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The Art of the Apology

How to express genuine guilt and regret.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I said something hurtful to someone I care about. It got me thinking about how to make a genuine apology, and the emotional obstacles that stand in the way of saying "I'm sorry."

Nobody likes to admit he or she is wrong, for starters. Most of us want to believe we're sensitive and that it's other people who are the problem. Also, the guilty feelings that come with recognizing you've hurt someone else, along with the shame you feel when you see yourself behave badly, aren't easy to tolerate. Typically we'll try to defend against those painful feelings by justifying ourselves.

In my own case, I noticed I kept telling myself that the hurtful thing I'd said was actually true. I would focus on the other person's irritating behavior; although I never told myself so in these exact words, the implication was that he deserved to be told. Repeated self-justification, in the form of mental "arguments" in which you keep trying to convince yourself or somebody else that you're in the right usually mean just the opposite. Eventually I recognized my fault.

So how to apologize? Here is my cardinal rule for how to frame an apology: genuine apologies never contain the words "if" or "but." For example, never say, "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings," or "I apologize for being insensitive, but such-and-such happened earlier ..." Those words have the effect of rescinding the apology by either calling the injury into doubt or assigning true responsibility elsewhere. I've often heard people tell me, "I'm sorry if I came across too strong in what I said to you," or something similar; those apologies always felt half-hearted. I notice that once I decide I've done something wrong and begin to frame an apology, "if" or "but" always appears in the first draft.

Second, keep it simple and straight-forward then step back. I've heard other advice which holds that any genuine apology must include the asking of forgiveness. I completely disagree. In those cases where I've been hurt and eventually received an apology, even in those rare cases where it did not contain the word "if" or "but," by the time the person apologized I was too angry to offer genuine forgiveness in the moment. It takes a while for an apology to sink in; you have to leave the person room to get over feeling angry with you for the hurt. Besides, asking for forgiveness demands something of the other person -- that he or she immediately exonerate you by putting an end to your feelings of guilt and shame. By asking for forgiveness, you once again shift responsibility off your own shoulders.

An apology should be a completely one-sided communication, an acknowledgement of guilt and regret on your side, asking nothing in return. You don't have to grovel. Just give your apology and accept that it may take time to repair the damage. If we've done or said something especially hurtful, we may have seriously scarred the relationship. I recall one friendship that I permanently damaged by telling the truth in a deliberately hurtful way (although I didn't recognize it at the time) and then offering an apology that included the word "if."

Tolerating real, possibly lasting guilt and regret are part of tendering a true apology.

Try it yourself and make a genuine apology. For most of us, it shouldn't be too difficult to identify bad behavior on our part. Feel your resistance to owning up, listen for the self-justifications. Try to isolate the other's person's behavior or any contributing factors from your own misdeeds; take full responsibility for the hurt you inflicted.

Frame your apology, beginning with the words "I'm sorry," then edit it carefully. Make sure not to include the words "if" or "but"; make no reference to anything the other person did that might qualify your statement of regret.

Then step back and leave the other person alone with your apology. Don't demand forgiveness. Accept that you may have to live with guilt and regret despite having apologized.