“You can’t get to courage without vulnerability” – Brene Brown
So you made a mistake and someone, perhaps someone you really love, got hurt in the process. Guess what? Take heart! You are human. We all make mistakes and we all hurt the ones we love sometimes, whether it is accidental or intentional.
For the purpose of this blog post, let’s imagine a scenario where you unintentionally, but very definitely, hurt someone you love. Maybe you acted hastily and muttered a snide remark. Perhaps you and your spouse were having a heated argument and you ended up saying something you really regret. Or, maybe in a stressed out moment you said something hurtful (possibly including a bad word or two) to your kid and they are calling you out on it. Ugh.
The damage is done and now you know that the situation is in need of repair. If you are like most human beings, saying sorry is not always an easy task.
Let’s explore some of what goes on behind the scenes in our psyche around saying sorry and read on for some helpful tips on executing a meaningful apology.
To begin, saying sorry means accepting that you’re imperfect and you’re brave enough to admit it. Saying sorry requires the combination of two qualities: humility and vulnerability, or as I like to call it, “humble vulnerability”.
Humility because you admit to being imperfect. Vulnerability because you don’t know how the other person will respond to your apology.
Saying sorry may feel like you are taking a big risk;
- How will the other person respond to my admission of regret?
- Will they turn turn their back on me, which may then make me feel dismissed, embarrassed or rejected?
- Will they take it as an opportunity to start going through their laundry list of all the things I do wrong?
- Will they want me to grovel and pay for my mistake?
How were you treated As a Child when you made a mistakes?
How we feel about saying sorry is sometimes very strongly linked to experiences we learned as a child around making mistakes and needing to say sorry. For example, as children some of us may have been scolded and shamed when we made a mistake. Do you remember any scenarios like that? You just spilled grape juice all over the white rug and your parent yells, “What did you do?! Are you stupid?! Pay attention!”.
Children are commonly given the idea that making mistakes makes people disappointed in you at the least, and enraged in the extreme. Some people learned that making a mistake made the people we love very disappointed in us. And when you’re a child that could raise the fear that you are fundamentally unlovable.
For a young child the fear becomes, “If I keep screwing up, the people I love may not even want me anymore.” As a result, we grow up disowning, hating or denying the part of us that makes mistakes.
One helpful hint for avoiding this with your child is to point out that you are upset by their behavior, not about who they are as a person. Example: “Coloring all over the wall is not okay. You will need to clean it up.” vs “You made such a mess! What a bad girl!”
Guess what friends? Even as adults, the fear of being shamed for making mistakes may be alive and well in our current relationships. The fear is that if I screw up with say, my partner, and he/she is mad at me and I say sorry, which means I admit to being imperfect, this may lead to their realization that I am fundamentally unlovable and not worth their time. Saying sorry takes a leap of faith into trusting that the other person will still love me even if I screw up sometimes.
Here’s the good news; Genuinely and skillfully saying sorry can calm the other person and help them feel seen, heard and respected, which in turn can actually restore their connection to you.
Let me give you an example of how this played out with my husband and I recently. I had been feeling particularly stressed about the holidays and making sure I got the right presents for everyone (sound familiar anyone?). In a moment of exasperation, I made a remark to my husband that he found hurtful and insensitive. Although I didn’t want to admit it, even to myself at first, I knew he was right.
By the way, another thing that gets in the way of saying sorry is feeling justified in our behavior. After all, I was stressed and was needing his help. But, our responsibility as adults is to begin noticing when we are reaching the breaking point and finding constructive ways to express our needs before we lash out. When you have just hurt someone, it’s not the best time to ask them to listen to the reasons why you may have acted hurtfully. You can always come back to talking through what may have led to your regretful behavior but most likely the other person cannot hear you until you have acknowledged how your actions, although unintentional, have hurt them. Not easy, I know. Being in relationship is hard work sometimes!
So, back to me realizing that I was in the wrong and a sorry was in order. To begin with, I excused myself from the situation and took a few minutes by myself. This proved very helpful as I was able to get some perspective before digging myself deeper in the hole by continuing to justify my insensitive behavior. As I reflected, I realized that I was afraid to say sorry. What if he doesn’t accept my apology? I imagined feeling embarrassed and ashamed. But, as you know how it can go in close relationships, long, drawn out fights can be very painful and stressful for all involved. I wanted to avoid that so I decided to gather my courage and take the risk.
Here is how the apology looked;
“I’m sorry for saying what I said. You were just trying to help. You were right. I don’t want to fight about this. I’m really sorry.”
What came next was so simple and yet so revolutionary; he accepted my apology and even THANKED me for having the guts to apologize, knowing it’s a hard thing to do. Long, drawn out fight averted! To top it all off, I even got a, “Good job, I’m proud of you.” We laughed because we both know that saying sorry is hard. Such relief! Next time you are in a position of knowing you have to say sorry, it’s an opportunity to practice.
Some tips for saying sorry:
- Step away from the situation for a moment to check in with yourself.
- Have BIG compassion for yourself first for making the mistake. Notice if you are being exceptionally hard on yourself. Notice what you say to yourself when you make a mistake.
- Then, move on to trying to empathize with how the other person may be feeling. Tip: This is much easier to do after you have established compassion for yourself. When your focus is on berating yourself, it is a sure way to block your ability to have empathy for the other person.
- Once you have gotten in touch with some empathy and have decided that you would like to attempt an apology, think of what you would like to say. Saying sorry can be simple and to the point. Try to avoid telling them how you are such a bad person and rather, focus on your behavior and how they may be feeling as a result.
- When you are ready, gather up your courage and execute the apology! After you have made your apology, allow the other person space to feel their feelings. There is no guarantee that they will be ready to reconnect right away but you will know that you have taken an integral step towards helping the other person feel understood and supported.
You may be surprised at how your heartfelt apology can help restore connection, even when you have made a mistake and someone you love is hurt.
A note on abusive or chronic hurtful behavior: For these types of situations, saying sorry may not be enough. The suggestions I described above do not apply to the patterns of emotional or physical abuse. No one should ever have to endure that kind of treatment. In fact, for people in a relationship in which there is a pattern of abuse, saying sorry is part of a phase in the cycle which doesn’t actually improve the situation. If you are in a abusive relationship, please know that saying sorry is NOT the remedy for this kind of situation and seek someone you trust or a counselor for help.
The next time you find yourself in the position of needing to apologize for your behavior, remember that we all make mistakes and practice having compassion for yourself. Take responsibility for your behavior by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. And finally, consider that an apology is necessary for restoring connection and muster up your courage. Good luck!
If you are ready to take the step towards beginning therapy, please contact me and I am happy to offer a free 15 minute consultation to address any questions you may have about the counseling process or to book your first session.
Previous blog post: Why Do People Avoid Getting Therapy?