Apologies Aren’t Meant To Change the Past, They Are Meant to Change The Future

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What it means to be sorry

Despite the unrealistic expectations that many of us have for ourselves (and others), we all make mistakes, large and small. In the midst of our lives, we flounder. We let emotions and/or unconscious baggage dictate our words or actions, and in the process sometimes cause people we love, care about, or respect pain. This is a fact of life and relationship, so the question is not will this happen, the question is what to do when it does happen. A willingness to apologize is part of the willingness to shoulder responsibility, which is an important part of growing up. As children our parents explain when we apologize, we acknowledge having done something wrong, and they are promising not to do that thing again. Our parents tell us to apologize as a way of ensuring that we know we had done something wrong. Children learn quickly that apologizing disarms the injured party. Apologizing to someone who has been inconvenienced or offended makes that person less angry. It is a way of ensuring that we are not always hitting each other over the head. Or worse. Apologies are one of those simple courtesies, such as saying “please” and “thank you” that make more comfortable the ordinary interactions and conflicts of life. We say “sorry,” when we bump into each other in a stairwell, without necessarily feeling that we did something wrong. Not saying something of that sort would be considered rude. There is a value to apologizing, not only to the future relationship between people who have been quarreling, but also to the way those persons feel about themselves. Yet 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.

So why is it hard to apologize?

The reason why it’s hard to apologize in the first place becuase we are not tuaght how to make a good apology. Remember when you were five and your parents told you to apologize to the kindergartner whose toy you grabbed? Ashamed, you cast your eyes down and said “sorry” in a whisper, and it was all over. Later, perhaps even in adulthood, when someone asked for an apology, you might have said something like “I didn’t mean to (fill in the blank),” and “But that was because (fill in the blank).” Becuase of we are not tuaght to make a good apology some of has may have low concern. An apology is an attempt on the part of the transgressor to repair damage they’ve done to a relationship. When you have received such an apology, has it helped you feel better? Has it mended the relationship with the person who hurt you? Has it undone the pain of what had been said or done? This is the way apologies are taught to us, and unfortunately, it is all wrong. Saying “Sorry” is not enough. Giving excuses about why you said or did something that hurt another person does not help that person. You sound defensive when you justify your behavior, or say “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” It does not acknowledge that your intention does not match the way your words or actions landed for the other person. When you try to justify or make excuses, the other person feels unrecognized, misunderstood, and blamed for having the feelings he has. Even worse apologies are of the “I’m sorry your feelings are hurt” type. These are not apologies at all. At best, you may be able to move on, but without the healing or repair of the relationship. At worst, and in significant, long term relationships (such as marriages), the relationship may be damaged.  And when the apologies are not real apologies, the damage accumulates over time.

why we don’t apologize even if we know it’s the right thing to do?

In our relationships with others, it’s inevitable that we’ll hurt them from time to time, even though we don’t mean to. The challenge, then, is finding a way to make things right again. all too often, we stubbornly refuse to apologize, even when we know we’re in the wrong. One reason why people don’t apologize is low concern. An apology is an attempt on the part of the transgressor to repair damage they’ve done to a relationship. To do this, you need to show you have empathy for the pain you’ve caused the victim. And because apologizing is a self-effacing act, you have to value your relationship with the other person in order to be motivated enough to make the apology. People who score high on the personality trait of narcissism generally see no need to apologize when they’ve wronged another person. Narcissists have low levels of empathy, so it’s hard for them to even understand what the other person is getting so worked up about. Furthermore, they view all relationships only in terms of their own self-benefit. If you don’t like the way I behave, that’s just your tough luck. But even for those of us normal, not-very-narcissistic folks, feeling empathy for our loved one’s plight during a conflict can be extremely difficult. When your loved ones points out that you’ve offended them, it’s easy to recall plenty of instances when they’d also hurt your feelings — so what are they getting so upset about? Moreover, in the heat of the moment, it can be easy to forget the value that your loved one and your relationship with them has for you. So you discount the transgression as trivial and not worthy of an apology. You may even be tempted to blame the other person for making such a big deal out of nothing. Another factor that makes it hard to apologize is our ego. We all want to believe we’re essentially good people. So acknowledging the fact that we’ve hurt someone we care about conflicts with our precious — and often fragile — self-image. This is one reason why we tend to downplay the impact of the offenses we commit — I’m a good person, so what I did can’t be that bad. People often believe — mistakenly — that making a full apology will damage their self-esteem and make them feel worse about themselves as a result. They also fear — again mistakenly — that apologizing to the victim in public will make them look weak in the eyes of other people. People who believe that thier personality is fixed are especially susceptible to perceiving an act of apology as a threat to their self-image. If personal characteristics are immutable, then of course hurting someone they care about is inconsistent with their self-image as an essentially good person. In reality, even good people sometimes do bad things. Understanding and accepting this fact of life can help ease the way into making an effective apology. Though the most common and the biggest reason why we don’t apologize is we believe that an apology won’t help. Sometimes people don’t apologize because they don’t believe it will do any good. After what I did, what difference would an apology make anyway? This could stem from the belief that some transgressions are unforgivable. But only the victim can decide whether to forgive or not. And an apology at least opens up the possibility of forgiveness, especially when the transgressor expresses true remorse and empathy for the victim’s suffering.

