The Anatomy of an Apology

by Jennifer Drager, LPC

As a therapist and former child welfare worker, I’ve witnessed countless apologies being given, received, and analyzed. However, it’s clear that, as a society, we struggle to issue apologies in a genuinely significant and impactful way. In this article, I aim to explore the complexities of making a sincere and profound apology, drawing from my professional experience and insights.

Many of us apologize as a reflex action that we learned in childhood when we were taught to “say sorry,” often without a thorough understanding of the situation or the repercussions of our actions. This automatic impulse or tendency to apologize can stem from various motivations, such as avoiding conflicts, pleasing others, or simply a perceived social norm. However, it can be beneficial to pause and attempt to fully understand the situation before offering an apology, as this can lead to more meaningful and effective communication.

A genuine apology is more than just a casual expression of remorse; it involves taking full responsibility for one’s actions and a concerted effort to make things right. Throughout this article, we will examine why a simple “sorry” may fall short of a heartfelt apology and how acknowledging one’s faults can be the first step toward making amends. By following the proper steps and apologizing sincerely, we can repair damaged relationships and learn from our mistakes.

To make a meaningful apology, it is important to take the first step of acknowledging the offense.

This involves accepting responsibility for any physical or psychological harm caused and acknowledging that your behavior was unacceptable. For instance, you may say, “I realize that yelling at you was not an appropriate way to react to the situation, and I should have handled it differently.” By recognizing what you did wrong, you take ownership of the situation and show that you are committed to making things right. This constructive approach will not only help you build trust, but also repair relationships with others, emphasizing the crucial role of trust in our interactions.

It’s also helpful to mention the alternative actions that could have been taken instead as this demonstrates our comprehension that a situation could have various solutions. It’s not solely about the intention behind causing harm, but also acknowledging that diverse approaches exist to resolve a problem.

A meaningful apology also requires vulnerability without defensiveness.

This is essential to creating a connection and bond with the other person, and can only be achieved by being honest and transparent about your feelings. When you apologize, you show that you care about the relationship and are willing to take steps to repair any damage that has been done.

We often use phrases that may unintentionally displace the blame or ownership of a situation on the harmed person.

For instance, consider the phrase, “I’m sorry, but I hope you can tell me what you need for us to communicate better in the future.” Using the word “but” in this sentence can create a sense of defensiveness, making the harmed person feel unheard, invalidated, or dismissed.

However, if we use the word “and” instead of “but” in the apology, we can easily broaden the conversation, inviting feedback rather than closing or displacing ownership. By changing the above “but” statement to “and,” it would read like this: “I’m sorry, and I hope that you can tell me what you need for us to communicate better in the future.”

In doing so, we have now demonstrated an openness to the other person’s timeline and have opened up a desire for meaningful conversation. This simple change in language can make a significant difference in creating a safe and inclusive space for communication, which can help foster better relationships and understanding between individuals.

When apologizing, it is pivotal to exhibit genuineness and sincerity.

A simple “sorry” might not suffice, as it could come across as insincere and disingenuous. This is especially true as we grow up and are accustomed to offering phony apologies as a quick fix for our mistakes. For instance, phrases like “I’m sorry you got mad” or “I’m sorry I missed your birthday, but I was busy at work” could sound like insincere apologies. Instead, a more heartfelt approach should be taken, such as “I’m sorry I forgot your birthday. I was occupied with work and failed to take the time to wish you a happy birthday. Can we plan a fun celebration this weekend when I have more time to focus on you?”

The tone and timing of the apology are as important as the words themselves.

Timing, in particular, can be essential in determining how an apology is received. If you’re not ready to offer an apology, it’s important to be honest and transparent with the person you’re apologizing to. For example, you could start by expressing your appreciation for the relationship you have with them and your feelings towards them. Then you might explain that you’re currently struggling to see things clearly and need some time to let your emotions settle down. This approach can help to maintain the relationship by demonstrating your commitment to it while also respecting your own need for space and time to process your emotions.

Apologizing to someone does not guarantee that they will forgive you.

It is completely acceptable for someone to refuse your apology, and their decision should be respected. It is not their responsibility to change their views or feelings just because you are ready to apologize. Remember that accepting your apology is not obligatory. What matters most is the sincerity and thoughtfulness of your apology, as well as the effort you put into making amends. The most important thing is to take responsibility for your actions and hold yourself accountable for your behavior.

Apologizing to someone does not guarantee that they will forgive you.

In summary, the three essential steps to a meaningful apology are (1) acknowledging your mistake and its impact on the other person, (2) explaining what you could have done differently and what you expected the outcome to be, and (3) being open and vulnerable in your apology and show your commitment to repairing the relationship. By following these steps, you can make a sincere and profound apology that can lead to personal growth and relationship repair.

When you take the necessary steps to apologize for a mistake, including acknowledging the wrongdoing, expressing remorse, and committing to change your behavior, you are not just making amends with the other person. You are also rewiring your brain in a way that enhances your capacity for self-reflection and growth. By accepting responsibility for your actions and focusing on what you could have done differently, you are creating new neural pathways that make it more likely you will behave differently in similar situations. On the other hand, if you become defensive or fail to fully own up to your mistake, you are more likely to repeat the same behavior, potentially causing harm to others and damaging your relationships.

Remember that your words and actions have an impact, so take the time to offer a meaningful apology that acknowledges the harm done and shows your commitment to doing better in the future. If you would like to learn these skills and more, please reach out to Equilibria (Equilibria PCS | Psychologists Philadelphia & Therapists) today to schedule an intake with one of our amazing therapists.