“I’m Sorry”: How to Genuinely and Effectively Apologize

Have you ever wondered why it is so hard for some people to apologize? Or why it’s so hard for you to apologize, and when you try, maybe you are confused as to why your apology was not well received or went south, possibly even made things worse? How we say “I’m Sorry” is critically important in the outcome, and whether or not it heals hurts and injuries. In her recent book Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, Dr. Harriet Lerner outlines the Nine Essential Ingredients of a True Apology.  Here they are:
  1. Does not include the word “but”
  2. Keeps the focus on your actions and not on the other person’s response
  3. Includes an offer of reparation or restitution that fits the situation
  4. Does not over do
  5. Doesn’t get caught up in who’s more to blame or who started it
  6. Requires that you do your best to avoid a repeat performance
  7. Should not serve to silence
  8. Shouldn’t be offered to make you feel better if it risks making the hurt party feel worse
  9. Does not ask the hurt party to do anything, not even to forgive
Lerner talks about how many of us will never get the apology that we need or would like, because the other person is standing on such a small rickety platform of self-worth and cannot hold space for that.  In other words, it is not about us, but about the risk to a person’s view of who they are as a person and their identity that is so big that it gets in the way of offering us an apology and them taking ownership.  It is important to look at this process in reverse – looking at ourselves and how we do when it comes to owning up to our mistakes, wrongdoings, or hurting someone else.  Can we set aside our viewpoint, perspective and justification for why we did what we did for a moment, so that we can use empathy to see how our words and actions hurt the other party?  To be clear, this does not mean disowning our own experience, but it means holding space for the other person’s and choosing to own our mistake and be accountable for our actions.  When doing apology well, we are not coming from the perspective of why we did what we did or seeking to point out what the other party did.  That part can be addressed, but according to Lerner’s work, should be for a later conversation, and not part of the apology act itself. Learning how to apologize in a genuine and true way is important because how to say “I’m sorry” is not commonly taught in our schools or in our families.  It requires hard learning for most of us and is essential to our role as a friend, family member, colleague, leader, community member, parent and partner. Lerner has some tips for us when we are the person who needs to apologize - she says to drop the defensiveness, listen to the hurt party’s anger and pain (even if you think it’s exaggerated), and apologize for the part that you can agree with, with your whole heart.  Do this and your relationships will benefit.  And over time, the platform of your own self-worth will grow stronger than ever before because you are able to own your human flaws and mistakes, offer repair, and be true to yourself.  This does not mean endlessly beating yourself up for messing up.  It does mean doing your part to apologize and repair when you mess up, and then taking care of yourself, doing the work, being aware of this issue in the future to avoid a “repeat performance”, and moving forward with increased awareness and sense of self and a larger platform of self-worth. If a rickety platform of self-worth is getting in the way of you being able to offer a true apology in your relationships, individual psychotherapy can be a great way to work on understanding what makes the platform rickety and strengthen your platform and self-worth.  Self-worth comes from our messages from childhood, relationships, life experiences and society and are often handed down to you – but you get to decide how to write the rest of the story. After all, our value is not based on our performance, our actions and how the world sees us; our value is based on our true internal self – our core- and that part of us is, more often than not, very good and very worthy of value and love.  We get to have a say in our self-worth and value.  We, not outside forces or external factors, get to determine our worth.  When we give that control to others, our worth fluctuates often, dependent on what others think or based on our accomplishments and is unstable.  That up and down ride is exhausting.  When we focus on who we are inside and get to know that person (our self) and work to make our self happy (treating ourselves with love, respect and care), we both give and receive the message that we are worthy and therefore, that’s who we become.  Reach out and talk to me about how we can work on your self-worth and ability to effectively apologize in your relationships.   Source: Lerner, Harriet. Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. 2017.