The Art Of Apologizing

One of the essential skills of a truly mature human being is the ability to apologize for the inevitable transgressions of life.  A fully accountable apology contains several crucial components that most people omit. Although engaging all of these components takes great personal character, the results are often profound personal and relational healing.

As an Atlanta therapist who treats problematic sexual behaviors like chronic infidelity, excess pornography and sex addictiion, I work daily with people who need to apologize to others for the harms they have caused.  Even in less extreme situations, nobody is immune to the need to take accountability for their behavior. We all bump into each other and demonstrate the ways in which we fall shy of our highest and best natures.

It's so hard for some people to apologize for a variety of reasons. The primary culprit is the ego which speaks the language of pride much more fluently than humility. Since the ego protects our sense of self rather than our relationships it hardens rather than softens our stance and protects us rather than risking exposure of our vulnerabilities. It's difficult for an apology to flower in such rocky soil. We must learn to cultivate humility, which in its original Latin form literally referred to earth, dirt, ground. That's where life grows!

There's an old saying that "the good is the enemy of the great" and this is true in the art of apologizing. Many people either don't have the willingness, ability or knowledge to convey a "full frontal apology". Some mistakes include being general instead of specific ("I'm sorry for what I did"), angry apology ("I said I was sorry, didn't I?"), justified apology ("I did it because you made me mad"), one-sided apology ("Since I'm apologizing you can't rub it in"),etc.

To my way of thinking there are a few essential components to a fully accountable apology. Engaging all of these components takes great personal character and often results in profound personal and relational healing. I've personally witnessed and engaged in countless opportunities to experience the emotional growth that the following protocol can bring:

* The first step is to simply acknowledge wrong-doing: "I was wrong, I acted inappropriately, etc." It's important to state the infraction: "I yelled at you, I lied, I didn't keep my promise, etc."

* The next step, which is often extremely difficult for some people to do, is to invoke the principle that was violated by the infraction: "I was aggressive, cowardly, deceptive, greedy, emotionally unavailable, etc." It is also very helpful to acknowledge that this was a significant event in order not to minimize its impact: "This was a big deal."

* The next step is to demonstrate active empathy by stating the likely impact of the infraction on the other person: "My actions caused you to distrust me, to feel pain, to be scared, to be confused, to question yourself, etc." This is called victim empathy and is often the most overlooked component of an apology.

* The next step is to express an emotion related to the admission of wrong-doing: "I feel regret, remorse, sorrow, embarrassment, etc. for what I did".

* We're almost done, but not quite. The next component of a fully mature apology is to offer a commitment to change followed by a plan to bring that to fruition: "In the future I will walk away and calm down before speaking"; "I will tell you of my plans ahead of time"; "I will ask for help", etc.

* The final task is to invite the recipient of the apology to express how the infraction impacted them in their own words: "I would like to hear how my behavior impacted you so that I can fully understand and learn from this situation and help you to fully heal from the pain I caused." Then listen and affirm what the other person says!

This may seem like a lot, and it is, but if you broke a leg you'd want to set the bone properly so that it could heal strong. In the same manner if you damage a relationship you have a responsibility to engage in the behaviors that allow full healing so that it doesn't limp into the future. Besides, it's not that difficult a set of steps to take when you come right down to it:

"I want to apologize for yelling at you yesterday. I was wrong to do that. I let my impatience get the best of me and didn't act with honor. This is a big deal and reflects poorly on me. I shocked and scared you. I will work to not repeat this behavior by speaking more softly and lovingly next time rather than justifying my ability to treat you disrespectfully. I want to invite you to tell me how my behavior affected you and will listen respectfully to the absolute best of my ability."

What if the other person did stuff wrong too? Is it OK to expect them to apologize for their part of the difficulty? This is tempting but it defeats the purpose of character growth. To hold out for a mutual acknowledgment of wrong-doing turns an offering into a transaction. There are a couple of expressions sometimes heard in 12-step meetings such as "clean your side of the street", meaning that the only thing you can control is your own portion of the mess. Another phrase states "if I'm not the problem then there is no solution", meaning that the only person you can be responsible for changing is yourself. If you offer a fully accountable apology and the other person rejects it, there's really nothing more you can do other than be at peace that you did your part.

The ability to act in the manner described above is one of the more important emotional exercises a person can perform, and the resulting personal growth is often nothing short of amazing and deeply affirming. Imagine if everybody was able to do this! The world would be a far better place.


Bill Herring LCSW, CSAT is a counselor, therapist and consultant in Atlanta.  He specializes in helping individuals and relationships heal from the damage of problematic sexual behavior patterns such as chronic infidelity, excessive pornogrpahy and and addictive or compulsive sexual behavior.  Appointments can be scheduled by calling or using this contact form.