How to Truly Apologize

Saying “I’m sorry” is not nearly enough.

Fake apologies are short-lived. They disappear into thin air.

There’s a certain kind of person who uses “I’m sorry” as a quick fix to get back into your good graces, only to repeat the behavior again and again.

He or she says, “I’m sorry,” to shortcut the consequences of whatever it is they did. They are willing to eat humble pie, briefly, so life will get back to normal.

Do you have a person like this in your life? … Could it be you?

We all make mistakes, and we all take turns apologizing, so how about getting good at it? “I’m sorry” should not be a brush-off in order to move on without resolving the issue. A person who is truly sorry makes amends. Amends are where the rubber meets the road. To mend means to repair. A sincere apology mends what was torn.

Real apologizing comes from the heart — it is not mumbled through clenched teeth. Here’s what it takes:

  • Vulnerability to drop your defenses
  • Genuine regret for what you said or did
  • Humility to face the music
  • Willingness to change
  • Dedication to make amends

You (or your friend) can learn how to apologize well.

Doing so will help you increase your emotional intelligence skills, which will reward you with more personal integrity, kind-heartedness and powerful maturity (the sexy kind that can say after a slap across the face, “I had that coming.”). Here’s how to apologize:

  • State specifically what you did that you feel badly about. It takes courage to review in detail what you would rather vaguely refer to while quickly walking away. Rather than, “Sorry about yesterday,” go deeper with, 
    “Last night after dinner when I said [fill in the blank] that was way too harsh. You don’t deserve to be spoken to that way.”
  • Express regret. Such as, “I wish I hadn’t said that. If I could take it back I would. The look on your face when I said that broke my heart. I’m so sorry.” Tip: Don’t say, “I feel terrible!” It’s not about you, and your feelings could manipulate the apology-receiver to forgive before she’s ready.
  • Name the trait in you that you’re going to work on, e.g., “I have a temper and lash out when I get angry. I don’t like that quality in myself and I’m committed to working on it. My first step is reading a book I bought on anger management.” Tip: Don’t say, “I’ll never do that again.” That’s an over-promise which you probably won’t be able to keep until you put some work in.
  • Pay attention to the other person as you apologize. Watch her face, notice his body language. You will see whether they are open or shut down. This should influence what you say and how you communicate. Some people won’t want you to touch them. Others are craving a hug. Some need to push you away to punish you and test whether you can tolerate their hurt, so …
  • Have patience. Probably your lack of patience led to an outburst in the first place. Your words or actions were painful to another person. If you want to heal the emotional rift, this is your second chance to be patient. And if you pay attention to their reactions to your heartfelt apology, you will slow down, take a risk and reach out to hold a hand or say you care, in a way that communicate that you really mean it.
  • Ask what you could have done differently. Go ahead and ask the other person what they would have you do differently: your tone, the timing, body language, there are so many elements and nuances to communication. You don’t have to change, but it will help you understand what went wrong and empathize more.

Two important points not to be overlooked:

  • There is usually a grain of truth in every outburst. Even if the person who lashed out at you is apologizing, consider whether there was something difficult for you to hear that needed to be said. Your job, after receiving an apology, is to invite the other person into a calm, compassionate conversation about the subject that produced the blowup and probably still needs exploration and resolution.
  • Nobody owes anybody an apology. But we all deserve to receive an apology. The difference is, feeling that someone owes you keeps you helpless and angry. Knowing inside that you deserve an apology, even if you don’t get it, means you have good self-esteem, which is empowering. Life isn’t fair and we don’t receive all the apologies we deserve … but feeling deserving means you will heal and move on.

If you’re the one apologizing with your newfound emotional intelligence skills, hopefully the other person will open up and receive your amends.

If you’re the one receiving a genuine apology, don’t dig your heels in and milk it for all it’s worth. Be generous and let him or her know it means a lot to you.

When we meet each other halfway, relationships grow stronger.

Which enables us to meet the greater challenge of digging in and addressing the issues which still need understanding on both sides.

Learning to truly apologize is a HUGE step because true apologies are given unconditionally. You have to suck it up, name your regrets, and make amends by committing to learn how to be different so you don’t repeat the mistake. Best case scenario, the other person melts and a conversation blossoms around what you could both do better going forward. Worst case scenario, the other person is cautious, silent, unresponsive.

When you apologize, don’t expect “tit for tat.”

True apologies are unconditional. They do not demand an even exchange — an assumption that the other person will apologize as well. He may need time to take in what you said. She may be holding her breath waiting for the other shoe to drop. History may have shown that on the heels of an apology comes a slew of accusations.

This is your opportunity to prove yourself different. Tolerate the discomfort. Give the person space. And pat yourself on the back for giving this apology your best shot. Don’t worry. Life will give you plenty more chances to practice.

Since I was young, people have confided in me. They say they feel safe because I listen with love and without judgment. It is my calling to understand, empathize, nurture and guide. That’s why I became a Gestalt psychotherapist and relationship coach. Scroll down if you’d like to talk …