How To Apologize

It’s impossible to be in relationship without hurting each other from time to time. When we cause harm, repairing the connection requires a heartfelt apology. The Spanish phrase, “lo siento,” can be translated “I’m sorry” or “I feel it.” Genuine apology is difficult, because usually we don’t want to feel it.

Experiencing the pain we have inflicted can activate guilt and shame, so we tend to push it away. This defensiveness can result in an unwillingness to apologize at all, or in deflection, as in “I’m sorry, but . . .” Remember a time when you’ve been on the receiving end of “I’m sorry, but . . .” especially if followed by “but you did . . .” This isn’t an apology, because the goal is to shift the blame away. “Sorry but” usually escalates conflict rather than restoring relationship.

Another form of defensive apology is “I’m sorry okay?!,” which is to say “Stop being angry with me. I’ve apologized!” We want our “sorry” to absolve us immediately, to make their pain and our shame cease instantly.

Genuine apology involves willingness to be present patiently with the injury we inflicted. It asks us to tend to the wound we caused. Doing this requires tolerating waves of defensiveness, guilt, and shame. Breathe and be quiet while these uncomfortable emotions pass. Listen closely to what the person is telling you and repeat back what you’ve heard. Ask if you’ve missed anything. Let yourself feel what it was like to be on the receiving end of your hurtful behavior.

While listening, notice the Defense Attorney in your mind jump up and down shouting “yeah but!,” becoming apoplectic with “No! You’re wrong. I’m right!” Please don’t speak. Just come back to the other person’s pain to be present with him/her. Notice the Judge in your mind condemn you, and observe the shame you feel. Exhale. Allow yourself to be human. Return your focus to listening.

Once you have reconnected through genuinely feeling with the person you have harmed, lines of communication are restored. At that point, if it is still relevant, you can help her/him understand your experience of the conflict.

A heartfelt apology is healing in the moment and leads the way for the most important aspect of making amends: a behavioral apology. When we emotionally integrate how our action was hurtful, we are more attentive to our actions and can better avoid causing harm in the future.

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