November 10, 2020

“I’m sorry”. A powerful phrase that can lose all meaning if said carelessly. The unfortunate truth is that most of us are intimidated by apologizing (in a meaningful way.) Recently, when trying to resolve a disagreement with a loved one, I couldn’t get past my own protective walls in order to communicate my apology for hurting them in such a deep way. The required vulnerability and exposure was too much for me, causing my defensiveness to hijack the apology. Afterwards, I felt that I had made the waters even muddier than before. I was in a quasi half-apology/half-blaming state. Sound familiar? (It. Is.The. Worst.) I realized that I needed to learn how to make a heartfelt apology. Being able to declare a meaningful apology is an underrated skill, and becoming a lost art, but being able to say “I’m sorry” in the right way can change the trajectory of, or maybe even save, a relationship. True apologies are not as fun to give out as compliments, pizza, or a round of margaritas, but when done right, they are incredibly impactful.

Dr. Harriet Lerner is a clinical psychologist and somewhat of an expert on apologies. She has spent years researching topics including anger and forgiveness. Dr. Lerner explains that, naturally, we have a favored view of ourselves. Understandably, we don’t like to see ourselves as capable of hurting another person, or of making errors that can cause someone pain. A heartfelt apology requires us to come face to face with the fact that we screwed up and that we must take responsibility for it. It keeps the focus on our actions.

“Apologizing is difficult because it requires humility.” – Renee Garfinkel Ph.D.

Giving an apology requires that you take off every single piece of armor. Dr. Garfinkel explains that “The offender who apologizes yields some power, some control.  Having announced their imperfection and error, making the offender now vulnerable. It takes humility to make a sincere apology, and for some people humility is just too uncomfortably close to humiliation.” Woof. No one can deny that it is extremely tough to operate out of this raw emotional state. Sometimes, if we are not prepared to be in this place emotionally, the vulnerability is too much and our defensiveness flares up. Defensiveness is the enemy of listening, intimacy, and apologies. We are hardwired to defend ourselves. It is a natural human instinct. Nowadays though, we don’t need to fend off constant threats to our physical safety and our defensiveness has evolved and morphed into defending our emotional selves. While self preservation serves us in many necessary ways, bringing it into an apology only dilutes the intention. Dr. Lerner’s book “Why Won’t You Apologize?” gives us some warning signs for when our apology is being driven by defensiveness:

  1. “But”. An apology that includes “but” is not an apology, it is a defense of our actions and in turn is a cancellation of our apology. If you are truly making amends for your wrong, you have to detach yourself from the actions of others. This goes back to taking responsibility for you and you only.
  2. Focusing on their response or feelings, not your own actions. Example: “I’m sorry that you felt offended when I said that joke” So in this apology who is really at fault? It is difficult to tell– the person that was offended or the person that did the offending? Focusing on the response from the person ultimately places further blame on them rather than owning up to your actions. It also can bring about assumptions, and you know what happens when people assume…
  3. Getting caught up in who is more to blame or who started it. It can be really difficult not to keep a scorecard. But in the end, if you are keeping score, no one wins. It is important to recognize when your defensiveness is keeping you from being the best version of yourself. An apology does not require you to take all of the blame, but be honest and communicative on what you are responsible for. As Michelle Obama says, “when they go low, we go high.” Honor your best self by being the one that can admit that you were wrong. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission or to come to you with an apology first. Courage requires you to be the one that goes first.
  4. Using the apology to silence the other person or to make yourself feel better. Sometimes we use apologies to make ourselves feel better about the situation or we use an apology as a white flag, surrendering in order to “just drop it”. In the end, this type of apology can leave one side feeling better, while the other side feels worse. If you feel like the apology was fulfilled, but the other person did not, there could be an insidious wedge that grows in the relationship.
  5. Expecting something in return. With an apology, you have to go into it expecting nothing from the other person, not even forgiveness. This is the hardest step, but I think the most telling. If you are ready to apologize to someone, baring yourself in a vulnerable way expecting nothing in return, then you can be sure that it is heartfelt.

While it does not seem obvious in the moment, by giving a sincere apology, you are giving to yourself. It is likely that in the moment, you will feel small, vulnerable, and fearful. You will feel exposed by validating the pain that you caused to the other person. But through this process you will receive the gifts of maturity, self worth, resilience, and integrity. The result of this work is a release of resentment, a melting away of tension, and an allowance for emotional safety to return. You may honestly feel as though a 100lb. weight has been taken off of your shoulders.

I knew that my inscenere apology had not resolved the problem, it had just added to the discontent. Dr. Lerner explains that a bad apology, while seemingly insignificant, can create a small river between two souls. Overtime, if this apology is not amended, the river can erode the relationship. Not desiring this of my own relationship, I took these lessons and applied them to my next attempt. Yes- it was intimidating, but it worked.

Reflecting back on this experience, I wondered why it took me so long to get it right. I realized that I was so ineffectual at saying sorry, because I said sorry too much. Somehow, ‘sorrys’ had turned into my language for manners, my go-to when I felt uncomfortable, and about as common and meaningless as a handful of pennies.  Maybe it was my southern upbringing, maybe it was an underlying belief that as a woman I shouldn’t take up too much space, maybe it was my way of giving up my self worth at the sacrifice of making others feel more comfortable. Whatever it was, sorrys were just part of my language. Think about it, who else said or written these things:

“Sorry for my delayed response”

“I’m sorry, but could you explain that again?”

“I’m sorry I’m frustrated”

“Sorry” (as opposed to excuse me)

“Sorry I didn’t hear you”

“I’m sorry I look like this, I just got done at the gym”

The thing is, your emotions, being unintentionally in the way, not hearing someone, needing something to be explained again (or differently), your appearance, other people’s actions, etc do not require your apology. But why do we do this? As explained by Dr. Lerner, “It may be a reflection of low self-esteem, a diminished sense of entitlement, an unconscious wish to avoid any possibility of criticism or disapproval before it even occurs, an excessive wish to placate and please, some underlying river of shame, or a desire to show off what a well-mannered Brownie Scout one is.” Maybe it could be an automatic response that we have learned in childhood, and now it arises as a reflex or deeply integrated into our language. For me, I offered up apologies in order to make sure everyone else was comfortable. I wanted to soften the blow when offering up my opinion. What did that actually mean? It meant that I did not feel like my voice was valid enough to be heard. What is the reason for you?

I encourage you to reflect on why you offer up soft apologies and what it is doing to your image (conscious or unconscious) of yourself. Stopping soft apologies starts with becoming aware of our patterns. Often, our impulse to ask for forgiveness for things that we are not responsible for arises out of our discomfort with an uncomfortable or awkward situation. Our impulse tells us that if we take the blame then we diffuse the tension. While this seems like a harmless pattern, research has shown that withholding an apology in situations like this can actually be empowering. Stopping soft apologies is not an all or nothing thing, rather it will require practice. Maybe start with reducing your soft apologies in emails or written messages. Then maybe it builds to learning and implementing a new vocabulary expressing your consideration for others. Maybe it results in more confidence and higher self-worth. The brain perceives what it hears to be true. Yup, language is powerful stuff. Finally, by practicing significant apologies, the word sorry may not be expressed with the same fluidity and ease.  The next time you find yourself in a space that you want to apologize, take a breath and a pause, are you giving ‘sorry’ the significance it deserves?