Being human, it is unavoidable to hurt or offend people sometimes. Yet it’s not always easy to recognize this and offer a genuine apology to repair the damage.
It is unsettling to perceive that we’ve violated someone’s sensibilities. We need robust inner resources to prevent ourselves from slipping into a paralyzing shame-freeze that that leads to an avoidance of responsibility for our actions. It takes courage to downsize our ego and accept our human limitations with humility and grace.
The shame we carry prevents us from having a friendly relationship with our shortcomings. We think we need to be perfect to be accepted and respected. When our self-image clashes with how we really are, we scramble to defend ourselves. We blame others or make excuses rather than say with dignified humility, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.”
There’s nothing shameful to admit when we’ve made an all-too-human mistake. As John Bradshaw reminds us, making a mistake is different than being a mistake. Not acknowledging shortcomings is a sign of weakness, not strength.
Let’s say we get stuck at work and return home late. And we neglected to call, even though we’ve promised many times that we’d do so. Our upset partner asks angrily, “Where were you? Why didn’t you call?” Annoyed by our partner’s accusatory tone, we reply, “I’m sorry you’re upset, but you’re late sometimes too.” Our defensive comeback indicates that we’re not hearing our partner’s feelings. We attack rather than listen.
Or we might say, “I’m sorry. I wanted to call you but my phone battery died.” When people are hurting, even a good reason sounds like a lame excuse. They need to be met in their emotional place rather than be responded to from a rational place; they want their feelings heard.
Defensiveness escalates conflicts. When we say with a pompous tone, “Yes, I did that, but you do it too,” we’re really saying, “I have the right to hurt you because you hurt me.” Such an attitude doesn’t create a climate for healing; it perpetuates a cycle of distance, hurt, and mistrust.
An Iffy Apology
An apology containing the words “if” or “but” is not a real apology. Saying “I’m sorry if I hurt you” signals that we’re not accepting that we did caused the hurt. If someone tells us they feel hurt, it’s best to let that in rather than offer an explanation designed to quickly settle the matter.
Conflicts tend to de-escalate when the injured person’s feelings are heard and respected. Maybe later we can explain what happened — when emotions have cooled. Communication works better when we slow down, take a breath, and hear the other person’s feelings.
“I’m sorry you feel that way” often contains the unspoken thought: “But you shouldn’t feel that way” or “what’s wrong with you!?” We’re not allowing ourselves to be affected by the hurt we’ve triggered. We’re not taking responsibility for our behavior—or for our part of the problem.
We can make the case that it’s not our fault. After all, our phone died. But such a comeback can trigger an endless loop of counter-attacks: “Why didn’t you charge the phone properly? You’re so neglectful!” A genuine apology means we feel sorry for our behavior (not sorry you feel that way!) and for how our behavior created hurt.
It’s ok to feel a tinge of healthy shame or guilt for not living up to our own standards. We all do this. We can learn and grow from recognizing when we’re off the mark.
A Sincere Apology
Contrast the above “iffy” apology with a more sincere one, where our sorry flows from the sorrow we feel about our actions — and for the hurt we caused by not acting in a sensitive, attuned, caring way.
A more engaging response might look something like this: We look into our partner’s eyes and say with a sincere tone: “I really hear that I hurt you and I feel sad about that. We might add, “Is there anything more you want me to hear?” Or we might offer, “I blew it by not keeping my phone charged. I’ll do my best to pay more attention to that.”
Our partner might be more inclined to soften if he or she hears such a heartfelt apology. And if our partner is not receptive, at least we can know we did our best to offer a sincere apology.
The Strength to Have Humility
We all miss the boat sometimes. We don’t need to beat ourselves up for hurting someone or acting unwisely. As our self-worth grows, we can take responsibility for our actions without being burdened by the toxic shame created by self-blame.
Healing happens as we find the courage to offer a genuine apology, while learning through experience to be more mindful and responsive so that we’re less likely to repeat it.
A sincere apology requires strength and humility. It requires that we rest comfortably (or perhaps a little awkwardly) in a place of vulnerability. Most important, it requires that we recognize and heal the deep-seated shame that can trigger an angry, reactive response.
When it threatens our self-worth to notice the shame that gets triggered inside us, may we tap into the “fight” part of the “fight, flight, freeze” response. We resort to angry protests to protect ourselves from a painful sense of shame. This prevents us fro listening openly to another’s feelings.
Apologies cannot be forced. The demand, “You owe me an apology” is not a good setup to garner a genuine apology. And be aware that people may feel hurt based more on their history than anything you’ve done wrong. There may be times when you really didn’t do anything wrong.
Still, listening to a person’s feelings in a respectful and sensitive manner is a good starting place for repairing ruptured trust and sorting things out.
If someone is upset with you, take a deep breath to help you self-regulate, stay connected with your body (rather than dissociate). Then listen to the person’s feeling--noticing how you feel as you let in what they're saying. Taking responsibility for even a small part of the matter — and offering a genuine apology — may go a long way toward repairing trust and renewing connection.
© John Amodeo
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John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT is author of the award-winning book, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for over 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has lectured and conducted workshops internationally.
Pixabay image by bykst