I’m sorry,” two simple words but often a phrase we struggle to say. Apologizing doesn’t come naturally to many of us but doing so is crucial in building healthy relationships and taking accountability for our actions.
Here, we spoke to two experts in this field to find out about the importance of apologizing, how it can help improve our personal relationships and the art of crafting a suitable apology.
What is an apology
To start things off, it’s important to clarify what an apology entails. “An apology is a restorative gesture that comes from personal responsibility, empathy and compassion,” Psychodynamic Relationship Therapist Rhian Kivits explained. “We take responsibility for the impact we’ve had upon the other person,” she added. However big or small the action might have been, apologizing is a way of communicating to someone you’re sorry for what happened.
Why apologies are important
It can often feel easier to bury your head in the sand than tackle the issue straight on and make an apology. However, doing so is important both for you, the other person, and the relationship itself. According to Relationship Psychologist Dr. Clair Burley, apologies actually strengthen a bond between two people. “It demonstrates to the other person, that they are important to you, and that your relationship with them matters,” Burley noted.
It can be easy to interpret a situation demanding an apology as an indicator of an unhealthy relationship — whether romantic or platonic — but in fact, it is the opposite. “It conveys a sense of safety, rather than threat. It shows that the relationship is not fragile or can be easily broken, but rather it can withstand some strain and will recover and continue,” she adds.
For both the person conveying the apology and the person receiving it, there are benefits to be felt and opportunities for growth. “The giver has an opportunity to be vulnerable, which fosters closeness. The receiver sees it as a sign of respect and an opportunity to respond to the bid for connection,” Burley explained.
Why we struggle to apologize
If we are struggling to apologize, it is worth exploring why this might be. Burley suggests considering if what we’re feeling is guilt or shame. Notably, the two differ: “Guilt is when we feel we have done something bad. Shame is when we feel we are bad.” Often struggling to apologize is linked to shame. If we are worried that by apologizing we will reveal our ‘true self’ (that ‘bad’ person shame has created in our head), we naturally retreat and avoid situations where this might happen. Instead, we put up what Burley calls a “shield of shame” to protect us.
We minimise, deny and blame, avoiding apologizing at all costs in order to defend ourselves from these painful feelings. “When we are able to acknowledge it was a human mistake, then we are more likely to be able to acknowledge this and apologize,” she clarifies. Once we become aware of this pattern of behaviour — either on our own or by working with a therapist — we can see more clearly how to avoid it in the future. In short: it comes down to being kind to yourself and working to like your whole being regardless of the mistakes that you inevitably will make.
Often our relationship with apologizing is linked to our childhood experiences. “If we had parents who coerced apologies from us, then we may feel resentful. If we had parents who never accepted our apologies, then we may find it futile. If the apology was linked with punishment, then it could bring up fear. If we were expected to apologize publicly, then we could associate it with humiliation,” Kivits clarifies. If you are finding these patterns learned in childhood are impacting your adult relationships it is worth exploring this further with a therapist to help you understand and deal with it better.
How to apologize well
Psychodynamic Relationship Therapist Rhian Kivits shares her five-step process for apologizing
Ask for permission
Make sure the person is willing to have the conversation. Ask them for a few minutes of their time, explaining that you have something you’d like to say to them.
Look them in the eye and verbalise that you’re sorry
Indicate that you empathise with how they feel. Explain that you understand they feel that way as a result of your speech or behaviour and take full ownership of this.
Only apologize if you truly mean it. If you’re offering a solution or a way of putting things right, make the suggestion now.
Have no expectations of the outcome
Place no conditions on the apology and certainly don’t cloud the apology with excuses. Don’t ask for forgiveness — this can pressurise the other person. Maybe the other person needs time to reflect or some space before they respond. They’re the ones who’s been hurt and exploring their response to your apology is their right.
Explore further discussions
Once the apology has been received and accepted, it’s possible to initiate a discussion about what happened and why. This can be done after or at a later time — ask them whether they’d like to talk further about the issue.
While apologizing might be difficult, the rewards for doing so — both for you and the other person — more than outway a slightly awkward conversation. And in doing so, we can learn and grow together.