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Saying “I’m Sorry”

4 guidelines for an effective apology.

Source: nito/Shutterstock

Many people seem to find saying “I’m sorry” an extremely difficult thing to offer, even when they believe themselves to be guilty of some wrongdoing. These individuals either will not or cannot bring themselves to offer an apology even though they may acknowledge partial or complete responsibility for an offense.

It seems that some people experience an apology as a sign of weakness. Interestingly, when asked if they view it that way when the apology comes from another, they do not see it as a weakness at all, but rather the “right” or “responsible” thing to do. Remarkably, some will say it is a sign of strength or maturity when the apology is offered by the other person, but still feel that it is an unacceptable admission of defeat—or weakness—when the apology is theirs to give to someone else.

Another reason why people fail to apologize is not that they are rude or unkind, but because it is not part of their interpersonal repertoire. Perhaps they might have difficulty recognizing apology-worthy situations, or they do not appreciate the value of an apology, especially to a loved one.

I have had many occasions, especially in psychotherapy sessions with couples, to help partners develop the ability to apologize rather than defend themselves and to help them address the reasons for their resistance to doing so. I have often witnessed anger evaporate, resentment disappear, and coldness toward another melt before my eyes when a clearly heartfelt “I’m sorry” is offered with genuine remorse.

When someone is able to offer this to a partner, it serves to validate the experience of the wronged party and often puts an instant end to whatever conflict was at issue, since a sincere apology recognizes and acknowledges the hurt caused. Clearly, this is a superior response to a defensive or counter-accusation which, unfortunately, too often occurs.

I believe there are several misuses of the words “I’m sorry,” which on the surface sound like an apology, but may actually be disguising other feelings. For example, the person who apologizes routinely and reflexively when no real offense has occurred, because they believe that they have burdened someone, which is a feeling they have difficulty tolerating. Frequently heard examples of this are “I’m sorry, but I need to use your bathroom,” or, “Sorry, do you know what time it is?”

I observed one patient’s continuous apologizing for what I believed to be non-offending behaviors that suggested she believed that she was imposing on another. When we explored this in therapy, it seemed that her constant apologizing was traceable to a lifelong belief that she was a burden to her depressed mother, who had made it clear that she was overwhelmed by yet another child seven years after deciding that four children were more than enough.

This patient, essentially, has been apologizing throughout her life on the assumption that she was unwanted or unwelcomed and had to let everyone know that she was aware of it and appreciated the world’s tolerance for her being here at all.

Another example of “I’m sorry” may be used to give the apologizing person permission to say or do something that he or she believes might be objectionable to another, but to be able to do it anyway. Somehow, it seems, saying “I’m sorry” softens the blow or reduces the likelihood of consequences.

Examples might be the person who makes or answers a call on their cell phone at the dinner table, which, generally, is considered rude. “I'm sorry, I just have to take this call” enables the action to occur and assumes that the other person will be understanding since an apology was offered in advance of the action.

The reluctant “apology” is another type that is frequently given in a way which makes clear that it is not a heartfelt offering, but an obligatory and disingenuous expression instead. An early example is a young child who is ordered to apologize to the friend he just conked on the head with a toy and angrily yells, “Sorry!” to satisfy the parent and avoid punishment for both the misbehavior and not obeying mom’s or dad’s demand.

Common examples of the reluctant apology that I hear are “I’m sorry you felt that way about what I said,” or “I am sorry if anyone was offended by my actions.” These are designed to calm the waters and avoid condemnation, but are obviously insincere and just tactical maneuvers. They include the word “sorry,” but really suggest that the fault lies with those who were too sensitive and, therefore, offended for little reason.

A true apology is designed to help repair both a relationship as well as the reputation of the wrongdoer. The guidelines for an effective apology are quite simple:

1. Accept responsibility for the negative impact of your action so that your apology will be sincere and, therefore, well-received.

2. Be specific in your apology so that you are directly acknowledging what you did wrong and not generalizing or being vague.

3. Be empathic, i.e., let the offended person know that you understand and appreciate the impact of your wrongdoing on them.

4. Offer assurance that you will make every effort to ensure that your offensive words or actions will not be repeated.

This, hopefully, will enable the hurt or offended person to not be wary of you and trust that the offense will not be repeated.

More from Richard B. Joelson DSW, LCSW
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