The Lost Art Of Apologizing (And How To Do It Right Every Time)

My latest blog post was published on!  

Read the full article below to find out more about what gets in the way of offering an apology and what you need to know in order to make an effective one and begin repairing relationships.

We’ve all been hurt by other people. You’ve also hurt people yourself. Whether the transgression was accidental or intentional, it hurts. Sometimes a loss of trust like this is temporary and can be healed. Other times, it leaves long-term scars, discord, and irreparable damage that ultimately ends the relationship.

As a mental health professional, I’ve witnessed all too often the pain and hurt we face due to our own wrongdoing and the wrongdoing of loved ones. As I help my clients repair their relationships, I am constantly reminded that the most damaging part of any wound is a lack of remorse, repentance, understanding, and acknowledgment of the pain they’ve caused.

When you remember being hurt, what hurts you the most? The offense committed or the lack of understanding and genuine apology from the offender?

Most people would answer with the latter.

We have to face it: We are going to hurt people and we are going to be hurt. It’s unavoidable. If we recognize that, why are so many of us unwilling or unable to take responsibility and apologize?

For one thing, apologizing is an art form. It’s not instinctual. We have to learn from others—preferably our parents and caregivers—as we develop. If your parents weren’t very good at apologizing, or just never apologized at all, you may struggle with it, too. No one modeled repentance for you effectively.

For another, we live in a power-driven world. Our society values influence, perfectionism, and ruthless self-improvement. People tend to associate apologizing with emotional vulnerability and emotional vulnerability with weakness.

This could not be further from the truth.

Every one of us is flawed. We all make mistakes. This doesn’t make us weak. It makes us human. The ability to take responsibility and apologize is crucial to happiness, satisfaction, and longevity in relationships.

Effective apologies increase empathy on the part of wronged individual, allowing them to forgive the wrongdoer. Empathy is the crux of forgiveness. A heartfelt apology has the power to heal and ultimately change lives. It’s fundamental to building lasting, meaningful relationships.

Here’s how to give a truly meaningful apology:

1. Be sincere.

When you prepare to make an apology, consider your intentions. The only time to apologize is when you’re genuinely remorseful. Don’t apologize just because you think you should. You may feel pressure from others to apologize, but you should avoid any apology that is forced.

The person you are apologizing to will pick up on your insincerity, causing further feelings of distrust. If you’re not 100 percent sure you’re apologizing because you truly feel remorse, don’t apologize at that point. Wait until you can be sincere, however long that takes.

2. Be honest and vulnerable.

In order to show your sincerity when apologizing, you must be honest and vulnerable. Brené Brown, leading researcher on shame and vulnerability, says that vulnerability is about “showing up and being seen” by others.” That can lead to huge rewards and cultivation of meaningful relationships.

It can also lead to rejection, which is what makes it so scary. When you apologize, be willing to share openly and candidly, allowing emotions to flow freely, so that you can be fully seen.

3. Admit fault.

Take responsibility for your actions and admit your mistakes or transgressions. State them out loud. Yes, it will be scary. It will feel shameful for a time. But it is worth it.

4. Explain why you did what you did and the reasons it was wrong.

This is not to be confused with offering excuses for your actions. Rather, explain the process by which you chose the route you did. State your understanding of the reasons this was not the best choice and how the choice (or series of choices) affected both you and the other person. This is the best and only way to birth compassion and empathy after a breach of trust.

5. Use “I” statements.

When speaking to the person who was negatively affected by your actions, it may be tempting to want to point the finger and place blame on the other person involved—or maybe even a third party.

Take care to avoid blaming others for your mistakes. Use statements that are about you rather than others involved, by starting your sentences with “I.” Try some of these on for size:

“I behaved ______________ because ________________ .”

“I felt/feel _________________ when _______________.”

“What I want/need is ________________.”

“Next time I will ___________________.”

6. Say “I’m sorry.”

Have you ever had someone attempt to apologize to you who never actually said, “I’m sorry”? If so, you know how infuriating that can be. It’s also pointless. An effective apology always includes the verbal acknowledgment that you are sorry.

7. Make amends.

Now that the hard part is over (saying "I'm sorry"), you get to offer a suggestion of how to correct the problem. The person receiving the apology will want to know how you plan to make things right again in order for them to start rebuilding trust and moving forward.

State what you will do differently next time, to avoid repeating this type of transgression. You can get really thoughtful here, but keep it simple. An honest apology should not include fancy gifts, excessive praise, or penance.

8. Avoid pushing the other person toward forgiveness.

Now that your part is done, the only thing left to do is to sit back and wait. This can be very difficult. In this time of waiting, work to release the guilt and let go of the desire to be forgiven. Don’t imagine the ideal response from the other person, or envision how your relationship will unfold moving forward.

