may inevitably result in your “feelings being hurt,” but you need not judge me or blame me for your experience. There are many reasons (including your life experiences, personality type, and mood, to mention a few) for your hurt feelings (no judgment attached). Before ascribing blame to another for your feelings, it may behoove you to give her the benefit of the doubt, and simply inquire appreciatively, “What was your positive intention?” Or simply stop to consider that no two individuals have the same sensitivities or emotional reactions to the same stimuli. Our emotional reactions sometimes say something about our own uniqueness. There need not be a guilty and innocent party if we accept that we are each simply unique,and recognize that we all have conditioned reactions to particular stimuli. The more we learn not to personalize things, the more flexible, open-hearted, and understanding we become.

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