How apologies can be ruined

There are few things you should avoid saying as they can ruin a apology. Here are four things people commonly say or do that instantly ruin an apology.

1. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

This is a popular but totally ineffective statement that should never be part of any apology. It expresses zero accountability on your part, which the recipient is guaranteed to find annoying. What you’re really saying here is, “It’s regrettable that you’re choosing to take this the wrong way.” Even if you’re right that they’re misinterpreting what happened, explaining that they’re wrong is not the key to anyone’s heart.

2. “I’m sorry you believe/think that…”
This is not an apology. Just like, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” it’s an assertion that the other person is wrong in their thinking. Any apology that begins with the words, “I’m sorry you…” is already off track. It’s appropriate to apologize for your own words or behavior. What did you do, or fail to do, that was hurtful? What did you say or fail to say that you regret?

3. “I’m sorry I did X, but…”
As soon as you say “but,” you’re negating the entire apology (e.g., “I’m sorry I didn’t invite you to the dinner, but you didn’t invite me to your wedding”). What you’re really saying is, “My actions were justified.” That may be true, but an apology is not the right place to say it. Start with an unqualified apology: “I’m sorry I didn’t invite you to the dinner. I know that was hurtful, and I apologize for leaving you out.” The other person needs to know that you understand how and why they were hurt. Once you’ve succeeded in conveying that, they might show some curiosity about your motives. If they don’t, you can share using I-statements. For example: “This might seem petty, but I was hurt when you didn’t invite me to your wedding.” Ironically, such sharing could elicit an explanation instead of the apology you’re looking for yourself. Going back and forth, justifying hurtful behavior, instead of just exchanging apologies, sends many a relationship off the rails. Somebody has to be the first to offer an unqualified mea culpa.

4. “I’m not perfect.”

This comes from a good place. You want to show accountability. But it’s not specific enough. What did you say or do that was hurtful? It’s also a little insulting to suggest that the other person is upset because you’re not perfect. Nobody needs you to be perfect; that’s not why they’re hurt or angry. Instead of global statements like this (or, “I screwed up”), apologize for specific things.

What are some myths about apologies

Some of the biggest roadblocks to making a good apology are widespread myths. An apology is a sign of weakness. On the contrary, a sincere and thorough apology can be very hard to make. It requires considerable courage. Saying “I’m sorry” means that you accept blame for the problem. If you weren’t at fault, you shouldn’t apologize. Blame and fault are important notions for a legal proceeding, but they aren’t helpful for making good relationships. You can decide to apologize simply because you care about the impact on another person. If you didn’t intend to harm someone, they can’t be hurt. People are often hurt by mistake, sometimes without the awareness of the person who caused the hurt. Your intention toward someone and your impact on them are not a complete match. Whether you meant it or not, it’s your responsibility to address your impact. Another myth that makes is again our ego, if it is actually true you are a nice person then you couldn’t have done anything that hurts someone. It’s hard to face the news that an impact you’ve had on another person contradicts the way you think of yourself, but thoughtful people do still hurt others’ feelings. Regardless of what kind of person you are, it behooves you to try to heal the harm. And if you are close to someone you may think they know you haven’t hurt them on purpose, so there’s no need to say anything about it. They may trust your motives s but still be hurt and in need of healing. Many of us are thought that to apologize well, all you have to do is say the words “I’m sorry.” Despite the fact that many of us were taught as children that the way to resolve a problem is to say those two words, they’re not magic and usually aren’t sufficient. They may not even show up in an effective apology. In many cases were you were wronged they may have been wronged as well. . In an ongoing relationship, it’s often the case that both people have felt hurt. You may long for an apology yourself, but you may have a better chance of getting one if you begin by first considering what you could apologize for.

