Whether it’s a simple, “I’m sorry” between two people, or something more public and eloquent expressed to a whole group, apologizing is a fundamental, if at times challenging, human interaction.
Remorse or regret, complex feelings that are crucial to an apology, are what we experience when we’ve done something hurtful to somebody else and feel bad for it. To be complete and effective, an apology requires straightforward communication about these feelings. By this, I mean that along with being sorry, it’s important to let the other person know you regret what you’ve done.
Offering up a “pure apology” — one that is unequivocally clear and does not include reasons, rationales or excuses — is harder than you might think. When we feel bad for having wronged someone, we tend to want to explain ourselves. To others, this can sound like a reason why the other person shouldn’t feel the way they do. Reasons and rationales get in the way of an apology, making it less of one.
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Apologizing is a vital way of re-connecting with those you’ve wronged. It can work powerfully to de-escalate emotionally charged situations. Why? Apologizing reduces tension between people because when you take responsibility for what you’ve done in an understanding and empathic way, you let the other person know you’re aware that what you’ve done affects them.
However, owning full responsibility when you’re in the wrong can be a difficult thing to do. This is because when we feel we’ve done something to apologize for, we probably also feel guilty. When we feel guilt, we become more emotionally protective of ourselves, making it harder to say, “I’m sorry; I was wrong.”
We are not born knowing how to apologize and it is especially challenging to convince young people of the merits of apologizing. Like many other complex feeling-behaviors, learning how and when to apologize is a struggle. The ability to apologize, and to accept an apology from others, is a long process that stretches from childhood on. Fortunately, the surest way for children to learn to apologize is by hearing adults apologize.
However, all apologies are not equal. We’ve all heard apologies that don’t feel adequate. For instance, if the person apologizing focuses mainly on how bad they feel for what they’ve done, then the apology is too much about the person apologizing. Moreover, if you’re the one apologizing, it is important to let yourself off the hook a bit, so as not to be overwhelmed with guilt. This makes it more likely that you will see what the other person is feeling. Then, the apology has a greater chance of sinking in for both of you.
When we apologize, the good feeling we get from making things right again, from the chance to redeem ourselves in another’s eyes, can bring pleasure and closeness between people. More than that, when you receive an apology and then can freely express your mercy toward the one apologizing, it gives you a boost, as well.
Tony Hacker, Ph.D., is a Seattle area psychologist who sees individuals and couples in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. His email is: firstname.lastname@example.org