How To Apologize: Mastering The Language Of Apologies
Apologizing is such a complicated topic for those of us with codependent, perfectionist, and people-pleasing thought habits. Our brains got wired early to protect and defend our sometimes fragile-feeling sense of self by not taking responsibility and pushing away the notion that we could do something that someone else doesn’t like, or is offended or hurt by. We are scared to apologize.
So we push it away, deny it, or defend ourselves tooth and nail. Another way is possible, my love. One that strengthens both your relationships and your sense of self.
When we live with the thought habits of codependency, perfectionism, and people pleasing, this fascinating paradox can happen in our minds where we feel so terrible about ourselves. It’s really challenging to say, oh, oops, I F-ed up. And it’s super challenging because we tend to think so negatively about ourselves and have that ingrained habit of beating ourselves up first before anyone else can, that someone saying we messed up feels like an affirmation of all of our worst stories about ourselves.
It makes real what we most fear. And when these thought habits are our norm, we are understandably very self-protective.
That habit of protecting yourself first, defending yourself first can keep us from apologizing, focused on that defense instead.
And can keep us from seeing the harm we’ve done and the harm done to us.
And can keep us feeling attacked when someone else is just saying ouch, you hurt my feelings. In short, these thought habits and linguistic choices can keep us from living with intention and integrity with ourselves. Can keep us from deepening our relationships with others, and can keep us in that protective stance that actually keeps us from truly loving ourselves and others enough to be honest with ourselves and to see the impact of our choices and thus to really see ourselves.
There are language shifts that make a huge difference in how we think about and do apologies.
We’ll start with exploring the language around resistance to apologizing, then we’ll explore language options for starting an apology, the importance of recognizing the language of intent versus impact, and the reframing of some terms that come up commonly when we think about apologies so that we can find our power and strength.
Your habitual unconscious thoughts that may be coming up when someone says you did something wrong and I’d like you to apologize may sound like, “I’m not worthy, I always mess up, I’m not important, I’m too much, too emotional, I don’t want to offend anyone, I don’t want them to think I’m rude. I just want them to like me. I don’t want him to think he’s right. I don’t want him to think I’m wrong.”
I was in session with a client recently and I offered her a tool I love to use when conflict arises, which is finding the truth. So your partner says you hurt my feelings with your words. Your partner says you hurt my feelings with your words, and you get to find the honest truth in that statement, which is that their feelings are hurt. You can see the tenderness in there.
You are working every day to find the tenderness within yourself and to honor that. And so my beauty, you can apologize for that. I see you, I hear you that my words hurt your feelings, and I’d like to apologize for that.
In that moment of conflict, when someone is saying you did or said something harmful, you get to decide if you want to be right, or if you want to be happy, peaceful, content within yourself, connected.
A person who is not scared to be wrong, to make a mistake, to fail, understanding that failure is always a gift. Because it’s a growth opportunity. A person who isn’t thrown off by simply saying, “Maybe you’re right,” because you feel so strong in your sense of self that it doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, if you goofed.
In those moments, our inner children get activated and they come to attempt to rescue us, defend us, protect us from ever being wrong. So let’s look at that. In addition to being super social animals as humans, we are a super communicative species, and words are just one way that we communicate what we’re thinking or feeling.
Because those words have power, sometimes saying, “I’m sorry that what I said hurt you,” can feel like we’re taking the blame when we’re simply taking responsibility and making space for the truth of someone else’s experience.
You don’t have to be having the same experience to say, human to human, heart to heart, “I see you, I see you’re hurt, and I honor that that is your experience. I do not need to try to change your experience of the world to attempt to feel safe within myself.”
Meanwhile, defending yourself feels like the smart move. And as a child, it may well have been and may have kept you from hearing and feeling and thinking about how terrible you are, which is devastating to a small and developing human, and can be for a grown one too when you’re not practicing living in emotional adulthood.
Being defensive can look like literally denying the other person’s feeling or experience, such as, “I didn’t say that,” or, “I didn’t say it like that.” They can look like storytelling. “It’s just that I had a really hard day and the lizard farm flooded and that’s why I snapped at you.”
It can look like blame reversal. “Well, I wouldn’t have raised my voice at you if you’d just done what you said you’d do.” Or, “Jeez, don’t be so sensitive,” which are pretty unkind things to say, and as tactic abusers love to use, it’s a form of gaslighting.