The person you apologized to must have time and space to collect their thoughts and decide for themselves what is best. Let them make their own choice about what to do on their time.

Let’s be clear: It’s likely that your relationship will change. You may need to make new rules and set new boundaries. The other person may have additional requests or questions. Take these one step at a time. Don’t rush.

9. Remember that apologizing does not make you weaker. It makes you stronger.

Offering an apology does not make you weak or less than the other person involved. Admitting fault and offering an apology is hard work. The easy way out is to shrug your shoulders, walk away, and do nothing about your transgressions toward others.

By recognizing and acknowledging your faults and attempting to make amends to the injured party, you are taking the high road. This demonstrates your strength, courage, compassion, and wisdom.

I hope these tips help you apologize more effectively next time you accidentally cross a boundary.


Drama, Drama, Drama

In a recent debate with a friend, I discovered there is quite a lot of misconception around the word "drama" and how it is used.  This seems particularly important when discussing mental health, as the derogatory way in which the word "drama" is so commonly used may be seriously impacting stigma.  

Don't get me wrong, I am certainly not exempt from this.  I am simply discussing it here now to raise awareness about conflict and the natural and appropriate emotions that arise during conflict.  

"Drama" as defined is the acting out of a conflict.  I think we can agree there is nothing negative about that, it's just a part of life.

I mean, I don't know about you, but I act out many conflicts regularly.  From my commute to work, to a disagreement with a co-worker, to a full blow argument with a loved one, it's all conflict.  Not the end-of-the-world type conflict, but definitely conflict that is present in life.

So ask yourself this: How many times have I used the word "drama" to explain a situation or person?  Where any of these explanations constructive?  

If your use of the word "drama" sounds something like, "He/She is being dramatic" or "He/She is all about the drama" or "I want to avoid the drama," chances are you are actively contributing to a situation that is actually creating "drama," or better said, more conflict.  

Making these kinds of statements is kind of like saying, "You/They are crazy."  It's just not ok.  

Furthermore, drama, or conflict, is a natural process of socialization and relationship, so it really can't be avoided, nor should it be looked down upon.  We all run into conflict eventually.  The trick is finding a way to address the conflict appropriately, so as to keep the "drama" minimal and proportionate to the difficult situation.  

When one uses the word "drama" in a derogatory way it really is  just a poor effort at trying to categorize a situation in which an individual is reactive, has instability of mood, or is acting out conflict in an unhealthy way.

Everything else, is just conflict.  Not "drama."

Ok, fine.  So what do I do about it?

Well, I'm so glad you asked :)  

Let's discuss some important steps at conflict resolution to decrease "drama" in your life.....

How Do I Manage Conflict Appropriately, Minus the "Drama"?

1. Speak directly to the individual you have a conflict with.  

Talking behind peoples backs is hardly ever a good idea.  And I am not talking about about venting to a close, supportive other here.  You might need to share your thoughts and discuss your concerns with others before you address the conflict with the targeted individual directly, as a way to gather your thoughts, get thoughtful advice on how to address the individual and the conflict, etc.  What I am talking about here is taking your personal conflict and sharing it with another person in a manipulate way without addressing the issue with the targeted individual.  

First, this is passive aggressive and completely unhelpful.  Second, it can be down right mean, depending on the language you use behind the targeted individuals back (i.e. sharing potentially damaging personal information about the targeted individual, name calling, sharing biased information, etc.).  

Put simply, if you would not say the information directly to the individuals face, then you shouldn't be saying it at all.

If you have an issue with someone, go to them directly.  Come to them with an open heart and mind and voice your concerns in a kind and compassionate way.  When handled appropriately, the potential benefits are huge.  Also, at the very least, you will be respected for speaking up for yourself and doing so with kindness.

2. Use "I" statements.

When you use an "I" statement you 1) directly state the problem, 2) state how the problem makes you feel, and 3) state what you need to have happen in order to move forward in a constructive way.  By using "I" statements you are engaging in assertive communication, while at the same time getting your needs met appropriately.  Try this example on for size:

Image you are sitting in the passenger seat of a car.  Your loved one is driving the car.  The loved one has had a very difficult day and is feeling frustrated and taking it out on the road in a fit of 'road rage.'  They are swerving around cars, cursing, and a few times you thought they were going to get in a serious accident.  You are nervous and becoming increasingly annoyed at the way they are driving.

You responded to this conflict by saying, "What is your problem?!!  You are so crazy right now!  Why do you always drive like a maniac?  Slow down and get it together!"  

