The word “sorry” comes from the word “sorrow”. To be sorry for something is to have sorrow about some wrong action we have committed. As humans, we must develop the skill of empathizing with others’ feelings so that we don’t run roughshod all over our friends, family members, and significant others.
One way to develop empathy is to imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes and to allow yourself to understand their perspective and feelings. In relationships we should feel sorrow when the other person is hurt or offended by something we have done. It is a sign of maturity and personal responsibility when we feel sorrow (or sorry) when we wrong a fellow human being.
Some folks do not apologize when they offend someone. They might not have enough awareness to realize how their actions, words, or inactions are hurting their loved one. Perhaps they see apologizing as a sign of weakness or an admission of guilt that would harm their image.
Some folks apologize too much and in the wrong way. Perhaps they think that the words, “I’m sorry” are magical in and of themselves. Neither extreme is helpful to the health of relationships. Let’s explore that middle range – apologizing in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons.
Incredible healing can occur in our relationships if we take time to:
1. Take an inventory of how, when, and why (our own unresolved issues) we have wronged our friend, spouse, significant other, or family member. This means that we become aware, either by asking the other person, or by careful (prayerful) reflection upon our actions, words, and/or inactions that could have potentially harmed the relationship.
2. Determine if apologizing to the person you have wronged will help the situation, or possibly make things worse. This is a good time to seek counsel from an emotionally healthy friend, mentor, or counselor to check out your thinking regarding righting this wrong.
3. If you determine that apologizing will not further harm the relationship, then determine whether the apology should be spoken or written and when, and how it would be most healing to the relationship to deliver this communication.
4. Keep your motives pure – you will want to work through all your emotions and thoughts in such a way that you can deliver your apology with pure motives and good intentions. Do not use apologizing as a way to manipulate or to make someone feel guilty.
5. Apologize with the strong desire and intent to change the harmful words, actions or inactions that caused the original hurt so you don’t use apologizing as a way to just continue to hurt someone while attempting to soothe your own conscience.
6. Here are a few examples of verbiage that might help craft a meaningful and effective apology:
“I know that when I criticized you for your political beliefs in a harsh and judgmental way I must have offended you. I want to apologize for the hurt I caused and let you know that the way I handled that was wrong. Please forgive me and know that I will work to be less critical and judgmental.”
“Honey, I’m so sorry that I have been ignoring your needs for so long. I was wrong and I was acting selfishly, please forgive me.”
“Mom and Dad, I am sorry that I rebelled against you and did things that hurt you, our family and myself during my teen years. I hope that you will forgive me and that I can demonstrate how I have grown and changed.”
“Son/daughter, I hope you will forgive me for being absent while you were growing up. I know that I robbed you of having a loving father/mother attend your events, and take an interest in you. I want you to know that I want to try to establish a connection with you now when you are ready to forgive me.”
Sometimes, the offense is very harmful, such as an affair, lying, being abusive (verbally, physically, emotionally), a betrayal of trust. As a counselor, I have seen some miraculous healings take place when the offender comes into awareness of the hurt they have caused and when they are able to apologize in a meaningful, thoughtful way.
There are times that an apology is not enough. The offender may need to make amends by doing something that is symbolic of their regret and sorrow. There are some situations where professional counseling will be needed to sort out how to re-establish trust and how to move forward after the apology.