Psych Services: How to ruin a good apology

Lisa Garmezy

“Baby, you know you bug me—there ain’t no doubt about that.” Aretha found a ride in the pink Cadillac fixed everything. The rest of us want an apology.

“I’m sorry” doesn’t always come easily, or graciously. Consciously or not, we often sabotage our apologies. Based on Why Won’t You Apologize? by my favorite self-help writer, Harriet Lerner, here are three words that let you pretend to repent and regret while keeping your fingers crossed behind your back.

Three Toxic Words

  1. 1. “But.”

“But” kills an apology. Consider the statement, “I’m sorry I yelled but he made me so mad I couldn’t help it.” Who is the speaker saying is really responsible for the yelling? Not the lame-brain who made the statement, but a third party. This isn’t an apology; it’s a statement of blame.

  1. “If.”

Again, this little word lets the speaker dodge responsibility for his poor behavior. “I’m sorry if I was a jerk” implies, “I really don’t think I was.”

  1. “You.”

Let’s imagine you embarrassed your spouse or partner at a party. Maybe your crime was telling an off-color story, supposedly harmless flirting (there’s no such thing), or teasing that went too far. The inadequate apologies “I’m sorry you were embarrassed” or “I’m sorry you feel that way” don’t even begin to admit that the speaker was out of line. Undoubtedly, these statements suggest that the offended person is way too sensitive. That’s the REAL problem.

These three words shove responsibility away from the speaker and onto the listener. They skip the admission at the core of every good apology: a heart-felt “I was wrong.” Lerner calls these non-apologies a clever way to claim the moral high ground after a fight without actually owning up to our mistakes.

Straight, No Chaser

Even in therapy, clients duck responsibility. The other party was stupid, deliberately cruel or both. Lerner reminds us that when we argue, whether with an intimate partner or anyone else in our lives, we over-focus on the other person’s behavior and under-focus on our own.

Fix that by moving the magnifying glass to examine your own behavior. If you value the relationship, grit your teeth and figure out how you contributed to the conflict. Then, push yourself to apologize in a way that feels genuine.

For example, “I’m sorry I started that whole mess—I was drunk and stupid” is a legitimate admission. Maybe your opponent escalated the situation into a screaming match or worse. But your part is your part, and you should hold yourself accountable for it.

Express regret and then let your admission of guilt shine like a Christmas star on top of the garbage heap of hostility. In other words, don’t immediately follow your apology with “You’re the one that made it a big deal.” Serve it up straight.

Speaking of apology “chasers,” stay away from “Let’s drop it.” Your message is, “I know I hurt you,” not “Shut up, already.”

The Offender and the Offended

Psychologists who work with police officers know that your job is close to impossible if you tune in to all the negativity and pain around you.

The same shell that helps you function at work creates problems at home, however, if it blocks you from seeing how badly you have hurt a loved one. Raise your defenses, build that big, beautiful wall, and you have closed yourself off. You won’t understand how your loved one got hurt or how to avoid it in the future.

On the streets, you are Right, and sure, and in control. Your lives depend on your confidence.

At home, not so much. There, as Lerner says, in a healthy relationship you and your partner take turns being the offended person and the offender.

Don’t let your certainty and your walls blind you to your own flaws. Insist on being right and you will be right alone. As pastor Kerry Shook said, we are all broken, but some of us are broken and realize it and some of us are broken and don’t realize it.

The apology process offers two rewards. First, we signal, “I’m trying, let’s begin again,” which is ridiculously important.

Second, you can’t really apologize until you figure out how you screwed up. Sincere self-examination is the beginning of personal growth.

Apologizing may feel like handing ammo to a suspect and inviting him to take his best shot. Loud ranting about the other guy’s screw-ups is easier. But gut up, swallow your pride, and solve the problem. Truthfulness and allowing yourself to be vulnerable can strengthen your connections to the important people in your life.