Updated: Nov 19, 2019
Why are real, meaningful apologies so few and far between? What have we internalized about the meaning of apologizing?
Faux-apologies — apologies that deny responsibility, evade consequences, or turn the tables — come from underlying beliefs that make it hard, if not impossible, to actually apologize. Here is a brief exploration of three myths that sabotage one of the most important social skills for supportive relationships: the apology.
Myth #1: You have to admit that you're wrong and they're right.
This zero-sum game keeps even the most deserving apologies from coming forth. It's not a matter of who's right and who's wrong, it's a matter of what's really true for each person, and validating that.
What's true for them: They are having an unpleasant experience and emotional response to a series of consequences resulting from several factors, including your actions and their unmet needs. There is an impact that they don't desire, affecting them and your relationship. They may be making judgments and criticisms of you, your motivations, and even your character that are unfounded, unfair, or insightful.
You don't have to agree with all their judgments of you and the situation. But to give a meaningful apology, you do need to agree with their emotional experience and the impact upon them, the conditions, and the relationship.
What's true for you: You made a choice that played a part in the unfolding of negative consequences. You were trying to meet your own needs with your actions and most likely didn't realize the impact your choice was going to make. You most likely don't wish the negative impact upon them and are feeling empathetic, though it may be hidden underneath defensiveness (which is a shield for fear.)
You don't have to accept the blame for everything they're upset about. You just need to accept responsibility for the choices you made that contributed to the impact, and let them know how you feel about them having an unpleasant experience.
Myth #2: You have to take responsibility for their experience.
No two people react in the exact same way to a situation. The impact of a given event upon a person's emotional experience, situational circumstances, and relationship bond depends upon their beliefs, values, availability of inner resources, and your response to their pain.
It doesn't help people for you to take responsibility for their experience. They have agency over their own experience and response, and that power ultimately needs to stay in their hands.
However, sometimes people want to hand that power over, relinquishing responsibility for their own choices in how they react or make due of a situation. It can be tempting to accept that responsibility, especially if they're heavily demanding it from you as the only way to clean up the mess.
Not accepting responsibility for their experience not only helps them hold onto their power, but also helps you stay grounded in your power. Your power lies within taking responsibility for your choices. Grounded here, you can assess the situation more clearly, discuss what strategies may help remediate the situation, and make a commitment to trying different choices in the future.
Myth #3: You are accepting that you're a terrible friend/partner/person.
This myth is at the root of not being able to apologize. It's under all the others — the fear that if you admit you're wrong, accept responsibility for their experience, or simply apologize that you're accepting the label and fate of a bad person.
The key here is differentiating between you and your actions, which will help you experience guilt rather than shame.
Shame is the agonizing belief that you are bad, not lovable, and don't belong. It comes with a big mix of utterly painful feelings, including fear, devastation, loneliness, and dejection. This experience touches the core of our being, as we are social creatures that need belonging to survive. People will go at great lengths to avoid experiencing this, including denial, withdrawal, attacking self, and attacking other.
Guilt is the understanding that something you did or said hurt someone or is not acceptable. Feelings that often come with this includes anxiousness, confusion, shock, and regret. This experience also touches deep, as it's just a step away from shame. Whenever I feel guilt, the question arises, "How could I have done such a thing? Am I actually a bad person?" Answering this with a conclusive "No, you just need to reconsider your choices" keeps me out of shame.
Approaching a regret from the position of guilt is like deciding to put on a different shirt or get a new hair cut to make amends, whereas approaching it from the position of shame is like believing you need different colored eyes or have larger feet to be loved. One position keeps you grounded in your power, whereas the other strips you of all possibility.
Once you stop believing in these undermining myths, a meaningful, effective apology suddenly doesn't seem so hard.