And finally, one other tactic is to claim ignorance. “Oh, I didn’t realize that was racist or homophobic or sexist or whatever. Dude, my bad, I just had the best intentions here. I’m just learning about this. I’m sorry.” That just doesn’t hold water anymore.
There are so many resources out there for folks to educate themselves. You get to do the work, my beauty, to see where you may be perpetuating systems of oppression.
When we are apologizing, the problem doesn’t suddenly disappear, which is likely what your inner child wants.
And maybe what happened in your family of origin, if communication skills were lacking there. When we decline to apologize for something that is ours to own, and yes, I’m saying decline, meaning that it’s a choice on some level, to decline or to not apologize for the hurt another person is sharing that they have experienced, we build conflict and stress, both in the relationship and within ourselves because we are not being radically honest.
And radical honesty is so vital for getting to know yourself and to continue your healing.
When we can find our way to see and hear the other person’s truth, their experience of the truth, and to put aside whether we agree with it, but rather just to say they are hurting, we can open up lines of communication and can come together in the mutual task of strengthening our relationships.
So how do we shift the language we use here when we’re in that “I don’t want to apologize and you can’t make me” mode, when your inner child is stomping her little feet and saying, “You can’t tell me I’m wrong and bad.” Well, we take a nice deep belly breath, maybe put a little hand on your heart, pressing gently, ground yourself in your body.
And we focus in on the word. Truth. What is true for the person who deserved that apology? And yes, we’re tapping into their subjective experience. That is the point. Notice it’s not about you right now. If someone else is hurt and you want to show up in your integrity to preserve the relationship, to tidy up your side of the street, you need to make sure your internal verbal landscape matches that.
Ask yourself, what have they told me? What is true for them? Remember, seek to understand and then to be understood before you apologize.
You may need to do some deep breathing and get out your pen and your paper, write down CTFAR, circumstance, thought, feeling, action, result. Do that mental work to stay focused on the truth of the person who has experienced hurt as they experience it.
That’s the central tenant here. And yeah, you absolutely get to attend to your inner children as their most loving parent because it’s likely they will not like this. Not one bit. It’s not your job to apologize for things that you literally had nothing to do with.
If someone’s saying you hurt them when you called them a nasty name and you just literally didn’t do that, you don’t need to apologize for that. But when you’re a part of the problem, whether you meant to or not, you get to keep your mental language focused on uncovering the truth of the person you love so you can find the words you need to make a sincere and hopefully effective apology.
And that brings us to the difference between intent and impact.
It’s so common to attempt to deflect, often unconsciously for sure, from having done something harmful by talking about our intention, not the impact of what we did, said, or didn’t do or say that we promised to do.
So let’s look at this and my nerds, let’s use the definition from Johns Hopkins University because that feels both fancy and nerdy. Intent versus impact: The mechanism of creating an offense, and then absolving yourself of responsibility for its impact is pervasive in our language. Most of the time, people use this kind of mechanism not only to preempt accusations, but to subconsciously avoid the cognitive dissonance of saying something hurtful to others and taking ownership of what they are saying.
I think what’s really powerful here is to recognize that it’s pervasive. It’s a society, cultural level thing. You were taught to do this, which means you can unlearn it.
It is not loving or kind to rest on your intention, such as, “I hear you that what I said was offensive to you, but I have the best of intentions here.” Baby, it’s not okay, particularly when you say something misogynist, homophobic, racist, ableist, et cetera. And doing so not only amplifies the pain of the person you’re effectively telling to get over it. It also keeps you from growing because you’re not being honest with yourself or that other human.
And at the same time, my darling, of course intent matters, and you get to get real with yourself about whether your intention in the moment of apologizing or being asked to do so is to actually own your oops, or to defend yourself. Now, that’s an intention that really matters.
Furthermore, you could have said or done something with an open heart, with what feels like love for you in your body, based on your history and experience, but that doesn’t mean that it necessarily or objectively would feel that way to another person.
And the restorative value of explaining your intention is not yours to decide in a given situation as the person who caused the harm.
And it’s certainly not your place to announce your intention or attempt to use it as a shield to make yourself blameless.
I want to revisit the language shift away from, “I’m sorry for,” or, and please don’t do this one, “I’m sorry but.” When we’re in a position to apologize for something, we are vulnerable, which is totally okay. Scary, challenging, but at its core, totally okay.
