Despite our best efforts, all of us are inclined to occasionally engage in behaviors that subsequently merit an apology. Now there are some of us who apologize reflexively, over the least little thing (this is typically an anxiety driven behavior by the way). Of course, there are some of us who simply cannot tolerate the discomfort of apologizing .
For the rest of us, we apologize when an apology is appropriately owed. That said, apologizing can be quite the challenge –as in really uncomfortable! As to why, there are two basic reasons. First, for many of us, admitting that we were in the wrong -runs contrary to how we prefer to see ourselves. Second, admitting that we were in the wrong feels like we are losing social status. A classic example of social status concerns is the daunting prospect (think manly men) of asking a complete stranger for directions -you absolutely know you are lost, but you are wildly uncomfortable with the notion of anyone else learning this… Well, with all that in mind, we are well positioned to contemplate the old saying it takes a big man to say he is sorry. Obviously “big” does not refer to physical stature -it refers to someone who is secure enough to own when he was in the wrong.
When is an apology appropriately owed?
Apologies follow poor behaviors, and poor behaviors come in several basic flavors: you failed to keep a commitment (I promised to pick the kids after school –they’re still standing at the curb by the way…); you misrepresented the truth -either by directly lying or deceiving by omission (I assured you that I mailed our tax return this morning –gotta remember to do that…, I conveniently failed to mention that have I been “hitting the club” after work with my coworkers…); you acted irresponsibly (I made a major purchase without consulting you); and you behaved poorly while in a negative mood state (I said totally inappropriate things while angry, frustrated, etc.).
What should we consider when apologizing?
As mentioned, apologizing can be really tough, and if you are going to trot one out -you certainly want it to be effective! Most of us have had the experience of offering up an apology that only served to prolong or exacerbate the relationship friction. Why? Well, we typically are in the relationship dog house after behaving poorly. As such, the stage is set for our apology to be experienced as a fairly lame attempt to get out of trouble. Put another way, from your partner’s perspective –you’re not really troubled by your poor behavior –you’re merely troubled by the results it produced…
So, how do we prevent our apologies from falling flat?
Effective apologies always avoid explaining “why” you did what you did -or failed to do. This is because providing a circumstantial explanation for your behavior all but guarantees that your heartfelt mea culpa will be experienced as excuse making, rationalizing, justifying etc. on your part. Of course, aggrieved parties often want to know why you did what you did. That’s fine -from their perspective they are owed an explanation. That said, your invited explanation is still at serious risk for being perceived as excuse making on your part. So, peppering requested explanations with sentiments such as –It’s totally my responsibility -I’m the one who blew it- is all for the good!
Got it -avoid offering up circumstantial explanations unless directly asked is the way to go. Sounds easy peezy. Why don’t we all just naturally do that?
Avoiding circumstantial explanations when apologizing is far easier said than done! This is because most of us are locked in to explaining ourselves as we apologize. And just so you know, breaking free from locked in behaviors (think bad habits) is a tall order even under the best of circumstances!
So, how did we all get “locked in” to explaining ourselves while apologizing?
Well, like many a bad habit, this one got rooted in place during our formative years. As children, our adult authority figures (parents, teachers, coaches, etc. ) regularly insisted that we explain what was going on, recount what we did, and then apologize. In other words, child apologies almost always involved answering the adult question why in the name of Thundering Jupiter did you do that!? Okay, they probably didn’t put it to you quite that way -but you get the point…
Got it. So, what else is involved in an effective apology?
Effective apologies center on owning your poor behavior -and in service of that -you want to recount what you did or failed to do. This is a bit of a judgment call. You don’t want to gloss over what you did –about what happened yesterday -looking back, I could have handled that better... At the other end of the continuum, you might want to avoid going into excessive detail –giving a verbatim account of each and every nasty thing you said about your partner’s mother… That said, if your aggrieved party wants a detailed account -then provide one (just remember to provide ample “it’s all on me” sentiments along the way).
So far, so good -avoid “justifying” poor behavior and own how you messed up. What else?
If you are not truly contrite, then your apology is merely an exercise in trying to get out of trouble and a bit of soul searching is likely warranted. If your are contrite, then you definitely want that to be at the core of your apology –I am truly sorry -I totally let you down, etc.
Just a bit. To address your aggrieved party’s likely concerns that your wayward ways will resume once you are out of the dog house – you absolutely want to include your plan of action for handling similar situations in the future! As in —I will set the alarm on my phone to remind me to pick up the kids, I will work to rebuild your trust in me by being honest and fully disclosing with you, I will check in with you before making major purchases.
What about apologies for how we behaved while frustrated, upset, etc.?
It is absolutely fine to make mention of how you were feeling at the time of your poor behavior (I was upset, frustrated, etc.). That said, you definitely don’t want to communicate that, in your mind, being upset somehow gives you permission to act the fool! So, saying “I was upset” is best followed by something along the lines of “and I handled it very poorly“. After that, you simply follow the formula for all the other types of apologies we have been discussing! One final thought on this type of apology. Remember how you actively avoided explaining why you acted the way you did? Well, you also want to actively avoid explaining why you were upset!
But what if I were upset, frustrated, etc. for totally legitimate reasons?
If you feel that your mood state was entirely justified, but you didn’t like how you handled it -then an effective apology is warranted. Why? Because apologizing is a self-imposed consequence for acting in a way that didn’t meet the standards for your personal code of conduct. If the circumstances that led to you being righteously upset need to be addressed, that’s fine -but that is a separate conversation!
As children, the lion’s share of our apologies were imposed on us by adults –which led to many an insincere apology… As adults, we have to self-impose our apologies –only we can own our behavior and be contrite. The ability to “own up” is a positive reflection of our character and significantly impacts how we see ourselves. At Thrive Psychology Consultants, we specialize in promoting well-being -and giving ourselves a “thumbs up” is a central component of all that! To learn more about Thrive and our approach to working with clients, link to https://psychologistgalleria.com
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