Dr. Jacob Santhouse
Why "I'm Sorry" Isn't Enough
While the sentiment behind the simple statement "I'm sorry" may be genuine, the words by themselves are often not enough to heal a wound. Good apologies demonstrate a willingness to own responsibility, validate emotions, and sit in discomfort. A good apology is also typically delivered in a gentle tone of voice without judgment or accusation.
Without those things, the words "I'm sorry" can feel dismissive. They fail to recognize the weight of a wrong and its effect on the person wronged. In contrast, a well-delivered apology lets the person receiving the apology know that they matter and are cared about.
So how do you construct and give a good apology? Apologizing well is a skill, and like any other essential skill, it takes time and practice to develop. The good news is that there are concrete things you can include in your apology to do it well, and everyone is capable of giving a heartfelt apology that will strengthen their relationship with intentional practice.
Here are five components of a good apology.
I care about your pain – Caring about the other person's pain is the bedrock of an apology. If the person you're apologizing to does not feel as though you care, then the apology loses much of its meaning. Caring is communicated through a gentle tone of voice, not rushing the apology, and staying emotionally present with your partner.
Your pain is valid – Validating the hurt or pain that someone is experiencing due to your actions lets them know that you recognize their pain as valid. This is accomplished through statements like, "what you are feeling makes sense because of what I did," or "it makes sense that you are feeling this pain or hurt because of what I did."
I own my actions – Own what you did, regardless of whether it was accidental or intentional. "I recognize that I was the one who..." If the wrong was accidental, it is okay to say, "I did not realize that by doing ... you would be affected in this way." An accidental injury is still an injury, and it deserves recognition.
I feel pain for hurting you – When you demonstrate to someone that the realization that you hurt them causes you emotional distress, it shows remorse. "When I see the pain that I caused you, it causes me to feel pain too." Remember that the goal IS NOT to make your pain the focus or distract from their pain; it is to let them know that their pain impacts you.
I will help with the healing – Voluntarily offer to be a part of the healing process. It is important to note that this DOES NOT mean that you can undo or erase what happened; instead, the idea is that through being attentive to their needs, you can actively participate in that process of healing. Be proactive, ask them what they need, and look for ways, big and small, to demonstrate that you care.
The words "I'm sorry" are still an essential part of an apology and should be included; remember, though, that a lot of their meaning comes from the context in which they are delivered. When each of the different components of a good apology is in place, it communicates to the person receiving it that they matter and are cared for, which goes a long way towards righting a wrong.