For many people, the hardest two words to say in any language are “I’m sorry.” Ironically, according to Harriet Lerner, psychologist and author of Why Won’t You Apologize?, these words might also be “the most healing words.” (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, “A healthy conscience depends on apologies” by Jane Brody, 2/17/17, E32, 34). Even for those of you who don’t find it hard to apologize when you’re wrong, here are some tips to help you improve at this crucial and beneficial life skill.
Before explaining what’s best to say in an apology, let’s look at why saying “I’m sorry” can be difficult. First, maybe you grew up in a family in which you were blamed for everything that went wrong and neither of your parents ever apologized to you or each other. If you didn’t grow up hearing apologies, you might think they’re weird or not know what to say. Moreover, if you were made to apologize when it wasn’t your fault, you may have had your fill of “sorry” and be damned if you’ll say it ever again.
Second, maybe you don’t much mind saying it, but feel as if doing it when you’re wrong makes you seem weak and that saying one “I’m sorry” will open up the floodgates for people to blame you for everything that goes wrong. Third, maybe you feel so ashamed at making mistakes that you can’t stand to express a mea culpa because it cuts you so deeply. If so, you may be a person who expects to be perfect and saying “I’m sorry” calls attention to your imperfection.
Whatever your ability to offer apologies, here’s how Lerner says they’re done best:
- Don’t follow the words “I’m sorry” with a defensive explanation—or any type of rationalization. Those two words on their own say it all.
- Don’t ask for forgiveness. Doing so is a way of trying to make yourself feel better and is not done for the other person.
- Don’t say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” which can be invalidating to the other person when you are at fault. You may, however, say that if you don’t believe you were in the wrong but, nevertheless, feel terrible that another person is in emotional pain.
Paradoxically, saying a heartfelt (not a perfunctory, mumbled, begrudging) “I’m sorry” displays inner strength. You may have been socialized to believe that it shows weakness to apologize, but the opposite is true. You need guts, self-confidence, strong emotional resources, and integrity to take responsibility for wrongs done. An inability to apologize when you’re wrong is actually a sign of weakness, arrogance, social ignorance, and insensitivity. Moreover, saying you’re sorry not only makes the other person feel better, but it makes you feel more like the person you might actually wish to be.