So how do know how to apologize well even you aren’t even sure you did anything wrong?

First listen to the person’s viewpoint and examine the situation from their perspective. You may believe you did nothing wrong, but the adage “two sides to every story” holds true. Everyone has filters they use to see the world. Is it possible that your filter recuses you of all responsibility, whereas their filter may ask you to meet them halfway? See if “I’m sorry for whatever role I played in this situation” might be a better fit. Then consider whether there are patterns to the hurt you may cause others. Have you been criticized for the behavior before? Are there themes in the feedback people give to you? Take the opportunity to self-reflect. Sometimes acknowledging the behavior–“You are right. I was over the top in my comments to your boss and I realize it embarrassed you. I’m sorry”—can help you to identify it and self-correct next time. If you truly believe the other person is wrong in believing that you did something wrong, examine their motives for bringing up the issue. What’s underneath it? Have there been other times they did not feel like you were a friend or partner to them? Is there a history of letdowns? If past experiences are left to fester, you may find someone getting very upset at something you believe is no big deal but it might be the straw breaking the camel’s back. Consider your history together before you dismiss their experience. When you do say sorry, be sincere about it. When we were just children and our parents say  “Apologize to your brother/sister/friend”, our parents know don’t really mean it. Adults do this, too. An offhanded “sorry,” especially when followed by “you were offended,” just doesn’t cut it. Look the person in the eyes, or call them up and get their attention and be sorry: “I am truly sorry for what happened and the role I played.” Or, “I’m so sorry my actions created this problem for us. Please forgive me.” If you are sorry, mean it. Realize that some infractions need more than a simple “I’m sorry.” Don’t expect that because you say it, the other person immediately anoints you with their forgiveness. The priest in the confessional may do this, but few human beings are able to. Some things are big, and the person who was injured in some way may need time to process and forgive. Don’t have an expectation of them—leave them be. Do your best to build the bridge, but then allow their healing to be what it will.

What it takes to apologize

We all know that a apology consists of the following:

  1. A clear “I’m sorry” statement.
  2. An expression of regret for what happened.
  3. An acknowledgment that social norms or expectations were violated.
  4. An empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of our actions on the other person.
  5. a request for forgiveness.

But to truly apologize we have to understand what makes a true down to heart apology. A true apology does not include the word “but” (“I’m sorry, but …”). “But” automatically cancels out an apology, and nearly always introduces a criticism or excuse. A true apology keeps the focus on your actions—and not on the other person’s response. For example, “I’m sorry that you felt hurt by what I said at x event/place x day,” is not an apology. Try instead, “I’m sorry about what I said at x event/place x day. It was insensitive and uncalled for.” Own your behavior and apologize for it, period. Being able to see how your actions impact others is key to making a sincere apology. The acknowledgment part of the apology needs to start with “I.” For example, “I am sorry for being x day.” This allows the convostation you need to have with the person you have wronged to start. Another part of a true apology is a true apology does not overdo. It stays focused on acknowledging the feelings of the hurt party without overshadowing them with your own pain or remorse. Overshadowing your apologies with your own pain/remose caught up in who’s to blame. A true apology doesn’t get caught up in who’s to blame or who “started it.” Maybe you’re only 14 percent to blame and maybe the other person provoked you. It can still help to simply say, “I’m sorry for my part in this.” The most important part of a true aplogy we often forget sadly us a statement of empathy. . In order for the other person to truly forgive us, they need to feel as though we “get” the full implications of our actions on them. Doing so convincingly is harder than it might seem. Although it might seem intimidating to “own up” to bad behavior so completely, doing so will not only help mend important relationships and ease feelings of guilt, but taking responsibility and doing the right thing can feel extremely empowering. That said, be aware that effective apologies and especially empathy statements require practice, so plan for a learning curve.


1. what was the first thing you remeber apologizing for?
2. What was something you found hard to apologize for?
3. what are some myths about apologies?
4. what is the myth about apologies?
5. what does it take to be sorry?
6. what is the hardest part of apologizing?
7. what stops you the most from apologizing?