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.