A Comprehensive Guide to Apologizing
Because apologies are really important, and most of us could stand to get better at them.
Apologizing, like so many aspects of human interaction, can be terrifying, uncomfortable and downright hard. Apologizing is actually a lot simpler than our minds tend to make it, but just because it’s simple does not mean it’s easy.
We’re conditioned to make all kinds of associations between apologizing and feelings of shame, powerlessness or vulnerability, and because we want to avoid those feelings, we often avoid apologizing. Extricating your mind from its unconscious, conditioned and reactive patterns can take years, but chipping away at those patterns, bit by bit, is probably the best thing you can do for yourself.
Today, let’s talk about apologies.
First, what is an apology?
An apology is an action, which means that what it is gets defined by what it does. To understand what an apology is, we need to understand what an apology is for. An apology is for empathizing with the experience of someone who has been hurt by your actions. It is also an expression, an act of communication. So, to put it all together:
An apology is the communication of empathy for someone else’s experience of being hurt by your actions.
In order to apologize, you must understand that someone else was hurt by your actions, understand why they were hurt by your actions, and express both of these understandings to that person.
Here’s the thing: feeling hurt is an emotion, and emotions always make sense. There is always a reason why someone is feeling the way that they are, even if you think the same reason would not cause you to feel the same emotion. An emotion doesn’t need to be “rational” to be valid.
Next, what isn’t an apology?
An apology is not conflict resolution. An apology is not forgiveness. An apology is not justice. An apology is not a change in behavior. An apology is not taking full responsibility for someone else’s healing. An apology is not believing you were wrong.* An apology is just an apology, and its purpose is to empathize and express that empathy.
Apologies may play a role in conflict resolution, but sometimes, you can apologize and the conflict still isn’t resolved. Apologizing may play a role in being forgiven, but someone can accept your expression of empathy without forgiving you. Calling another person out (or in) on their actions, seeking an apology from them, or asking for accountability for their own behavior can be deeply important to creating justice, but these are not apologies.
Accepting that your actions caused someone else pain does not mean your actions were “wrong”* in an objective moral sense. Apologizing for those actions does not mean that you take on the role of clearing out someone else’s entire wardrobe of pain. That means, ye woke folks who are really into personal emotional responsibility: you can apologize too.
The point of an apology is to apologize: to empathize with and validate someone else’s experience of being hurt by your actions.
Why don’t people apologize?
Many of us avoid apologizing like the plague, typically because we fear the way we’ll think about ourselves if we do. Accepting that our actions caused someone to feel hurt, and that the other person’s experience of feeling hurt is valid and legitimate, often makes us think we’re “bad.” Thinking we’re bad makes us dislike ourselves or feel ashamed.
But an apology is not about feeling shame. An apology is about empathizing with someone else’s experience. Shaming yourself, by definition, is not empathetic, because you’re still just thinking about yourself. Try thinking about the other person instead. Leave yourself out of it for a moment.
Shame serves one purpose: to catalyze a change in behavior. If you are not going to change your behavior, there is no point feeling shame. If you can’t stop feeling shame, then maybe change your behavior.
Either way, your shame is worthless to someone in need of your empathy.
Why do apologies matter?
Apologizing is a loving thing to do. It pulls your experience, and the experience of someone else, in closer together. It allows you to see them, and for them to feel seen. Apologizing does not heal everything, but it is a crucial part of healing anything, because empathy is a crucial part of healing anything.
Getting hurt without getting an apology can feel like being abused, gaslit and rejected all in one. It’s a signal that someone else can hurt you and refuse to even consider that your experience of pain is valid, let alone worthy of acknowledgment, let alone worthy of a change in behavior.
Invalidation is a deeply negative experience for a human, on both the psychological and physiological levels. Empathy and validation are important parts of human flourishing. If you care about someone else’s wellbeing, it might be a worthy endeavor to become able to apologize to them.
*What if I didn’t do anything wrong?
Fortunately, we’re not talking about right and wrong here. We’re talking about pain and empathy.
