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The Nuances of Saying Sorry

Hey Dr. Ben,

Your vlog made me wonder if you've covered the importance of apologizing when you've done something wrong and how to apologize?  If not, I'd love to know your thoughts on this topic.  My fiance and I don't argue very often but when we do, the issue of who owes who an apology is usually a point we have tension over.

Thank you for any insight you can give on this.

Ralph A.

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Hi Ralph,

Thank you for you note.  This is actually a befitting follow-up to my last vlog where I shared some thoughts on the human need to feel that someone who has wronged us is truly remorseful in order for us to fully forgive that person.

Yes, I do feel that apologies are essential to maintaining healthy relationships, and I think all of us know that some people have great difficulty saying they're sorry in any circumstance.

First, it's probably a good idea to mention that we're not talking about serial apologists who repeatedly say sorry for wrongdoings while making little to no effort to make better choices.  Years ago, I knew a parent who would frequently ask me to agree to have his children join ours in sports practices and play dates only to change his mind or plans with very little notice, and always with an apology - "sorry, my bad."  

In one particular instance, I had rearranged our family's entire weekend schedule to accommodate this fellow's wishes to have his children join us.  Our boys were greatly looking forward to the play date, and a few hours after they were supposed to show up, I received a call with him saying once again, "sorry, we got held up, my bad."

That was the last such occurrence because it was the final slap on the face that woke me up to how empty his apologies were and how thoughtless and self centered he was.  He wasn't truly sorry - if he was truly sorry for putting strain on our family's schedule and disappointing our young children, he wouldn't have made such requests for play dates without being far more committed to them.  

I felt bad for our children and decided then that I would not allow such people to mistreat our children in similar fashion again, not on my watch. Like the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me - with this particular fellow, I'm a little ashamed to share that it took me getting fooled several times over a few years to understand what was happening and then to take action to prevent it from continuing. 
 
Long story to say we don't want to be that guy, that person.  We don't want to spray apologies left, right, and center without actually feeling the weight of what we did to cause another person pain or inconvenience, and what we can do going forward to avoid a repeat.

So on to non-apologists - why do some people have such difficulty apologizing when they can see that something they have said or done has caused another person pain or inconvenience?

There are a few common reasons.  

For some non-apologists, saying they're genuinely sorry is too threatening to their self esteem.  It's like saying they're sorry is some admission of them not being good enough or them being terribly flawed in a permanent way.  

Other non-apologists may fear that by apologizing and taking responsibility for their part in conflict, the other person won't see the necessity to take responsibility for their own contributions to the ill feelings at hand.  

Some non-apologists have the experience of saying sorry to someone in the past only to have that person rain down thunder and lightning, taking the opportunity to lecture, belittle, humiliate, shame, and kick them in the ribs while they're down, head low and tail down.  A person who has experienced this may have consciously or subconsciously decided that showing this level of vulnerability opens them up to far too much risk, so never will they go down that road again.

And yet another reason why some people won't apologize is fear that admission of wrongdoing will be weaponized in the future, thrown back in their face during a new conflict.

All of these reasons have in common the belief that apologizing is to weaken themselves in some way.  The sad reality is that living with this paradigm of apologizing reflecting weakness is debilitating, crippling even, as inability to separate our wrongdoings from our self esteem is a full body shackle that severely limits our potential to experience the most meaningful types of connection, ones that are high in mutual trust and fondness.

So that's the first point to consider and hopefully embrace:  To give an unconditional and heartfelt apology is not a reflection of weakness, nor does it put us in a weak position.

If someone doesn't accept our apology with grace, if a person uses our genuine contriteness as an opportunity to get all mighty and self righteous, this doesn't make us any weaker - rather, we have learned something important about that person's character, and we have every reason to walk with more strength, strength that comes from knowing that we did the right thing in taking full responsibility of a wrongdoing or mistake.

When we are in the position of receiving a genuine apology, one that we know isn't another empty gesture that won't be backed up with more care and thought going forward, the best human response is to be a loving and comforting presence, to accept the apology with a grateful and forgiving heart.  If we don't owe an apology of our own in this circumstance, we might carefully consider letting the other person know that we fully realize that it's possible for people to unintentionally and unknowingly hurt others in a million different ways, so if we have done this, we would really appreciate the opportunity to know how we hurt them so that we can take ownership as well.

In expressing genuine remorse, here are some things we don't want to say:

I'm sorry if I hurt you.

I'm sorry you took it that way.

I'm sorry that you feel that way.

Or any variation of these ways of not taking full ownership.

To give another person their best possible chance to fully forgive us, we must completely own the reality that intentional or not, something we said or did hurt them.  

I'm so sorry.

That's it.  No additional words to mess things up and create space between what we said or did and the other person's wounded heart.  This is best done with our full focus on the other person's pain so that there is very little space in our brain to contemplate all the reasons why they shouldn't be upset or how they misunderstood us.

Taking a step back to look at the broader perspective of a moment where two people are upset with one another, with both people feeling hurt and deserving of a heartfelt apology, it's only natural that a full resolution that has both people feel affirmed and appreciated requires that both have a high level of emotional intelligence.  

When we are hurt, it's quite a challenge to put our hurt to the side to fully devote ourselves to trying to understand how the other person is feeling, especially because the other person is upset and we played a significant role in making them upset.  To fully devote ourselves to understanding their pain is almost like asking another person to let us know in direct terms what our biggest shortcomings are.  Many people don't know how to handle this very well because it's too threatening to their self esteem.  

Ultimately, my belief is that the quality of a long term relationship is mostly determined by how well one or both people are able to develop this ability - to put their own feelings of resentment to the side during conflict to really try to understand how the other person is feeling and to offer heartfelt empathy.  Truly special bonds are formed when both people in a relationship commit to doing this for one another.

For those of us who don't have this yet in some of our closest relationships, I would only say that it has to begin with one person going first.  So all of us have the power to potentially create this type of bond with those we spend a lot of time with.  

Ralph, I hope you feel that some of these thoughts are worth considering. Please visit the video above at our YouTube channel and have a look through the comments section, as I've asked our readership to share their thoughts on this topic as well.

 
 

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Comments

1) If we are truly humble, then admitting fault will not be detrimental to our ego. Lifes failures come with consequences--and the sooner we own-up to them the better off we will be.

2) The more we invest in others (giving our time and undeserved consideration to family and neighbors) the more emotionally vested we will be in their well-being--and we will be more sensitive to their wellfare. This empathy will show in words of comfort and sorrow when they fall-down, when they are not respected,and especially if we ourselves cause them pain--and in a protective attitude that will stand up for them against abusive behavior.

3) If you are someone unlikely to tell others how sorry you are when you are NOT responsible for their pain--then you may struggle to consider other people's feelings above your own justifications when you have acted poorly.

4) If we choose to foster consideration of others in our actions AND our thoughts, more than we focus on ourselves--then pride, entitlement, and self justification will literally melt away as humility warms our hearts. It is this humility that enables us to forgive ourselves and ask forgiveness of others when we fail them.

5) There was a time in my life when these things were impossible. Even though I was rescued from child abuse and fostered while the abuser was punished with prison. I was unable to show myself love, respect, and consideration--much less others. But God showed me unconditional love through the care of Christians--and rescued my heart. And now, I can consider others first--because someone else (Jesus) put me first and met my need.

I hope you (whoever you are) get know God's love too...

5 STAR