Apologizing isn’t an awful lot of fun. In the act of apology you are revisiting something that happened to you that was wrong or bad, hurtful or untrue (or maybe all of the above). No wonder apologies occur so much less frequently than transgressions. But there are other facets to the displeasure of apology which I will write about here.
You may often feel an urge or responsibility to apologize but don’t because of the feeling that by apologizing you are letting the other person off the hook. Perhaps you feel that apology per se is fine, but to apologize first suggests primary culpability, and therefore you hang back because you KNOW it was the other person who was mostly to blame. And you can’t very well say, “I’ll apologize if you do too” (well maybe you can in certain somewhat jocular circumstances but as a general rule conditional apologies don’t squarely address the harm inflicted). So you wait for the other person to apologize first.
Sometimes that can involve a very long wait. I hear of divorces initiated by a refusal of apology, siblings who haven’t spoken to each other in decades, grandparents who have never met their grandchildren. How sad. That is the price that you might have to pay if you can’t look yourself squarely in the mirror and say, “Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I misinterpreted. Maybe I didn’t fully understand.”
Face it, conflict between two people in relationship (whether platonic, romantic, filial, marital, or even corporate) is generally due to “misdeeds” by both people,” misdeeds that in and of themselves aren’t such a big deal but that serve as triggers for pent up resentments.
So let’s look at a couple of selfish reasons to apologize:
First, failure to apologize for your contribution to a situation that went wrong allows those resentments to continue to fester. Apology can clear the air. Second, contemplating making an apology also provides an opportunity to examine your own behavior with a critical eye and to recognize character or behavior flaws that too often remain I acknowledged because you are so intent on being in the right. If that opportunity is taken you are less likely to commit a similar error in the future.
For the power of apology to be fully unleashed it would be ideal for your apology to contain four key elements:
1) Regret. The words “I’m sorry” fulfill this requirement, but consider an even deeper phrasing such as “I wish I hadn’t……” The regret also needs to include acknowledgment of the other person’s pain: “I’d like to apologize for causing you the upset that I did.”
2) Responsibility. “I’m sorry that you got upset when….” includes no responsibility. You need to make it clear that you understand that something you did caused (at least in part) harm.
3) Willingness to make amends. This element is what elevates an apology from the routine to the heartfelt: “What can I do to make it up to you?”
4) Forgiveness. Apologizing simply because you feel you should is less than ideal. Seek to truly forgive.
Forgive and you shall be forgiven!
* I use the term “misdeed” loosely, as often the perceived misdeed is not objectively “wrong” but traces to some previous incident(s), often a long string of them:
“Why are you always late? You know that drives me crazy.”
“Can’t you pay attention when I’m telling you about my day? You never seem to care.”