Meaningful apologies

Pamela Howard, B.A., M.Ed.
Counsellor, Employee Assistance Program
May 13, 2021

Meaningful apologies are healing acts towards restoring and strengthening relationships. We all make mistakes, regret choices we have made and prefer to get along and be respected by others. Despite this, we all know or have heard about family members who have not spoken for years, or have seen communication breakdowns at work, home and in the community.

Why don’t people apologize? Some remain stuck in justifying their behaviour and blaming others. Some are invested in exacting revenge rather than building and repairing their relationships. Others view apologizing as a sign of weakness. Then there are people who say it doesn’t come naturally and that they don’t want to make the situation worse.

Whatever the ingrained pattern, the result is that the inability to take responsibility for minor to significantly poor choices will lead you towards loss of respect from others and compromised quality and potential in your relationships.

Let’s assume that you would like to produce better results in your life and learn to apologize and make amends when necessary. It helps to look first at what doesn’t work. There are many ways to ruin an apology. The words “I’m sorry” are not healing if they are immediately followed by an excuse or if they appear to be an attempt to quickly get out of a difficult situation. The person on the receiving end of the apology will tune out and doubt your sincerity if there are words that blame, make excuses or deny.

Damaging phrases to avoid:

  • I should be excused because...
  • You’re too sensitive. I was only joking.
  • What’s the big deal?
  • You made me do it.
  • Haven’t you gotten over that yet?
  • Give me a break.
  • There’s nothing I can do about it now. Why focus on the past?
  • Whatever you think I did, I’m sorry.

Don’t say “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or “I’m sorry if I did...” The focus needs to be on your accountability for your actions in the situation.

Don’t apologize excessively. It can become irritating. Over-apologizing interrupts the natural flow of conversation. At the other extreme, it can be offensive to minimize your actions or offer a half-hearted apology in a situation where you have done wrong. Without authentic feeling and remorse in your apology, it can sound robotic and insincere.

Don’t view your apology as a bargaining chip to get what you want or a quick route to forgiveness. You can’t demand forgiveness, and depending on the circumstances, repairing the relationship can take longer and be more complex.

A good apology is not about you. To be effective, you need to accept responsibility for a wrongdoing, express remorse for your actions in a direct, personal and clear manner, offer restitution and promise not to do it again.

Think about the situation to become aware of what happened. Consider the bigger picture and what might have been going on for the other person involved and for you. Sometimes you might be uncertain about what you actually did wrong or the exact reason that the person is upset. Healing comes from understanding. You can ask questions like, “You seem upset. I would like to understand. If I have let you down, I would like us to talk about it. I want to understand how my behaviour impacted you.”

You might feel defensive when your behaviour is criticized. Listen to the person’s point of view without arguing, interrupting or bringing up old history. Look for something you can agree with and where there is common ground. Let the person know that they have been heard and that you will continue to think about the conversation. Acknowledge that it is difficult to talk about differences and hurt feelings. Provide a time frame or suggestion of when you can both talk again about this matter.

You are responsible for the part you played in what happened and how you choose to respond. Consider what you could have done differently and the actions you can take now.

It takes some strength to clearly look at yourself and see how you have hurt others or let them down, even if you did so unintentionally.

Meaningful apology phrases might include:

  • I’m responsible for the mistake.
  • My actions were unacceptable.
  • I was insensitive and thoughtless in my behaviour.
  • You didn’t deserve that treatment.
  • You have every right to be upset.
  • I know that what I did was wrong.
  • I will do my best to rebuild trust by....

Reflect on the actions you can take in moving forward and offer specific things that you will do differently from now on. You can also ask if there is anything else that the person needs to see from you to help repair the relationship. Focus on behaviour because it is observable through your actions. General intentions, like a change in attitude or the desire to communicate more, may evolve over time – but they are not immediately observable or reassuring to the person who feels wronged.

Think about what contributed to your negative behaviour. Were you overtired, stressed, feeling defensive or particularly vulnerable? Shift from beating yourself up to understanding yourself. The mistakes you make or negative patterns you repeat can show you lessons that you need to learn. Practice responding in new ways that you can feel proud of or seek out support to help you in changing behaviour where you are stuck.

Offering an apology doesn’t always lead to reconciliation and forgiveness. The test of whether an apology is sincere is in the follow up and whether you consistently carry out the actions that you promised. In relationships, there can be entrenched patterns of blaming, silent treatments, throwing salt on wounds, the need to be right or resistance to letting go of anger. Take control of changing what you can to promote understanding and respect.

In her book Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, Dr. Harriet Lerner, a renowned psychologist writes: “Lead with your heart and not your attack dog. It’s difficult and it is worth it.”

A meaningful apology means valuing the relationship and acting from a place of maturity and personal integrity. Accept responsibility for the part you played and invest in both the other’s well-being and your own.

If you are struggling and need support, Manitoba Blue Cross’s counselling services are available to all Manitobans, regardless of whether or not you have coverage with Manitoba Blue Cross. Find the available support that's right for you here. (Sign in to mybluecross® to confirm your coverage with Manitoba Blue Cross.)