We hear apologies all the time, but I don't think many of them are sincere. An apology has to be real to heal.
Trang Lei spent the day helping Martha buy furniture and art for her remodeled living room, but Martha never even offered to buy Trang Lei's lunch and so she felt unappreciated. Later when she told Martha she felt hurt, Martha said, "I'm sorry. I was just so excited about what I was buying that I didn't even think about it." Trang Lei did not feel better. In fact, she felt worse.
What was wrong with Martha's apology?
Martha's apology came with a built-in excuse, implying that however she behaved was unintentional -- beyond her conscious control. Moreover, Martha has an expectation that Trang Lei will accept the excuse. Thus, Martha perpetuates the original problem by continuing to be more focused on herself than on Trang Lei. I call this kind of apology "Sorry-Excuse."
Even if Martha wasn't consciously manipulating, her goal was not to take responsibility, but to find a way out of it. In most cases, if you don't accept other people's excuses when they apologize, they will quickly get irrupted at you [sic], blaming you for not being understanding.
When we receive a counterfeit apology we often sense it and so, rather than the hurt being healed, it is deepened -- as in the old saying, "adding insult to injury." I think almost all of us give such apologies. And we model it for our children.
Guidelines for making real apologies:
One: Identify common formats for apology that are "counterfeit."
If you clearly use various types of bogus apologies, it will help you recognize when you give or receive one. Here are some examples of common phrasing.
"Sorry -- Excuse"
Example: "I'm sorry I didn't call -- I've been really busy."
Translation: Please be understanding about the fact that other things were more important than you."
"Sorry -- Denial of Intent"
- Example: "I'm sorry you took it that way. It wasn't what I meant."
- Translation: I think it's too bad that you had difficulty understanding me correctly.
- Example: "I'm sorry if I offended you."
- Translation: I can't think of anything I did wrong, but if you think so, I'd be happy to apologize so I can get back in your good graces.
"Sorry -- Blame"
- Example: "I'm sorry I didn't call sooner. Have you been feeling insecure about our relationship lately?"
- Translation: If you are upset about my not calling, the real cause is your own insecurity, not anything I did.
Two: Only say "I'm sorry" when you mean it and can specify exactly what you are apologizing for.
When we give what I believe is a "healthy" or authentic apology, we can state clearly what we did that was disrespectful or inconsiderate without:
- immediately explaining why we did it;
- telling the person that however it looked or sounded, it wasn't our real intention; or
- bringing up some other issue that suggests that the other person contributed to or caused the problem.
For example, instead of focusing on why she didn't buy Trang-Lei's lunch -- her excuse, Martha could have taken full responsibility, saying,
"I'm so sorry I hurt you. There is no excuse for me to forget to buy your lunch. Even that would have been a small thank you for how much you helped me. And you spent your only day off doing it."
Here, Martha uses her apology to show her real appreciation as well as her sadness that she didn' t do so earlier.
Three: Decline to accept an apology that is not given sincerely.
When you accept an apology, and then walk away knowing it wasn't real, you enter a world of make-believe where you pretend an issue is resolved while harboring resentments. Gently, firmly, without anger, you can decline a hollow apology. For example:
- If you believe that I simply misunderstood you, then I would rather not have an apology from you.
- Only if you believe you did something hurtful would I want one.
When you refuse to accept an insincere apology, you refuse to surrender to being manipulated or pacified and you hold the other person more accountable -- without having to argue or try to force an apology. You are likely to feel greater confidence.
Real Apologies Build Character and Respect
If we can change how we give and receive apologies, we can become less defensive, gain insight, grow wiser, and strengthen all of our relationships. We can also, then, be a strong model for others, including our children, teaching them that real apologies show strength of character, gain the respect of others, and have great healing power.
Sharon Ellison, author of Taking the War Out of Our Words, has written a number of helpful articles for individuals seeking information on relationships, psychology, parenting and mental health. She is a founder of Ellison Communication Consultants, of Oakland, California, and an award-winning speaker and internationally recognized consultant. This article is based on the book Taking the War Out of Our Words available through your local bookstore or at www.amazon.com.© 2003 Sharon Ellison
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