Each of us, and by us I’m referring mostly to men, struggle with, “I’m sorry.” There’s something in our Y-chromosome that winces at the idea, like every episode of last season’s Game of Thrones; it clashes with our macho self-image and mucks with our grizzly woodland sensibilities. Real men, so we think, shouldn’t need to say, “I’m sorry!”
I’m a ‘D’ personality at an unconscionable level. Or put another way, I’m someone who thinks he’s right, all the time. Apologizing is typically more difficult for me than walking under water. It’s a challenge not only saying ‘I’m sorry’, but adding that I am so, because I was wrong. You do just as well asking me to chew glass.
But age and the fear of dying bitter and alone have persuaded me to reconsider my infallibility, to ponder this overly optimistic outlook on my shortcomings, and to rethink my plague-like aversion towards expressing any level of regret for them. The road hasn’t been easy. As my mother would say, ‘he got it honest.’ I can’t recall my father ever telling another person he was sorry, at least not in front of my sister and I. Truth told, I can’t remember my father ever doing anything wrong to necessitate an apology. Granted this is more to do with selective childhood memory than his moral perfection, but the result nonetheless is the same. I never learned the right way to apologize and that wasn’t part of the Dickson County School curriculum.
So as with most things, I’ve been left to figure it out on my own; one fiery trial after another. And over that time I’ve discovered, like driving or making guacamole, there are certain dos and don’ts to a sincere deep felt apology. Now to be clear, I’m not referring to sundry foul ups like hogging the covers or moving the driver’s seat, I’m talking about mistakes that get us kicked out of the bed to go sleep in the car. Understanding there is an etiquette to saying ‘I’m sorry’ is important, because, as any therapist worth their salt will tell you, how good a couple is at apologies has a more to do with relationship happiness than their agreement on the toilet seat position.
Admit guilt – for an apology to be effective it must be sincere and that only happens when I accept that I’ve screwed up. No apology will resonate with the Queen, or any one else, if she doesn’t feel it’s genuine. The alternative is akin to rolling our eyes and gurgling ‘sooorrrrryyyy…’ like the time at the park when mom demanded you to hand back the kid’s dump truck you snatched.
Don’t stop at, ‘I’m sorry’ – By itself, ‘I’m sorry’ comes across as phony, just like it did when you apologized for hitting your sister with the Louisville Slugger. It’s important I tell the Queen not only that I’m sorry but what I’m sorry for, ‘I’m sorry that I left you with the kids all afternoon and went to the bar.’
Acknowledge the pain you’ve caused – To accept guilt means realizing we did something to hurt someone else. “I’m sorry that I came home late and made you worry so much.” It validates that I empathize with her feelings and take them seriously.
Seek forgiveness – Those who seek forgiveness usually find it. Asking another person to forgive you demonstrates your humility and gives that person a sense of empowerment.
Try to make it up – As dangerous as this could become (think Tiffany’s) it’s important that we offer to make up for the mistake. You forgot your wife’s birthday. “What can I do to make this up to you?” Then pull out your credit card.
Promise to do better – Unless we try to do better our apology will come across as little more than appeasement. The commitment not to make the mistake again shows that our sincerity isn’t temporary.
The BIG Qualifier – This isn’t a rule, it’s plain common sense. Under absolutely no circumstances whatsoever, do we make excuses, justifications, or rationale for what we’ve done. This is a rookie mistake and you’ll know you’re heading in that direction if you catch yourself strategically using the word, ‘but…’. “I’m sorry I upset you, BUT…” Do this and you deserve whatever you get.
So, here’s what this might look, say, if you forgot your anniversary.
“Honey, I’m so sorry that I missed our anniversary. This is such an important day and I understand that forgetting makes you feel like I don’t care, about you or our marriage. It was very thoughtless and I apologize. What can I do to make this up to you? I promise it will never happen again. Will you forgive me?”
Dr. Gary Chapman says that every person has an ‘apology language’, in other words when someone apologizes to us in our ‘ apology language’ we will accept as genuine and find it easier to reconcile with that person. But when not spoken in our language, we will, at best, question the apology and, at worse, dismiss it entirely.
And as most of us don’t know what our or anyone else’s apology language might be, the brilliance of these six steps when put together – they speak every one. You can thank me later.