Real and Sincere Apology: A Vital Life Skill
By Barry & Joyce Vissell
Joyce and I understand that hurting another person is inevitable. Most of the time, we do not intend to hurt someone, but still we may. We may be insensitive with our words or actions or even our lack of words when words are needed. We may hurt someone through miscommunication or lack of understanding. Sometimes we hurt someone intentionally, like when we are angry. In either case, we need to apologize in order to keep growing spiritually. The results of a sincere apology are often amazing. Most people feel lighter right away after apologizing, as if they have let go of a heavy burden.
Here are some real examples. Stan apologized to his younger brother for some of the abusive things he did when they were growing up, like hitting, playing cruel practical jokes on him, and saying mean things. Gail apologized to her ex-husband for not having the courage to share her unhappy feelings in the several years before she left him, when they could have gotten help. James apologized to his mother for holding a grudge against her, and not speaking to her for ten years. In a couple’s workshop, Susan apologized to her partner, Frank, for the pain she caused by comparing him unfavorably to her former boyfriends.
Apologizing and asking for forgiveness are two very different things. Apologizing doesn’t ask anything of the person we have hurt. It doesn’t depend on what they do or how they feel about us. The person may or may not accept our apology, or may even choose to stay angry at us. What the other person does is out of our control and really doesn’t matter. Apologizing is simply our own work on ourselves, our own righting of the wrongs we have committed, or in 12-step terms, it is “making amends.”
So why don’t we apologize to someone we have hurt? There are two main reasons. First, we may feel that we are right, that we didn’t actually do anything wrong. It’s their problem that they are hurt by something we said or did. Naturally, the hurt feelings may belong to the other person, but to maintain this position is to deny our own responsibility in the interaction. Needing to be right is needing to win, but relationship is not a game. In relationship, if there is a winner and a loser, both people lose. One person only wins if both people win. If someone feels hurt by us, we need to apologize no matter whether we hurt them intentionally or unintentionally, or whether we feel innocent or guilty.
The other main reason for not apologizing is shame. In the first case, we don’t apologize because we feel innocent. When we feel guilty, we don’t apologize because of shame. We may feel so badly about what we did to another that we hide in shame, slide into inertia, and do nothing. We may hope that time will heal things, or that we or the other person will forget, but it doesn’t go away, at least not until we apologize sincerely. Some feel that to apologize is to admit defeat or show weakness. This has its origins in shame, too. We are ashamed about making mistakes, but apologizing for our mistakes is a sign of courage, not weakness.
Remember, making a mistake doesn’t mean you are a bad person, just a momentarily clumsy or unskillful person. Feeling like a bad person because of your mistakes can lead to toxic shame, which is identifying with your mistakes, rather than identifying with who you really are, a beautiful soul on the journey of life. You can make mistakes, but you are not a mistake.
Apology does not work if it is half-hearted or insincere. Saying “I’m sorry,” and not sincerely meaning it, does nothing. True apology comes from the heart, not the mind. Sometimes, you may think that you’re apologizing, but you’re only going through the motions, and no one feels better.
Automatic, or knee-jerk, apologies may not help either. It doesn’t contain thoughtful consideration, and it doesn’t show that you actually understand how you hurt your friend. Real, sincere, apology requires that you truly understand why your friend feels hurt. For when you understand why they feel hurt, and can acknowledge this understanding, they can much more easily accept your apology.
Here’s an example: In a couple’s retreat, during an apology exercise, Anne asked her husband, Ted, for an apology for watching pornographic videos online. When she had confronted him in the past, he would often say, “A lot of men watch porn. There’s nothing wrong with it.” Anne started to explain why this was so painful to her, but Ted got angry. He clearly didn’t want to hear her feelings. And he was invested in being right.
Joyce and I had to intervene. We asked Ted to listen to his wife. Anne hesitantly began to speak, “In my previous marriage, my husband constantly criticized my body, and compared me to younger women. There was no way I could win. In his eyes, I felt ugly most of the time.” Anne started sobbing.
Ted had never heard his wife’s pain about this. It appeared to move him deeply. He gently put his arms around her and said, “I’m so sorry, Anne. I had no idea about any of this. Now I can see why my watching pornography would be so painful to you. I commit to never watching it again. It’s just an old habit that I thought was innocent. Your body is so beautiful to me! I’ll make sure you always know this.
Ted’s apology was real and sincere. He understood Anne’s hurt.
So please don’t read this article and say to yourself, “Nice article, good ideas,” and then do nothing. Challenge yourself to practice the skill of real apology. Who are you needing to apologize to and for what? Do you need to more clearly understand this person’s hurt feelings? If so, make the effort to find out. Close your eyes and speak your apology with as much sincerity and feeling as possible. Then follow this up with an apology to the actual person. Free yourself for even more love in your life.
Joyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA, who are passionate about conscious relationship and personal-spiritual growth. They are the authors of 9 books and a new free audio album of sacred songs and chants. Call 831-684-2130 for further information on counseling sessions by phone, on-line, or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at SharedHeart.org for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.