The Art of Apology

“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.”


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.

Sometimes, in our workshops, we have included an exercise where each person has a chance to apologize to someone for something they did to hurt that person. In our couple’s workshops, we may have each partner apologize to the other. In our general workshops, participants can choose anyone from anytime in their life. We have each person speak the words of apology out loud, with their eyes closed, as if the person they are apologizing to is actually in the room. Then we encourage each person to follow this up after the workshop by contacting (if they are able) the actual person and apologizing either in person, by telephone, or in writing. If the person you need to apologize to has passed on, your apology can still have an important impact on your life.

The results are often amazing. Most people feel lighter right away after apologizing, as if they have let go of a heavy burden. Some are inspired to go on and apologize to the actual person. Some feel complete in the workshop setting and don’t feel the need to apologize to the actual person.

Here are some real examples. Stan chose to apologize 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 right up to her death. In a couple’s workshop, Susan apologized to her partner, Frank, for the pain she caused by comparing him unfavorably to her former boyfriends. In another couple’s workshop, Ted apologized for the first time to his wife, Anne, for the pain he caused her by using pornography. He never realized how painful this was to her.

In a previous column (see our website), we wrote about asking for forgiveness from someone we have hurt. Apologizing is different. It 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 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.

One more point, 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. If you feel lighter after apologizing, you’ve done it sincerely. If you feel happy inside after apologizing, you’ve done it with your heart.

So please don’t read this column and say to yourself, “Nice column, good ideas,” and then do nothing. Challenge yourself to practice the art of apologizing. Who are you needing to apologize to and for what? Close your eyes and speak your apology with as much sincerity and feeling as possible. Then follow this up (if this will bring even more healing) with an apology to the actual person.
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