The ability to apologize might seem like a simple skill to possess, and yet surprisingly the world is just as full of bad apologies – as it is full of bad excuses.
What an Apology is Not:
Oftentimes people will make an apology simply as a peace-offering. It is the easiest way to get someone off your back, so why not just utter the words ‘I am sorry’ and move on. We could call this an “instrumental” apology since it is merely a means to achieve some self-serving benefit (peace of mind).
Other people will simply subscribe to the idea that one should apologize because the other person needs it. This produces a lousy apology such as: “I don’t really get why you feel hurt by what I said, but if I offended you in some way, I am sorry”. This kind of apology is like a bad compromise between the need to apologize in order to move on, and the need to maintain one’s own integrity and point of view.
The problem with these apologies is that they are not really heart-felt and don’t really accomplish what an apology is intended to accomplish.
After getting one of these apologies, the person who feels wronged is unlikely to feel any more understood than they did before, and is unlikely to have any more faith or confidence in the person who offered the apology than they did before the apology was offered. The end result is that whatever trust was damaged remains damaged even though the disagreement has officially been squashed.
An Apology Can Be Powerful:
An apology, however, when offered correctly, can be a profound bonding experience that can repair damage to a relationship and restore trust. It has the power to make the other person feel profoundly understood and cared about, and can lead to genuine forgiveness.
The person who is offering the apology must, however, master the art of doing it right, for a bad apology is often just as bad as no apology.
What an Apology Is:
The apology is merely the last step in a soul-searching process that truly tries to get why the other person is upset. It is a profound expression of empathy for what it must have been like for the other person to be at the receiving end of one’s slight or insensitivity. The person offering the apology must be able to imagine themselves in the other person’s shoes and understand exactly how the other person made sense of their actions, and how they felt as a result.
This means that the person offering the apology must not get absorbed in their own need not to feel bad for their actions, and must be able to tolerate the fact that they have made the other person feel sad or diminished in some way without immediately needing to push that thought away to preserve their own self-esteem.
Offering an apology is in this way a profound act of humility that sets aside one’s own discomforts in order to join with the other person in their pain, humiliation, or sadness.
If the person apologizing already feels too guilty about their actions, or already are prone to get flooded with feelings of shame, then being open to another person’s pain long enough for this person to feel understood, can be extremely difficult.
However, an apology, at the end of the day cannot be offered without genuinely connecting with the other person’s feelings. They must “feel” that you truly feel them. They need to see that you express remorse from a place of empathy, not from a place of wanting to exonerate your own guilt as quickly as possible, or from a place of appeasement to avoid trouble, or as a mere formality. Only then is your apology believable at an emotional gut level, and only then will it have its desired effect.
Only through this kind of humbling transformative experience of truly connecting with someone else’s pain, can true forgiveness be offered in return.
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I help couples repair relationships after relationship betrayals and breaches of trust, such as infidelity, abandonment, and other disappointments.