Along with being a mental health counselor and wellness advocate I also love movies. One day while I was watching an old Alfred Hitchcock film “Rich and Strange” I was struck by what one of the characters said about love and relationships. It reminds me of how important is to learn how to apologize properly:
I think this quote encapsulates so much about our struggles in relationships, whether they be romantic, platonic of familial. When we are in deep connection with another person, the emotional stakes are high. That is, in part, what makes it so taxing when someone close to us hurts us…or we hurt them.
Crafting the perfect apology is a fallacy. There is no such thing as a perfect apology. One thing that rings true for the listener in one apology might be a minefield for another person. After all, we bring our unique selves and histories with us to every moment of every interaction. However, there are some fundamental relationship “truths” (as I call them) that will go a long way in making sure someone feels the sincerity in your apology.
First Acknowledge the Impact
First and foremost, we all want someone to see and understand us as people. Practicing sympathy is very important in situations where you have to make amends for someone you hurt as a result of your actions. A big part of having a successful apology is first acknowledging that hurt. If you see someone who is angry, frustrated, crying or sad because of something that you’ve done, it’s important to honor those emotions. Saying something like, “I can tell that you’re upset right now and I’m sorry I hurt you,” can go a long way. Taking a moment to acknowledge someone else’s pain can be incredibly healing for them in the moment and serve as a solid foundation as you move forward.
Apologize by Taking Responsibility
A part of being in a relationship (of any kind) is being able to take responsibility for your actions. When you are attempting to apologize to someone because you hurt them, taking responsibility for your specific behavior is key. “I’m sorry that I hurt you” in and of itself isn’t bad, but for many folks it could be better. Being specific about what behavior you did to negatively impact someone else is key, along with not coming up with a litany of reasons why you did what you did. To take responsibility for your behavior, you can leave out those reasons why unless asked.
In most instances, people may even understand your why, but that doesn’t take away any of the hurt. Apologizing isn’t about explaining, it’s about communicating compassion. For example, to make that previous phrase (in an example) even more impactful you may say something like, “I realize that I didn’t return your call in a timely manner and that left you feeling ignored. I should not have done that and I’m sorry that I hurt you.”
Apologize & Keep Your “I” On the Prize
One of the ways in which we inadvertently botch our apologies is that we project our focus back to the person we are apologizing to. This can lead them to feeling more defensive and can eradicate any good faith effort you’ve put into your apology. That’s why it’s so important to stick to “I” statements as much as possible (instead of “I did this because you….”. In addition to taking responsibility for what you’ve done, communicating from a point of self-reference will be incredibly helpful in helping your conversation partner understand and accept your apology.
As mentioned earlier, there is no fool-proof plan to guarantee a perfect apology but if you take a little time to take some of these themes into consideration I have a feeling that you will definitely be on your way to healing an unintentional wound.
If you’d like to work with a Viva therapist on recovering from a relationship misstep, please feel free to reach out to us.