When "I'm Sorry" Isn't Enough

Asking for forgiveness isn't easy—but it always helps, right? Unfortunately, your apology may be worth less than you think. Learn to do it right.

How To Admit You're Wrong

The immense power of apology

Photo: Stephen Brace

This last summer, my wife and I had a fight. As with many fights between married couples, the surface issue was inconsequential but housed an important issue underneath. I'd accidentally burned the hamburgers I was grilling for our dinner (because we hadn't cleaned our barbecue for some time, grease had accumulated, which increased the barbecue temperature as it burned). When I placed the charred hockey puck burgers in front of her, she became annoyed (having warned me about the grease).  When I apologized, she said nothing, and I became angry that she was still annoyed with me. I didn't think overcooking hamburger meat warranted her reaction and soon we were yelling back and forth, saying things we've luckily both long since forgotten. We ended up eating our dinner in cold silence.

The next morning, while chanting about the situation, I found myself thinking about what had happened and becoming angry all over again. I'd made a mistake, certainly, but one for which I'd apologized (though, I had to admit, with a tone containing less sincerity than anger), and that my apology hadn't been met with understanding forgiveness incensed me.

As I continued to chant, I found myself wondering why I was so incensed. In the next few minutes, I realized I hadn't become angry at her irritation. I'd become angry because her irritation felt like a rebuke—an accusation that I was incompetent.

I hate being incompetent. I hate being even viewed as incompetent. I don't mind being ignorant (that is, not knowing how to do something I haven't been taught), and I don't mind making mistakes as I'm learning a new skill. But accuse me of incompetence, even indirectly, and I get mad.

I get mad, of course, to regain a sense of power when I feel powerless (one of the four uses of anger I detailed in a previous post, How To Manage Anger), and nothing makes me feel more powerless than when I demonstrate incompetence. The thing about using anger this way is that it works. It makes me feel powerful. But at a high cost: peaceful relations with the person on the receiving end of my anger. Could my wife have been more understanding when I accidentally burned our hamburgers? Of course. But it was my anger that escalated her disappointment and irritation into a full-blown domestic dispute.

I found myself looking back over many of our past fights and saw just how many of them had occurred as a result of my anger, anger I was unconsciously using as a strategy to feel potent and capable when interactions with her made me feel the opposite. When I stood up after finishing my morning chanting, my anger was gone. In its place lay a desire to apologize sincerely. Which, as soon as she awoke, I did. This time, she responded to my sincerity with a warm acceptance of my apology, and we moved on as if the fight had never happened.

THE BENEFITS OF A SINCERE APOLOGY

An apology is the simplest of acts: the speaking of words of genuine regret to another for having harmed, denigrated, or insulted them in some way. And yet it has almost magical power to repair fraying relationships. Most of us seem to be more judgmental of the intent with which a person acts than of their actions' outcomes. Even when someone acts maliciously toward us, if he later comes to regret it genuinely, almost to view his earlier self as a different person from his present regretful self, that kind of contrition rarely fails to move us.

Apologies of this kind bring resolution and closure. At most they cost us an admission that we were wrong, that we're imperfect, or that we need to improve in some way. If such a cost seems beyond what we're willing to pay, we need to examine the cause of our resistance as such a cause always represents an obstacle to our own happiness (i.e., a bloated ego). Sometimes, of course, we're not actually in the wrong but apologize in order to help someone else achieve closure. This kind of apology is less an expression of contrition and more one of regret that someone experienced an adverse outcome to which we contributed nothing. For example, I apologize all the time to my patients for errors that aren't mine: scheduling mistakes, delays in test results, unpleasant experiences they have in other corners of our health care system. I do this because such expressions of sympathy make people feel better. Just knowing someone else feels for us and cares about what happened to us—well, I've observed it has the same magical power as accepting blame.

HOW TO APOLOGIZE

Apologizing for things that aren't my fault, however, has been far easier for me than apologizing for things that are. In the past, I've resisted admitting my imperfections, especially to people who were close to me personally. I found it threatening to my view of myself as flawlessly competent, a view from which I've had to work hard to wean myself in order to build a more autonomous self-esteem.

In order to do this, I've had to learn to admit first to myself when I've been at fault and allow myself to be so—to remind myself constantly that being at fault doesn't represent a character flaw. I've let go of my need to be right by becoming more interested in becoming better. (If I refuse to ever acknowledge I'm wrong, not seeing the need for improvement, I'd have no real motivation to make any attempts to improve myself—and then my ego would stand as the greatest barrier to my own happiness.) I've tried instead to make a more conscious effort to stop and ask myself if I'm the cause of conflict when it arises in my relationships before automatically assigning blame to the other party (I still fail at this regularly—it takes constant practice). I try to ask myself if I'm coming at a person from a bad place or a good place, acting out of weakness or virtue. Often, physical and temporal distance from the person with whom I'm in conflict helps me attain this perspective. The "adrenergic storm" that often accompanies an inflamed ego needs a chance to peter out before more rational, objective self-evaluation becomes possible.

I've found only after the storm has passed can I ask myself why I acted badly. And that's when I learn things about myself I really want to know. Like why I was angry at my wife for being irritated with me. Once I saw that her irritation pricked at my feelings of incompetence, I recognized that feeling incompetent wasn't her issue, but mine. That, in turn, brought me back a sense of control (the irony in using anger to feel powerful and in control is that in feeling it you actually lose control). I realized I can't stop my wife from feeling irritated or disappointed or anything else she's going to feel (the goal of my anger), but I can chip away at whatever feelings of inadequacy her irritation stirs up in me.

And that's what I decided to do. As a result, the entire incident was transformed from a source of unhappiness in our marriage into an opportunity for me to improve myself and become happier. My apology to her, though crucial for our relationship's continued health, occurred almost incidentally.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

 

When "I'm Sorry" Isn't Enough