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Apologies: When and How to Make Them

The art of a good apology is difficult to perfect, and is not a widely known or practiced craft. Apologies are very vulnerable- it requires that you humble yourself to another person. It may be embarrassing to own up to your wrongs, causing you to want to talk about it as little as possible and hope it goes away. You may feel like apologizing to someone will give the person some power over you, or make you look weak. Perhaps you don’t even know why someone is upset with you, and therefore don’t know how to begin making an apology.

While some people struggle to apologize, others do it too profusely. Women especially have this problem of saying sorry unnecessarily often and in uncalled for situations. This is equally an issue, because the profuse apologizer appears to lack self-confidence and his or her apologies seem less meaningful due to the frequency of them. There is a balance and a method to sincere apologies.

Here are eight suggestions for crafting a meaningful apology:

  1. Think about it. What happened? Go over in your mind the events that occurred, what you did and said, and how the other person reacted. Consider what you would have liked to do differently in the situation. Think about the reasons why you did what you did. Were you tired from a long day at work so you snapped at your wife? Were you feeling insecure, so you cheated on your partner? Knowing the feelings behind your actions is important to express to the person you are saying sorry to because they need to know that it wasn’t because of them.
  2. Clarify. If you know someone is upset because of something you did or said but you cannot put your finger on what it is, ask them. Say something to the effect of, “It seems that I’ve upset you, which was not my intention. What happened?”
  3. Mean it. Empty apologies are the worst. People can tell when you are just saying the words without meaning them. If you can’t find a reason to apologize and you truly do not feel bad, then don’t just go through the motions.
  4. Connect. Approach the person privately and at a good time. Make eye contact, or depending on the relationship, make physical contact such as touching their arm or holding hands. Showing the person that they have your undivided attention is an important part of a meaningful apology because it shows that you care.
  5. Say what you are sorry about. Be specific. This shows that you understand what hurt the other person and you will try not to do it again. Say, “I’m sorry for _____, I understand that it hurt your feelings and I will not do it again.”
  6. Let go of your ego. There is no place for pride in a sincere apology. No one in the world is right all the time, and if you act like you are, people will start to dislike you. Everyone makes mistakes, we are human, and admitting to our faults helps others feel closer to us. Imagine how you would feel in the other person’s place, and speak to them how you would like to be spoken to.
  7. Did you hurt someone? A commonly held belief is that you should only apologize when you have done something intentionally wrong. This isn’t necessarily true. We do things all the time that may hurt people, even if we don’t do them on purpose. For example, say you forgot your friend’s birthday. Of course it was just a mistake- you would not intentionally overlook your friend’s special day. However your friend is hurt and feels you don’t care about him, so an apology really is needed.
  8. Is it necessary? Will you apologizing benefit you or the other person in any way? If no one was negatively affected by your actions, don’t waste an apology on the situation. It can be instinctual for us to say a quick “sorry” when we do something like sneeze or drop our own belongings because we feel embarrassed or awkward. These kind of apologies are not necessary and can be a symptom of low self-esteem.

Saying sorry at the right times and in a meaningful way is not intuitive to everyone. It can be especially hard when your actions were egregious. Learning to apologize is a skill to be honed, which can take you far in life. If you have some difficult apologies to make or need help developing this skill, our therapists at Symmetry Counseling are here to help.

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