“I’m” and “sorry” are two of the most powerful words in the English language - in any language. This is going to be something of an ode to the apology, as an act of bravery and kindness.
Ever stay in a hotel with an adjoining room option? If so, you know that to connect two rooms, there’s a doorway, but it has two doors in it, and each door can only be opened from one side. Forgiveness is like that. A door that must be open on both sides.**
The everyday miracle of loving someone and being loved comes with the belief that if they hurt you, they will care - they will still be able to see you. That you are connected to them in a way that means your pain puts them in pain, matters to them. That the doors are still open and you can recover from the pain together. And the affirmation of that starts with “I'm sorry.”
Think of a time when someone you love (a parent, a sibling, a romantic partner, a friend) hurt you. Did they see your pain and apologize? If not, how long did your resentment and frustration simmer? How long was that relationship poisoned? A day? A month? Years? For the rest of your lives?
Now imagine how things might have been different if they had just said “I'm sorry,” and meant it.
That is the positive power of an apology.
And yes, it is an act of bravery. In apologizing, opening your side of the door, you have to accept the apology may not be accepted. The other side may stay closed. You make yourself vulnerable, and rejection is possible. And yes, you can instead try to express remorse in a whole host of other, indirect ways. Making up for misdeeds with actions, kindness, or deference. But by themselves, those are usually subtle and prone to misinterpretation, easily confused with just wanting to ignore the problem. The surest way to tell someone you've wronged that you are remorseful is to say so. Two words. (Not three. Nothing says “I'm not really sorry” quite like “I'm sorry, but---” in most cases.)
Acts of kindness gain meaning, when they follow the words “I'm sorry.”
One of the longest longitudinal studies ever conducted finished recently. The findings? That rich or poor, the biggest indicator of lifelong happiness was the strength of your interpersonal relationships. Whether that's one romantic partner, or a close-knit family, or a tight circle of friends. We're social creatures. Meaningful connections to other people make us happy. The kind where you let people in, to trusting, vulnerable places. And you share part of yourself with them. Doors open.
Life comes at you fast. We all get hurt, and from time to time, we all hurt people we care about, whether we mean to or not. Acknowledging you've done something wrong is not admitting weakness or ceding points in an argument. In reality, apologizing is the only way to stay on the side of right. Refusing to acknowledge someone else's pain in a way they clearly understand is you closing your door. It is literally adding insult to injury. That does not somehow turn into you being more right. If you hurt someone you care about and don't apologize, you are wronging them twice.
By contrast, nothing makes us more likely to pay attention, to think kindly of us than someone being nice to us. Far more than simple flattery, saying “I’m sorry” is an inherently nice thing. It says “I see your pain and wish it weren’t so.” Plain, simple care.
Maybe you don't feel the person you've wronged deserves your care. In which case you are not approaching the situation with much humanity or love. And if your response is “they're the despicable one” or “they started it,” remember, the only person you have control over is yourself. If their behavior is despicable, ask yourself if you want to be despicable too.No matter how wronged you feel, two wrongs don't make a right.
Yes, apologies can be insincere and they can be an excuse or (especially when overused) belie an insecurity. An apology is not a panacea. But none of that changes the fact that in its true form, an apology is an act of kindness, and/or an act of love. It is the surest step on the path to reclaiming your integrity, and renewing someone else's faith in you. And it is often necessary, to heal the wounds that won't heal any other way. Being able to say I'm sorry is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength, and compassion.
**I suppose that's not always true, but the person who can forgive without the slightest bit of remorse from the other party and without being degraded (as in an abusive relationship) is the stuff of legend. The heroics of a caregiver to a patient with dementia, the mother who forgives her son's killer. We write stories about that, because it is so remarkable and rare. But I digress.