But the driver only becomes more upset and now you are in a full blown argument while driving down the road together and the 'road rage' has just doubled.  

Now image the same example, but this time your response is calm and compassionate and you use "I" statements for appropriate conflict resolution.  You might say something like, "I've noticed that you may have had a rough day today.  I feel nervous that you are going to get into a car accident.  I would like it if you would slow down a bit.  If you are open to it,  I would be willing to drive."

Now the driver of the car may be able to be more mindful of their driving and less reactive to their emotions and personal conflict.  And heck, if they let you drive they could take a nice break in the passenger seat!  Win Win.

Ok, so this example is a little bit silly by the way of conflict, but I wanted to use something that is accessible to all so that you can grasp the concept of "I" statements easily.  Of course, you will have to cater your "I" statements to the conflict situation that you are in, but doing so is likely to decrease the conflict and avoid blaming and shaming the other individual.  Which leads me to my next point.....

3. Avoid shaming and blaming.  

When we get into a conflict with someone, it is so easy to point the finger at the other individual.  Taking responsibility for our actions is really hard.  Let's face it, we don't want to be wrong.  We want to be right, at all costs, which can be incredibly dangerous to our relationships, not to mention our egos.

There are many obvious ways in which we shame and blame others, such as name calling, comparing them to someone else, reminding them of their past mistakes or flaws, or purposefully embarrassing them, but more concerning is that there are so many other subtle ways in which we shame and blame others during conflict that can be very damaging.  The subtle ways in which we shame and blame looks something like:

  • "What is wrong with you?"
  • "I can't believe you would do something so stupid/crazy/dumb/______."
  • "Bad boy/girl."
  • "I would never do something like that."
  • "Look what you made me do!"
  • "Get over it already."
  • "You made mommy cry."
  • "Stop being such a wimp."
  • "Are you really going to cry/yell/pout/whine/____ right now?"

If you are using this kind of language during a conflict, or even more overt shaming and blaming, it is likely that you are experiencing the so called "drama" that you wish to avoid.  

Instead, try speaking from your heart.  Or if you are really that upset in the moment and just can't be constructive, then take a break and walk away from the situation until you can return to the conflict more calm and compassionate.  

4. Remain calm.

It is imperative that you remain calm when in a conflict situation.  Although it may be difficult, particularly if you are really P.O.'d, screaming and yelling during a conflict situation is almost never helpful.  Certainly not constructive.  

Listen, if you are mad, I know how important it is to express yourself.  Sometimes that includes screaming. But not during a conflict resolution with another individual.  Screaming and yelling at others will only increase the conflict and their anger towards you.  Therefore, it is best to disengage from the conflict until both parties can return to the conflict more calm. 

There are many wonderful coping skills to use to help get you calm.  

First, do something physically active, such as going to the gym to lift weights, running, walking, jumping rope, playing hide-and-go-seek with your kids, riding a bike, taking a yoga class, etc.  Second, do something that makes you feel really good and relaxed, such as taking a bath, getting a massage, playing video games, reading a book, doodling, painting your nails, making a craft, meditating, etc.

When you do something physical you are directing your energy outward in a constructive way, likely making you tired after some time.  If you get tired from lifting weights at the gym, for example, you will have less energy to be angry and reactive in a conflict.  Furthermore, you will increase endorphins and balance your cortisol levels in your body, which will increase feelings of well-being and decreases stress, respectively.  

Once you have done this and you feel more calm, return to the conflict and state your case calmly.  In this way, you will be better heard by the other individual.

5. Avoid Judgment. 

When it comes to "drama," what most people are referring to is the judgment that they have towards others' reactive emotions (i.e. anger, sadness, disgust, fear, etc.) that can happen when in a conflict situation.  This can be demonstrated as crying, yelling, cursing, pacing, sweating, etc. 

If you feel that your emotions are inappropriate, or the person you are in conflict with feels that your emotions are inappropriate, then it is likely that you experiencing judgment that is unhelpful and unproductive.

Be gentle with yourself and your loved ones.

Any emotion that you feel during a conflict is totally normal and ok.  Don't be made to feel bad for experiencing emotion.  You are human.  You have emotions.

Now, emotions can feel a bit out of control at times.  So, it's what you do with those emotions that is of utmost importance.  Managing and balancing your emotions is going to afford you health and happiness by allowing you to regulate your mood and create loving and caring interpersonal relationships.  If you find that you have difficulty managing your emotions, please refer to my upcoming DBT and Mindfulness Group here.

So, people!  Save the "drama" for your mama and lets solve conflict with open hearts and help to erase stigma by valuing the myriad of emotions that remind us everyday of what it means to be alive.