“I’m sorry” are the two most healing words one person can say to another, says psychologist and relationship expert Harriet Lerner, PhD.
“When they are spoken as part of a wholehearted apology, these words are the greatest gift we can give to the person we have offended,” she writes in Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.
An apology is also a gift to ourselves and our relationships, offering repair and reconnection.
Why, then, is apologizing so dang hard? Why do we put it off or react defensively at the thought — or feel freaked out about starting the conversation?
In contemplating whether to apologize, it’s natural to feel concerned about how the other person will respond. But here’s the really hard part: Considering an apology, which by definition is an acknowledgment of harm and an admission of responsibility, also requires us to look critically at our own errors and misjudgments.
“It’s challenging to see ourselves as capable of hurting other people’s feelings,” says psychologist Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Yourself From Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want. “And yet we all make mistakes.”
It’s those missteps that cause some of us to focus more on our nagging shame and plummeting self-esteem than on the wrongful act itself. “Many people feel that with an apology they are walking the plank to their doom.”
It’s not surprising, then, that we shy away from apologizing.
There’s also this complicating factor: We experience psychological relief when we refuse to apologize. Even if we’ve wronged the other person, our stubborn refusal rewards us by boosting our sense of control and self-worth. Because of those feel-good benefits, our reflexive response — no matter how guilty we feel — often prevents us from making a gesture of remorse.
But while we might feel better for a time when we refuse to say we’re sorry, our untended relationship suffers. So, deciding whether to apologize is often as simple as deciding how much you value the relationship — and whether the benefits of an apology will outweigh the sense of humility required.
If you truly believe you’ve done nothing wrong, it can take courage to resist apologizing. And it can be tempting to offer an insincere apology to relieve your discomfort and appease others, especially if they’re putting pressure on you.
“Making an apology is an opportunity to repair what’s broken,” says Chansky. “It’s an honor. It’s heroic. Relationships will be healed, and people will be able to move forward. It’s the opposite of what we think when we’re dreading the apology.”
If the idea of admitting your wrongs and apologizing for them still makes you feel a little squeamish, it may help to know that it has the potential to change not only your life but the lives of others, too.
“We all want to be understood, and that’s really at the core of making apologies,” says Chansky. “If everyone gets better at it, we’ll all feel less anxious. We’ll straighten things out a lot faster.”
For those times when you have hurt someone, this advice can help you say, “I’m sorry” — sincerely.
We often apologize immediately after doing something wrong in order to defuse the tension as quickly as possible. But speed doesn’t allow for true understanding.
“Words of apology, no matter how sincere, will not heal a broken connection if we haven’t listened carefully to the hurt party’s anger and pain,” writes Lerner.
Listening to someone describe the damage we’ve caused can be painful. “It’s hard to step back, shut up, and ask someone to teach you what their experience is,” says psychologist Molly Howes, PhD, author of the forthcoming A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right.
But that momentary discomfort is worth it in the long run. “The power of someone being able to tell you how they were harmed is enormous.”
It’s OK to take time to listen to yourself, too. After you’ve reflected on your feelings, you can choose to delay an apology if you’re still hurt, upset, or confused. “If you find yourself not wanting to acknowledge you’ve done anything wrong,” suggests Howes, “ask a friend to help you sort through your part in the situation.”
Once you can identify your role, you’ll be in a better position to offer a sincere apology.
When you say you’re sorry, it’s important to apologize for the harm your action caused. “Apologizing takes courage, but it also takes humbleness. You have to be strong to say, ‘I hurt you. I see that I hurt you. And I’m so sorry,’” says Howes.
“Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake,” advises Roy Lewicki, PhD, lead author of a recent Ohio State University study that identified “acknowledgment of responsibility” as the most important component of an effective apology.
Don’t let the apology shift toward your needs. “A true apology focuses exclusively on the hurt feelings of the other person and not on what we would like to get for ourselves,” writes Lerner. That means jettisoning the goal of resolving the situation quickly or being forgiven. Those things may or may not happen.
Just because the apology is focused on the other person doesn’t mean you won’t benefit. “When you admit to yourself or to someone else that you’ve done something wrong, you feel better,” says Howes.
“Taking responsibility for harm, or mistakes you’ve made, is good for the spirit. It’s a sound human practice.”
Too many so-called apologies subtly shift blame to the other person involved or include veiled criticisms of their actions or feelings.
“I know you’re really sensitive, so I’m sorry I said that and it hurt you.”
“I’m sorry if you feel hurt by what I did.”
“I’m sorry that you feel hurt.”
In all of these examples, the speaker is blaming the other person for feeling bad after the speaker did something that caused harm. “I think we’ve all been on the receiving end of a very unsatisfying apology,” notes Chansky. “If this is what you have in mind, don’t bother. Come back when you’re ready to say, ‘I’m so sorry that I hurt you.’”
If you’re struggling because you feel that you were in the right and you want that to be acknowledged, Howes recommends asking yourself this question: “Do you want to be right or do you want to be known, loved, and connected?” Things generally work out better for everyone, she says, if you can try to seek connection instead of vindication.
And it’s OK if you offer an apology and someone isn’t ready to receive it. Try again when the other person is more open to hearing it.
You know how some people say they’re sorry for hurting you but then do it again? That lack of sincerity breaks trust. And that’s why Howes believes an apology isn’t complete until a plan is in place to help prevent a recurrence.
“In personal relationships, repetition of hurtful actions makes it hard to know if a repair will ‘stick’ or just be followed by the same disappointment,” she writes in A Good Apology, which contains useful apology scripts.
To help reestablish trust as you finish an apology, Howes recommends trying one of these scripts, including some along these lines: “Here’s how I will make sure this never happens again.” Or “Can we figure out a way together to change how we communicate?” The goal is to create a plan to support new habits.
It turns out the added bonus of making sincere apologies is that we become better friends and partners, in part because we’ll become more adept at owning up to our (inevitable) mistakes. As counterintuitive as it may seem, we can actually build stronger, more resilient relationships.
This originally appeared as “Sincerely Sorry” in the July-August 2020 print issue of Experience Life.