Throughout your life, you hurt others’ feelings. You say things that you regret. You have to apologize. But this is much easier said than done, and just saying ‘I’m sorry’ often isn’t enough. Sometimes, your apology falls flat. Other times, it feels superficial. What is the key to a good apology, one that has the power to mend and strengthen relationships? And how do you accept an apology? In this post, we’ll talk about why humans need meaningful relationships, the purpose of apologies, and how (and how not) to apologize. We’ll also review how to accept an apology and how to forgive.
Why We Need Meaningful Relationships
Everything is spiritual. That includes you! The basis of spirituality is that everything—humans, animals, plants, earth, space, heaven—is interconnected. This interconnectedness is a source of joy and meaning, creating a universal unity that enriches all of our lives.
Our universal creator made us spiritual beings so that we could benefit from meaningful relationships with each other: “As spiritual beings, we need to feel connected to others and the world around us. Meaningful connections are vital to our human experience. In truth, our lives are the sum of our connections to others: parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, and the universe.” Without meaningful relationships, however, we experience loneliness:
“A survey conducted by the global health service company Cigna found that nearly half of Americans felt that they were alone or left out, and more than a quarter of Americans felt as if they had no one in their life that really understood them. Two in every five Americans said that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others…Unfortunately, Cigna’s survey makes it clear that Americans may be able to see and interact with each other on a regular basis, but those interactions lack any sort of intimacy or meaningful connection. They are surface conversations and shallow relationships, the sort of thing where you are constantly making small talk rather than diving into any sort of serious topic of conversation…This is when people begin to feel alone even when they are surrounded by others.”
Spiritual beings aren’t meant to be alone. If you want to tune into your spirituality, you’ll have to prioritize meaningful relationships with others.
The Role of Apologies in Relationships
Some people believe that a strong relationship is one with no disagreements and no hurt feelings. But this isn’t necessarily true. Part of having meaningful relationships is having hard conversations. Communicating your boundaries and needs to people you love is essential. Giving and accepting apologies are also effective communication skills.
Apologizing to someone else can be a way of showing gratitude. One of our previous articles says:
“In my opinion, the most difficult and most effective way to show gratitude is to apologize. Think about it. What could be more gracious than sucking up your pride and saying you’re sorry, even if you may not feel like you’re in the wrong? Apologizing isn’t easy, even if there’s very little at stake. And it’s so much more difficult if things are fiercely challenged. But I’ve found that apologizing is almost always worth it, because an apology builds trust — and trust is the foundation of all good relationships. So apologize, apologize, and apologize — even if you’re right.”
What’s important is that you apologize sincerely and correctly. Harriet Lerner, an expert on the art of the apology, said in a podcast interview:
“The two words, “I’m sorry”, are the most important words in our language. We’re all connected, we all screw up, we’re all imperfect human beings, and for this reason, the need to give and receive apologies, will be with us until our very last breath. And when they’re done right, apologies are very healing, but when apologies are absent, or they go south, it will compromise a relationship, or it can lead to the end of a relationship. So apologizing is… It’s central to everything we hold dear, to family, to marriage, to leadership, to parenting, to our ability to love ourselves and love other people.”
All of us have been recipients of bad apologies. With some people, you just know that their apologies hardly mean anything: they go right back and make the same mistakes, they only say sorry to appease you, they demand forgiveness, and so on. In the next section, we’ll review some tips for giving a good apology.
How to Apologize: Nine Ingredients
You can probably think of a few things right now that characterize a bad apology. But what makes a good apology? It starts with wanting to apologize. Otherwise, you’re being dishonest. If you don’t feel guilty for hurting another person’s feelings, ask yourself why. Are you waiting for them to apologize to you? Being stubborn undermines your apology. Have you tried seeing things from their point of view? Even if you don’t think you did anything wrong, your actions still hurt them.
Once you truly feel remorse and want to make amends, then comes the actual act of apologizing. It requires a conversation with the other person. While it might feel easier to apologize via text message, you'll have the best results if you talk it out in person. Harriet Lerner has shared nine ingredients to an effective apology:
- No “but”s. Saying “I’m sorry, but…” negates the apology itself. A good apology doesn’t include any excuses.
- Apologize for your actions. There’s a difference between saying “I’m sorry for what I said, it was mean” and “I’m sorry you got offended by what I said.”
- Don’t overdo it. You don’t need to spend an hour trying to prove how guilty you feel. Stay simple, straightforward, and honest.
- Apologize even if you didn’t “start it.” When two people have an argument and hurt each other’s feelings, both should apologize, no matter who started the argument.
- Make restitution if possible. For example, if you borrow a friend’s shirt and then stain it, offer to clean and/or replace it.
- Stay true to your apology. Try not to make the same mistake again—it makes your apology less meaningful.
- Don’t use your apology to silence someone else. An example of what not to say: “I’ve already apologized for this a million times, why are you still upset about it?”
- Know when not to apologize. In some situations, people don’t want contact from you. Only approach them to apologize if both of you want to make amends.
- Recognize when an apology is not enough. Saying you’re sorry doesn’t heal everything, especially for situations of betrayal. You’ll have to demonstrate your remorse in other ways, and it will probably take a long time.
It’s important that you don’t apologize for things you aren’t guilty of. Some of us feel chronically guilty, even when we’ve done nothing wrong. If anyone’s ever asked you, “Why are you apologizing?” you might need to take a step back to see if you’re apologizing too often for too much.
How to Accept an Apology: Four Guideposts
So we’ve reviewed how to give a good apology. Now it’s time to talk about how to accept an apology. While this might seem strange, it is possible to accept an apology poorly. Here are four guideposts for accepting an apology:
- Wait until you’re ready. The person who hurt you might be ready to apologize before you’re ready to listen. That’s okay. Don’t let yourself be persuaded to talk before you feel comfortable.
- Be honest about how you feel. You might think that telling someone exactly how and why they hurt you will make things worse, but you need to be honest with them. However, it’s important to avoid intentionally trying to make them feel more guilty.
- Listen. Resist the urge to interrupt them if they’re trying to apologize. Let them speak, and listen carefully.
- Thank them for the apology. Saying “It’s okay” or “I forgive you” are popular responses to apologies, but sometimes someone’s actions aren’t okay, and sometimes you aren’t ready to forgive. “Thank you for your apology” works in the majority of situations.
Accepting an apology is recognizing their remorse: you’re showing gratitude that they’ve made the effort to apologize. But this doesn’t automatically mean you forgive them.
How and When to Forgive
The choice to forgive is entirely up to you. You can accept someone’s apology and still not forgive them. In some circumstances, forgiveness isn’t a good option (for example, situations of abuse or toxic relationships).
You might want to forgive someone eventually but not be ready to fully forgive right away. This is okay—forgiveness takes time:
“When you choose to forgive, you are making the conscious decision to move forward on your spiritual path. As hard as this choice may be, it’s going to require a different level of faith and understanding to achieve. Forgiveness is going to involve you taking responsibility for your emotions, accepting the past for what it is, and separation from anything that has the potential to hurt you. Once you can separate yourself from the act or person, you will elevate yourself to the light and freedom forgiveness has.”
Forgiveness is more about you than anyone else. No one really needs your forgiveness. Choosing to forgive is more about letting go of anger and resentment, so that you can live a happier life, than it is about making another person feel better. Holding on to that kind of negativity can become a burden over time.
For more help with forgiveness, read this article for three tips for forgiving someone else, or try this prayer for forgiveness on the Skylight app. And if you think you’re in a toxic relationship, check out this article on ten ways to know it’s time to step away.