Let’s be real: relationships can be messy at times, and our good intentions can end up having unintended and hurtful consequences. Besides, sometimes in a pique of emotion or unaware moment, we say or do something that upsets the receiver (and possibly others) in ways that cause tears (pun?) in the fabric of our relationships. It’s not pretty, yet these messes need to be cleaned up, or risk more permanent damage to our connection to others.
There are a number of ways that we can get back into good graces with someone who we’ve hurt, preferably way before they take us to court to get satisfaction. Some methods work better than others. The most common, even automatic, way is to apologize. An apology is a repair attempt, a sincere verbal offering of owning one’s words or actions along with a statement of remorse. If the apology is not sincere, the receiver will likely detect that, and the attempt is wasted—or worse, it makes the rift even deeper. If the apologizer does not own their behavior or convey remorse for their part in things, it’s not even an apology, but feels more like salt being rubbed into the wound, more or less vigorously.
I’ll explain: in most basic terms, psychology models human events as a sequence beginning with a stimulus that triggers an emotion, followed by a thought, then by a behavior, and resulting in consequences of some sort. What does an apology or other sort of repair attempt need to address? Stimuli are circumstances, and we have a small degree of control over them. To say, “I’m sorry I saw you try to open a jar with a hammer” comes nowhere near to apologizing to anything meaningful. Alternately, to apologize for our emotions or even our thoughts misses the mark because these are internal to us, and have no relevance to the relationship until externalized. For instance, I often can feel anger toward someone for something said or done that steps on a deeply held value of mine. I might secretly and silently imagine some act of vengeance on them. This allows me to inwardly feel satisfaction in my daydream, but with doing no harm to anyone. Then I can easily and safely put the incident out of mind for good.
What about apologizing for consequences? I hear this frequently: “I’m sorry you felt hurt by what I said”. Or, “I apologize for making you angry when I called you an idiot”. These false apologies fail to express any remorse for the perpetrator’s behavior that resulted in the mental state (or physical, financial, health, etc.) of the receiver. In essence, such statements frequently suggest that the consequences felt by the receiver are their own fault, and backhandedly attempt to justify the behavior of the one supposedly apologizing. Apologizing for consequences consistently falls short of repairing anything, and even if such apology is ‘accepted’ by the other, they will feel something is missing, and it is: there is no remorse for the behavior that led into the sticky situation.
Contrast that with this statement: “I am sorry for calling you an idiot. I had no business doing so, and my behavior was disrespectful to you, and to my own values of dignity and love.” No need even to mention the consequences, though that can be helpful in showing awareness of the whole situation, not just one’s bad behavior. “I can see that my words have caused you pain, and I will do my best to never call you such names in future.” This takes things one step further, offering a makeup or promise of changed behavior in future. If it is trust that has been broken, it is critical to not only apologize for the behavior, but to offer some small (need NOT be commensurate with the original ‘crime’) act of service that will demonstrate your good will and your ability to be trustworthy. Think of things like “I’ll give you a 10-minute foot massage today at a time you choose,” or “I’ll clean up the kitchen next time it’s your turn to do so”.
When done right, apologizing with sincerity, awareness of the impacts that have occurred to others, and even oneself (lost trust, integrity, withheld love, for examples) can be transformative in building back the fabric of relationship that got torn, perhaps even stronger than before the rift.
Can you think of a time in your life where an apology went sideways? What do you own about that situation that contributed to it not concluding well? What will you do differently in future? Now go out there and use your new awareness for repairing a relationship in your family, workplace or other community.