I’m Sorry–No Ifs, Ands or Buts

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“You know it’s funny,” said Mary, “but it isn’t even what he did that pushed us from disagreement to disaster. It was the way he apologized. He said that he was sorry IF he hurt my feelings. If? He forgot my birthday!”

My patient Mary’s story echoed hundreds that I’ve heard before. Anyone on the receiving end of a half hearted, semi-mea culpa knows that making an apology is something of an art. A weak attempt  often turns a knock-down into a drag-out situation, but one that’s easily avoided.

Unless you are standing right in front of a judge who demands an excuse, make sure that your apology is pure and simple, with no explanations, reasons or validations hanging from it.

Saying, “I am sorry” is one of the most healing sentences in our language, yet it’s so often left unadorned without a decorative “but” at the end, as in “but I was just so disappointed” or “but you really hurt my feelings.”  The three words weigh as much in the heart of a waiting recipient as the other famous three words, and in enduring friendships, relationships between kids and parents, or marriage,  are of equal value.

One problem with begging pardon is that it kind of hurts.  When I see that something I have done—either consciously or accidentally—has hurt someone, the first emotion I experience is embarrassment. Sometimes shame, too. And a little fear thrown in never hurts. My first urge is to run for cover to avoid the look of anger or the recrimination that surely awaits me. It always takes a little time to digest—to understand first what I’ve done and why, and then to put myself in the place of whomever I offended. A real apology never comes instantly, and it shouldn’t. Saying the contrite three words is a sign of being grown up and requires bravery…and a soft heart.

One of the best outcomes between the wounded and the woundee is that both their hearts become softer toward one another. Among the couples who visit my office, the words, “Thank you.” frequently follow a sincere show of remorse. I always think it’s as though the person who was hurt stays in limbo for a while and then gets rescued by those few words.

After the “sorry,” don’t wait for forgiveness. That’s a whole step ahead. Depending on the nature of the misdeed, it takes a while to come to forgiveness. If you ask someone for it right away, after your apology, it’s as though you’re making a demand of them in exchange for your words. Wait. Let some time go by, and let the other person decide about forgiveness—after all it’s in their best interest to give it to you.

Anyone can forget a birthday, miss a meeting, get angry and yell—we share the common bond of being expert mistake-makers. It’s how you fix it that’s important. Don’t try sharing the repair bill with anyone else. Reach way down into your pocket and foot the full bill yourself.

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