Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Art of Apologizing

We're all imperfect and we mess up...I do, you do, every single human being on this planet does.  To err is human - but to properly apologize is divine.  Part of being an adult is to own up to our mistakes.  I've had to learn this lesson, I've been both on the receiving and giving end of faux apologies simply because it is human nature to equivocate and to try and make ourselves feel and look better - at a cursory level we think that it will help the situation if we provide an excuse or a similar diversion.  But it doesn't.  It instead takes all the power out of an apology and both parties are left feeling bereft, the relationship cannot mend and move on.    

I recently did something that wasn't too cool to a good friend of mine.  I acknowledge I must eat crow and apologize to him.  I love him as a friend and I thought today about what constitutes a proper apology and how to do it right so that he can truly forgive me and we can move on with our friendship:

What is NOT an apology:

-  burying an excuse into the apology.  

This the number one faux apology.  "I'm sorry I broke your vase, but if it had handles on it, it wouldn't have been so slippery!" <-- actual "apology" from a houseguest who broke a precious vase of mine...what kind of vase has freakin' handles?! I think this person was thinking about a milk jug.  Or, "I'm sorry I [did something crappy to you] but I was PMS-ing..." [yes, I've been on the receiving end of this one...fine, I've said it too...] or "but work has been so stressful," the variations are infinite because there is always an excuse, right?  

Any apology with a BUT in it is just an excuse.  

- burying blame into the apology. 

This a huge one.  "I'm sorry I cheated on you, but if you hadn't spent so much time at work/if you hadn't been such a b*/if you had paid more attention to me/if the aliens hadn't invaded Planet X, maybe I wouldn't have!"  This counterfeit apology gets used all the time by both men and women.  It's even worse than an excuse because now you're blaming the other person for your action.

Another form of blame is to bring up the other person's past transgressions at the time of the apology:  "you've done this too in the past!" or "you've hurt my feelings a lot as well!"  You want some cheese with your whine?  It's just being a weenie and not owning your mistake.   If you do this, the other person should not have you in their life because you will only continue to do bad things all the while blaming them for the past.  

Any apology that refers to the other party's behavior is blame. 

- implying or accusing the other person of being overly sensitive.  

Why does anyone think this even comes close to being an apology?  Telling someone, I'm sorry if your feelings are hurt, or, I'm sorry if you're angry, even saying I'm sorry I hurt your feelings or made you mad...this is not a genuine apology!!  You are not apologizing for or owning up to what you did - you're instead saying what I did shouldn't have hurt your feelings or gotten you upset and YOU are responsible for feeling that way, not my fault!

Any apology that includes I'm sorry IF [you feel a certain way] is accusing the other person. 

- turning the apology into a self-pity party.

Oh man. This is the worst.  The person starts apologizing, but then they start going into why they did what they did, and then it's a full on train wreck about how awful they are, how they can't do anything right and how hard life is and woe is me! At some point, they expect YOU to comfort THEM.  Get these losers out of your life NOW.  Because no matter what they do and how much they mess up, they don't really feel sorry for what they did - they are too mired in their own self-pity.  These people are not mentally healthy and can never really correct their behavior - if they stay in your life, they will keep doing bad things to you and expect you to feel sorry for them.  

- wussing out and not being specific.

"I'm sorry for everything OKAY?"  Have you heard teenagers scream this one out?  These teenagers turn into adults and this type of faux apology says leave me alone, I don't respect you enough to take the time to explain what I did was wrong and to genuinely apologize for it and to make it up to you, here's your general apology, I hope you shut up.  

Any apology that does not focus on the specific wrongful action is just wussing out and telling the other person you're not even worth my time. 

- being lazy and selfish by not making a true effort to make it up to the other person.  

This one can be sneaky. It can come in the form of saying,  "I'm sorry, and if you never talk to me again, I'll understand" WITHOUT any offer to make it up to the other person.  It's disingenuous and masks indifference. You're telling the other person, hey, I told you I'm sorry so now suck it up or I'm out of your life, you pick.  NO.  If you're truly owning up to what you did, you must acknowledge that what you did made the other person's life suck so at least TRY to make amends for it!  

"I'm sorry I broke your vase, please let me pay for it or at least go buy you another one!" 
"I'm sorry I talked about you behind your back, I'm going to go to Stacie and tell her what I did was wrong."  
"Mom, what I did was wrong, I bought you some of your favorite flowers, it doesn't begin to make it up to you, but I want you to know I feel truly terrible for what I did."    

If you don't try and genuinely make amends for what you did, you are not apologizing.  



What is a genuine apology?

- approaching the person in a calm, non-emotionally overwrought manner.  

When you do this, you let the other person know that this is not some desperate attempt to just calm the other person down.  You've thought about it, you're calm, you know what you have to do.  

- stating specifically what you did wrong.  

Mention the exact hurtful action.  Own up to it - the other person knows exactly what you did, s/he needs to hear that you also know exactly what you did to mess up.  Don't be embarrassed.  Don't try and bury it in an amorphous cloud of generality.  "I'm sorry I lied to you and told you I was working when instead I was with my friends."  "I'm sorry I [said something not nice] about you to Stacie."   Being specific about what exactly you did wrong also gives reassurance to the other person you won't do it again - if you don't know what you did wrong, then you might do it again, right? 

- no explanations.  

The person I wronged deserves a complete apology without any explanations, without any reasons, without any excuses.  The person does not want to hear WHY you did what you did, they just want you to acknowledge that you messed up and that you feel badly about it - they deserve the chance to own the moment and to see you grovel and to feel bad.  That is the first step towards forgiveness.  At a later, separate time and in a discreet and tactful manner that in no way excuses your own behavior, you can talk about reasons and how maybe that person can help you to not do it again.  But at all times, you should be taking accountability for your actions.  

- telling the other person that they have every right to feel hurt, angry, upset.  

- telling the other person how you would like to make it up to them.  

-  reassuring the other person you will try your best never to do the hurtful action again.  

- not avoiding that person going forward because you feel bad.  

This one is tough.  Sometimes when we've done something super wrong to a person, every time we see that person again, it reminds us of what we did.  So we avoid them.  That's not right.  You're punishing them for something you did.  Forgive yourself and know that you, and no one else,  has the power to make them feel good.  And go do it. 

The good news is...when we mess up, it is entirely within our power to properly apologize. 

Now time for me to eat some crow.  

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