Even if you did nothing “wrong,” you can still apologize for hurting someone. Hurting someone with your actions does not mean you have done anything “wrong.” Sometimes, you really did the authentic best, and someone else’s life, circumstances, or past experiences led to them feeling hurt by it anyway. You can still apologize to them for causing them pain with your actions.
Someone telling you that they’re hurt by your actions does not mean that they’re saying you “wronged” them; they’re simply asserting a boundary about how they can accept being treated. It is up to you whether you’re going to respect that boundary, or not, going forward. Sometimes, you can’t, through no fault of your own. Fortunately, we’re not talking about fault or guilt here; we’re talking about pain and empathy.
Do I need to change my actions after I apologize?
Do you want to? Why or why not? The are no wrong answers, or rather, the only wrong answer is a dishonest one.
If someone is hurt by your actions, you now know a boundary they have about how they can accept being treated without pain. You can no longer say that you don’t know the boundary is there — or, you can, but you’re lying, in a convoluted defense mechanism to avoid feeling shame. If someone tells you that something you’re doing is hurting them, and you keep doing it, what you’re doing now is consciously causing them pain. Whether or not you want to call that “wrong” is your own business.
If you are hurting someone, and you cannot or don’t want to change your behavior, you can just tell them honestly. There is no real need to defend yourself, attack yourself, or attack them. We’re not talking about right and wrong here, we’re just talking about boundaries. All people have them. Sometimes they’re rational, sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they’re flexible, sometimes they aren’t. How you are able and willing to act is your own boundary.
Rather than cast blame on anyone like some kind of mystical curse, you can just be transparent about what you’re able or willing to do, and why. Perhaps this could be a chance for greater growth and awareness on their part.
If I want to apologize, what do I do?
Before you open your mouth, empathize.
Okay, well, the first step is to decide whether or not you can give an authentic apology right now. The question to ask yourself is, “Can I lay my own feelings of hurt, anger or shame aside for a moment in order to empathize with this person’s experience?” If you don’t think you can, maybe challenge that thought a bit, or maybe don’t apologize yet (or at all).
If you can, then accept that you did something that hurt someone. That doesn’t mean you did “wrong” in some objective moral sense, or even that your actions were objectively hurtful. All it means is that your actions felt hurtful to somebody. Any shame you might feel around that is your own business.
It’s important here to recognize when someone is hurt, and they may not appear hurt to you at first. Hurt does not always (or even usually) show up as crying, visible vulnerability, or the words “I feel hurt right now.” For instance, a hurt person might seem angry, cold, or distant instead. Pro tip: anger is always a mask for pain. Some people present pain first as sadness, some as anger, some as avoidance, and so on. Any aversion you might feel to anger or sadness is your own business.
Now that you’ve accepted that your actions hurt someone, think about that person’s perspective. Validate it to yourself. Start by understanding that it makes perfect sense for them to feel hurt by this, or they wouldn’t feel hurt by it. Now, why does it make sense that they feel hurt? Why might they be responding as they are? How might this action come across to them?
You could also think about whether you want to keep acting like this in the future, but that’s between you and yourself. Your goal right now is to empathize with the other person.
Now you can open your mouth:
First, say the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” Just do it.
Next, take accountability for causing them pain. Express in some clear and explicit way that you understand that your actions caused them pain. That means: express that you did those actions, and that those actions caused pain. Be specific.
Then, validate their pain. Tell them that their experience of being hurt makes sense, because it does. You could explain to them, to the best of your own understanding, why it makes sense that they were hurt by your actions. Again, be specific if you can.
If their perspective doesn’t make sense to you, you can ask them for clarification. If they tell you, listen to what they tell you, accept it as a legitimate reason to feel hurt, and think about it more. Any shame you might feel is your own business. After you’ve done this, go back and validate their pain again. Once you understand, communicate that you understand.
If you are planning to change your behavior going forwards, now is the time to commit to doing so. If you are not going to change your behavior, now is also the time to make that clear if necessary. You can ask for their help or compassion through the process, or seek the help of others.
And that’s it.
Forgiveness, justice, conflict resolution, dramatic life changes — all of these are great and all, but they’re not apologizing. Because (once more, with feeling): apologizing is communicating empathy for someone else’s experience of being hurt by your actions.