An Apology Is More Than Just ‘Sorry’

Sorry. It’s a big word that can mean a lot — or nothing. Why? Because sometimes saying ‘sorry’ is just not enough. An apology is only the start of the repair process for a damaged connection.

We’ve all heard the words (or had someone throw them at us), “Just put it behind you and move on”, but when someone has really hurt us, as in properly cut us to the quick, a simple I’m sorry is not good enough. It may make the person who is apologising feel better, but for the hurt person it can leave a feeling of disillusionment. They are left to carry the disappointment and scars while the other person gets to ‘move on’.

That’s why it’s important to go beyond ‘sorry’ to mend a damaged relationship in a meaningful way. Back up your words with actions. Expressing genuine regret will mean a lot more if you provide measurable pathways to change, and even better, act on them.

According to The MindShift Foundation’s Clinical Psychologist Dr Lars Madsen, “Apologising to someone may involve more than saying ‘sorry’. It’s important to open communication channels and listen to how you hurt the other person. Once you’ve restored that connection, the next step is to take action to make the situation better. This can be done by taking responsibility for the harm that has been done and to do whatever is necessary to correct the wrong. Only then can you begin to restore the victim’s feeling of worthiness and self-worth.”

Did you do the hurting?

If you’re the one who has offended someone, start by asking how you can make good beyond ‘sorry’. Ask the person how they feel amends would best be made. For example, if you broke something, offer to buy a new something. If you called a person something less than positive, now’s the time to talk about their positive attributes. If you’ve taken money that wasn’t yours to take, it’s time to give it back. Whatever it is, do what you can to make amends.

Here’s an action plan to help you create a meaningful healing process for when ‘sorry’ is not enough.

  1. Make sense of what happened. Replay the incident and find clarity.
  2. Face your feelings. Good or bad, denying them helps no one.
  3. Stand in the other person’s shoes. Really try and understand why they feel hurt.
  4. Write down the reasons why it’s important to make amends. Number one on that list should always be some variant of ‘they’re worth it’.
  5. Decide what it will take to make up for the damage that was done. Deep down, you probably already know.
  6. Make a plan of action to implement your repentance. It can be difficult if the other person isn’t speaking to you, so plan out your next moves carefully and with respect.
  7. Do what you say you are going to do. Don’t break a promise now, it’ll only make things worse.
  8. Be authentic and compassionate. Listen and really hear what the other person is going through.
  9. Learn from what happened. It means nothing if you don’t take the lesson on board.
  10. Take time for forgiveness. Remember, ‘sorry’ isn’t always enough. Sometimes, people need a bit of time. Not everyone is able to forgive and forget.

Be honest in telling the other person what you have learned from this experience. This can help them realise that you truly did learn a lesson and how effective a lesson it was. Focus on what’s ahead for both of you and don’t keep reliving what happened. Even if you don’t make up with the other person, make a conscious decision to never hurt someone in this way again.

It’s not always easy to make amends. Putting yourself out there to apologise can be daunting and admitting to wrongdoing can bring out negative self-talk and accentuate guilt. Self-forgiveness will enable you to move through the present rather than live in the past, so even if things don’t work out, by forgiving yourself, in time you’ll be able to use your experience to have compassion for others who find themselves in a similar situation. Not only will you understand their situation, but you’ll also have enough experience to help them work through their own issues to reach a positive outcome. Try not to let guilt overcome you.

If you want to rebuild an authentic friendship, do your best to be dependable and considerate, and take the time to think before speaking or acting. It’s impossible to be perfect, but you can be trustworthy by your words and actions.

What about when you’re the one that’s been hurt?

Maybe now is the time for forgiveness. After all, if someone has made the effort, if they’ve gone beyond ‘sorry’ to right their wrong, it shows that they care enough to try and make amends. It takes a lot of courage for someone to admit they were wrong. Those that do, really understand that ‘sorry’ on its own just isn’t good enough. Forgiving someone who’s earned a second chance may have more meaning and might even strengthen your connection.

Consider using the following process as a pathway to resolution.

  1. Find clarity. Did the other person have a legitimate reason for acting the way they did? If you know the other person well, you should know the difference between a ‘brain-fade’ and intentionally causing serious harm.
  2. Put yourself in their shoes. Why would they do what they did? Did their actions have any legitimacy whatsoever?
  3. What has been done to move on? What apology or restitution have you received?
  4. Create a list of things you need from this person. You might need them to leave your life on a permanent basis, you might require something simple. Sit quietly and ask yourself what this person needs to offer you to rebuild the relationship.
  5. What do you want from this situation? As the offended party, the way forward is up to you.
  6. Beyond apologies and restitution, what happens if you hold onto your hard feelings, anger and disappointment?

If you know that your connection is broken beyond repair don’t blame yourself. You’re human! And you’re allowed to take things personally. If you really do feel like your self-worth has taken a battering, take stock and rebuild the feelings you have about yourself. Remember, you are not the one who did wrong. You have the right to take your time, to heal in your own space and to be offended. It’s not wrong to be connected to your emotions, and if things get really difficult, talk to someone. Reach out to friends, family and professionals to help you resolve the situation. You’re not alone.

What’s the important message here?

Just saying sorry on its own is not enough. When we offend someone, we don’t just damage someone else’s self-worth, but we show ourselves in a less than positive light. Our friends, family and colleagues deserve better. We deserve better. Conflict doesn’t make us stronger or better people. It shows us for what we really are.

The way we speak and act impacts everyone around us. It can greatly contribute to our success and equally to our ‘non-success’ in every aspect of life. The message here is simple. Think before you speak and act. Have compassion and respect for the people you care about. Listen to other people and if you do hurt or offend someone, have the courage to not only say sorry, but to show how much you care in your actions as well.

It really will make all the difference.

Elizabeth Venzin is the Founder and CEO of the Australian Not-for-Profit Organisation The MindShift Foundation. Resources about preventative mental health can be found on the MindShift website

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