I’ve noticed over the last several years a tendency for people to apologize for instances when they don’t need to apologize.
You bump into someone, “I’m sorry,” when all you need to say is excuse me. There seems to be this tendency to preemptively apologize before the other person can get angry. I think this is done to head off any uncomfortable issues by apologizing quickly.
Personally I find this annoying. It seems to water down the important human experience of owning up to our failings and apologizing for something we did that wasn’t right. Thus, apologizing becomes something we do without hesitation. We lose the power that it has in repairing a misunderstanding. And, we potentially increase greater connection between two people.
When we say we are sorry from a place of moving away from difficult feelings, we aren’t really engaging what is happening for the other person.
An insensitive statement was uttered and someone was hurt. Clearly an authentic apology is necessary. However, the quickly blurted apology to get off the hook from feeling the hurt of the other person doesn’t really do the trick. Yes, both parties can move on from what happened but it hasn’t actually been resolved.
Robert Karen, in his book, The Forgiving Self: The Road From Resentment To Connection, speaks about the attempt to use apologies as a way to distance from feeling any pain.
“People feel guilty and apologize all the time, but often it results from shame (what I did to you makes me look bad and I can’t tolerate that), or what might be called superego guilt, which is more like fear of a higher authority (those inner voices) than genuine remorse.
Apology that comes mainly from this part of ourselves is not a form of giving; it is more a form of pleading. We want to get the sense of wrongness off of us and so we petition the person to let us off the hook: If you forgive me, I’ll get out of this state. If you forgive me, I can stop worrying that you hate me and will reject me. If I apologize, maybe you’ll get off my back. “Come on, I apologized!” we say, getting angry that we’re not getting the results we want. There is no warmth in these apologies.”
I call this ego apology.
This form of apology accomplishes what it is intended to achieve in a way. It moves things quickly along and represses the feelings of hurt and sadness that may be associated with saying something that was painful to another. However, is this what we really want? To create relationships where we are disconnected and unwilling to empathize, both with the pain we may have created in someone else, and in ourselves?
An authentic apology is different than the ego based apology.
Apologizing from a place of empathetic connection and feeling the other person’s pain puts us in a much more potent and empowering place. We have to slow down and acknowledge that we screwed up and how hard it is to be with that. We can admit how hard it is to see our messy self. This allows us to really heal the rift that occurred.
Robert Karen calls this owning up.
It is actually admitting our failing from a deep heart space that allows us to see our human failing and stay connected with the person we have hurt. It also is a way to get out of blaming either yourself, for what you did, or somehow apologizing in a way that doesn’t really admit error.
“The need for owning up is a pervasive aspect of close relationships. We do things that are thoughtless, inconsiderate, selfish, mean, and we do them often in disguised ways. In almost every conflict, one or both people are covering something up, presenting themselves as cleaner than they really are, all the more so if blaming has been an important factor in their upbringing. This kind of behavior is very threatening—someone is going to be it, is going to get nailed to his own self-hatred and shame and feel deeply and unforgivably bad.
To say, ‘First I made a dumb mistake and then I blamed you for it,’ and to say it with caring, gives a lot, even if there is no formal apology, because it frees the other person from that badness. It is also a way of stepping out of the blaming system. It suggests the security of self-love, the ability to forgive oneself. ‘I can admit this; it’s not pretty, but it doesn’t make me an awful person.’ ‘I may be nervous about rejection or punishment, but still have enough faith in my own okayness and in our connection that I can reach out and take care of you.’
When we are making an authentic apology, it is important to take the time to actually feel how it hurt the other person. It is a process of staying with these uncomfortable feelings and seeing them as inevitably human. Can we stay connected to our sense of being good enough when we make mistakes?
Here are some things to consider when you have hurt someone and need to give an authentic apology.
1. Slow down. Let the moment sink in and take in what is happening. If you move quickly to say you’re sorry you’re probably in ego apology.
2. Take the time to admit how difficult it is to say you’re sorry. You may notice that you feel bad about what you did. Feeling bad about being insensitive or inconsiderate is natural. If we didn’t feel these things we wouldn’t have the capacity or motivation to not do them again.
3. Look into the eyes of the person you have hurt and say you’re sorry while still connected to your heart. Linger in this place. It will feel awkward at first but in a short moment the other person will feel your authenticity and often times they will soften.
4. Notice any tendency to blame yourself with thoughts like, “I’m so insensitive, I always hurt people.” This sort of absolutist thinking is not helpful. See if you can move to a place where you can accept that you made a mistake and ultimately forgive yourself for being human.
Authentic apologies are a way of being truly present with our feelings.
It is admitting that we make mistakes and that nobody has to be blamed for what happened. A willingness to give an authentic apology allows people to stop the pain. And oftentimes, it can create a deeper connection.
Get the Book I Reference in this Article
I refer to experts in my field and extensive research for my practice. In this article, I refer to Robert Karen’s “The Forgiving Self: The Road from Resentment to Connection.”