So someone else has told us that what we said or did hurt them. And we get to look carefully at our words and actions, think about their repercussions, possibly reestablish boundaries or rules of engagement with the other person, and ultimately, fortify our connection. What an amazing opportunity?
With this in mind, I would encourage you to consider starting your next apology with, “Thank you.” It’s quite a shift from what we were taught as kids or see modeled for us as adults about how to apologize.
Maybe we say thank you for being honest, or thank you for sharing with me, or thanks for taking the time to tell me, or thank you for pointing out my misstep.
Why start with a thank you? Well of course, science. Nerd alert, my love. When someone is hurt, they will typically shift into their sympathetic nervous system. Their fight or flight. Their blood pressure may be up, their heart beating fast, their veins full of hormones.
Or they may move into the parasympathetic dorsal ventral state of freeze, immobilization, feeling dejected, unloved, and hurt.
So recognizing that the person you’re talking to may not be in a nervous system state where they can hear you well, you get to be conscious of that and loving of that. And when we say thank you, with a smile, with an energy of openness and a desire to connect, those two words can shift our listener towards receptiveness, into the parasympathetic nervous system’s ventral vagal state where they will feel more safe, social, ready to connect.
Also note, you may try all of these techniques with that open heart, and it may not work. The other person may still be in their anger, in their sorrow, whatever they may be. And you get to hold space with love for them to have their lived experience in their own time.
So after you have thanked the other person, either for their willingness to share or whatever else they’ve brought you as discussed previously, I would invite you to use the phrase, “I’d like to apologize,” or, “I want to apologize.” Rather than the oft used and worn out, “I’m sorry.”
When we say we want to apologize, we are making a commitment and we’re taking action. It signals to your listener that we’re willing to do something about the harm caused by our words or actions.
So now instead of, “I’m sorry if you’re hurt by what I said about your partner being dumb, I didn’t mean it, it’s just sometimes I make a joke and they don’t get it, sorry,” we can try, “Thank you for letting me know my words were hurtful. I’d like to apologize for what I said. That wasn’t kind.”
When we say I am sorry, we are making it about us and how we feel in that moment. And also, making ourselves small.
We are sorry, we feel sorrow. And while sure, that may be true and please attend to yourself around that, what messages are we sending to ourselves when we say this? That we are small and sorry and should feel bad about what we did, but in a I’m a bad person way? Goodness knows that humans socialized as women in this country don’t need to be feeling any pushed to feel smaller, am I right?
By contrast, when we say that we want to apologize, we highlight for ourselves our courage and power and that we’re owning it.
And as you practice this, as you look at your own habits around apologizing, also about asking for an apology, which we’ll be talking about soon enough, I want you to be conscious of blame, shame, and guilt.
When we think instead about responsibility, we are highlighting our ability to respond. Our willingness to take ownership for our words and actions, and to consider changing up how we do things if we find ourselves hurting the people around us whose relationships bring us joy and that help us grow.
A big issue in the lives of those of us working to shift out of codependency, perfectionism, and people pleasing is shame. When we experience shame, it’s about saying that you are wrong and bad. I am wrong for doing that thing, which keeps you spinning and focused on you beating yourself up, protecting yourself, defending yourself, instead of come and correct the situation and owning your actions in this world.
Remember that shame plus fear equals perfectionism.
And you can start to intervene on your own behalf by starting to drop the shame. So you did something that hurt someone. Perhaps you had the best of intentions. You still get to own your behavior and you also get to not make it about you as a person.
And you definitely get to practice not beating yourself up because that serves exactly no one, my darling, and will actually keep you from making the changes you want to make in your life.
Lastly, guilt. There’s some aspects of guilt that can be supportive and can lead us to make change, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on for most of us.
Often, when we let that fear of F-ing up and doing it wrong, our fear of feeling guilt overcome us, it can cause terror within us and we become paralyzed. So take a look at shame, blame, and guilt in your life and do the thought work protocol on them.
Write out the circumstance in which you’re feeling those sensations and take a good look at what you are habitually thinking about yourself, the world, other people, your past, your present, your future that’s leading you to feel one of those emotions, and to then work out what the action you take is when you’re flooded in your body with shame, blame, or guilt, and the result you are creating for yourself.
Please take a moment, do that work, my beauty. It’s so important. Speaking of this process of making things right.
My beauty, let’s take a nice big deep breath in and out. I will remind you, all is well. You’re practicing, you’re learning, you’re growing. Keep an open mind and an open heart. You’re on your path.