One of the most dramatically powerful artforms in human relationships is a good apology.
A good apology can soften the hardest heart, heal deep wounds and restore hope to what seemed lost.
But…there are a lot of bad apologies floatin’ around out there. And I’m here to point out the bogus ones and help us learn how to do it right.
Most of the times I hear someone attempt an apology, my inner George Costanza comes out and I start muttering, “You can stuff your sorries in a SACK!” And George is right… most sorries are only worth a sack stuffing…
Because I dare say that 85% of apologies – blow. Yup. They’re terrible. They’re either disingenuous or lazy or just plain wrong.
First – let’s talk about what a good apology is NOT:
1. A passive aggressive way to criticize someone.
I have a friend who’s in a bit of tense ongoing conversation with her parents and she receieved a text from her mother, apologizing, seemingly sincerely, about not having told my friend earlier all the ways in which she was disappointing her. What? That’s like saying, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner that you suck.” That, friends, is NOT an apology. That’s a coward’s way of skirting around an issue. Just say what you mean – don’t couch it as something good and kind like an apology, when all it is is criticism.
2. A sneaky back-handed way of shifting the blame back onto someone else.
This one is common in romantic relationships. Example: “I’m sorry that you were sensitive and took what I innocently said and heard it as something hurtful.” Translation: “You’re insane and I did nothing wrong. But, I’m sorry that you’re crazy.”
If you really don’t think you did ANYthing wrong… then there is still a way to do a “sorry you got upset” without invalidating the other person…but that’s a conversation for another day.
3. A way to end an uncomfortable situaion, rather than a true attempt at peace.
Saying something generic like, “I’m just sorry this whole thing happened…let’s move on” leaves the other person thinking (and correctly so), that all you’re really sorry about is that you’re having to endure some relational discomfort. A much better tactic at this point would just be to take a break and come back calmer to do the real apologizing.
4. JUST saying “sorry.”
Sure, the world of romantic-comedies has women HOPING for the empassioned and pleading “I am a lout and am unworthy of a woman like you…. is there ANY way you’d take me back???” apology that dips into the pool of idol worship and unquestioned adoration. Heck – I’d take one of those any day! But, it’s not realistic. And not particularly healthy.
However, the other end of that continuum – the weak, half-hearted “whatever” of apologies is no bueno either. Pushing out the word “sorry” from your unyielding, annoyed lips doesn’t count. It’s not honest. And everyone knows it.
A true apology contains these elements:
– Acceptance of responsibility
That’s it, folks. I’m here to say that you don’t even need to FEEL a ton of remorse to offer up a decent apology…though, remorse definitely makes it better.
But, sometimes you apologize for something because you KNOW you erred and you hurt someone, but the feelings of sorrow haven’t caught up with you yet because your body’s too busy feeling frustrated or embarrassed or….the biggest player in this game –> stubbornly prideful.
And yet…you recognize the wrong you’ve done, and you make it right.
That’s all it is – seeing your error and making it right. Restoration. Repair.
When my children mess up and hurt each other, they have to apologize to the other person and include WHAT they did wrong.
Bad: “Sorry…” (eyes rolling, half whispering it as you walk past the other person)
Good: “I’m sorry for scratching you with my toy.”
They have to identify what the ‘wrong’ piece was and own it.
That’s all we have to do as grown-ups too! The problem is that our silly pride gets in the way. And so often, BOTH people are at fault, and in our stubbornness, we don’t want to admit our OWN culpability until they do theirs. We want things to be FAIR.
But, what would happen if we tried- even as a social experiment – apologizing for our part of something REGARDLESS of whether the other person ever owned up to his/her stuff. And see if it doesn’t make relationships move more smoothly and make you feel better.
The other day I had a small moment of friction with a friend where he said something that hurt my feelings. But, when we talked about it, I realized that I am probably overly-sensitive in this area because of some junk in my past… and so I may ‘require’ my friends to tread softly in that arena. And that’s not altogether bad… good friends recognize each others’ areas of woundedness and can be especially tender in those places. But, I also have to own up to my fragility and not put all the blame for my hurt on him. So, I said so – without demanding anything back… and it was HARD! It’s hard to press the pause button on waiting for someone to say, “Oh – I hurt you? I am SO SORRY!” and simply call myself out on my own transgression. But I did… and it was quite freeing. For us both!
I think my willingness to take the one-down approach to the situation made him feel less like he was on the chopping block, and so he felt free enough to say he was sorry too.
And my apology didn’t negate his wrong. He still did say something hurtful. Me admitting my own frailty and apologizing for being overly senstitive doesn’t take away his role in the hurt. But, it helps shed light on the situation AND shows him that I’m willing to turn toward him, even while hurt, and do my part to make this right again.
The point is this – when friction arises… there’s a strong possibility that you’ve done SOMEthing to contribute to it. Even if the part you played was only 10% of the problem… if you identify that and take responsibility for it – you’re intentionally participating in restoration. And restoration is ALWAYS a good thing.
Don’t wait (necessarily) until you “feel” sorry… we are grown-ups… we can recognize when we’ve messed up even if our feelings of remorse haven’t caught up to our brains. Do the hard work of swallowing your pride to apologize for your piece…and see if it doesn’t move the whole relationship closer to wholeness.