By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
We all make mistakes. Unfortunately, this often means that we hurt those we care about. When we do, it is important to make a sincere apology to maintain close relationships. If you are unsure how to apologize, here’s some advice:
Acknowledge your mistake to yourself. You must first own your mistake. Be honest with yourself about what you’ve done. Don’t allow yourself to make excuses
Understand the harm done. Don’t minimize the damage you may have caused. You cannot fully understand the consequences of your actions unless you take the time to do so. Make an effort to empathize with those you’ve hurt and acknowledge their feelings. If you have done this a number of times, the damage might be cumulative.
Acknowledge to yourself that you are human. While admitting your error is important, it is equally important to put this in context. Self-flagellation – or damning yourself to emotional exile from all other people – won’t help those you’ve hurt and won’t fix a thing. Instead, remember that you are human, and humans make mistakes. Although you cannot turn back time, you can move forward.
Apologize. Acknowledge responsibility for what you’ve said or done and for the effects your behavior has had.
If a person approaches you with their grievances, hold still (in body and mind) and listen. Don’t interrupt. When they are done, acknowledge your mistakes and the harm it’s caused. Ask if there is something you can do to make amends. If the person does not approach you, then you will need to approach them. State your mistake, your understanding of the harm it’s caused, and your regret. Then listen. When they are done, validate their thoughts and feelings.
Sometimes people cannot let go of a hurt. If the other person cannot let go despite your best efforts, then you might need to find a way to move on. A sincere apology means being open to really hearing the other person’s feelings, but it does not mean that you need to allow yourself to be attacked or to be treated disrespectfully.
If you can do something to make amends, do so. This might mean fixing damage done to the person you hurt; or helping others who are being hurt in similar ways. For instance, if you’ve bullied others in the past, you might now choose to be particularly conscientious about stopping nasty gossip or cruel behaviors toward others. Making amends might also simply mean making a real, conscious effort not to repeat the offense.
Making an earnest apology is not easy. But given that we are all flawed, it is an essential skill in healthy, caring relationships.
The Art of Relationship blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.