We are born to screw up. No matter how careful and conscious we are, our clumsy attempts to meet our own needs will combine with our low-grade selfishness and distractibility to cause harm, anger, or frustration for the people around us.
And, because we want to get out of trouble, minimize the damage, and move on, we apologize. We say, “I’m sorry.” We may even do so sincerely. But we notice that the words that we were trained to use from toddler-hood don’t have the magical power we thought they did. The other person is still angry, arms crossed. So we try again with emphasis, “Jeez! I said I was sorry!” Still no good. Partner, sister, or BFF is still hurt and withdrawn.
I’ve made some mistakes in my relationships. I’ve been inattentive, messy, forgetful, and, occasionally, mean or nasty. And I know how quickly I want to get out of the doghouse and back in the good graces. I want to minimize my bad behavior, make it clear that it doesn’t represent me and move on to forgiveness and forgetting as soon as possible. So I apologize quickly.
But I’ve learned how hollow and ineffective apologies are when they come out of my needs to escape shame and blame. All of the apologies that are motivated by my needs are centered on the wrong person. They almost always start with the word “I” and then go on to ask for more emotional work from the person I hurt. “Please understand my intentions, please trust me not to do that again, please forgive ME.”
Fortunately, I’ve found what really works is to apologize with a focus on the person I hurt, attention to their experience and needs, and a determination to lean in and support them. And if you can do the same, even a little bit more, your relationship will repair more quickly, will contain more trust, and be more resilient.
Next time you mess up and realize you hurt or angered someone you care about, go ahead and notice any feelings of shame, guilt, or embarrassment that come up. Notice any impatience or anxiety that arises. Those feelings make sense - no one except a sociopathic narcissist wants to cause pain or mistrust. Go ahead and validate your own feelings but keep them to yourself. Take a deep breath and ignore them. If you can’t manage this step, go for a walk, talk to a friendly third party, or journal until the intensity of your own defensiveness or fear has lessened.
When you are ready to apologize for the right reason - because you want to understand and be present for the one you hurt - go ahead and give it a try. Then focus on the feelings and needs of the person you hurt. Do your best to make a guess about what happened and how it landed on your friend, sibling or lover. “I’m guessing you’re feeling really X because I did Y. Is that right?”
Your guess might be wrong… you might think your sister is mad because you forgot her birthday when she’s actually really scared about how you swing your niece around the living room. It doesn’t matter that much… In most cases your guess will show your intentions to be present for her and her experience.
When you feel like you understand what is really going on for the other, then you can apologize. “It sounds like it really frightens you when I swing little Josie around the living room. You’re scared I’m going to let go and you imagine her hurtling through the window into the cactus outside. I get it. It would be terrible if Josie got hurt. Thank you for telling me how you feel. I am so sorry what I did scared you. I’ll stop swinging Josie inside.”
Notice that the apology came last, after you made it really clear you understand your sister and her concerns. It doesn’t matter whether you intended to scare her, whether you're sure you have a firm grip on Josie, or whether you think the window is thick enough to prevent Josie from ending up the cactus bed. What matters is that your sister now knows that you know her, that you don’t want her to be scared, and that you are on her side again.
Next time you mess up, do your best to apologize not because you want to get out of your shame, but because you want to understand the other person and want repair the relationship by leaning in and empathizing. Don’t forget to breathe.