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How Do I Apologize?

Jessica Pontis, LCSW

Think back to when you were a kid, and mom or dad caught you doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing. Maybe you were picking on a sibling or got caught cheating on a test. Perhaps you were even forced to write a letter to a person who you had hurt saying how sorry you were. Can you recall what it felt like to have to apologize in those moments? Were consequences for your actions fair, or did you feel embarrassed about having to fess up to something? If we felt shame and embarrassment around apologies for being accountable for our actions growing up, it may be fair to assume that we struggle with apologizing as an adult.

How to Master the Art of Apology

Having to hold ourselves accountable when we’ve hurt someone else is often difficult. We tend to internalize our harmful actions in a way that impacts our egos.  We either dig our heels in deeper and refuse to accept that we’ve harmed people, or we adopt the belief, “I am a bad person.”  While guilt can be a useful tool in helping us correct inappropriate behaviors, shame only serves to make us feel powerless to change. Apologizing for something doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, unlovable, or a menace to society, it just means that action was not appropriate at that moment. Apologizing is a skill, so let’s talk about how to apologize for something in a meaningful way.  

Separate Who You Are From Your Behavior

Have you ever felt the need to resist apologizing because you didn’t feel like you had done anything wrong? Well, the simple fact of the matter is that we don’t get to determine how we make other people feel, and unfortunately, we may occasionally hurt people. Recognize that sometimes our actions don’t always align with our beliefs, and acknowledging how you’ve hurt someone doesn’t mean you are bad. 

It Should Be Prompt

The longer we wait to apologize for something, the more time we give the wounds we have created to grow. Apologize when we know we have done something hurtful, not after someone has had to beg for you to acknowledge their hurt.

Take Responsibility and Express Regret

Ego often gets in the way of this step, and we may feel the need to lay blame on something else other than ourselves. Saying things like, “I was just tired,” or “I’m sorry you feel this way,” are not effective apologies, as they deflect responsibility onto circumstances or onto another person. Instead, consider saying something like, “I’ve been tired lately, but this is not a reason to have said/done that,” or “I’m sorry my actions/words made you feel this way.”

Express That You Understand What You Did Wrong

It’s reassuring to the person or people we are apologizing to know you’ve reflected on your actions and recognize and understand what exactly was harmful. It demonstrates you value the relationship enough to take time to analyze your actions and take accountability in a thoughtful way.  

Make Amends

If there is a tangible way to make it up to someone — try and do it. If you forgot to fill up the gas tank in the car and your partner ran out of gas on their commute to work, try and assist them in getting back home, as an example.  

Make an Effort to Ensure It Won’t Happen Again

While the old saying, “Actions speak louder than words,” feels a bit cliché, it’s true. An apology is only an apology if we take action to make sure we don’t repeat the offending behavior. Build the necessary tools and insights to make sure the relationship isn’t harmed by the same action over and over. 

If you’re interested in talking about the art of the apology further, or if you would like to connect with someone to walk with you on this journey, reach out to one of the licensed therapists at Symmetry Counseling. Explore our counseling services online, and call us at (312) 578-9990 to set up an appointment for therapy in Chicago.

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