Psychologist Tamar Chansky, PhD, on how to gracefully say you’re sorry.
Expert Source: Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: Four Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want (DaCapo Lifelong, 2012)
You owe someone you care about an apology. Perhaps you had an argument with your spouse in which you blew up and said things you regret. Maybe you neglected an important obligation, and inconvenienced and really angered the person who had to fill in for you. Or you did something selfish and thoughtless that wounded a friend.
Time has passed — weeks, months, perhaps even years — and you haven’t approached the injured party to apologize and make amends. Your initial resistance to saying you’re sorry might have been the result of an anger hangover or some other uncomfortable emotion. But now time has passed, and your procrastination hangs over you. The incident was difficult enough — now you have to come to terms with your delay and the other bad feelings it may have caused.
Owing an apology and not making it is a little like having a toothache: You think you can ignore the pain, but it has a way of gnawing at you, refusing to leave you in peace. How to get out of the trap? Psychologist Tamar Chansky suggests a few simple strategies for making amends.
Barriers To Overcome
- Fear of the wronged person’s anger. We often procrastinate in the first place because we worry that the person we’ve wronged is upset with us and we’ll have to bear the brunt of that fury — made worse, of course, by the intervening time. Apologizing, we fear, will only stir up bad feelings. So we let sleeping dogs lie and accept the lesser misery of avoiding the situation.
- Shame-based resistance. Many people resist apologizing, Chansky says, because admitting that they did something wrong activates their shame. They identify doing something wrong, and saying so, with being a bad person across the board. “And nobody wants to sign up for that,” she points out.
- Apology as a sign of weakness. “Many of us have been raised to resist apologizing,” Chansky says, “because we’ve been taught that it’s a sign of weakness.” We may fear that the person we are approaching will see us as vulnerable and take advantage of us.
- Residual resentment. “When we think that the other person was in the wrong, too, and actually owes us an apology as well, we may be reluctant to go first, or to apologize at all,” says Chansky.
- The idea that your apology is too late. “Many of us were taught by our parents to apologize too quickly,” says Chansky. “We may have been forced to apologize before we were ready, before we really felt sorry. As grownups, then, we may think that the time that’s elapsed has diminished the value of our apology, that it’s become like stale bread.” We’ve missed our chance, we think, to really have an impact.
- Fear that it’s not a big deal. It sounds counterintuitive, but Chansky points out that one barrier to apologizing might be fear that the other person has forgotten the wrong or the slight, or that the issue wasn’t a big one for him or her in the first place; if we bring it up, we’ll learn that we aren’t as important to that person as we thought we were. The result might be that we feel embarrassed and worry that we look foolish, “hung-up,” or obsessive.
Strategies For Success
- Realize that a genuine apology usually takes time. Chansky points out that “instant apologies” like those our parents may have insisted we make can be premature and unconvincing if we don’t really feel sorrow or remorse. Part, or perhaps all, of our delay in saying we’re sorry may be the natural development of those feelings over time. It’s not an excuse for further delay, now that we realize we were in the wrong, but it’s a good reminder not to be impossibly hard on ourselves.
- Think of time as your ally. If a lot of time has passed between the incident and the apology, Chansky says, the person to whom you owe the apology may actually value your action more, not less. “Given the time that’s passed, you could so easily have not apologized, but you did. The fact that you are making the effort now only increases the significance of the act. A sincere apology never ‘goes bad.’” Do not, however, use this as a justification for more misery-inducing procrastination.
- Put your fault in perspective. “Being able to see the thing we’ve done as simply one action that wasn’t right, not a stain on our whole character or our whole life, can keep us out of the bog of shame,” says Chansky. “We’re apologizing for something we did, not for our whole existence.”
- See openness as a sign of strength. Apology, which is the act of putting the real you forward — flaws and all — rather than hiding out in fear, is a sign of strength of character, not weakness. And, says Chansky, it will likely be seen as such by the person to whom you are apologizing.
- Do it for yourself. “You’re apologizing not to get a particular outcome,” says Chansky, “but to do the right thing from your side and clear your conscience.” This will help you keep your equilibrium if the other person is angry, or if you find that what you did had less effect on the other person than you thought. If the person minimizes it, you can simply say, “I’m really glad you feel that way, but what I did has been weighing on me.” This attitude will also help remind you that even if the other person bears some blame for the problem between you, your responsibility is to take care of your side.
- Use the steppingstone method. To handle the anxiety of speaking with the person involved, Chansky suggests not going directly “from silence to ‘I’m so sorry,’” but approaching the apology via a preamble. “You can begin by saying something like ‘There’s something I need to tell you, and it’s hard for me to talk about it, but I really want to.’ This helps you warm up, and it tunes the other person into your sincerity.”
- Write and rehearse. Another method to reduce apology anxiety, according to Chansky, is to prepare by writing down what you want to say to the other person and rehearsing it. You won’t read what you’ve written or recite your apology in the actual encounter, of course — that needs to be spontaneous and heartfelt. But a little prep can calm you down a lot.
- Keep a sense of purpose. “Nothing burns through anxiety better than a sense of real purpose,” says Chansky. “Rather than thinking about how scared you are to make the apology, or what the other person will say, ground yourself in the simple fact that you intend to do the right thing, no matter what.”
Illustrations by Stefano Morri