A sincere apology is probably one of the best relationship skills a person can have. But, just as a hammer can be a tool for building a nice house or a weapon used to cause great bodily harm, an apology is only as good as the intention behind it.
If you’ve ever received a bad apology, you know what I’m talking about. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” is one. Or how about “I’m sorry, BUT….” That’s even worse. Or maybe even a backhanded insult disguised as remorse, as in “I’m sorry you’re so sensitive all the time.” Some apologies seem more like an attempt to shut the other person up quickly. This is usually a very rapid “I’m sorry!” followed by an angry impatience for the other person to get over it, and to accept the apology.
Your Intentions Don’t Always Matter
I use this analogy all the time: if I accidentally step on your foot, it doesn’t matter WHY I did it. All that matters is your foot hurts. Imagine if I spent all my time defending why I didn’t mean to do it. (“I was just trying to go around you! Why are you crying?”) Or what if I spent the time attacking?(“You’re always blaming me!”). None of my energy would be spent on tending to your foot. Worse, I would spend much less time plotting how to make sure I don’t step on it in the future.
Maybe it’s fear of looking like the bad guy that causes us to sidestep taking responsibility, or maybe imagining that if we validate someone’s pain they may feel even worse. Whatever the cause, the result of a terrible apology is that it adds insult to injury. Now your foot hurts AND I think you’re being a big baby AND I’m mad at you for not forgiving me this second.
Where do we go from here?
Trying something new can change an old problem. What if for one second, when we are ashamed and upset when we see we’ve hurt someone, that we let them wail. Can you let someone be angry at you for a few minutes, to let them vent their pain rather than putting up a defense? Think about what might happen if we fired our internal lawyers and instead threw ourselves on the mercy of the court. “I did it! Somehow I stepped on your foot and I’m so sorry! I am such a goof! Here, sit in this chair and let’s look at it. Your poor foot! I am really sorry.”
There. Was that so hard?
Margie Wheelhouse is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Springfield, Illinois. She helps couples build great relationships and repair broken ones.