A Good Apology is an Acknowledgement
“I’m afraid if I tell him I’m sorry, then it will confirm what he already thinks – that I’m a bad person.”
This came from a woman who had recently disclosed her affairs to her partner, and was now dealing with the aftermath. The partner raged and despaired, felt impotent and useless, and above all was deeply hurt. He desperately needed to hear something from her, but neither of them knew how to proceed.
He first asked for all the details – who, what, when, where, and why. I slowed down this inquiry, as it could lead to more unnecessary pain, and new knowledge that could never be unknown. As he reflected on why he wanted this information, he realized it was more about regaining some sense of power and control in a situation where he felt very powerless.
She and I pivoted toward crafting a really good apology, one that focused on his needs rather than hers.
Times Are Tense
I first began this post in response to the #MeToo tumult, to help us move forward in our challenging conversations. Now, I am finishing it during a very different movement in our culture – one in which our worlds are smaller, and for most of us, confined to our homes.
As we navigate this new way of life during the coronavirus pandemic, we find ourselves spending lots of time with roommates, family members and partners. We’re used to having many outlets during our day where we engage with others, or simply have time with ourselves. Now we’re confined to sharing small habitats, and seeing the same faces again and again.
It’s no surprise that we’re fighting. The conflicts we had before are now amplified.
Anatomy of an Apology
Last year, I had the opportunity to study with brilliant sex educator, Bianca Laureano, and one of the many tools she offered is how to give a proper apology. In an era when we are facing many opportunities to address our mistakes, I found Bianca’s simple steps powerful and grounding.
How to Apologize
- Acknowledge your specific actions. This means taking responsibility for what you actually did. Try to be precise and clear, without minimizing or exaggerating. What exactly happened?
- Acknowledge impact. The temptation here is to explain your intention; however, this is not the time. Hold that impulse and stick to how others were impacted by your actions.
- Be clear about what you will do to change behavior. This is where accountability comes in. What did you learn? What concrete steps will you take to make changes?
Avoid These Common Mistakes
- Empty Apology – This lacks substance. A common example of this is: “I’m sorry you feel that way…”
- Denial – It’s challenging to hear that we’ve hurt someone, especially when we intended otherwise. Take a deep breath and pause before responding. Allow yourself time to listen fully.
- Excessive apologizing: Refrain from apologizing over and over again. Take the time to give a complete and contemplated apology, and then let it be. Repeating yourself keeps the attention on you and can take away from others’ healing.
- Incomplete apology: This lacks the above components and is thus incomplete. Notice a sense of urgency to react, and instead slow down.
We’ve all done things for which we could apologize, and we all have wounded parts that could use an apology.
Notice if your attention gets drawn more toward one or the other – where you’ve hurt, or where you’ve been hurt.
I believe we’ve all made mistakes for which we could stand to apologize. We behave now in ways that we later understand differently, as we learn to reflect on our actions and their impacts. If we’re lucky, we’re learning and growing, and thus can always change our minds.
Our relationships are strongest once they have survived the process of rupture and repair. When all is nicey-nice, we have yet to test the strength of our bond. This doesn’t mean we should intentionally trample on others’ feelings to get “real.” However, our blunders truly can become opportunities to deepen into resilient intimacy.
Take a few moments to think about a situation in your own life for which you could apologize. Write your response to each of these three prompts above: take responsibility, acknowledge impact, and address accountability. You don’t have to share what you’ve written, so be honest.
Take a deep breath, and let it all out. Notice how you feel going through this process. This is vulnerable work. If you learned about your impact because someone expressed their perspective, thank them. Lean on your support system to get what you need.
Consider apologizing to a person who was impacted by your actions. If you choose to do so, you will now have a framework to share with meaning and power, keeping the focus on harm caused, rather than who is to blame or your own defense.
Serious betrayal requires repair work over time to build trust. Harriet Lerner, PhD has been studying apologies for decades, and has written a book on the subject. Talking with a therapist can help facilitate this repair in your relationship.