To be human is to hurt people sometimes. Yet it’s not always easy to offer a genuine apology when we’ve injured or offended someone.
We need robust inner resources and an open heart to keep from descending into denial — or slipping into a shame-freeze — when we realize that we’ve violated someone’s sensibilities. It takes courage to downsize our ego and accept our human limitations with humility and grace.
Sadly, the shame we carry often prevents us from having a friendly relationship with our shortcomings. We think we need to be perfect to be accepted and loved. When our self-image clashes with how we really are, we may 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 a 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.
For example, let’s say we get stuck at work and come home late. And we neglected to call, even though we’ve promised many times that we’d do so. Our partner is upset and asks angrily, “Where were you? Why didn’t you call?” We reply, “I’m sorry you’re upset, but you’re late too sometimes.” 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 battery died.” When people are hurting, even a good reason can sound 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 to,” 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. Avoiding accountability, we perpetuate 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 that we hope will 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 calmed. But 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 caused. We’re not taking responsibility for our behavior.
We can make the case that it’s not our fault, right? 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 and for how our behavior caused hurt.
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 angry, reactive responses. It’s too painful or threatening to our self-worth to notice shame inside us, may we tap into the “fight” part of the “fight, flight, freeze” response. We resort to angry protests to protect and defend ourselves rather than listen 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 ruptures of trust and sorting things out. If someone is upset with you, take a deep breath, stay connected to your body (rather than dissociate), listen to the person’s feelings, and notice how you feel as you listen. Taking responsibility for even a small part of the matter — and offering a genuine apology — may go a long way toward repairing trust.