Saying you’re sorry and meaning it. How to apologize without conditions

Pride is a powerful motivator, and we often think that apologizing is humiliating. So we qualify our apologies with “if” and other riders:

  • “I’m sorry if what I said offended you.”
  • “I’m sorry you took what I said the wrong way.”

This is easy to see through, isn’t it? When people apologize like this, it feels about as sincere as eating a slab of steak and apologizing to the cow it came from while doing so.

The correct versions of the above apologies go like this:

  • “I’m sorry that what I said offended you.” Or, even better: “I’m sorry I offended you.”
  • “I’m sorry I said what I said the wrong way.”

Trying to justify an apology defeats the purpose of it. When you apologize, it’s not about the person to whom you are apologizing–it’s about you. You are lamenting something that you’ve done. Do not involve the other person in your apology.

We sometimes also put conditions on apologies (for example, “if you say your sorry for X, I’ll say I’m sorry for Y”). This also eats away at the genuineness of the apology, even if we keep it in our head and don’t actually make this offer to the other person. In the same way that “you look good” actually feels more authentic if it is said to you without you first asking, “how do I look?” an apology is best offered as-is, with no preconditions or negotiation. You’re either sorry or you’re not!

When saying we’re sorry, we often want to minimize our vulnerability. But in most apologies, the feeling really comes across if you do show a marked amount of vulnerability. This is one of those times when weakness is strength; especially when the person and their feelings really mean a lot to me, I might say things like the following:

  • “I see how I offended you.”
  • “I should have said/done ___ differently.”
  • “I completely understand why you’re angry with me.”
  • “Thank you for telling me. Tell me more whenever you’re ready. Tell me nothing if you aren’t.”

We often have this line of thinking: if you say you’re sorry without an “if” or “but,” the other person then might have some right to humiliate you, because you didn’t “hold your ground” But this isn’t the case. You can be totally, completely sorry for something you have done, but that doesn’t make you deserving of being put down or humiliated.

A few times in my life I have fully apologized to someone, with no excuses, for something I did wrong, and the other person then saw it fit to try to guilt-trip me further. This is unacceptable, and I always keep clear in my mind that a wrong deed does not make a wrong person.

We have the right to be free from being judged forever for our mistakes. If we remember that, we will be able, when we are sorry, to truly feel it and communicate it completely, without feeling the need to put conditions on our apologies. And that can make all the difference when strife threatens to damage your relationship with somebody.

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8 Responses to Saying you’re sorry and meaning it. How to apologize without conditions

  1. matine says:

    Mitch darling thanks for the lesson in the fine art of humility, but no thanks. Why bother when you already know they won’t even realize the difference, let alone appreciate it. People should be spoken too in the language that they understand – sincerity only for those able to understand the distinction, to hell with the rest. Besides, apologies are relative – it all depends on the point you’re trying to make. If my intent was to hurt your feelings or show you to be an idiot, then that’s what I will do. I’ll insert the dreaded “if” in my “apology” to continue the mocking.

    The only way to find out if a leopard’s spots are also really on his skin and not only on its fur would be to see it for oneself – how many people you think are willing to go do that? I wouldn’t, even if the animal was dead, would you???

    I love your heart for caring for how we treat one another, but let’s face it, people like short cuts, they like things handed to them, most are willing to make only the absolute minimal effort, like tuning to the Discovery channel long enough to hear that leopard have spots on their skins as well as their fur, only a fraction would be willing to take part of the safari expedition that was necessary to obtain such info. People will accept a half-backed apology and you know fully well why they will – they do, and it’s for the same reason that even you yourself will accept one from time to time. You’ll only demand sincerity from someone you know is worth the trouble.

    By the way your lesson is a middle of the road one – if you expect people to understand what it means to offer something in sincerity, first you must school them as to the meaning of the word and its concept.

    • Why bother when you already know they won’t even realize the difference, let alone appreciate it?

      Because you might not already know. Because people aren’t always one-dimensional, and often you feel like it could go either way.

      If my intent was to hurt your feelings or show you to be an idiot, then that’s what I will do. I’ll insert the dreaded “if” in my “apology” to continue the mocking.

      Perhaps this is the only time at which you would use “if.” But many people use “if” very unconsciously… when they mean to convey sincerity, they still use it.

      You’ll only demand sincerity from someone you know is worth the trouble.

      That is why I also make a case for letting something go, either for a short period of time, or for a while… and occasionally, forever. I assume afterward that you have indeed decided it’s worth the trouble, if you are going to go on with the dialogue. Otherwise, what’s the point of even wasting your breath?

      if you expect people to understand what it means to offer something in sincerity, first you must school them as to the meaning of the word and its concept.

      I think most people are not consciously aware of sincerity most of the time. They “feel” it, in the way that somebody approaches them. You know, you “get a good vibe.” Rather than “schooling somebody” in the meaning and concept of sincerity, you can lead by example, manifesting a sincere desire to know where the heck their defensive behavior is coming from—calmly. People are not black or white, sincere or insincere, conscious or ignorant… we are all a mixture of both poles. The point is to get in touch with somebody’s positive pole and the potential they have to be the best of themselves… that fosters positive energy. There’s no saying that you will be able to do this successfully every time, but it’s a very underrated and underappreciated mindset, and often very freeing for all people involved.

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  3. shortbuswonderkid says:

    Man, if you were Buddha, I’d be the anti-Buddha. If you are Ying, I am Yang. I am glad to see someone is holding the flame for goodness in the world. My flame went out when the water got too high. I wish you the best in your endeavor, I mean that for real.

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